A First World War Correspondence

This blog will record, in real time exactly 100 years later, the correspondence between Miss Emma Ash and Mr William Metcalfe during the First World War. From bundles of letters found under floorboards long after their deaths, we are able to witness the development of the later stages of the War through the eyes of a serviceman and his sweetheart, played out alongside a growing romance.

With no consideration of literary prowess, no thought that this correspondence would be seen by others (except perhaps the military censor), an unvarnished portrait of a different age and world appears.

The letters run from May 1917 to mid-1919, and will appear here in the order they were written, a century later.

6th January 1919

Dear Emmie

I hope to get a letter from you today. I had one about three days ago from you. Three men were demobilised from this Batt yesterday and one actually refused his ticket. You’ll catch me doing that “I should shay sho.” All men who have been out here fourty months or more have to parade at orderly room tomorrow so I suppose they will be off soon. We have another whist drive tomorrow night but I see that I don’t get booby prize next time. I think I am going to Tournai on the 10th inst for four days. By all accounts there is some life there. It will be a bit of a change for this place is rather quiet. Please will you send me one of long rough things used as sponges for washing. I forget the name of them but I dare say you know what I mean. There is not much to write about so I will finish this when I get that letter this afternoon / I will have to close this letter but promise you a longer for the next.

Fondest Love

From Will xxx


4th January 1919

Dear Emmie

It is a dirty night tonight pouring of rain and it is not worth going out so I will endeavour to write you a few lines. The letters are not generally censored now and we have to put our names on the outside of the envelope and stick them down. We had our first book keeping class today and I am all mixed up with debits and credits. I suppose I will see though it all soon. We are doing the double entry system. The last time I wrote I said that I wouldn’t write to H Days place until I heard from them but I changed my mind and wrote to Harold last night. I do expect an answer this time. I had a letter from home today and Dad gives me one guess at the surprise and I have said an organ. I knew it was something to do with music and only an organ or a “baby grand” would be a surprise. If hey had said nothing about it until I got home the “Surprise” would have worked. It does seem a long time now since I saw you and I hope that the leave livens up a bit. It seems to have almost stopped. I think I am in the first 100 now so I ought to be home before March. Perhaps I will have my ticket by then. We are having another whist drive next Tuesday and I see that I don’t get the booby prize next time. I had a letter from Don who is in hospital, the other day and it took ten days to get here and he is in France so how about some of your letters being delayed: I am lucky to get them in six days. When he wrote he was still queer but he ought to be better by now.

Dad tells me that it is hard to get men out of the Army in our trade as it is not essential but I dare say allowances are made for apprentices.

We haven’t had any butter issue for about six days and we have to have bread and bread unless there is jam. I don’t seem to eat so much bread lately I am always giving some away to the civvies. I suppose it is because we get very little exercise but ce n’est fait rien. We pronounce this san fair re ang as all the people do. It means “it doesn’t matter” but literally is: this makes nothing. It is surprising how we get on with the one or two words we know but we can always make ourselves understood even if we turn ourselves down side up with expostulations (good word that). One of the boys overstayed his leave 9 days and only got 16 days clink. (excuse slang) Another boy said something pretty to a sergeant and he got 18 days. We come off very lenient lately.

There are some of our colonial troops just returning to France after about two years in Blighty dodging it on absentees and they are surprised to find their names taken off the Batt roll. They get let off lightly but if it was an Imperial he would get about ten years. It is now neuf hour et vingt minutes so I will close.

With Fondest Love

From Will xxx

PS Please excuse writing as I have been very quick.


