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.

16th October 1918

Dear Emmie

Yours to hand of the 4th inst. We are now frying some chips for supper, sounds alright doesn’t it. Our only difficulty is in getting fat to fry in. Did I tell you that the other day we made a jam tart of flour, water and jam and bacon fat and it tasted très bon.

I am glad your Dad is getting the chair ready for us again we’ll have to mind how we go next time. Of course that is an old complaint with armchairs, ours has it at home. I wonder how it caught it. Glad you liked the “Better ‘ole”. I wish I could have been with you but never mind this last week I have had to find one or two better ‘oles. I think I mentioned that I have received my cornet, last Monday week, but have not been able to undo the parcel: no time. That sounds as if I am busy doesn’t it. The months do certainly fly by, it will soon be Christmas and by then I hope that this conflict is over. It is possible but I don’t think probable. We mustn’t get too excited about peace before it’s here (in fact that’s general orders of the day). I guess Harold Day was busy for a little while when the she’ll burst near him, at any rate I’m glad he wasn’t hurt. Sometimes shells do have a habit of dropping uncomfortably near but as long as no one is hurt they can fall where they like.

The nights do draw in quickly now and if your office is moved you won’t have so far to walk home although it is not much farther. Perhaps Mr.P. will open an office in Rue de Tibre if you ask him. I hope that you enjoy the dance: I presume you’re[?] to go. Well I must close now as I am almost monopalizing the table and lamp.

With Love

From Yours Ever

Will xx

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15th October 1918

Dearest Emmie

Yours to hand of the 7th inst: Yes, we did enjoy that little rest although it was only for a few days and I don’t suppose we will have another time like that for some time to come. Your idea of an Estaminet I fear is wrong but of course there are “some” and ”some” compre? I should think that the Marlboro’ would pay better as a cinema and if it is very good you will have to take me there one of these times. I would like to get my photo taken but as we are at least 30 miles from civilization it would be rather difficult. You would be surprised to see the Batt: turn out to catch a glance of a civilian but that is what would happen should one drop this way. I would certainly like to see the battered village in Trafalgar Square and the trenches and would be able to compare it with the actual. Thanks also for the Mag: I suppose I should drop a few lines to Mr Ferraro; well I will do so if I get time. I sent a letter to Harold Day yesterday but I don’t know if he will get it because I’ve written to an address I had about two years ago. I have written Mr Avery and also to a friend (male) at Colchester, so you see I have been busy. Well my dear I must draw to a close now and help with the veg for dinner.

With Fondest Love

from Yours Ever

Will xx

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15th October 1918

Dearest Emmie

I don’t know what you must be thinking of me writing so little lately but I have been busy. We are now on open warfare and I, being up the line and advancing so quickly, have had very little chance to write. We are now in a village which four days ago was occupied by “Jerry”. There were a few people left behind and of course they have been sent away. We are now in civilian houses which have not been shelled very much. Everything is like home. Beds to sleep in, plenty of coal and fires and also plenty of veg: which we lose no time in digging and having for dinner. Of course when we first took over the houses we were very careful with what we touched; especially wires and electric switches etc. We lit an oil lamp and it had not been alight two minutes before it went up as if it had been set to go off. Of course it might have been a trick of a Jerry and perhaps not: anyway we are very careful. I hear from the papers that the latest big town taken is in ruins but I fear that statement is a bit exaggerated. I am pleased to say that our Batt. casualties have been very slight and I hope they remain low. I haven’t had a letter from you now for over a week but I know there must be some for me somewhere. I went over a ruined church yesterday but there was no organ in it. It [was] a pity to see all the vestments strewn over the floor which must have cost over £1,000. There are plenty of pianos in the empty houses and I have lost no time in having a tune. There is a lot of buck-shee furniture everywhere, one side-board in a house or cabinet is worth about £300. It is a shame to see the destruction but if course this is only a pin’s point on the line. The boys are now making something with flour and water. Some want to make pancakes and some jam tart. I think it looks like the paste we used to use at the shop. The latest up last night was that peace had been declared but the guns are still going this morning so I suppose they have not heard of it. If they are going to have peace this year they had better hurry up about it.

I am very lucky in one way and that is so far I have always been in a house, barn or cellar every night whereas most of the boys have been in the open. We have had to dig in about half-a-dozen times and I am getting quite used to it. How is the organ at the church going on have they finished it yet. I don’t think I have nay more to write this time so will close with

Fondest Love

From Yours Ever

Will xx

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13th October 1918

Dear Emmie

A few more lines to let you know that I am still O.K. We are having a fairly good time and I will write more when I have more time. I guess you will expect a long letter next time, what? I hear there is a mail up so expect a letter or two from you. Please remember me to your Ma & Pa.

