War Stories: Letters home 1, Lines from the Eastern Front

A letter home was often the final link to a son or husband missing or killed in action during the First World War. While researching for ‘War Stories: Voices from the First World War’, I saw a number of these treasured items each with its own tale to tell. Not all these objects could be featured in the exhibition, however some of the personal stories behind them can be found in the seating area of the second gallery.

In some cases, only a single letter and perhaps a photo or two remained, and this was the case with Private Jack Tomsett. The note had been found amongst his brother’s possessions when he died, together with a couple of faded photos of Jack, a railway labourer from the Hove and Portslade area.

Images reproduced by the kind permission of Veronica Dawes
Images reproduced by the kind permission of Veronica Dawes

Jack was far from home. On 19th September 1915, he had joined up as a private with the Royal Field Artillery, but was transferred to the 5th Battalion, Duke of Edinburgh’s Wiltshire Regiment. In Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the battalion had received heavy losses both in warfare against the Turkish army and due to the effects of the climate and disease. Reinforcements were often required and so when Jack wrote to his parents from the army barracks in India, he is likely to have been waiting for orders to join the battalion.

Dear Mother and Father

Just a few lines hoping this will find you all at home quite well as it leaves me at present. One of our chaps who left the line about a month ago told me that Tom has been in hospital with a poisoned hand, I do not think there is many left about [missing] all told, and that is out of 1103. The monsoon is nearly over, so we shall soon be getting some finer weather. I cannot write much this time as I am suffering from a fat head.

Your loving Son Jack

Images reproduced by the kind permission of Veronica Dawes
Images reproduced by the kind permission of Veronica Dawes

In these days of mass communication, it is difficult to imagine the significance that this short letter will have had for his family, yet this brief and fragile note has been kept for almost 100 years. I can imagine that his parents read the letter many times from their Portslade home and will have looked for reassurance from the words that he was ‘quite well’ despite the weather and his ‘fat head’. There would also have been comfort in seeing his familiar handwriting and the knowledge that he had also held this very same piece of paper, which had travelled about 5,000 miles to reach them from India.

This may have been the closest his parents would have to his final words. Once on active duty writing home will have become more problematic, and on 25th January 1917, Jack was to die on the battlefield. However, it is this homely letter sending love to his parents that has been passed down the generations rather than the official telegram offering the sympathies of the more distant King and Queen. In this way a hastily written note has gained a significance that the author cannot have imagined.

By reading Jack’s words in his own handwriting, he is no longer just a name on a casualty list but an individual. I found myself searching for any bit of information that could tell me more about his wartime experience, however such information is hard to trace given the vast numbers of people involved in the conflict.

There are some clues. On the centre fold of the letter, the torn out number of those remaining on the front line is likely to have been the action of the army censor, and there is no doubt that the original number will have been high. The conditions Jack will have faced over the following months will have been difficult with the climate and disease adding to the hardships of trench warfare against the Turkish army.

I do not know how much the family were to learn about Jack’s fate, but the regimental war diary reveals that there was intense trench warfare that day:

‘The enemy trench was strongly held but assisted by our artillery and all ranks working with great energy and determination, we successfully dislodged the enemy and firmly established ourselves under considerable enemy shellfire. It was at a high price with Officers 2 killed and 4 wounded. O.R’s [Other Ranks] 33 killed and 110 wounded.’

Jack was one of the 33 and is remembered on the Amara War Cemetery Memorial, Iraq. He is one of over 31,000 from the British and Indian armies to die during the conflict.

Only his letter remains to tell the story of a young man from Hove and Portslade who loved his family, suffered from a bad head during heavy rains, but kept hoping for ‘finer weather.’

Jo Palache, Oral History and Life History Research

One Response

  1. A moving story well told – thank you. As we mark the centenary of this great and destructive conflict that has now slipped from living memory, it is all too easy to see it in cold historical terms in which abstract battalions fought abstract battles in distant lands. Mementos such as this letter bring to focus the individual people who fought and died or were left at home anxiously awaiting news or mourning the death of a loved one. Suddenly, the picture comes alive.

    The tragedy of course is that it is a scenario that has been repeated again and again since and as yet shows no signs of ending.

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