2nd January 1919

Dearest Emmie

Yours to hand of the 27th the letter I have been waiting for. It did not take long to come and yet I have not received one since the 24th: perhaps there are some more on the road delayed by the Christmas traffic. I am sorry you did not receive a letter from me Xmas day or eve but I didn’t have one either but I hope you are not still cross. By the tone of your letter I should think that you didn’t like the Xmas card I sent you; perhaps it was too plain but it really took my eye. There were others but too gaudy and the officers helped us by paying two thirds the C.P. I hope I did not spoil your Xmas for you don’t seem to have had at all a good time. Where is “Norbury”? is it north east of London or am I wrong. I presume you enjoyed yourself as you leave it for me to guess. I wish I had been with you: for some reason or other it has reminded me of the rambles we used to go on. I hope to be able to join you on the same, this year and then (?) Oh exstacy. You say that you “slept out”: you don’t mean that you hadn’t a roof over you do you? for that is what I would have said if our resting place had been a shell hole or sunken road. But the war is over now and we want to forget it, if such a thing is possible. We still hear explosions I suppose they are mines going up etc so you see what the German is. Did you see “Uncle Sam” and did he have striped trousers. I remember you going to that lady’s place at Leicester Sq last year but I don’t remember what she was: a dressmaker?

Please get leave to tell me what the “Surprise” is; I can’t forget it and am afraid it is going to be a disappointment. Of course I didn’t know G.T. was a flirt: all the fillies you might have seen him with may have been his cousins etc: I really thought he was such a shy boy. I don’t think I blamed the girl did I? At any rate I should not have done as I know nothing of the case. I don’t think he had much chance of walking with girls or at least not English or French for the last six months but of course I stick up for my own sex. I don’t think you would go out with a different boy every night (even if you had the same cause to) because I know you different; now would you. Well Emmie I am quite myself tonight in fact a bit more, and I would like to know if this letter pleases you in the least; now don’t forget to tell me. I am glad to hear that H.Day has got his discharge. I have written both to him and his home but haven’t heard for a long time from them so I am writing na plue (excuse spelling). Do you ever see Mr Day in Kings X now? I think we are having electric light fitted up in this house: we have some old German wire and that is all so far, we only want the fittings and current: perhaps you will send one of the latter out by wireless.

We still do manoeuvres of a night even now but is generally “scrounging” wood for a fire. There are not many hedges in this country but we found a door one night and a prop holding a clothes line last night. The clothes line was used today but not the prop. Or rather the prop was used in a diff. way and had become much shorter. I think I will start slowing down now I have answered your question or request and I hope to your pleasure. I will ask you to write me a nice letter next time if it only a short one*. You don’t know what a difference it makes after hearing from you. There are a few things I want to tell you and perhaps you have heard them all from me before but I can’t put them here because I havn’t all the dictionary at my disposal but I will tell you one day in a few words (in the near future I hope) when we are placed as we were in pre-war days.

Well I must close this time as I am on guard and have been from my post three hours and once again I wish you all a happy new year from your Khaki boy in Belgium (I was just going to say France) and

With Fondest Love

From Yours Ever Will xxxxx

P.S. *Of course all your letters are nice. (Observe Star*)


1st January 1919

Dear Emmie

It is new years day today and that is why I am writing. Really I have nothing much to write about but I don’t suppose you mind as long as you get a line from me. Last night we played at a dance which followed a whist drive. You will smile when you know that I won a prize yes the “booby prize”. I was playing as lady and was presented with the top end of a candle but the lowest gentlemen (lower than I) had a fag-end (excuse the talk) and a match. Of course both were wrapped in ten times more paper than was necessary. The dance was till 10 o’cl but was prolonged until 11 o’cl. Eventually we wound up at 01.30 o’cl 1-1-19. I hope to hear from you soon. I havn’t had a letter from you since before Xmas and I guess you don’t know how I feel. Perhaps letters have been held up for you must have written in seven days. Have you ever read “The Luck Of The Vails” it is not at all a bad book by E.F. Benson. We are taking it in turns in visiting Tournai. I think we spend four days there. If I go I will see C.Gibbs. That is all I really want to go for. Did you ever go to that Fancy dress ball with E.V. at Anderton’s. We are having a fairly easy time. The other day we had a boxing lecture so I guess the next craze will be boxing. Wrestling is more my mark. I don’t fancy the look of broken noses and thick ears. Does H.B. still keep the piano up now. I occasionally get a practice now and again. There is a very good piano in an Estaminet near here. I would like you to send me another writing pad s’il vous plait.

