Humour and heroism revealed in letters from the Front

ERNEST ADAMS: Wrote to his parents shortly before he was mortally wounded at the third Battle of Ypres in 1917.
ERNEST ADAMS: Wrote to his parents shortly before he was mortally wounded at the third Battle of Ypres in 1917.

LETTERS sent home by Private Sydney Town reveal a remarkable determination to put on a brave face in spite of the suffering.

In a letter to his brother in Wakefield, the West Yorkshire Regiment soldier sounds upbeat despite the awful conditions.

“I am glad to say that I am keeping well. We had a bad storm here last weekend. The rain came down in torrents and the trenches were running with water 7 or 8 inches deep. Next day we had frost and snow and for three nights the cold was very severe. They say this is only a taste of what we are going to get but at all events it won’t be as sudden.”

Others didn’t spare their loved ones the awful reality.

Sergeant George Fairclough was a cavalry soldier who was in the war from the start.

In August 1914 he wrote to his wife Cissie about what happened when his unit halted at a farmyard near Mons, Belgium.

“All of a sudden, a terrific fire of shrapnel burst from a concealed battery.

“The first shell almost cut the horse on my left clean in two. The second struck a man in the troop in front and appeared to simply blow the man and the horse to pieces.

“No troops could live under such fire and the brigade scattered.”

Later in the war he was court martialled, imprisoned and reduced in rank for falling asleep after days without rest. His commanding officer had assumed he was drunk when he could not be roused.

Fairclough wrote to his wife about the injustice.

“The truth was I was absolutely played out with want of sleep, digging night after night and eating next to nothing. After all my work, this is my thanks. If any fellow is longing for his wife and little kiddie it’s me.”

Those who penned their ‘last letter’ expressed themselves with a maturity behind their years.

Private Ernest Adams of Leeds was 19 when he jotted down his thoughts before the third Battle of Ypres in 1917.

“My Dear Beloved Parents, I am writing this under very solemn conditions. All around is turmoil and confusion and the wickedness and wrath of man.

“If you ever receive this letter I shall already have gone to my Father. I know how you will grieve and my heart aches for you, but I beseech you to think not of me as dead, but just gone home to God, there to dwell in peace and rest, freed from all earthly strike.”

Private Adams was wounded and died several months later.

The Yorkshire countryside was never far from the thoughts of Corporal Arthur Youell, a farmer’s son from Malton.

During the Battle of the Somme, his thoughts were with the family farm. “I hope you have a good harvest,” he wrote to his mother in August 1916. “I wish I was home to help you but there is no such luck.”

Youell survived the war and went on to run a farm of his own.

Author Jacqueline Wadsworth says stoical qualities helped many soldiers to cope.

“On the rare occasions my grandfather, Edwin Wood, spoke about his time in the trenches, he told me a story about him and his friends passing a dead man’s hand sticking out through the trench wall. Each morning they would shake its hand: ‘Alright mate?’

“One hundred years later this may sound disrespectful, but for the men who lived through those grim times, what better way of coping than by allowing themselves an ironic smile.

“This down-to-earth stoicism made a big impression on me as I carried out by research.”

* Letters from the Trenches is published by Pen & Sword, priced £19.99.