A few years ago I discovered a great-uncle I’d never known about had been killed a week before the end of the First World War, aged nineteen. Somehow he’d slipped entirely from the family narrative; even my dad didn’t know he’d even existed and this was his own father’s brother. Dad’s father had gone off to the Front, joining up after saying he was older than he was, but he never talked about it. Maybe that’s how Private Edward Connelly of the 10th Battalion, Queen’s (West Surrey) Regiment slipped through the cracks of family history. The trauma had been too much. My dad was given the middle name Edward.
In order to compensate I walked from where Edward was born in west London to his grave in a small cemetery in a small town in Flanders. I found little evidence of Edward himself other than a few cold facts, so I researched lads like him, spending long hours in the Imperial War Museum Archive. For Remembrance Sunday, here’s a short extract from the book I wrote about my journey.
Maybe Edward had a couple of letters stashed in his uniform, photographs maybe that he could look at to remind him of home. The distribution of letters was efficiently done throughout the war as the army realised how important it was for morale. Most of the correspondence sent to the trenches didn’t survive – let’s just mention the fact that the latrines were never supplied with toilet paper and leave it there – but in the Imperial War Museum archive I managed to find a thin, flimsy missive, the paper brown with age and as delicate as ancient papyrus, sent to William Dann by his father. It’s dated February 2nd 1918.
Just a line to you in answer to your letter received quite safe. I was glad to hear from you and also that you received the cigarettes quite safe. I expect they are nearly all gone by now, we must send you some more now soon – that is if you are not getting leave yet. You had better answer this the first chance you get upon receiving it and let me know if possible when you get leave.
If you think there is time to send more out before you come I will send them out at once. But they seem to take seven or eight days before they get them to you and I should not like for them to arrive and you have left before they arrived.
But still, we could not help that, would much rather see you and lose them. But let me know if you can, then we will.
Ted and me are still at Newhaven on the transports. We are all settled and got used to the work now. We have shipped a lot of aircraft to Italy lately besides other things so expect they mean business.
I hope you are still having warm weather days out there and hope it is getting warmer nights for you. Are you still back from the line or have you been up again?
We are on rations now. One third each for meat, 1/4lb margarine each and 2oz of tea a week each and the meat includes bacon so we shall not be overdone with it. But we get a meal every day at Newhaven so we shall not do too bad considering we shall have to buckle in our belts a bit.
Mabel and Ted are quite well and send their love to you.
We are longing to see you again and hope it will not be too long.
Mabel’s husband was home for a weekend last week but has gone out for a course of firing this week and will be gone about a month or so.
We are on nights this week. We do not get a lot of time to ourselves now but never mind, I expect you do not get any more so we must not grumble.
Hope to hear from you soon and good news at that on to when we see you again.
They have started women labour down at Newhaven now. There is a good many there, do not know whether they will stick it or not.
I think that is nearly all the news now and I must get to bed as we have to leave home at 9 o’clock tonight.
Take great care of yourself, old boy, and get your leave as soon as you can. Let me know when you get this about the smokes.
From your loving father.
Look after yourself all you can.
Sitting in an archive in south London on a rainy afternoon nearly a century after it was written, I was more moved by this letter than by anything else in all the soldiers’ accounts I read while researching the kind of war Edward had experienced. The cheery tone, the trivia, the practicalities of cigarette dispatch, it’s the thinnest of veneers covering the most heartbreaking bottomless well of emotion.
It had been more than a year since William Dann’s father last saw him. William must have mentioned the possibility of coming home on leave in his previous letter and his father has seized upon this in the sheer excruciating hope that his boy might be able to come home, even for just a few days. At the same time he’s trying to restrain himself from sounding too excited for William’s sake: He doesn’t know what kind of hell he’s going through, what rat-infested, shell-shaken mud bath in which he might be reading this brief connection with the life he left behind, so he tries to sound buoyant and upbeat without being flippant. The affectionate ‘old boy’ at the end: William Dann is a teenager, but with this jocular light verbal punch to the upper arm, Thomas Dann is talking to him adult to adult and man to man.
Finally the addition of, ‘look after yourself all you can’ after he’s signed off. In that restrained suffix is contained every night in which Thomas had lain in the dark wide awake wondering where his son was and praying that he was safe, it’s every moment where something around the house had reminded him of William; a shape or a glint of light catching something, the times he would have seen a flash of a familiar face in the street, a particular hair colour, or heard a laugh in a crowd and just for instant thought, it’s him, it’s my Will.
Of all the poems, books and films, all the thousands of words spoken and written about the First World War, for me that 500 word missive holds all the tragedy, hope, fear and love of the war in its tiny rectangle of thin, brown, fragile paper.
As it happened, within a few weeks William Dann was granted leave. It was fairly unusual for young single man to be given leave to go home as generally the family men were considered first, but, somehow, whether his smokes were on their way or not, his number came up.
“It was wet weather, absolutely muddy, all your puttees were plastered up,” he recalled, “then an officer came along calling out, ‘Private Dann’, and I said ‘yes sir’ and he called out the name of another chap called Firth, and he said. ‘due for leave’. Well our hats nearly blew off. And we had to go, there and then, from the front line trenches, through the reserve line, couldn’t get a change of clothes, a wash, nothing.”
No chance to head off a packet of cigarettes in the post, either.
“From the transport lines we were given a paper for leave, fourteen days. We were still muddy, and they said you’ve got to get to the station as soon as you can for a train that will take you to the base. It was fifteen miles to the station and we were that tired we laid down in this field for a rest. Then Jerry came along and dropped a couple of bombs in this field and that woke us up all right. We caught the train, got on the boat and got to London. It used to be that outside Victoria Station there was a YMCA with conveniences and baths. We went in there and took off our tunics and old cardigans and we knew they were lousy. We had a bit of a wash and I thought, that’ll do till I get home. When we left and there was a man shouting after us and he had our two cardigans on a stick. He said, ‘Oi, you two, these belong to you?’ And we said no, not ours mate. And off I went to Brighton.
“When I got home I burnt a lot of stuff, shirt, underclothes, I couldn’t burn my tunic, my father sent that to the cleaners.”
Given that the leave was dropped on William without warning, there’s a good chance he hadn’t been able to let his father know in advance that he was coming. If it was a surprise, in the light of that letter the outpouring of emotion must have been utterly phenomenal. The days would have passed quickly. Too quickly. And almost before he knew it, William was on his way to the front again.
“The worst part was going back. We met again, the same two of us, at Brighton Station and caught the train to Victoria and it was terrible, women crying, girls sobbing. We knew what we were going back to, that was the worst part. So we went outside and had a little walk around until the train was due off and that was that. We got to Folkestone and got on a boat but apparently there was a submarine in the Channel and we had to turn round and come back into harbour, but then it was all clear and we were over in France again.”
More about ‘The Forgotten Soldier’ by Charlie Connelly, published by HarperCollins, here.