Author Archives: Family Letters

Letters and photographs

Letters and photographs

My great-grandmother was a true family historian. As well as her sons’ First World War letters, she kept diaries going back to the 1820s, family photographs of when she was a child in the 1860s, her children’s letters from school, their school reports, and photographs throughout the first four decades of the 20th century. I don’t know how many boxes there are altogether, a good half dozen or so, and a couple of trunks.

It’s daunting. As I teenager I sometimes felt that dead people were more important in my family than live ones were.

Having said that, this doughty group are now my Windows Desktop. The child is my great grandmother, the one who kept all the letters. I love her hand-on-hips stance and the way her head-tilt echoes her own grandmother’s. I just find it very odd to realise that I share so much DNA with these people when I can see their faces but I’ve no idea of their names.

Assorted Ancestors, mid 19th Century

Assorted Ancestors, mid 19th Century. 

Back to the First World War. Here are some things I took photos of at the weekend to blog about and to share on twitter.


We found several blank envelopes pre-printed:

“I certify on my honour that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but private and family matters”.

Spies don’t lie, obviously. Hmm.

Private and family matters


We also found several blank cards for sending from hospital, but this one had been completed and posted to my grandmother from my grandfather telling her he was sick. And how extremely English he was: “I am quite well, I have been admitted into hospital sick”.

Ted Sick 1917


This is the envelope of a letter which has been damaged by immersion in sea-water. Several of their letters were on ships which were torpedoed, as indeed were two of my great-grandmother’s sons.

Damaged by imersion in sea water


I’m taking the photographs to be scanned on Friday, but here is one I photographed at the weekend. It shows soldiers of the 1st Btn the 39th Garhwal Rifles, probably during World War One. The question in my mind is are they in India, France, Egypt or Mesopotamia? I think the latter, but am happy to be told otherwise.

Soldiers of the 1st Btn 39th Garhwal Rifles with Lewis Gun, World War 1

Soldiers of the 1st Btn 39th Garhwal Rifles with Lewis Gun, probably during World War 1

I photographed this photograph to find out what kind of gun it was. Such is the power of twitter, that within five minutes, I had this answer:

I’m very excited by the photographs I’ve got for scanning and I’m looking forward to beign able to share really good photographs of the five brothers, their sister Ben and most of the rest of the family over the next few weeks and months.


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Posted by on 20 March, '14 in 39th Garhwal Rifles, About


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Ted and Topher at school

Ted as a schoolboy

Ted Berryman as a schoolboy

Ted and Topher went to Kings Canterbury, though they weren’t there at the same time because Topher was ten years younger than Ted.

I contacted all the boys’ schools a couple of months ago, and Peter Henderson who acts as the archivist at Kings sent me records about Ted and Topher from the school magazine and letters that they wrote to the school about their wartime service.

I particularly like the report from when Ted was in the school’s rugby First Fifteen in 1901 (see scan below).

Ted was

“A light forward, but works well, and is the best dribbler in the team, though rather slow.”

Do look out for his team-mates: Deane was a

“Good vigorous forward of a fighting tendency, who always did his share of honest shoving”

and Huyshe was a boy who

“rejoices in a muddy day”.

This is charming until one thinks of Passchendaele.  That thought made me wonder what happened to Huyshe, and it turns out he survived the war and was a cricketer and schoolmaster.

Report on Ted’s season in the school rugby 1st XV (1901)

Ted Berryman’s Rugby Report

The letter that Ted wrote to the school during the war was full news of other old boys and I’ll put it on the site when its centenary comes around, though I’ll quote a bit now.  An O.K.S, was an Old Kings Scholar.

Two days ago there occurred what must be one of the shortest O.K.S meetings on record. We were marching down the road when we met a battalion marching the other way. Who should accost me suddenly from the ranks but Captain G. C. Strahan and as Macear was marching with my company, we had a meeting — the three of us — lasting exactly 15 seconds, just while our respective companies were passing each other, and the of course we had to break up our meeting and rejoin our commands.

He ends the letter touchingly saying

Best of luck to your all and when there are re-unions and O.K.S meetings “after the war” — that vague and problematical period — may I be there to see.

