As with many people, my interest in The Great War started when I discovered that both of my grandfathers took part in the conflict. My paternal grandfather was in the RAMC in Salonika, and my maternal grandfather was in the Royal Engineers in France and Belgium. I am very fortunate to have both sets of their medals, stored in a Princess Mary Christmas Box and, of course these have followed me around over the years and through many house moves. It also follows that my knowledge of the First World War has largely been gleaned from the "coffee table" volumes of books photos and from the many TV programmes over the years, in particular I remember the BBC series screened in the 1960's "World War 1 - The Great War" viewed on a grainy old black and white television. However, after a visit to a local auction room in 2011 this was all to change. I bought a lot of about 500 letters, all relating to the same family and spanning the period from about 1830 through to 1920. But the 140 or so letters home from a son to his mother during the War really opened my eyes to what, to me at least, has been a largely neglected part of the conflict, that of the great many people behind the lines serving as unpaid volunteers.
Arthur Dease, born in 1871, was of Anglo-Irish origin and he served as a volunteer ambulance driver from January 1915 through to January 1919 and, during this time, he wrote home to his mother several times a week, duties permitting of course, telling her in some detail of his experiences and also talking about many of the current affairs of the time, both home and abroad. This was also a turbulent period in Irish history too, and Arthur often talks about the problems at home in Ireland.
In February 2012 I decided to publish these Great War letters online, on my website www.ArthursLetters.com, partly to focus my attention on the content and to get them into some meaningful order, but also to let others read about Arthur's exploits and his views on the events of the time.
In my opinion, these primary source documents are an exceptional opportunity to read what a person was actually feeling and going through at the time they were written, and one can get a good feel for Arthur's mood. Many of the letters were written as and when and where he could write them, in between duties or when on leave, or when "relaxing" in damp basements or dugouts, etc; this is apparent as you read them. His handwriting was pretty awful at the best of times and I include here some illustrations of the original letters. I feel that I really must stress that the purists among you may find these letters just light reading, but they are a fascinating view of this period in history, written by an educated and well travelled person.
This is also very much work in progress as I find myself with far more questions than answers! Arthur's privileged life and background is almost a real life "Downton Abbey" but, since I have been transcribing these letters, I have been truly humbled by Arthur's dedication and bravery in what must have sometimes been horrendous circumstances. As a volunteer, and of course being Irish and not having conscription, Arthur could have gone home at any time, but he chose to return several times to carry on doing "his bit" and, in November 1918, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his work with the French Red Cross, Section Sanitaire Anglais No 3.
It is impossible for me to publish here well over 100 letters, but to give a taste of the contents I can give something of a preview below. Where I am unsure of the words I replace the letters with "?????" etc. Personal names can be very difficult, most place names I can normally deduce with the help of Google. I have left the spellings as Arthur wrote them.
Junior Constitutional Club
Piccadilly, W, London
February 7th 1915
"Tomorrow we have to be at garage at 10 & get all ingredients for car, petrol etc.etc. & then drive up to Wimborne House & load up all we have to take, frying pan, lamps, stove etc.etc. & have all ready to start Tuesday morning for Southampton & X over Wednesday. We are to go to Nancy I believe, somewhere east of there.
My section consists of 5 Crossley cars, quite new, 20-25 h.p. & built expressly as ambulances & curiously enough Hodgson, Gerald ?????? cousin Catherine told me about, is our section leader, rather curious, he seems a very nice fellow & I hope we shall be able to get on. We are divided into 5 sections of 5 cars each & a section leader with each who goes in a staff car, ordinary open touring car, then there is one repair car into which the King got I believe to have a look. My chauffeur - man seems a decent fellow & driven a lot & seems to understand everything about cars, been through the repair shops & works, so with fair luck, we should get along all right.
They have provided cars with a pick & shovel each & a board & rope, so we can dig ourselves out of snow or mud & have a broken down car or be hauled. I understand we shall be about 4 days running across to Nancy from Havre. I don't quite understand about feeding out there; we may be given army rations & cook for ourselves or else so much a day & arrange our own meals, if latter I suppose we shall form a sort of mess, anyway between our section, however all that seems rather vague. Cars mostly take four wounded......."