Fondest Love

From Will xx

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12th October 1918

Dear Emmie

Yours to hand of the 3rd inst. we are very busy lately and I havn’t had much time to write. I don’t know if this letter will get away today. My cornet came last Monday but I havn’t even had time to look at that. I havn’t had any letters lately but I dare say there are some waiting for me. I am not allowed to write a long letter this time, hope you are alright.

Fondest Love from Will

P.S. Please excuse writing.

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4th October 1918

Dear Emmie

We are having fairly fine weather on our few days rest and I think it will be only a few.

I received your letter with programme thanks; from it I guess you had a fairly decent evening. I think I told you that we had a good time one evening in an Estaminet, it was as good as an organised concert as nearly everybody got up and gave a song without pressing. I managed to get some choclet today but am sorry I can’t send you any. I also tasted some English choc: the other day but it was no good. Sorry you have no one to buy you “almond whirls” now but I don’t suppose you can get them now, what? None have gone on leave since we have been here and yet there are some 13 monthers but I suppose they will start going soon at a reasonable rate. How is the organ going on, I don’t supposed it is finished yet is it. I haven’t answered W.S.’s last letter yet I suppose I must write him a few lines. I also want to send one home so will conclude now with

Fondest Love

From Your Ever

Will xx

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4th October 1918

Dearest Emmie

Yours to hand of 24-5-6 ult for which je vous remercie boucoup. I am now about 50 miles behind the line, I do not know if we are on rest or not, but of course I hope so. I seem to get your letters in bunches quelque-fois: but better like that than never. It doesn’t matter about asking Mabel to write if she doesn’t want to. I am quite content with your letters Emmie. I think we are behind both places you mention. ) W.R.M. I hope you have heard from me by this time. I nearly forgot to thank you for the parcel. “de cike” of course was very coot. Compre.

I dare say Harold is alright. I don’t suppose he goes far up the line but of course he comes under fire from the back areas. The majority of our men havn’t a very good name for the R.A.M.C. for some reason or other. Eg. When Donald was wounded he was not far from a R.A.M.C. dug-out and would not go out to help him. Luckily he was only hit in the leg and being [?.s.l.] was able to d it up himself. Of course that is only one case though. Their name is Rob All My Comrades but that is northing to go by. I think I told you that another of the old bandsmen is wounded, only a little bit in the forehead though and not at all serous, in fact he wanted to go up the line again with the boys. He is a very conscientious chap and is known as one of the best stretcher bearers in the Batt.

I will be pleased with the choc whatever it’s like as I haven’t tasted any for a long time. We have seen none of the flue for a long time now. I hope that the Railways have settled down to work by now. I hear that Soldiers are filling in the mens places that ought to make them go back as it did on the Clyde.

You mustn’t start thinking of too dreadfull things but just keep a little spirit up till I come home and I will do my best to make you happy. You must excuse mistakes in this letter as there is an argument going on as loud as a barrage.

Mabel will be 21 this month it does seem old. I don’t know weather to send her a card or not. I don’t doubt that G.Strong spent £100 on leave in India. It is surprising what soldiers get through. Perhaps be bought a lot of silk and similar things.

How did the concert at Claremont go I hope you sung well. Last night being the first time here I went out and had a good supper of Eggs & Chipps and cocoa that was 2f.40°. 2f the cheapest I have ever had. When I got back I pretended I had been “blinking” ort in other words vin-blanc-ing, and the French people call it Zig-zag; at any rate I was undressed and put to bed and now the chap who was so kind to me does not know that I was not zig-zag. We stayed at a town for one night not long ago and had a first class evening in an estaminet. There was a very good piano there and we had as good as a programme concert. There was some good singing there too. We didn’t get up till 9 ocl this morning because we didn’t hear the bugle go and we were lucky to get any breakfast. We are a good way from the batt. We are very comfortable in the most tidy barn I have seen. I will be able to tell you in a week how leave is going: about 9 went last month but now we are in a diff: army 3rd, and more might go.

Well my dear I must close now longing for the time when I can take you in my arms again.

From Yours

Ever Loving Will xxx

P.S. Please send me some writing paper as I am short and there are no Y.M.s near here.

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