When Topher wrote, he was tireder; his war-time experiences were more unrelenting than Ted’s and it shows:

On the whole we have not had such bad luck, but we certainly have had rotten times. I shall be very glad when the war is over. To me it seems that it will never end. Where we are now the trenches are in the same place as they were at the beginning of the war.

I am very grateful to Peter for sending me these things from the school’s archives, it’s lovely to have a glimpse of the two of them at school.

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Posted by on 10 March, '14 in About, WWI


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More photos, better photos

March is photo month. I am going through the family albums  when I visit my sister to blow the dust off the boxes in her attic. My mother had plenty of photographs to choose from for the book of the letters she published in the 1980s so I am hopeful my sister still has them all.

If she doesn’t then Chris and I hope to visit the Imperial War Museum to go through Ted’s archive and Paul’s archive there to get scans of some of the original letters and postcards, and some of the envelopes including the one where Gertrude wrote tersely “Letters from my shipwrecked sons”. While Chris was transcribing, the letters he also spotted some other records in other libraries he wants to look up while we’re in London.

And then I shall go and visit Ruth’s daughter in May to go through her boxes of letters, photographs and other records.  The images currently on the site are photos I took in 2010 of her photographs so I know she has some wonderful stuff. I can also record some interviews with her about each family member to get some good biographical material – when they were born, what they were like, what happened to them after the war.

It’ll be a treat to have more than these blurry images to put on the site:

File of Photos

File of Photos


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Posted by on 3 March, '14 in About



These are the stories of our young men

Three projects that have caught my eye are projects where people are using the internet and other ways of researching family history to uncover the stories of their local heros.

Flintshire War Memorials

The first that I noticed was @NamesOnStone who is one of a group of people researching the story of all the men who died in the Great War 1914-18 and are remembered on the war memorials of Flintshire, North Wales.

These are the stories of the young men who had attended our schools, played in the lanes and streets of our towns and villages and worked in the fields, mines and industries of Flintshire before they went off to their deaths fighting for King and Country. –

I asked @NamesOnStone to suggest stories links for this blog and these are the ones she suggested.

Griffith Piercy was shot by a female sniper on the 1st October 1918 when he was 21. His story and that of his brother William is full of family photographs.

Three brothers, Edgar, Rowland and Douglas Rogers were all at Gallipoli on the 7th August 1915 where two of them died. Douglas was killed first, and when Edgar went to help him he too was fatally wounded. Rowland found Douglas’s body and buried him, but Edgar was buried at sea.

Back. Left Ted Titley, Right Edgar Rogers Front. Left Douglas Rogers, Centre Rowland Rogers, Right Percy Rogers

Back. Left Ted Titley, Right Edgar Rogers
Front. Left Douglas Rogers, Centre Rowland Rogers, Right Percy Rogers

Charles Blackburne, his children Audrey and Peter and their governess Mlle de Pury, drowned when the ship they were on, the RMS Leinster was torpedoed by a German submarine on the 10th October 1918. Apart from the fact that these were civilian deaths, there is something horribly poignant about deaths so near the Armistice.

Peter and Audrey Blackburne. A watercolour by Miss K Mayers

Peter and Audrey Blackburne. A watercolour by Miss K Mayers

Castleton Lanterns

Then I had a twitter conversation with @ClassyGenes about whether spending so much of our time thinking and working on the First World War will lay our ghosts, and I discovered her Castleton Lanterns Project. She is trying to find out about men in photographs, the congregation of a Church, without even their names to start from.

In April 2013 we found a box of old lantern slides in the organ loft of Alexandra Presbyterian Church. The images were of soldiers and sailors in First World War uniforms.

There are 77 lantern slides in total which were made by the famous photographer Mr Alex. R. Hogg … ‘of our men at the front’… we have now established that the lanterns include both men who survived and men who were killed in action.

The Ulster Museum would like to give these slides a home, It is unusual to have this type of evidence gathered together with, we hope, an image of every serving son of the Castleton church community recorded for posterity.
Castleton Lanterns – About the Project

When I asked @ClassyGenes for some pages, these are the ones she suggested.