February 14th 1915
"Yesterday morning at Havre we were collected on the front for 1½ hours before starting raining, but we saw French torpedo boats bring in a large German steamer they had captured in Channel off France earlier in the morning, & were bringing her in, they had cut her steam pipes & she was being towed. All most interesting. We heard yesterday that our ship we came over in was attacked on her way back by submarines! From all one hears one is lucky enough to get over all right in a transport; they say submarines are continually on look out off France! Don't yet know where we are going after Troyes it is all most interesting."
March 1st 1915
"I was not at all sure how it would affect me at first, some people of course can't stand this work & seeing the wounded & dead, & all under such very weird conditions. Somehow it has no effect on me & I was, I confess, surprised! Some quite unconscious & moaning away, fearfully wounded, slightly wounded so patient & grateful for any little help; we took 2 stretcher cases & 3 sitting down in our car & started off to village 3 miles off & 2 others who had gone ahead were waiting for us."
March 7th 1915
"I only got in here from garage at ¼ to 6, I had meant to write several letters, it is so hard, tired at night & on all day & night too at times. Yesterday 6 cars including mine left 8 a.m. & got back here 7 p.m. last night, we must have done quite 100 miles fetching wounded from a hospital or rather from 3 different hospitals in one town to a large military hospital in another 12 miles away, the furthest town we had to go to is 22 miles from here & we had to run between the two, I carried 24 men including 6 officers & 2 of them I helped to carry into hospital. Only 2 of the lot on stretchers, rest sitting, tho' several with frozen feet & had to be carried on a man's back & put sitting in Ambulance. It is a most painful thing I believe. They are all so patient & take it all without any complaint.
Between the two towns where we were running yesterday there was tremendous fighting last Sep. or early Oct. lasting 17 days. Villages destroyed, huge shell holes all about, graves & trenches & wire entanglements. One heard of course all about Belgian towns being destroyed, but little about French ones, you can't imagine the state of some of these villages & parts of the towns, absolute ruins. On a pass near here we have been over a few times there was very heavy fighting, thousands killed & marks limit of German invasion, they were pushed back from there to where they are now, they never got here but were within a short distance."
March 17th 1915
"While we were drawn up in front of the second hospital putting in wounded the town bell rang violently which is a warning that an aeroplane is coming, everybody stares up & we saw him come straight up over us; everybody ran into houses, we had just filled our cars with wounded & we were told to get off as quick as we could, as they would attract a bomb. We jumped up & off we started down the street & round a corner along some way in another road & while going along heard a loud report behind us, a bomb, but not on street we were in, further away. We pulled up & watched him. A man told me they fired at him, but I did not hear that. Anyway after dropping, I believe, 3 bombs, off he went. One fell just beside a bridge in centre of town which we had crossed coming in & recrossed going out, & saw a crowd round hole it had made in the ground, I don't know where the other 2 fell, we had not time to go & see.
We were told the Taube was after a column of Artillery they knew was on the move there, wonderful the spying that goes on & how they know every move of the French. I suppose he tried to destroy the bridge, as it is on a main road. With clear weather I fancy there will be a good deal of this Taube bomb dropping business going on."
March 25th 1915
"3 of us went for a walk & by a farm house on road just outside town farmer told us they had just dropped a bomb in wood close by, he saw it drop, long streak of flame & smoke. We got the bomb, it made a good hole, but was in a wonderfully perfect state for an exploded one so I thought I'd send it home, when we got back here I took it to P.O. & asked them if I might send a bomb by post, they seemed amused & I showed it them & all the P.O. crowded round to hear all about it. It was too heavy, they are a big weight, so we gave it to our Commandant to send to Wimbourne House as a souvenir of bombs! They are sending it next week with a man going home & will exhibit it there. It is interesting to see what they are like. We continued our walk with our bomb under our arm....."
