Revealed: the thoughts, concerns and last wishes of WWI soldiers

Blogger: GemSen Here at Forces War Records we are lucky enough to receive personal accounts of war and understand that there’s really nothing quite like reading a piece of history told through the eyes of somebody who was actually there.
With that in mind you can see why I was really pleased to read the about the news that the wills of more than 230,000 British and Empire World War I soldiers who died on the front line are to be revealed online. Unseen for a century — the hand-written wills are owned by Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) are to be digitised in time for next year’s WWI centenary. They will also go towards a bigger project that will make all war wills publically available. According to the BBC, around five per cent of the wills contain a treasure trove of personal letters intended for loved ones back home — that never actually got posted. Revealing the thoughts, concerns and last wishes of the soldiers, the online archive will give a great insight into life as a soldier during WWI. Archivists at a specialist record management company called Iron Mountain apparently spent five months indexing and scanning the soldiers’ wills by hand so they could be put on to a computer and then online. In sealed archive boxes for 100 years in climate-controlled and fire-proof rooms many personal letters too have been tucked away alongside the wills. “I dare say this will be the last letter you will receive from me until the war is over, as I am prepared to move to the front at any moment,’’ wrote Pte Joseph Witchburn of 2nd Bn The Durham Light Infantry to his mother in one letter that was found dating from 10 August 1914. It was recorded by an anonymous government official on his will that he died of his wounds not long after writing the letter on 14 September 1914. Another one included a letter and a pocket book, which contained the will of Pte Harry Lewis-Lincoln. The letter was addressed to a woman believed to be his sweetheart back in England and says: "On Friday morning we are going round the coast straight to Belgium, I am not supposed to tell you this." Military historian, Jon Cooksey told the BBC that he thinks the letter would have been regarded as sensitive material and not sent out. "If the Germans had got hold of that information it could have been disastrous because they always wanted to know where units were and the movements of troops," he says. "It also 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." Apparently the wills of Victoria Cross winners and relatives of famous people have already been uncovered including those of a former professional footballer, and the grandfather of musician Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac. Pte Fleetwood enlisted in the York and Lancaster Regiment (6th Battalion) and served in Gallipoli but was taken ill with severe dysentery and taken to a hospital in Pieta in Malta, where he died on 30 December 1915. Courts Minister Helen Grant said: "This fascinating project has opened the door to a whole new insight on our war heroes - it has given us the opportunity for the first time to hear the thoughts and emotions of the brave soldiers who died for this country in their own words." Classed as official records, the wills were only previously accessible through direct requests. They were not released to beneficiaries because they belonged to the then War Office and the Government. The short-form wills presented on small pieces of paper were often handed to soldiers by their company officers and senior non-commissioned officers to be completed before embarkation for a theatre of the war, which raged across the globe from July 1914 until November 1918. Jon Cooksey says: "It's amazing that a huge, world famous name has a link to 250,000 other families in this collection because of a man who did his duty and died for the Empire." He also thinks that the fact the documents were handwritten makes them more emotive. "If you look at the handwriting, it's in beautiful script, and you have to remember this was the first real army that Britain had amassed that was literate and educated," he said. "The fact they are in the men's own handwriting gives their relatives a real tangible link to them and what they were feeling at that time." He also praised the value of the archive and said: “What this does is help us, as historians, piece together the mosaic of facts which give us the real men.’’ Source: BBC, SKY, Telegraph. Looking for more interesting wartime stories? Why not delve into our ‘historic documents’ library and read some of the interesting war diaries that we get sent – there’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. Forces War Records are fortunate to receive such amazing real life war stories involving lashings of courage, and now you can read some of them – completely free of charge. Why not log on to Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records to find out more about your own ancestors  – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered…
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