In this latest Blog post by Paul Ell, the phenomenon of “Digital Overload” is mapped against the appetite for information on WW1.
Written by Chris Hill, Birmingham City University, and previously appearing on the Voices of War and Peace Blog. Reproduced with thanks.
Dr Islam Issa, curator of the exhibition and lecturer in English at Birmingham City University, recalled how e-mails and letters from descendants of Muslim soldiers were full of gratitude, often with the qualification that ‘we didn’t think anyone cared’.
Two brothers from the village of Sweffling in Suffolk – George and Albert Stopher – were killed on the Western Front within a few weeks of each other, in the spring of 1917. But the men’s voices can still be heard, through an extensive collection of letters that they left behind. Some of those letters were found, together with locks of hair and dried flowers, amongst their possessions after their deaths.
Rachel Duffett teaches History at the University of Essex. Through the Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, based at the University of Hertfordshire, she is working with the Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich to bring the Stopher letters to a much wider audience. ‘In some ways,’ she says, ‘the experience of George and Albert Stopher was typical of many young men in the First World War. They appear to have enlisted early (it’s impossible to know for sure, as their war records were destroyed during the Second World War). They suffered the privations of the Western Front, and George was hospitalised for a while with shell shock.’
But the Stopher correspondence is also very unusual, says Rachel Duffett. ‘First, there is its sheer size, with the many bundles of letters that the brothers left behind. Its volume contrasts sadly with the few lines in the official history of the Suffolk regiment, describing the engagements in which George and Albert died.’
Then there is the variety of the correspondence: ‘through it, we can chart the relationships between the brothers, their parents and their sweethearts.’
Unusually also, the letters tell the story of the rural citizen soldier, unlike most collections of soldier’s letters, which tend to be from men from towns and cities. Prior to February 1916, only about eight percent of the army’s recruits were from agricultural occupations.
The Stopher letters are also different in the way in which George and Albert express themselves. While the letters suffer from an almost complete absence of punctuation, and idiosyncratic spelling, they also have a directness and vivacity which are often absent from soldiers’ correspondence. Writing to his mother while he was in a French hospital recovering from shell-shock, for example, George Stopher says that sending him back to the front in his current condition would be like ‘sending a rat to kill a dog.’ As Rachel Duffett says, ‘people in small rural communities were not exposed to the mass media in the same way as city-dwellers, and so were perhaps less likely to express themselves in cliché.’
Food is a recurring theme in the letters, often as a proxy for love and care, with the brothers frequently asking their mother for home-cooked cakes and puddings. George and Albert also aren’t shy in getting their parents to importune things on their behalf: ‘do not be afraid to ask anybody for a little gift’.
But when it comes to the darker aspects of the war, there is very little that makes it into the letters. Certainly there was censorship in the trenches, with officers reading what the enlisted men had written before it could be sent, but we see very little black ink in the Stopher correspondence. What censorship there was seems to have been self-censorship, for a variety of reasons: as George says in his letters, of the treatment for shell shock he was receiving, ‘some things are not to be spoken of.’ And yet, as Rachel Duffett says, ‘writing of his shell shock to his mother, you can sense something of his desire nevertheless, to let her know what he’s experiencing. I’m surprised it got past the censor.’
George ends his unsettling letter, detailing his fragile state of mind, with a request to his mother to ‘send a good letter to cheer me’. He was probably thinking of something more uplifting than the letter that Albert received from his sweetheart Bessie, in which she told him that she’d dreamt that he had died.
The surviving relatives of the Stopher brothers have been active supporters of the project, and have donated framed photos of George and Albert, as well as their medals. Displays of the letters and other material are being developed, and the letters have been used in local schools, as a way of introducing the subject of the First World War. The project also included public readings from the letters on 4 August 2014, the hundredth anniversary of Britain entering the war: according to Rachel Duffett, ‘it’s surprising how different the letters seem when you read them out loud – how vividly the men’s voices come across.’ And giving a talk at Sweffling, she was ‘struck by the resemblance of the many great-nephews and great-nieces who were there to the Stopher brothers, as I’d seen them in photographs.’