Samuel Fee, who was already a sailor at the start of the war (his service records describe his tattoos (a bust of a man and a figure of a woman) but he was killed aged 25 when the ship he was serving on was torpedoed. I don’t know what it is about him, but Samuel Fee seems to have a very modern face.

The story of Patrick Bryan Adair reminds us that people did survive fighting in the First World War, and this is one of the unique features of the Castleton Lanterns as a memorial project. He was a fire officer both before and after the war, and died in 1941.

Francis McCann, his brother James McCann and James Magill – as @ClassyGenes says “These three men and all the Castleton Lanterns men were closely connected, brothers, best friends, pals and colleagues. … It is sad to hear the stories of those who were lost or wounded beside those who lived and flourished and I’m sure the families who gathered to watch the lantern slide show in 1918 must have felt something similar.”

McCann Brothers, Castleton Lanterns

McCann Brothers, Castleton Lanterns

St Helens Roll of Honour

The St Helens Roll of Honour is a community project, run by and for the people of St Helens in Lancashire and tweeting updates @SHRoH. It’s designed to be easy for local people to comment and add content. They have pictures of the war cemeteries in Flanders and France, as well as the war memorials at home. When I asked for a story, this is the one they sent me:

Lance Corporal Bertrand John Allender who was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His parents were told of his death in a hand-written letter from his sergeant, who kindly told them “… he was always talking about his father and mother, all the lads of his section miss him very much and send their deepest sympathy, Bert suffered no pain as death was instantaneous in fact the lads did not know he was gone… ” Those letters were dreadful to write, and dreadful to receive, but at least the humanity shows through.

St Chads, Cheetham Hill

Not everywhere has such a sense of connection with the soldiers whose names appear on the memorials, or whose faces look out at us from the photographs. St Chads Church, Cheetham Hill in Manchester don’t even have their war memorial. (How do you lose a war memorial?) The only record they have is a photograph and not all the names are legible.

There are local projects all over the UK, a twitter search on the #ww1 hashtag is a good place to start.  Or browse the list of people I follow and the lists of people they follow, and so on.

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Posted by on 21 February, '14 in About


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Putting my mouth where my money is

The Royal Mint’s decision to commemorate the start of WW1 with the portrait of Kitchener from the famous recruitment poster on the £2 coin is clumsy. Surely they knew it would be seen as an even more blatant piece of propaganda now than the posters were a century ago? Yes, it’s a strong image for a small canvas, but it’s hard to accept they did not realise that easy jingoism then looks like even easier jingoism now.

Kitchener Coin from Royal Mint

Kitchener Coin from Royal Mint

The Mint’s thinking about the First World War seems to be altogether shallow. On it’s website it claims it is

“[embarking] on a five-year commemoration of the emotive wartime journey“.

“Emotive” is a word that looks as if it means something but doesn’t. Sainsbury’s Christmas ads are emotive. So is the verse in birthday cards. It’s not an appropriate word for an event that killed over 16 million people and left a horrific legacy of ruined mental health and dreadful physical injuries among the survivors; or for an event that transformed the economic and political history of the USA and Europe. Such a cheap use of one of the language’s most cheapened words leaves me with little faith in the Royal Mint’s good judgement.

However, I don’t like to say someone’s done a thing badly without trying to do the thing myself, so I have spent some time thinking about how to better commemorate WW1 on coins. Here is a coin for each year of the war and one to sum the whole thing up, and after some thought I’ve come to realise how very little I actually know. So this is a flawed list, but for the little its worth, here it is. My two cents, as it were.


1914 – The Assassination at Sarajevo

I have struggled to think of an image for 1914. The causes of the First World War remain disputed by historians as well as politicians so I keep coming back to the catalyst if not the cause and Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand and his Duchess Sophia in the motorcade in Sarajevo.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophia, Duchess of Hohenberg

However, I cannot get away from the feeling it’s in poor taste to show people who will be dead so shortly afterwards, and I’m not convinced it’s a better choice than Kitchener, it is just less loaded with contradictory symbolism. 

Since I began writing this piece, the Canadian Mint have announced their commemorative $1 coin, and I admire it greatly. It shows a couple in a last embrace on a busy station platform before he departs for the Front. I like it that it is not a romantic embrace but an embrace of fear and comfort, it could be a mother being embraced by her son.

