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.

10th December 1918

Dear Emmie

In answer to yours of the 20th ult. I have had one or two letters from you dated this month and yet another came yesterday of the 20 ult as you see above. I have still the swastika and also the lucky sixpence you gave me or to be precise, the lucky sixpence which I won of you. I’ll have to wear the [swastika] on my watch chain when I get home it has been through some “stunts”. If I was to become organist at the mish I would find an assist. from somewhere. Mr Ferrow told me of the organ heating device he has to keep the damp out. Do you think I will be under anybody’s thumb even when I get home? What did Mr Howard get for a wedding present I really forget. What is it that you are going to tell me that is going to make me so surprised; I hope it is not a shock. Have you left your office yet or are you still staying on. One of the boys says that if clothes are too dear when he gets back his full dress will be steel hat, bathing drawers and spurs.

I dare say I will get one leave before demobilisation but I could do with the latter premiere. Some chaps are going on leave now so as to return one day before Christmas; I think it is putting temptation in their path: of course they are punished for overstaying their pass. Some of the boys of just over 19 have never had a leave since they have been in the Army. They had 9 months training in England and never a leave and some of the poor chaps have been knocked out and their people have never seen them in khaki. What does Mrs Shovell say about the election? I suppose she doesn’t happen to give lectures on women’s suffrage. Well I will close now hoping you all keep free from the flu’.

Fondest Love

From Will xx

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

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8th December 1918

Dear Emmie

In answer to yours of the 2nd inst. I think somehow the post is wrong; it is very irregular and I don’t think they can all get through what I send to you: all the chaps speak of the same thing. Have you received more than one letter from me this this week, you should have done. If leave goes fairly well I should be home about the end of Jan. Mr Ferraro did not write to me first, I did the trick for once. I have had some election Communication sent to me but of course not having read the papers much I cannot form an opinion. I think the govt. is frightened to wait any longer or they will lose power for a labour party. The weather has been glorious this last few days quite like spring really too good to last. I pity the chaos who have to go forward into Germany if they are having a worse time than us. I don’t think they will have much of a time.

The war is over and now the boys have started soldiering. Five guards instead of one have to be found every day out of the batt. The chaps have to clean their brass and equipment and be smart to look at and go without a bath for weeks. I think I will be in my eighth week in a couple of days time. I think I’ll write home for a bath soon to carry in my pack. I guess you will thinking me a frightful moaner but it’s an “Englishman’s privilege”. It would be a bit cheerful if we had a piano but I think the batt is frightened to carry one. I expect a nice long letter from you although I cannot write one. You would understand if you knew how empty this life is. I will now close hoping the time will pass quickly for us to move from here.

Fondest Love

From  Will xxx

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6th December 1918

Dear Emmie

Yours to hand of the 30th ult: I cannot understand you not getting more than one letter a week from me. I think this is the third or perhaps the fourth I have written you this week so please let me know if you have received the others. I know the last two letters I have written have not been up to much but you know you are not the only one who treads my correspondence. I would very much like to write you a nice long letter but I cannot make a lot out of nothing.

I have only been to the Albert Hall twice and once was with you, can you remember? Are concerts still held at the Central Hall now on Saturday evenings such as we used to go to? I would very much like to hear an organ recital by Mr Meale now, all the music we get is by banging a drum or pumping a flute. I think our Batt is frightened to carry a piano with them. I found the puzzle enclosed and now I see that I nearly worked it our before but didn’t get that shape. As for the one I set you, you can’t quite do it now but when I come home you will be able to. You have to use a mirror on the figures and you will see the answer. I gave my name in for a course of “Lithography” this morning, that will be très bon; I will soon get my hand in again. I didn’t think that they would open [?] for courses but as I said in my last letter I would like to get into an Army printing shop or school. I never hear anything of W.L. from home I think I will write to Mabel and ask her. I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept C.Os till the army is all demobilized.