But then, it is this quality of immediacy and familiarity in the Stopher correspondence which makes it so unusual. ‘I’ve read so many collections of soldiers’ letters,’ says Rachel Duffett, ‘but these really are special. You come to feel that you know the Stopher brothers personally.’
Bridget Hanley is Collections Manager at Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich, where the Stopher correspondence is held. For her, the involvement of Rachel Duffett, through the Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, has made the difference in bringing the letters to life: ‘we’re providing a resource for others to use in imaginative ways. Rachel has been able to take one of our collections and really run with it.’
When the letters have been used in schools, ‘we’ve had fifteen-year-olds, which is a notoriously difficult age groups with which to engage, almost in tears. They’re not a lot younger than the Stophers were when they went to the front: this collection of letters personalises the war for them. And it enables us to see both sides – we have some of the family’s letters to the Stopher brothers, but also their letters back. We can see how everyone – both on the front line and at home – was affected by the conflict.’
‘This is a story of ordinary, everyday people, with the same emotions that we all have, being caught up in the First World War. It’s a story that was played out across the country: it always touches people. You feel almost like you’re eavesdropping.’
These five letters, describing the experiences of Indian men in the army during the Great War, have been excerpted from Indian Voices of The Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 by David Omissi. Omissi’s research reminds us of the Indian Army’s involvement on the Western Front, and reveals how the experience was about more than front line combat for these men. (First edition published by Palgrave Macmillan in 1999. The new edition (2014) contains a foreword by Mark Tully.)
1. A Muslim officer to his brother (Central India)
What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British Government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us. The men of France are beyond measure good and honourable and kind. By God, my brother, they are gentlemen to the backbone! Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas. In war they are as one with us and with the English. Our noble King knows the quality and the worth of his subjects and his Rajas alike. I give you the truth of the matter. The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British Government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that I will return alive to India.
2. A Garrison Gunner (Sikh) to a relative (France)
3rd December 1914
The English have suffered severely. Nothing is put into the news, but we know a good deal from day to day. The German ship Emden has sunk forty English ships near this land, and is sinking all the seventy English ships of war. She has not been much damaged although she gets little help.1 The English have eight kings helping them, the Germans three. We hear that our king has been taken prisoner. Germany said that if she were paid a lakh of rupees by five o’clock on the first of the month, she would release the king. The money was paid, but Germany refuses to let him go. I have written only a little, but there is much more for you to think of.
3. An unknown writer to a Jemadar (34th Sikh Pioneers, France)
[early January 1915?]
I was distressed to hear that you had been wounded. But God will have pity. Keep your thoughts fixed on the Almighty and show your loyalty to the Government and to King George V. It is every man’s duty to fulfil his obligations towards God, by rendering the dues of loyalty to his King. If in rendering the dues of loyalty he must yield his life, let him be ready to make even that sacrifice. It is acceptable in the sight of God, that a man pay the due of loyalty to his King. God grant you life and happiness. Those heroes who have added lustre to the service of their country and King, let them offer this prayer before God, that victory may be the portion of their King, and let them show the whole world how brave the people of India can be. The final prayer of this humble one before God Almighty is this – that God may make bright the heroes of Hindustan in the eyes of the world and with his healing hand may soften the sufferings of the wounded and restore them to health, so that they may go back to the field of battle and render the dues of loyalty to their King of peace, the King of kings, George V, and secure the victory for him.
4. Subedar-Major [Sardar Bahadur Gugan] (6th Jats, 50) to a friend (India)
[early January 1915?]
We are in England. It is a very fine country. The inhabitants are very amiable and are very kind to us, so much so that our own people could not be as much so. The food, the clothes and the buildings are very fine. Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world. It cannot be described. A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.
5. A Pathan to a friend in the 57th Rifles (France)
13th January 1915
14-18 NOW are asking members of the public to write a letter to an unknown soldier. In this guest post, marking the British declaration of war on 4th August 1914, Dr Jessica Meyer of the University of Leeds addresses herself to the unknown soldier in the statue at London Paddington, and to the many others who lost their lives in the conflict.
Dear Bill, or is it David?