Canadian One Dollar Coin commemorating WW1

Canadian One Dollar Coin commemorating WW1


1915 – Edith Cavell

As the Canadians remind us, it is important not to see any war as a wholly masculine affair and when we think of the women who served in WW1, we think mainly of the nurses. I am not the first to suggest Edith Cavell who was executed in 1915, and the petition to ask that she be commemorated with a coin has rmore than 50,000 signatures. 

Cavell was a humanitarian before all else. Wikipedia describes her thus:

“She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium … for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialed, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad.”

Her last words were:

“I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”

The British saw her as national heroine and the streets were lined with people when her body was repatriated and her funeral finally held in 1919.

For more information see the Edith Cavell website. A relative of one of the 200 men she saved, @Cavell200 is trying to trace descendants of the others.

Someone has even designed Edith Cavell coin, complete with the unsettling and in this context almost subversive phrase “Patriotism is not enough”

Edith Cavell Proposed Coin Design

Edith Cavell Proposed Coin Design


1916 – The Anzacs at Gallipoli

When we think of the First World War, we think of Tommies and of Pals Battalions and we think of France. It’s easy to forget the contribution of troops from the Empire be they black, asian or white and easy to forget the other theatres of war such as the Far East, the Middle East and the Naval battles. As an example it’s almost unknown that the Germans bombarded the city of Madras, now Chennai.

The best known of the Commonwealth troops were the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the ANZACs who fought at Gallipoli, and while I personally would prefer to commemorate the black, Indian and asian soldiers, Gallipoli is well-known. It’s also a defeat or a stalemate and we should respectfully commemorate those sacrificed and not jingoistically celebrate victories.

Here is Wikipedia’s description:

In 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of an Allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula… the [strategic] objective was to capture Constantinople … The ANZAC force landed at Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance … [which] quickly [led to] a stalemate… . At the end of 1915, the Allied forces were evacuated after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. The Allied casualties included 21,255 from the United Kingdom, an estimated 10,000 dead soldiers from France, 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from British India.

The total numbers of Australian and New Zealander casualties were a high proportion of the Australians and New Zealanders who took part. The 25th April is Anzac Day and is commemorated with services at dawn in both Australia and New Zealand.

Whatever the design of the coin, from a practical point of view, Australian soldiers, known as Diggers,are easily identifiable because they wore and still wear slouch hats. Here the 15th Battalion march through Melbourne in 1915.

'A' Company, 15th Battalion, marching through Melbourne on 17 December 1914

‘A’ Company, 15th Battalion, marching through Melbourne on 17 December 1914

1917 – Harry Patch

It would be wrong to commemorate WW1 and not commemorate the Tommy and so for the 1917 coin I suggest Harry Patch, the Last Fighting Tommy, who died in 2009.

Photograph by Salient Points
shared under creative commons – some rights reserved.

He and those last few centenarians were a bridge between our time and history.  Harry Patch was born in 1898 in Somerset and was an apprentice plumber who was conscripted aged 18 in 1916 as an ordinary fighting soldier. He was in France for six months in 1917 before being wounded at Passchendaele.

Historian Richard Van Emden who co-wrote Harry Patch’s autobiography said

“He had faced the demons of his war; he had talked his war out and had returned to the battlefields on half a dozen occasions; he had even met a German veteran.”

Harry Patch stands not only for those who were there, but for those who came back, many of them wounded as Harry was or suffering shell-shock, the First World War term for post traumatic stress disorder.


1918 – Wilfred Owen 

I don’t know my way around the war poets as well as I should despite having studied them at school. I am including Owen to stand in for them all, partly because he is one of the best (listen to @historyneedsyou read Owen’s poems Dulce et Decorum Est and  Futility) and partly because he was killed a week before the Armistice.

Wilfred Owen - Plate from the Poems

Wilfred Owen – Plate from the Poems

The Wilfred Owen Association tell his story thus:

“Wilfred Owen … was born in Oswestry … and brought up in Birkenhead and Shrewsbury. In 1913-1915, [he was] teaching at Bordeaux and Bagnères-de-Bigorre in France. In 1915 Owen enlisted in the British Army. His first experiences of active service … led to shell-shock and his return to Britain. When Owen returned to the Western Front … he took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Joncourt … for which he was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his courage and leadership. He was killed on 4 November 1918 during the battle to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors.”  His parents received news of his death on Armistice Day.

