- “It has given me a clearer understanding of the fact that it was a world war rather than just the British vs. Germany” – exhibition visitor.
In our latest post, Michael Noble from the University of Nottingham’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Hidden Histories Engagement Centre discusses taking WW1 history to the public.
One of the joys of working for an Engagement Centre comes from the opportunity to meet and work with interested and committed people around the country. Over the course of the centenary, I have worked, talked and collaborated with hundreds of people, of all ages, who have a keen interest in the First World War and who have used their knowledge and enthusiasm to make the commemorations a success.
But what about those people who have little or no interest in the war? Those whose knowledge extends simply to the popular images of the conflict, the trenches, the truce, the Somme, the poppy. We would be neglectful as an Engagement Centre if we didn’t make efforts to reach these people, the ones that don’t necessarily meet us half-way.
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.’