It could be either, couldn’t it: ol’ Bill, still and stoical in his endurance of all the laughable horrors that war throws at him; young David, so beautiful in his youth and ‘all the glory of his joy’ and sacrifice. You might be either, or indeed both.
Is that too simplistic, asking you to stand for two figures emblematic in their own right? How can we ask you to embody the experiences of 5 million men, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, those who served on the front lines and those who worked behind them, those who survived and those who didn’t? As has been pointed out to me, and as I fully acknowledge, speaking of the men of this war only in terms of unity can never be a full reflection of the huge variety of the experiences encompassed by so many men over four and more years of a world war.
And yet… And yet, after a decade and a half reading the words you wrote, in letters, in diaries, in memoirs, some intended for public consumption but most written only for the loving, private eyes of friends and family, your voice speaks to me in tones at once both varied and familiar. Each fragile sheet, telling its unique story, does so in a voice so completely of its time that I could not mistake it for anything else, that I recognise it the moment I see it, scribbled in indelible pencil, poorly typed on flimsy forms, etched in elegant ink penmanship. Its tones, by turns mundane, flippant, horror and grief struck, or simply relieved, groping for words to describe the previously indescribable or relishing the simple pleasures of life as only young men can, has invaded my own, shaping my thinking and my writing as surely as the images described have shaped my understanding of war and how it was experienced.
I do not always like you. You are, inevitably, of your time, with all the attitudes towards women, class, empire that this implies. But for every statement of belief in a eugenicist solution to a predicted post-war crisis or casual patronising of those not of your class, there have been twice as many to remind me of your common humanity, your youth, your idealism, your sensitivities to sight and smell and taste, your artistic impulses, your lust for adventure, for experience, for life. You have made me laugh and made me cry, yes, even in the public space of the archive. You have moved me beyond measure and you continue to do so.
I would like to believe that, after all this time, these 15 years in which you have become my profession as well as my obsession, that I know you. Or at least that I know you better than most. I have read the counter-examples to the clichés, can cite the exceptions to any generalisation about you or your experience, even as I try to pin you down by making generalisations of my own.
Yet that sense of knowledge is as much a myth as any, isn’t it? I can never know you any more than you would understand me and my interest in your story. You remain standing there, aloof and ultimately impenetrable, leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers.
And still I long to know. Who were you? What was it like? How did war shape you and through you the society you left behind or, for the majority of you, in which you had to carry on living? These are the questions that define me as a historian, and my search for the answers, hidden in your millions of words, in those stories that made it home to the attic and the archive, waiting to be uncovered, has helped define me as a person, too. I have been shaped and changed by all that I have read and heard, by all that I now think I know. I hope it is for the better; I believe it cannot be for the worse than I might have become in other circumstances. I may not know you, but you have made me and will continue to do so until the day I stop asking questions. And for that knowledge, for all that you have done for me and continue to do, for all the inspiration you have granted me, the tears you have provoked, the insight into men and mankind that you have provided, for all the lessons you have taught me, I thank you.
Yours, with affection and gratitude,
Across the BBC, stories from the home front were shared on local radio and news programmes to mark the launch of the World War One at Home programme. Some selected highlights of yesterday’s broadcasts included:
Professor Jane Chapman appearing on the BBC Look East to discuss the legacy of the war not only for women in the workplace, but as the birthplace of the modern twentieth century as we now understand it.
Jenny Agutter narrating the story of a child, Joan Burbidge, who corresponded with a ‘Chocolate Soldier’. After writing her name on a box of chocolates posted to British soldiers in France, Bombadier Edward Hassall exchanged letters with Joan throughout the war, although the pen pals never met.
Making traditional clothes for uniforms on BBC Radio Wales. Welsh homespun cloth used for Welsh Army Corps uniforms which was made at mills in Carmathenshire. As the war progressed, demand for the ‘brethyn llwyd’ (grey cloth) outstripped supply.
Fergus Keeling, BBC Northern Ireland’s Head of Radio, marked the launch of the programme in Northern Ireland by saying that the stories “shed light on familiar places we know and love, places right on our doorsteps”.