To mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we have digitised and put online 100 documents from the Modern Records Centre’s archive collections, which look at different aspects of the ‘war to end all wars’ – the soldiers’ experiences, the changing role of women, ‘total war’ conditions on the Home Front, the treatment of dissenters and conscientious objectors, and what happened when the guns finally stopped firing.
Many of the documents include affecting phrases, conjure vivid images of contemporary life, or look at aspects of the war that are perhaps less well-known (concerns about the effects of the war on unruly teenagers, for example), but the document that stands out for me is a letter from one ex-serviceman to another, written in February 1921 – more than two years after the end of the war.
The author was a Guildford railway worker and former member of the Royal Engineers called Percy Collick (later to become a senior trade union official and Member of Parliament), the intended recipient one Gustav Waller of Hammerberg, near Dortmund in Germany. Collick writes to Waller “in the earnest hope that you have survived the terrible War”, and recollects 9 August 1918, the only occasion when the two met – “you were wounded at Cerisy on the Somme during the great attack made by the British 4th Army… and you were brought down along with many of your wounded comrades to Dours, and there loaded up in ambulance wagons on the Decaville Railway, well I was the British Tommy who was on the Decaville train on the engine that helped to load you up, and if you can remember (perhaps you can) I made you comfortable and tried to console you, and then I assisted you to get the wallet from your pocket, from whence you took your photo and wrote your address on the back of it. Well comrade fortunately I escaped the worst horrors of war, and I treasured your photograph to the end and I always avowed I would write you, hence this letter”.
Included with the letter is the photograph given to Collick (showing a smartly dressed young man, perhaps in his late teens) and a note, dated 1965, which says that Collick received no reply. We have no way of knowing whether Waller had died of his wounds, had no wish to remember or write to a former enemy, or had simply moved house. It is striking that this one incident – a moment of connection between two men on opposing sides – appears to have been a defining event of the war for Collick, and one that would live long in his memory. It is also a reminder that, from the Christmas truce of 1914 to Collick’s experiences in the final months of the war, there was some room for humanity amongst the unimaginable horror of attritional warfare.
By Liz Wood
Please come into the MRC to view our WWI exhibition. Everyone is welcome and it’s a great chance to view a selection of these documents first hand.
Click here to view the online exhibition.