So a military hero, a victim of shell-shock and a poet, Owen encapsulates so much of the “lost generation” of junior officers killed during the First World War.


1914-1918 – War Cemetery

I want a generic image, standing for the whole of the First World War and I cannot think of a better one than an image of massed war graves which has remained with me since I first saw the closing sequence of Oh What a Lovely War. It is as loaded with meaning in its own way as the Kitchener image. There are many stunning images of war cemeteries which have always been laid out and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commision with great thought and respect, and they move everyone who visits them. An image that gives a sense of the scale of the slaughter is important, and George V expressed it clearly when visiting war graves in Flanders in 1922:

I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.

Chemin des Dames.
Photograph by abac077
shared under creative commons – some rights reserved.


My grandfather’s view of Kitchener

Finally, I should say that my grandfather would disagree with me about the Kitchener coin. He came close to hero-worshiping Kitchener and wrote home in 1916:

We have just heard of the tragedy of Kitchener’s death …. It seems to have completely knocked us all over here

… the one bright figure, the one proved patriot gone.

The loss is absolutely irreparable; you know how I admired him; easily the greatest man of his age & the outstanding figure of the war…

My grandfather was clear that without Kitchener’s recruitment campaigns as illustrated in the Mint’s two pound coin, Britain would have lost the European war:

The creator of England’s mighty army that has done and is going to do so much … why couldn’t he live just long enough to see his life’s work … crowned with success?

… time enough to mourn his loss to the full when we have finished the war which we shall be able to do, & thanks to him & to him alone for our ability to do so.

And since this project is about hearing the voices of the dead even when we disagree with what they say, maybe I am wrong, and Kitchener is a good choice. But I find it hard to think so.


Posted by on 4 February, '14 in About


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Listen to Ted’s Christmas Truce letter home

I’m feeling all choked up today. @HistoryNeedsYou contacted me recently with an offer to read one of the letters out loud.

The obvious one to choose was Ted’s letter about the Christmas Truce (written just after a stretch of 25 days and nights in the trenches, contradicting the “mythbusting” piece by @TheHistoryGuy that they were only in the trenches 3 days at a time).

Do listen to it – it’s all there: the strain and exhaustion of the trenches, the mud, the Christmas Truce, and the excitement of the prospect of going home for a week’s leave.

And if you need history brought to life, you need History Needs You.  They are good peeps.

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Posted by on 23 January, '14 in About, WWI


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Response to @thehistoryguy – Mythbusting WW1 with Primary Sources

The BBC published a hugely popular post recently by Dan Snow @thehistoryguy entitled “10 big myths about World War One debunked“.  Dan Snow then went on to create a few more of his own some of which seem to imply it wasn’t as bad as we think it was.

Myth 3 he says is that “Men lived in the trenches for years on end”

…  the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.

During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

I am curious to know what Dan Snow bases this on – the newspapers of the time or on letters, army records and other primary sources?

I am fortunate to have my grandfather’s letters from France in 1914 and 1915 and he wrote home during stints of 20 and 25 days at a stretch in the trenches, with the time between spent “in reserve”.  Ted Berryman was a Captain in the Indian Army and they were in their light tropical kit for the worst part of the winter of 1914, drenched to the skin and shivering in the mud and bombarded with shells.

Ted first went into the trenches on the 29th October 1914.  10 days later he says:

It is most awfully cold here my dear as you can imagine. And we are still in thin khaki drill;  … I don’t really think I’ve got enough on, but I cant get any more gear at present.

You see we came out to occupy the trenches on 29th Oct, & are still here; that makes 10 days. Not very long under some circs, but devilish long to be in cold damp trenches with only the kit you stand up in! … You see we have’nt a a thing off for the whole tirne, boots, clothes or anything, nor a wash nor anything like that. We are all filthy, black grimy hands & faces, but we are all the same so it does’nt matter.