Well my dear I will close now and write tomorrow if poss

Fondest Love

From Yours Ever

Will xxx

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6th December 1918

Dear Emmie

We are still at the same place, miles from anywhere worth going to. I dare say you think we are all having a good time now but I don’t want you to deceive yourself. We have been promised Civilian billits and I hope we get them before Christmas. I think I told you the name of this place is Mouchin; quite an appropriate name but after all perhaps it would be worse with a war on. Of course I don’t want you to think that I am right down in the “dumps” perhaps the continual moaning all round makes a diff. If we did any hard work we would have a good cause to moan and yet perhaps the monotony of doing nothing gets on ones nerves. Perhaps I should not say that or it might make it worse for all. When our classes start I will be très satisfait. What does the organ sound like now: is it any better than it was before it was repaired? I guess I will have to get some practice before playing for a service. Dad want me to attend St Bride’s Institute again when I come home. I would like to get into an Army printing shop for a short course while I am waiting my discharge but I don’t think it is possible. I have to fall in for pay now and for this letter to catch the next post I will now conclude and write a better letter next time, with

Fondest Love

From Will xxx

W Metcalfe

19013

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3rd December 1918

Dear Emmie

Yours to hand of the 27th ult. The common saying in France for “How are you” is Comment alez vous, literally “how go you” but I dare say “commens partey vous” is better French. I suppose G.Todd is home now (lucky dog). I think released Ps.O.W. get two months leave and £5 down but perhaps they will from some scheme for demobilizing them quickly.

Please tell Herbert Bertie that I would be quite alright in the middle of Sahara Desert because of the sand which is there. (Compre). Sorry to hear that the flu’ has broken out again I hope you will all keep free from it. We have bacon almost every day, or what is called bacon, but I think sometimes we get French boar which when salted is exactly like bacon. Yes! I hope to be home for good by next Summer and I think there is every possibility.

I think soldiers of 19 who are signing on are liable to be sent abroad. We are having a lecture or something on education I think this morning so I will have to leave this letter in a minute.

I read that piece about the lead swinger and the band and no doubt cases have occurred very similar: in fact is a musician was to get to a base, sick, it would probably mean a three or sometimes six months job in a band. Some chaps are excellent at it. How do you go on for butter and cheese in England now: I think there is a shortage out here, our rations are wicked lately. I suppose it doesn’t matter now the war is over. We are moving to another village soon and I hope things will improve there.

Has your office moved yet? Please will you send me a couple of candles if it is no trouble for you to get them, they will come in very handy. We have a canteen but as usual there is nothing in it. I think somebody else has a pick before privates. I have nothing any good to write now so will close

With Love

From Yours with the Hun

Will xx

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1st December 1918

Dearest Emmie

We are still at the same place but hope to be moving soon. It is Advent Sunday today and I went to H.C. this morning the first time for a long time. Please remember me to Mrs Thomson (your aunt) when you see her. What did Bertie think of the wedding or rather the marriage? I suppose he had something sausey to say. Glad to hear G.Todd is on his way home he will be in England soon. I reckon he’s been jolly lucky, don’t you? I feel sorry for Mrs Mayne myself she is left all on her own now but I know Mum will help her as much as poss: I am now going on parade for about half an hour and will continue this by some artificial light. I have still plenty of ink tablets left thank you. I don’t think I have used a third yet. I would like to have a go at “Christ & his Soldiers” on the organ, I’ve only tried bits but not all through. It is all easy enough on the piano. We generally have a tune of an evening now that it is too dark to go anywhere and there is also nowhere of any amusement here. I dare say we will have a better time when we settle down for the winter, if we do: it is rumoured that our Brigade is having a concert party out from England so that would be alright. Of course rumours are generally told the wrong way round with a bit added on by the time it has been through a few hands, so I will tell you. We might have a band sent to us, of course it is about time and it would be très bon. I might be able to get a little practice. While I am writing this there are two of the boys playing home sweet home on clalrinettes. How is Maude going on do you see much of her now or rather do you see her often? I hope you have a good time Christmas wish I could be with you, will let you know what kind of a time we have.

Donald is sitting on my left and are both stop writing and looking at each other every now and then as there is not much to write about so I will close; hope to get a letter tomorrow.