May 29th 1915
"Front trenches were 25 or 30 yards from the Germans, it seemed so extraordinary, at one point I went to the front line German trench was only yards off, it is hard to grasp unless one sees it. They were throwing grenades & bombs from their trenches into ours & threw 3 while I was there, luckily they burst 10 to 15 yds. behind front trench where we were. French are within 40 yards of the top of the hill. The trenches are a network. One has to dip ones head a bit & it is awkward the Germans being above one. The men seemed rather surprised to see us, officers were all very nice. Dead bodies lay 3 to 4 yards in front of French trenches of the first line, men killed some months ago & covered over with snow & frozen; now snow has gone they are decomposing & it is very smelly. Of course they can't get at them to bury them ‘tho one sees them so close; they talk of trying to fit some sort of squirt & throw lime or some mixture over them through the loopholes at night. It is a most uncomfortable existence in the trenches I should imagine & bombs & things thrown at you all the time. We did the trenches in aft.noon & had a fine view of the fight on another hill in morning.
We lunched at mess of the Drs of the 63, 5 of us & out in the open air in a wood, lovely spot. The shells kept on whistling over & bursting 200 yards off, but they did not seem to mind a bit & in no way interfered with their appetite. We visited various batteries and watched them firing. About 5 p.m. it slackened off & we wandered along just inside edge of wood on this big hill mostly wooded & a pretty little German village just below us, we sat down and looked at it though glasses & saw people strolling about, no damage done to it as far as I could see, pretty cottages & fruit trees in bloom & all this inferno going on all around. I slept in a dug out with 2 Drs & an Artillery Officer. About 2 a.m. the guns started, the Germans making a counter attack & from 2-30 to 3 a.m. the place shook with artillery fire, I never heard anything like it. Soon after 3 it started to rain & all seemed to end."
January 5th 1917
"My new years eve night & new years morning I spent in a dugout lying on a stretcher on floor with a wounded man on one over me, rats playing about all over, shells bursting all round & shaking the place, so it was not much to boast of; sort of shelling out the old year & in the new. Next morning 2 burst close to entrance & threw mud & stuff into the dugout just where we were sitting round the fire or stove rather. Following morning at about same hour one burst & knocked in all the entrance & one of our fellows was hit on head by debris, but none the worse much! It only left a little hole for them to get out through. Another morning a shell burst just across the road, hit car in several places & blew Dr., volunteer & 2 or 3 others standing at entrance right into the dugout down the steps. No harm beyond a shock."
February 3rd 1917
"A gas attack two aft.noons ago, perfectly beastly & all had wear to masks, very thick & chokes you. I & shover were returning from taking wounded back to hospital from dug out where we were doing 24 hrs. & had to pass through edge of this place on our way. As we got near he said he thought he smelt something, then I thought I did & it got rather nasty in ones throat, a soldier who saw us called out & just then met others with masks on so of course knew what it was, I, like a fool, forgot my mask & had left it in dug out, so we drove straight in here & I ran in & got one from a man who had two none too soon either, everyone had them on here. I put muffler over my mouth till I got here, helped a bit, but one coughs & it hurts ones throat. One of our fellows was a little way out & was caught without his mask & was pretty bad, but got in & put it on, but was very queer for some time. We had then to drive back 7 kilometres to our dug out poste de secours where we were on duty, how on earth shover managed to drive I don't know, I could see nothing & of course recognise nobody, it was always who is that! The eye parts get fogged with ones breath. On our way we passed through a dense cloud of it, like a thick mist rising, curious but once there it had passed & we were not troubled any more. I fear various poor fellows caught out without their masks had a bad time, some picked up unconscious & our cars carried several, some of course fatal & in any case I believe it leaves one bad for ages. It is a lesson to us, as often we went about without our masks, altho' of course regulations are very severe that one should have them. It is my first experience of gas & I must say I don't want another. In the Vosges, owing to hilly country, gas attacks were almost if not quite impossible. To see a gassed man is a most unpleasant sight., I think it a most fiendish method of warfare."
As I write this there are approximately 80 letters from Arthur on the site ranging from January 1915 through to December 1918. I have many more to add. The content should be of interest not just to those interested in the military aspect of the First World War but also those interested in the social and Irish history of this period. I sincerely hope that these letters serve to remind us all of those heroes serving behind the lines in the Great War, and I will leave the final words to Arthur.......
"There is soldiering & soldiering, doing it comfortably at home strutting about in Kaki in safety & this sort of thing where one has no rank, no pay, bombed & bombarded not to say gassed & living in the woods, caves or cellars."23rd June 1918
Article submitted by Kevin Batten
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