He then writes about the sorts of newspaper stories that Dan Snow echoes in his piece:

I read a glowing account in the “Standard” a day or two ago of life in the trenches, but it was very misleading. First of all it talked about “spade hewn, straw-spread” trenches; true in a way, but all our digging has to be done at night, as it would be impossible to dig by day, as the enemy’s…. little advanced trenches, in which snipers sit & pick you off if you show a finger, are only about 150 yards; so the digging is’nt very grand, though I must say our men have done wonders, & have made the trenches quite comfy- And there is some straw, but it’s mostly trodden into the mud.

Again he says we do 3 days in the front trench, 3 days in the support, & 4 days rest. Divil a bit, this is our 10th day in the front trench, & no hope of relief yet awhile. Still it’s all part of the day’s work I suppose.

Ted and his troops finally came out of the trenches on the 17th November after 20 days. They were only out of the trenches for about 10 days and then on the 16th December his uniform turns up but he can’t get at it because the depot is too far from the front.

Ted’s second stint in December was even longer and more relentless as his first in October / November.

Since we first arrived here on 29th October we’ve had 35 days in trenches & only about 10 out, out of which were 5 in reserve and so we have only had 5 days’ so called rest, & were busy the whole of that. However it’s all part of the show.

On the 31st December he says:

We came out of those old trenches on the night of the 27th  [December], after doing 25 days & nights there, pretty long time was’nt it. We were glad to be relieved as you may imagine, the men were all absolutely doggo, as they had to work day & night to keep the trenches for from falling in, because the weather was so wet & beastly that the earthy all got sodden & soaked & had to be simply propped up, & our trenches were simply lined with boards & old doors & anything we could get hold of.

So when I read Dan Snow echoing the Standard’s assurances that troops were only in the trenches three days at a time I was furious on behalf of all those cold, wretched, verminous, sick, shot at and shell-shocked men who were in the mud in the dark for weeks on end.

Maybe things were generally better organised by 1915.  In January and February the three-part cycle of serving in the trenches themselves, in reserve and then in the rear is much more as Dan Snow described it.

Ted was on leave early in January. Late in January they were in the trenches for four days, in reserve for six, and then in February they seem to have settled into week long cycles into the trenches then back into reserve, itself no picnic.

 On the 27th February Ted tots it up saying:

We are being relieved tomorrow & go back for a short rest. We’ve done 6 weeks in reserve & trenches & have been hard at it more or less ever since I came out from leave, so I think we deserve a bit of a rest don’t you. But I don’t fancy it will be for long.

So Dan Snow is partly right and partly wrong.  I am leaving the last word with Ted though and the picture he drew  for his sister Jane on the 1st of January 1915:

We are out of the trenches now after 25 days on end, & the whole corps is now resting… I’ve got my uniform now & have had a bath – in an old dustbin – but still it was a bath, & I feel so clean & smart, you would’nt know me. Of course I grew a beard in the trenches, & did’nt shave for just a month, but it was’nt exactly a success, & it looked exactly as if I was’nt shaving & not as if I was trying to grow a beard!

Going into the trenches.... coming out

These extracts are from more than 600 letters written by Ted and his brothers to their mother during WW1. Each letter will be published here at 100 years after the day on which it was written.

Like Family Letters on Facebook page and follow @familyletters on Twitter for updates.


Posted by on 20 January, '14 in About, WWI


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A few words from the typing pool


When Ben asked me to take on this project I was above all grateful for the opportunity, as it arrived just as I was setting up shop for myself as a proofreader and writing support assistant for hire – a venture which began in testing circumstances but has since proved one of my better decisions, not least for access to so many vivid and rare first-person insights into what a century ago would develop into one of the costliest conflicts in human history.

Initially I was asked to go over the output of the software Ben had been using to convert scans of the decades-ago typed transcriptions of her ancestors’ letters, which were done in something like Lucida Sans – a plain enough typeface to work with but still challenging for the software concerned, not least because most of the scans weren’t vertically very well aligned, which added an extra element of jauntiness to the outcome.