Best love from

Will

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28th November 1918

Dear Emmie

I have not heard from you for a few days now but hope to have a letter by tomorrow. I suppose they have gone to the Reception Camp. I was buglar on guard last night: the guard room was a stable and rather draughty and an old French woman was kind enough to give us hot coffee at 10pm and 5.30am. but the funny part I was going to tell you was how I had to get up about four times in the night to have a rest. I think it sounds rather funny but it is a common occurance when we are crowded. It has been raining today and is very miserable out.

We are now in a small village named Muchin [?] but I think we are going on to Tournai in a couple of days time. For winter billets it is suggested so I hope and guess they will not be barns as we are in now. We are having classes on various subjects and I am in for a bit of book keeping. (Please excuse the ups and downs of this letter but it is nearly dark.) The various particulars wanted for the classes are Name, No. address, religion, last job, experience and about one hundred and one other things. I was told that the Government are helping apprentices by making an allowance so if I go back as an apprentice it will not [be] so bad.

I think this last advance made by us was wonderful: the way the engineers got bridges over rivers was very smart. A bridge strong enough for any load could be thrown over a river at an average time of about 6 hours.

Towards the end I think Gas was used in nearly every shell by the Germans, but there was not so much metal in them. The nearest I had a shell burst to me was about 15 yards so I was lucky compared with some. I happened to be behind a cooker at the time and a piece of shrapnel broke the shaft and punctured a petrol can at my feet but the ear is over now and I don’t suppose all this interests you only I havn’t much more to write about. It is Thursday today so I suppose you are off to G.F.S. or club well I won’t be there to meet you for some little time but I hope that goes fast.

Well I will now conclude

With Best Love from Will

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24th November 1918

Dear Emmie

Yours to hand of the 18th inst: it was addressed to the Reception Camp but only took one day in getting to me from there. Glad you liked the carte-postal. I bought that at Bully-Grenay when I was on the Lens sector about two months ago. Of course you know I have moved from there and we arrived in front of Cambrai about 8/10/18 before it was taken. We attacked on the south side and within three days had outflanked it and were round the back of it. We have had some lively scenes in open warfare and it is not bad when the enemy is running away especially as Johnny did towards the end, in motor cars. I am now at a place named Auberchicourt, rather a nice name to go to bed with, but we are moving tomorrow and I will let you know in my next letter if poss, where we are stopping. We are now working our way southwards along the line. The batt: has already done nearly a weeks marching and we have about fifteen miles to do tomorrow. You say I don’t express a desire to be home, well I wish you could hear me sometimes. I won’t stay in the army five minutes longer than I can help. Dad expects me to go back and finish my apprenticeship but I was supposed to be out at 19 so I have asked him to state clearly on what lines he intends to take me back on. I am sorry to hear about Mrs Boston it must be a shock to Mr B. By the way, I wrote to Mr Ferraro the other day so I expect he will tell you. I don’t know what army we are in now. I think we have been transferred back to the first and are making for somewhere near the north coast. I have felt shaky on there being a revolution in England. I hope that it does not happen it would be one of the worst possible things. My watch still goes in fits and starts so I will not send it home yet. I would like you to send me some books please, about one a month I think would be sufficient.

Well my dear I will close now still longing for the time when I can (?) visit you at my leisure.

From Yours Ever

Will xxx

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24th November 1918

Dearest Emmie

The night is dark and I am far from home and I also havn’t very much to say for myself but I will endeavour to write you a few lines. I generally get your letters in bunches but I hope I get one tomorrow as it is now three days. Of course they must be going to the Reception camp. I didn’t think of that before. I think I told you in a previous letter that I could not answer your puzzle of the cats & dogs although I pondered over it for some considerable time and also some other boys had a go at it but all failed. I am going to set you one now. Can you solve “151224169604” The puzzle is in the numbers as they stand without writing them again. Can you do it? I wrote to C Gibbs this evening. I think he has been gassed but only slight. Well my dear please excuse short letter and also pencil and let me have a nice long letter next time.

With Fondest Love

From Will xxx

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