Undelivered letters from WWI soldiers made public

A composite of a soldier’s last letter to his mother from the front line, 6 August 1914.

Britain is making 278,000 wills and letters from World War I available online to the public for the first time. They had been kept in storage since the war ended in 1918.

Nearly a million British troops lost their lives during World War I, many of whom we still know very little about about due to rudimentary record keeping systems at the time of the war.

But that's beginning to change. Starting Thursday, the British government will publish thousands of previously unseen personal records, giving families of the deceased and the public new insight into the lives of those who perished during the conflict.

Undelivered letters from English and Welsh WWI soldiers made public: British Army soldiers smile as they march to the front lines in France during World War I.AP Photo: File

British Army soldiers smile as they march to the front lines in France during World War I.

Thanks to a collaboration between Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which maintains public records in Great Britain, and records management company Iron Mountain, 278,000 wills and personal effects from English and Welsh soldiers who fought in the war will be published online, part of a larger effort to digitize the last wishes of British soldiers dating all the way back to the Boer Wars which first began in 1880, the Guardian reported.

Families of the deceased and those interested can search for names online and pay around $10 to see the wills and personal effects.

WWI-era soldiers typically filled out wills as they prepared to move closer to the front. The documents were placed in their jacket pocket for when their bodies were retrieved.

While many of the wills only indicate which possessions the soldiers bequeathed and to whom they were given to, others delve into the troops' state of mind as they prepared to ship out. Additionally, many were accompanied by personal letters that officers encouraged troops to write so they could be given to love ones in the case of death.

Related: Great rush to repair WWI cemeteries

"I am preparing to move to the front, and I am only sorry that I did not see you all before I went but then mother dear do not lose heart I may come back again," 19-year-old Private Joseph Ditchburn wrote in August of 1914. He died in October of that year after being shot on the border of France and Belgium, the BBC reported.

Henry Lewis-Lincoln painted a similarly bleak picture of the war in a letter to his wife.

"Dear, this war is going to be worse than I thought," he wrote in the summer of 1914. "Some seem to think it won't last a month and some say it will last three years, our officers told us this morning it would be a hard and long war."

"If I get killed in active service there will be a medal for me somewhere and I hope you will try and get it and keep it for the boy to wear when he grows up," he wrote of his wish for his young son to remember him. Lincoln was killed in Ypres, Belgium, the following spring.

Not all epistles at the time made it home. Letters like Ditchburn's and Lewis-Lincoln's are available now because they were never mailed, but placed in the soldiers' pocket books. Had they been sent, they would have been censored and kept behind because they contained sensitive information like troop locations or discouraging sentiments that could have compromised military spirits.

Lewis-Lincoln's letter "talks about how some troops were expecting a 'hard and long' war, a detail that would never have been mentioned back home as not to damage morale," historian John Cooksey told the BBC.

Cooksey was even able to track the grandfather of musician Mick Fleetwood, founder of the rock group Fleetwood Mac. While Fleetwood reportedly believed his grandfather, John Henry Fleetwood, died at Gallipoli fighting the Turks, Cooksey discovered that he actually succumbed to dysentery in Malta in 1915, the BBC reported.

Related: 10 remarkable facts about World War I


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