Looking Back: How soldiers sent loved ones messages

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In the early years of the 20th century picture postcards were the most popular means of written communication as telephone usage was limited to the very wealthiest.

And the onset of war in 1914 aw a huge increase again as men left home for training camps and service at the front. Those sent from active service were censored and therefore did not contain details of battles or even where they were at the time.

Mail from the Western Front would reach home within around three days.

One example of the number of postcards sent to a soldier during the war concerns William Dent Whitaker, a Burnley special policeman, who sent more than 1,000 cards to his son John who had enlisted as a Private in September 1914, obtained a commission and in December 1915 embarked at Devonport for Egypt. This message is the first card his father sent to him in Egypt.

Medit 1.

Your news was surprising. This sounds bad grammar eh! Look out for Uncle John on the Idomeneus. The British Isles cruise won’t be in it with your present trip round the world. Don’t forget to keep your eyes & ears open for future engineering jobs if you get to the Land of the Pharaoh, please send my best respects to him & Joseph.

This is No.1 Pater.

John who survived the war was a 2nd Lieutenant ‘C’ Battery 171 Brigade, RFA when this card was sent. The ‘British Isles cruise’ mentioned by father referred to John’s training in Great Britain.

Another soldier John Wilcox sent two postcards to his mother who lived at 58 Dalton Street, Nelson. He was a ‘Regular’ and therefore fought in the opening battles of the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914.

Dear Mother,

I am alive and lucky to be so. Just come through a terrible battle, 18 hours under fire, just about to rest in camp, we have been on the go for about a week, cannot write anymore, am waiting to see our Malc his Reg is here hope you are all well dare not say more from your son John.

He was describing the battles of Mons and Le Cateau. The card was posted from the Army Base Post Office on September 1 but he would have handed it in to his officer for censoring a few days earlier.

John was part of 4th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division and from the records it is known that the day after this card was posted he was involved in more fighting at Ploegsteert Wood, south of Ypres.

An innocent sounding message was sent from the village of Estree Blanche, by ‘Edwin’ to Mr & Mrs Howarth, 34 St Peter’s Square Preston on the 1st May 1916;

Dear David & Lily,

I received your letter a couple of days ago but as you know we are out & during the last few days we have been out practising Open fighting & we were out all day long so I have little time to write a letter….the weather is good & with going out on manoeuvres I’m feeling in the pink without a doubt

Your aff. Brother Edwin

He was in the 7th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and shortly after this card was posted his battalion moved close to the Somme. They should have been part of the attack on July 1st (first day of the battle) but on a day when the British Army sustained terrible casualties Edwin’s battalion were in reserve and did not join the fight until July 4th. The ‘Open fighting’ almost certainly referred to the way in which the troops were expected to attack over no-mans-land.

l This small selection of messages is taken from ‘Postcard Messages from the Great War 1914-1919’ by Andrew Brooks. In order to purchase a copy please telephone 01524272526. £20 plus £2.80 postage.

An exhibition of Andrew’s postcards “Somewhere in France: An Exhibition of Postcards & Letters from World War One” runs at Lancaster Maritime Museum until September 20.