I will now close as it is getting late and I didn’t get to bed until the early hours of this morning. By the way I didn’t forget the white rabbits. I wish you a happy and prosperous new year and hope to be with you soon.

Fondest Love

From Will xxx

P.S. Please remember me to all at home.


29th December 1918

Dear Emmie

I havn’t had a letter from you since Christmas eve but will try to write something. We (the drums) had our Xmas dinner last night and I am pleased to say it was a complete success. I think 27 in all had dinner but there are about 10 away on courses and in hospital etc. We had a comic out of one of the concert parties and he kept things lively. We borrowed a large room (Estaminet) and also a piano for our Brig. orchestra. We had two turkeys, meat and veg, and fruit and custard second course; it was très bon. There were plenty of drinks and cigars and cigarettes so you will guess we had a lively time. I was one of a few who knew what I was doing near the end. I guess some of them felt the power of weak French wine. We had dances and songs and I played most of the time. We finished at 10.30pm and I dare say we won’t have such an evening in the Army again unless we are here for next Xmas.

One of the drummers is going home on demobilisation staff as he is an old soldier: not a bad job. It is surprising the number of people that attend church in France they seem to come away in mass formation after nearly every service. I was not able to attend the service this morning as I am on guard but çe ne fait rien (as is on everybody’s lips for everything. (ça le guerre.) I would like you to get me a nib for my pen please as I can make nothing of the one I have now. [crossed out] I would like on a shade finer s’il vous plait. I will close now hoping to hear from you soon.

Fondest Love

From Will xxx


28th December 1918

Dear Emmie

Christmas is over for you now and I hope you enjoyed yourself, of course I wish I had been with you but perhaps I will be with you for Xmas 1919: at least I hope so. We had a fairly good dinner on the 25th but ours (the drums) is coming off tonight. I am looking forward to a good time and will let you know how it went down when I write next. I havn’t had a letter for a few days now but hope to get a short epistle today. I had one other Xmas card besides yours and that was from Chigwell. It’s a good job I sent them one. It hasn’t stopped raining here for two days now so you can guess what its like. All the gutters are like small streams. I will have to leave this letter now as I have volunteered to do “orderly man” for dinner.

I have finished reading the “Vow” and also “White Dove” and I think I liked the former better although “White Dove” is a good tale. B.Thorne (I think I have mentioned him before) one of the old band boys went to hospital today with a boil. Everybody goes to hospital for the least thing now rather different than when hostilities were on. I will close now and write again soon.

Fondest love

From Will xx


24th December 1918

Dear Emmie

Just a few lines as it is Christmas Eve and I am on guard (which comes nearly every day now) and havn’t anything to do now until 9 o’cl. I don’t know what kind of a time we will have tomorrow but I will let you know. I am hanging up my largest sock tonight but there is no chimney so I will have to leave the door open. You will be surprised to hear that I have had my watch mended. I gave it to one of the men going on leave as he knew for certain he could get it mended so I am alright again now. I think I told you that Donald went into hospital so he will not be here for tomorrow unless he is very quick now. Ho long holiday have you this Xmas? A fairly long one I should think. The various companies of this Batt are so spread out that three buglars are required. I am billeted in an estaminet for tonight and have actually a proper bed.

I have only received one Xmas card so far and that is from you but of course there is plenty of time tomorrow. I didn’t send many this year, only four, I have got into a “don’t care” sort of way and take everything as it comes. Perhaps I will wake up when I get back to work.

I don’t really know of any more to write at present so I will close hoping that you all have as good a time as poss.

With Fondest Love

From Will xx


23rd December 1918

Dearest Emmie

Many thanks for such a bon parcel received this evening. I have partaken of some of its contents and find them very agreeable to my palate. It’s only two days to Christmas now so you se it has come just right. Thanks also for the card, it is “très jolie”. I hope you enjoy yourself Christmas.

We filled in Army form Z16 this evening concerning civil occupation but of course that does not mean that general demobilisation has started.

