WWI Letters Workshop
This is a workshop based on letters in the archives sent by Bert Clements of Kidderminster and Cyril Sladden of Evesham. These were two of the thousands of local men who joined up in WWI. We have delivered this workshop quite a few times with children, using original letters at the start, which provide a great opportunity for children to get close to real items. As part of the Worcestershire World war One Hundred Project we went out to lots of schools in the run up the Remembrance Day 2018. With the current situation schools can’t come to us, and many schools are reluctant to have visits, so we have uploaded these resources to enable you to deliver it yourself in the classroom. Copies of worksheets and images of letters are enclosed. The format of the workshop is below, with potential answers and things to look out for, to enable you to run it in your school. If you’d like us to come to you please get in touch.
Letters provide an insight into people’s experiences. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the huge number of people involved in the war. Letters zoom down to individuals. Armies are made up of thousands of people, all different, but many have common experiences and emotions. They are a great opportunity of using primary historical sources, and we have video recordings and transcripts to help the children get into the meat of what is being said rather than struggling with handwriting.
Bert was a Kidderminster man who served in WWI in the Royal Artillery, joining on 21 September 1914, around 6 weeks after war was declared. He was born in 1894, living in Lea Street and going to Lea Street School. He did survive the war (it is always strange going through war letters half expecting to come across a telegram at the end sent to a man’s parents). On his return he married Winifred in 1924 and stayed in Kidderminster. After his death his family passed the collection of over 20 letters to the Record Office so that other people could read them.
Cyril Sladden (1890-1974) served with the 9th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment from 1914-1919. From a well to do family, he was an officer, and his two brother also served as officers too.
What have you got in front of you?
Distribute prints of Bert Clements letters and ask them to see what they can work out
- Handwriting – hard! May be in pencil, what would they use? Where written (some on rifle butts)
- Location – somewhere in France. Did they know where they were (young man from Kidderminster may have no idea of geography around him)? Or secrecy? Or both? We don’t know but both are probable.
- Date – WWI. How did they get back (big logistical task – see BBC article on post if you want to know more)?
- Censor mark – censored by his platoon commander, an officer, so ensure he didn’t say anything he shouldn’t. Would this make any difference to what he wrote do you think? What if the class was asked to write about their school, and told that the Headteacher would see what was written first, would this make a difference to what they write?
- Who are they from and to – To his Dad from Bert, but may be hard to read the names
- Can anyone read any content? It can be hard to read old handwriting. If you spend a little time you can usually read the odd word, then a few more as you get used to it.
What do you know about WWI? Open question to see what they know from lessons or what they know. Some, not surprisingly, may be confused between WWI & WWII as they may see little difference between events 100 and 80 years ago.
How do we know about WWI, what sources help us?
- Letters (only some survive)
- Stories – written down after in books, oral history, family stories passed down (does anyone have family stories?)
- Newspapers – published at time or recent articles looking back
- Archaeology of trenches etc.
- Objects in museums
These are the evidence historians use. Letters are useful. Give someone’s perspective but just one person’s views. May be similar to other people, may be different.
We are Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service, have 12 miles of archives in boxes like these. Boxes don’t look interesting but contain stories, which is what people are interested in, such as stories from the front. Real stories about real people. Can be random what has survived. Why might some not survive (thrown away, lost etc.)? We have a few collections of letters including Bert Clements of Kidderminster (not sure if he is on one of the photos).
- what do they contain – [everyday, some detail of front (matter of fact about pencil blown out of hand), ask for or acknowledge parcels, want to be remembered back home]
- what is his mood – [generally fairly positive]
- do you believe him? [Brave face for parents? Aware of officer censoring? Hard to put ourselves in his shoes and inside his mind.]
- Play 2 or 3 clips of the Gunner Clements letter being read. Links to two are below, others can be found on YouTube
Letter summaries for teachers
- Somewhere in Belgium
- Got parcel, including chocolate and matches and cigarettes. Always looking for a letter from home.
- Doesn’t fire a gun because he’s a telephonist, which is risky. Have to mend them wires under fire (cut by shells), lies in ditch for 20 mins with bullets around. Star shell. Going into trenches for 4 days (soldiers only on front line for a few days then went to rear lines for a few days so could rest). Sgt Tolly asks to be remembered back home. Observing German guns, telephone back what’s happening.
- See holes made, big as dining room.
- How are things in Kidderminster and Brum (Birmingham)? Success in bowls for his Dad.
- Give love to girls.
- I’m still jogging along and going strong like Johnny Walker (whiskey brand?)
- Hot, thinks about a day at home by river.
- Bowls, Dad losing.
- Sgt Tolley wants cricketers to think of them
- How are things at home? How long will it last? Reminisce about Sunday roast and bed. Not seen a bed since been out in France.
- Got something sent out. Gollywog badge sent – today not something we’d do and can be considered offensive – some prases and items considered normal 100 years ago may not be seen as acceptable today.
- “4 big ones come over”, writing in field, a big one (shell) knocked pencil out of hand – how big a blast would that be?
- Give my love to everyone
- Have 2 German fuses he’s collected
Ask for answers, and also anything surprising?
What does Bert talk about in his letters?
His role as a telephonist
Thinking of home – his dad’s bowls team and thinking of what he’d like to do when he goes home eventually. Sending greeting to family and friends, and wanting them to remember him. Letters are as much about home as they are about describing his experiences in France.
Presents and letters – highlights for the men out in France, and looking for gifts to supplement rations and show people are thinking of him
What is his mood? Is he happy, sad, scared?
Seems positive. We expect him to be scared and sad, but his letters don’t show this. He’s thinking of others, and is matter of fact about things including bombs. Wants war to be over though.
Do you think he’s telling the truth?
Don’t know! He may be, and he may be positive. However he may also be putting on a brave face. Does he want his dad to know how he’s feeling. Without asking we don’t know and just have to make an educated guess from reading the letters and from what we know about the war.
Bert is one man out of hundreds of thousands. What’s the problem with using just his letters? He may be an exception or may reflect many others. So we’ll look at another set of letters, Cyril Sladden of Badsey near Evesham, an officer. From a more well to do family and well educated.
Have you heard of Gallipoli? In Turkey. War wasn’t just in France & Flanders, which is what people think of. Worcestershire Regiment served elsewhere too, including Turkey and Iraq. Who knew that?
Read the letters from Cyril (transcribed so don’t need to struggle with handwriting). A-C or all 5 if longer than an hour
- What do they contain – mix including military detail, requests home, lots of flies, and being shot in shoulder
- What is his mood – mixed. Hacked off about flies! Seems matter iof fact about being shot.
- Do you believe him – an officer so censored his own letters, so may tell truth more. Seems to have more emotion and you can tell he’s annoyed at times.
- Any differences from Bert – more emotion? Longer, more military detail. He’s injured.
How useful are letters to a historian?
What have you learnt? Any surprises?
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