Letters home from Otley soldiers give rare insight into First World War

Members of the 4th West Riding Howitzer Brigade with 5 inch Howitzer known as the Boer War gun, used on the Ypres front, 1915

Members of the 4th West Riding Howitzer Brigade with 5 inch Howitzer known as the Boer War gun, used on the Ypres front, 1915

First published in News by

Wars fought on foreign fields, especially those like the First World War which are separated from us by a distance of 100 years, can be hard to relate to.

But if there is anything guaranteed to humanise an historic conflict it is in the letters the young servicemen send home after leaving to train, and then fight, in alien lands.

This aspect of the conflict is captured in Otley Museum's new publication Legacies of War: Untold Otley Stories*, especially in its chapter on the 4th West Riding Howitzer Brigade.

Some of the communications clearly show just how young the soldiers, still relying like modern-day students on their families to do their laundry, were.

Gunner Cecil Newstead's postcard home to his mother on October 19, 1914, when he was stationed at Doncaster Racecourse with the brigade's 10th (Otley) Battery, is a case in point.

He wrote: "Did you receive the parcel of washing?

"You might return it on Sat with Willie Mudd. Can you arrange about getting the parcel to him?

"I am glad Charlie can oblige. You might post it on Friday night certain so I get it on Sat morn."

The battery, which took part in many of the war's major battles, was led for three and a half years by Major Kenneth Duncan.

The language used in his letter of September 23, 1916, has something of the 'boy's own' quality that has come to be lampooned in recent decades - perhaps most famously in the Blackadder TV comedy series.

Major Duncan wrote: "The men are keeping wonderfully well and marvellously cheery.

"They really are a top-hole lot and Wharfedale has need to be proud of her sons."

Major Duncan was, however, undoubtedly respected by his men. One Otley gunner wrote: "He was keen, alert and watchful on behalf of his Battery. The whole Battery was proud of him and showed its affection by an intense esprit de corps which far surpassed that which is fostered by severe discipline."

Other letters, meanwhile, come straight from the carnage and sorrow of the battlefield, such as this message from Gunner John Stephenson in Passchendaele on November 3, 1917. The Battery had just suffered a major loss when a German shell exploded an ammunition dump, killing ten men and seriously wounding another seven.

Gunner Stephenson was one of the survivors. He wrote: "I should have been there but I had been sent back for a rest and was then called back to the position two days before.

"As I went up we were shelled and several in the party were killed.

"I was wounded in the leg and arm and went to hospital, and it was there two days later that I learned of the terrible blow to my comrades."

*Legacies of War: Untold Stories is on sale now at Otley Core Resource Centre, priced £1.

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