The name of this place is Tantignies about 8 Kilos from Tournai. I don’t suppose you will find it on a small scale map. I think the Kents are in Tournai and a friend of mine is going to call on C.Gibbs while he is there. I notice the “musical talent” it mentioned in the Mag “some talent”. My new bed-chum is a Salvation Army man juts like one of the boys in our old band, even to the point of stuttering only this one was caused by shell shock. Well I will conclude now as I have a head-ache.

Fondest Love

From Will

PS. Please remember me to all at home.


21st December 1918

Dear Emmie

In answer to your four page letter of 16th inst. I was about to go out and have a tune on a piano when I received your letter and it was such a nice one (quite a Christmas-box) and so long that I had to sit down right away and answer it. I guess your old school chum is some flapper not quite what you expected I guess; well I hope it’s not long before I can be your company once again (that is if you will have me.) I might say I am getting tired of France, or to be correct Belgium and am longing to get back to you Emmie. They talk a lot about pretty French girls, etc but I havn’t seen one that would take my fancy and I don’t think I have heard one speak that doesn’t in some way or other resemble a rasp. (Perhaps it is their gabble). So you had forgotten the lucky sixpence, do you remember the “Mizpah” you gave me. Talking about bachelor, who live the longer, married or single men? In these modern times there are all sorts of patent bed-warmers, what do you say to that. You write about men looking “mère”, in Parliament now. Mère is French for mother how can males be females. Now about this “pleasant surprise” I think I can guess what it is. I know it’s nothing to eat but perhaps it is something which by working with the feet and hands food is given to the ears. Please tell me if I am right. What did G.Todd have to get so weak on? I don’t think he starved much, did he? Perhaps he would be surprised to know that I think he came off very lucky. No doubt he could tell very good tails of the raids he has taken part in on the canteen etc. You said he limps a little, was he wounded? If so it alters the complection of the whole act. I have seen the ends of severed arteries sewn up, etc. and would not relish to be treated “com ça”. I am sorry to hear of the break between him and his girl, of course it’s the girls fault, again. I often think I am lucky to have someone like you because you would tell if you were na poo fine and I could get out of the way one way or another. There is plenty of buck-shee ammunition knocking about still. I know Mrs Sh. makes known her opinion thoroughly. I don’t know what she has against poor old Georgie but although he must take credit for what he has done throughout the war I don’t seem to be able to form an opinion on him now. Of course we donlt get too much to read here so are absolutely in the dark. You must remember me to Mrs Sh. as she inquires after me so much.

So Bertie has been in the wars has he you will have to keep him in his bedroom locked up when I come home in case he gets pounding into me. I have seen the “Rouge et Noirs” concert party when we were at La Compte [La Comté]. We marched to Houdain about six miles away. I think I will go out for a few minutes now for a tune and will finish this when I come back.

It is now nearly 9 o.cl. and I have been out with the cornet. A couple of nights ago we had a musical evening in an estaminet and it went own trés bon. One of the chaps was a comic out of a concert party and he kept things going most of the time (I was on the piano then.) Of course all this is very nice but I would sooner be with you (and perhaps not say a word all the evening) than be all the life and noise here. I hope you don’t get a shock when you see four pages or think it is retaliation for the four I am answering. I am not myself tonight perhaps that is why I have written such a lot; have a bit of a head ache but that didn’t ought to make me write. Well my dear I will now conclude

With Fondest Love

From Your Will.


20th December 1918

Dear Emmie

In answer to yours of 14th inst and thank you for the Christmas Card. I think it is very pretty. By the time you receive this I dare say Christmas will be over and I hope you have a good time. I wish I could be with you, but perhaps I havn’t long to wait. We have had another little move in this village: I don’t know how long we are to stay in this place but I suppose we will be here until demobilisation starts. You must excuse the run of this letter as between nearly every word I am explaining fractions (another stop! light has gone out). We were shown two ways of proving sums this morning (French & Russian) not much use but rather interesting. The billit we were in before these were civvy’s and trois M’lles some billit. I guess you were wild about the parcel. I had one from home two days ago I guess the post office is busy. I have given my pen a clean and it certainly flows better now. Well I have no more to write about this time so will close with fondest love

From Yours Ever