Added to that, though it seemed to be improving with more input the errors that kept recurring were possibly more to do with the print on the pages themselves – it may only take a lighter pixel or two from the program’s perspective for an m to be rendered as r n, or a slightly heavier amount of ink at the foot of an h to be a b instead. This, and considerable confusion created by numbers, punctuation and some of the original authors’ idiosyncratic writing made for an uphill struggle, with sometimes unintentionally comical consequences (“the men are hoping they’ll all be homo by Christmas.”)

So after doing my best to make sense of the initial output in text files and then Word documents, it became clear that checking these files – with the added challenge of not being able to predict where the errors would likely turn up, as you could expect in the work of a person – would take as much time, if not longer, to do to a reasonable standard than simply re-transcribing them, which is what I went on to do. To begin with I displayed the scanned .pdfs on my PC monitor and typed the .doc files up on a laptop, which sadly passed on, and since which I’ve been using the right-hand side of my thankfully wide PC screen to copy the contents of the left.

Transcribing the transcriptions has proven the better option – not simply for being an easier job, and less of a strain on the eyes and psyche. It’s meant that as I’ve gone through the letters I’ve been able to absorb more of the character of the writers, the precarity and adventure of their circumstances and how they all, through struggles difficult to imagine a century on, loved and missed their family and worked hard, week in week out for years of that abysmal conflict to assure them they were fit, chipper, stronger than ever, resolved to fight and survive and ready to win.

The question arose of how much, if any ‘editorialising’ should go on, no-one wishing to censor or misrepresent anything written. At first I thought it an error on the part of the original transcriber though that wasn’t the case but Ted, Richard and Paul apparently were all taught that the apostrophe in words like did’nt, has’nt and could’nt went, as written here, before the n. I’ve elected to keep that the case, along with idiosyncrasies like Ted’s “at anyrate”; but for ease of comprehension adding some punctuation where needed. Being originally handwritten letters in challenging environments, the flow of the text can be uneven and hard to read at times, but no less rewarding. There is even a precursor to textspeak, when they often sign off “yr loving son”.


WWI veteran Richard Harrow, a character in the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire

Perhaps obviously the most illuminating aspect for me – I turn 40 on the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in April next year – is how different the world has become, for our concept of warfare, our expectations and our notions of duty. Reading of Captain Berryman’s excitement at his first sighting of an aeroplane (once mentioned as a ‘plane, though not otherwise shortened) his childlike wonder at the beauty of it up against a clear blue sky completely overlooked its purpose – to find out where exactly he and his comrades were, for later bombardment. I can’t imagine what he’d make of today’s warplanes, which don’t even need a pilot; in a world where we can watch the horrors he endured re-enacted for our entertainment and edification (or titillation) in our homes, on contraptions half the size of his fancy new gramophone records; and where a letter from home, far from taking weeks on end to arrive, if indeed it did, can reach his pocket in little more time than it takes to switch a light on. I have to stop complaining about the 3G around here.

This was a privileged family in Edwardian England, rooted in Empire but the rigours of The War To End All Wars took its toll on officers and Tommies alike, and the horrors that ensued are recounted in sometimes grisly detail in the Berryman brothers’ letters home. As historical documents of such a dark period they are priceless, but they speak also to the innocence of the time; a grim dramatic irony overshadowing, for instance, talk of how the treatment of prisoners and civilians in 1915 became so abominable, the Germans absolutely had to be stopped to ensure that no such cruelty would ever be repeated.

I have plenty of work ahead and the more I progress, the more invested I’ve become. I relish opportunities to research some of the minutiae of life that emerges; requests for things to be sent over, or mentions of friends and comrades, which can descend into a rabbit-hole of Googling (of what?) but which rarely provides only a minimum of information and can turn up all sorts of surprises along the way. But as well as being a challenge and a privilege to be involved, it’s a valuable education. I look forward to discovering how life for the Berrymans progresses over the years of the war to come with trepidation, enthusiasm and at some point I hope, a larger monitor.


