First World War Problems

By Reader Alan Hill on at

A few years ago an elderly relative of mine died, leaving behind an emotive collection of letters and artefacts from a Private serving in the First World War. It forced me to cast my imagination back to a more brutal time, before the "format wars", mobile OS battles and the other aspects of our lives seen as so important now but not even conceived of 100 years ago.

There's a collection of six letters written by one Laurence Laurenson, a Private in the Gordon Highlanders. The letters, all to his mother, are handwritten, some on headed paper, some just pages ripped out of a notebook. The pretty mundane nature of the contents is what struck me as most interesting; in complete contrast to the horrors you see in documentary or veterans' accounts from the time.

The first few letters are actually written on home soil -- the first is from a base in Greenock near Glasgow, the second is from somewhere in London. The fact that I can be pretty glib when saying "home soil" of course is only the first comparison I started to make as I was reading these letters. Private Laurenson was born and raised in the Shetland Islands. These days travelling to Greenock and then on to London from Shetland is pretty a straightforward (albeit woefully expensive) couple of flights. I can imagine that 100 years ago it was a darn site harder to make the journey on sea to the mainland and then by road or rail. Consider too what Pte Laurenson was heading into -- this was no holiday trip to the north of France, after all.

The first letter (dated 21st Feb. 1915) starts:

"Dear Mother,

I am writing you this few lines to let you know that am well hopping [sic] you are the same away".

He tells her about the rough journey to get to Greenock (a "dirty passage") and mentions meeting an aunt and uncle on the way. He goes on to wish his mother a Happy Christmas, what I assume to be his first (and first of many) Christmases away from his mother:

"and I wish you a very Merry Christmas and new year we had a very bad Christmas here just a day off wet and rain here and day off new year was same".

These words started conjuring images in my mind, the kind you see in old WWI footage -- black and white (probably pretty accurate in the grey, drizzly conditions he described in the letters); the kind of sped-up footage of the day that makes everyone walk quickly. It makes me sit somewhat uncomfortably in front of my expensive computer, surrounded by the trappings and luxuries of modern life, to think of this young kid being thrust into the very adult world of regiment, discipline, tension and trepidation about what was about to happen. I can only imagine it being a hell of a culture shock to someone from the Shetland Islands.

His first letter ends with what becomes a recurring theme throughout these letters:

"mind write soon mind send on parcel".

"Mind and" being a very Shetland (or certainly Northern Scotland) way of saying "remember to..."

Again, place yourself in the youngster's shoes, hundreds of miles from his mother, probably his first time away from his home -- desperately wanting to hear back from her and for her to send a parcel (full of home-baked goodies and reminders of home no doubt). A world away from our immediate global connection and the related frustration or even unbridled rage if we have to reboot our broadband router every few months or our 4G signal drops as we go through a tunnel.

His next letter is dated 30th March 1917 -- a full two years later. He has just moved further south on his way to France:

"Dear mother,

I am writing you this few lines to let you know that I am well hopping you are the same away I got to London on Sunday about ten o'clock what a day off rain it was. I leave for France on the Monday morning"

Still the poor weather then. The rest of the letter is what looks like a series of requests for his mother to send him stuff:

"mind and send me on some home made cakes and butter as soon as you get this from me mind about photograph to the lasses give to you and mind and save five pound for that gramafone and send me a pair off glove to me because it is cold here ... mind tell me when Katie goes away to her work tell her to mind and write so mind and send me a parcle as soon as you get this i hope to be home at Christmas this year so I will have to stop at present"

A new name entered the series of letters with that one, Katie -- I have since discovered that this is his sister Katherine.

At this point there is another letter which looks to be dated Dec 1917, from France. There is, of course, another request for a parcel:

"...mind and send me parcle with the next letter you write...".

He makes one of his few comments about military matters:

"...battalion is in fine line just now..."

Then he gives some clues as to what Katie is doing:

"...and what is Katie going to Edinburgh to do now..."

Interestingly he also mentions links with home, something I'm sure was a great solace to both him and his family:

"...there are a few Shetland boys here now..."

His next letter is dated Christmas Day 1917 and is the shortest one that he wrote from the bunch:

"Dear mother,

I am well hopping you are the same away we are having fine weather here just now but I am had a Merry Christmas and what like off a Christmas did you get my parcel that I sent to you last week mind and write soon so I will have to stop at present from L Laurenson."

I'm sure there were many in the forces, even at the higher ranks, who thought to themselves that it would "all be over by Christmas".

On 9th of May 1918 he wrote another letter requesting another parcel:

"mind and send me some cigarettes to smoke because I have not any to smoke".

Finally however there is some clue that he has been getting letters from home in this letter:

"because it is two month now since it is a while since I had letter from you last so mind and write soon as you get this off mine"

Unusually in this pattern of letters he then writes four days later, on 13th May 1918. I actually wonder whether due to the delivery system back then, his mother may have got both these letters on the same day?

"Dear mother I am writing you this few lines to let you know that I am well hopping you are the same away"

Another comment on why he was really there:

"...we are in lines just now..."

Thumbing through the next two letters, he received a further note of correspondence from his mother, plus one from his sister Katie.

"I got your letter from you this morning ... I got Katie letter all right".

Then came the plot twist I wasn't expecting. Instead of the handwritten scrawl I was by then accustomed to, it was an officially-headed letter, with only the personal details filled in by hand. As I started unfolding it, my stomach curled up as I realised what I was about to find.

"Infantry Record Office, Perth, 31st May 1918,

Madam,

it is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of:-
(no.) 292544 (Rank) Private
(Name) Laurence Laurenson
(Regiment) 14th Btn Gordon Highlanders...

...The report is to the effect that he
Died from Wounds...

I am,
madam,
Your obedient Servant
Officer in charge of Records"

There were so many thoughts running through my head -- the primitive-looking (to me, in this day and age) template and hand-written letter seemed such an impersonal way of alerting family to such an unfortunate scenario, but given the number of men falling each day what other option was there?

Reading these letters, and looking at the photo of him with his military cane (which was also handed down to me) really brought home the personal tragedy of those times. It's easy to reel off numbers of men killed and injured, but it's more difficult to remember that each and every one of those was a son, brother, father, uncle. Our family was lucky that Laurence was identified and buried in a marked grave in Aubigny, France. So many other families were not so lucky -- I somehow feel all those "tombs of the unknown soldier" are of little comfort to a mother needing closure on her son's disappearance.

I hope these letters serve a small reminder of what the young people of that generation went through all those years ago. To that end I'll be donating my own family's letters to a suitable museum or archive in the hopes of allowing people to see them and follow the story like I did.

Alan is a Shetland-born IT consultant, freelancer and sometime-artist living in West Yorkshire. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.

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