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Posted by on 20 January, '14 in About


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Sidebar image for the site

I need a small image which Facebook can pick up to show when it posts links. At present Facebook shows the posts with the image loading symbol:

Facebook  Screenshot

Facebook Screenshot

I don’t want to use a photograph of one of the brothers, because what about the others? Ted did little cartoons, but only a few might be suitable, so here are the choices:

Here is a German firing a Jack Johnson – a shell – in France in 1914:

German firing shells

German firing shells

There are other small cartoons which are less bellicose, but perhaps they are less meaningful.  Two where he was drawing items for his mother or his sister to purchase for him, a lantern, which strikes me as a possible:

Lantern for the Trenches

Lantern for the Trenches

and a vanity set, which isn’t really:

Vanity Set

Vanity Set

This little bird comes from a larger illustration of the Christmas Day truce

Christmas Day Bird

Christmas Day Bird

And this shows the Indian troops shooting at the Germans on Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

And this is a very much smaller version of a cartoon of Ted going into the trenches fairly spruce and out of them three weeks later.

In and Out of the Trenches

In and Out of the Trenches

Remember, when it’s picked up by Facebook, it will be even smaller.

When I go to the Imperial War Museum later in the year, I will try to photograph one or some of the envelopes – I think that would be best. This something I need in the meantime, really.


Posted by on 18 January, '14 in About


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Letters from Lowestoft

The attics of the nation are full of packets of wartime letters and I am not the only person putting some of them online.  Let me commend to you Letters from Lowestoft.

I found out about this site when buying a copy of my mother’s book of the Berryman letters, Socks, Cigarettes and Shipwrecks and since I prefer not to buy via Amazon or their subsidiary Abe Books, I tracked down a copy at A Book for all Reasons who turn out to be the best kind of second hand book shop and who have been selling books online since 1996.  Since they are people not drones I dropped them an email with the order explaining my connection with the book and giving a link to this site.

Here is the reply.

Thank you so much for the background. I was about to email you that the book has been sent but followed the link to your site before I did so. What a magnificent project, you have my admiration!

I completed a smaller project earlier this year about my great grandfather’s letters to his son during WW2, about local news in Lowestoft and I still have a suitcase of letters written to and from my uncle who was killed January 1945 that I’m trying to find time to deal with.

I’ll follow your site with interest.

Isn’t that lovely?

Michael Sims’ task was much harder than Chris‘s and mine because his great grandfather’s letters were in manuscript while the Berryman letters were transcribed by the Imperial War Museum in the 1980s, so I am deeply impressed with what he has done.

Letters from Lowestoft is a fascinating site:

These letters cover the daily events but also include the rumour, speculation and gossip which brings the account to life as a story of real people.

The “spirit of the blitz” is proverbial, but like most proverbs it doesn’t have much reality any more.The simple immediacy of these letters grabs the attention as the father tells his son about the people and places in this Suffolk town being bombed month after month and year after year; it must have been nerve-wracking. Here are three excerpts from 1941

They are disturbing:

Sunday 16 February 1941

The Naval chaplain was to preach and the Rector gave out the usual notices when, just as the chaplain left his seat for the pulpit: bang bang bang – heavy AA guns. He gave out his text, something about Patience, just as there was a perfect hell of bombs, AA fire and extensive machine gun fire. Round and round the church apparently and once it shook badly and the Rector told me (afterwards) it seemed to lift under his feet. I expected to be blitzed at every moment but had great difficulty in restraining myself from going out to see what it was all about. No-one moved at all – which was jolly good. The preacher continued with his sermon, some of which was inaudible.

Sunday 09 March 1941

I went to dear old Greasley’s funeral Saturday. He was buried by St. John’s vicar. He was blown right over houses from the Library to Raglan Street. He was badly damaged, not giving you details except it seemed the coffin was very light. The dear little girl I used to tease – I hear she was only 17 – they only found one hand and part of a foot so cannot identify her and there will be no funeral. Another woman posted as missing, believed killed is still missing, no vestige has been found.

Thursday 24 April 1941

There is a huge crater in our cemetery here disturbing three lines of graves – where children are buried, close to the hedge on our side. Mrs. Eade was told by Goldsmith that possibly her nephew’s grave is one of them.

I cannot imagine this being my neighbours and my neighbourhood, night after night, year after year.

So I commend this site to you; make yourself a coffee or a tea, settle down and read it. It’s accessible, moving and immediate. We are so lucky to have so much primary source material available at the click of a mouse.

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Posted by on 11 January, '14 in About


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