Similar to many people my interest in World War One started when I discovered that both of my Grandfathers took part in the conflict. My paternal grandfather was in the R.A.M.C. in Salonika, my maternal grandfather was in the Royal Engineers in France and Belgium. I am very fortunate to have both sets of their medals, stored in a Princess Mary Christmas Box, and of course these have followed me around over the years and through many house moves. It also follows that my knowledge of the First World War has largely been gleaned from the “coffee table” volumes of books photos and from the many TV programmes over the years, in particular I remember the BBC series screened in the 1960’s “World War 1 – The Great War” viewed on a grainy old black and white television.
However, after a visit to a local auction room in 2011 this was all to change. I bought a lot of about 500 letters, all relating to the same family and spanning the period from about 1830 through to 1920. But the 140 or so letters home from son to mother during World War 1 really opened my eyes to what, to me at least, has been a largely neglected part of the conflict, that of the great many people behind the lines serving as unpaid volunteers. Arthur Dease, born in 1871, was of Anglo Irish origin and served as a volunteer ambulance driver from January 1915 through to January 1919 and during this time wrote home to his mother several times a week, duties permitting of course, telling her in some detail of his experiences and also talking about many of the current affairs of the time, both home and abroad. This was also a turbulent period in Irish history of course, and Arthur often talks about the problems at home in Ireland too.
In February 2012 I therefore decided to publish these World War One letters online, on my website www.ArthursLetters.com, partly to focus my attention on the content and to get them in some meaningful order, but also to let other people read about Arthur’s exploits and his views on the events of the time. In my opinion these primary source documents are an exceptional opportunity to read what a person was actually feeling and going through at the time they were written, and one can get a good feel for Arthur’s mood. Many of the letters were written as and when and where he could write them, in between duties or when on leave, or when “relaxing” in damp basements or dug outs etc., this is apparent as you read them. His handwriting was pretty awful at the best of times and I include here some illustrations of the original letters.
I feel that I really must stress that the purists among you may find these letters just light reading, but they are a fascinating view of this turbulent period in history, written by an educated and well travelled person. This is also very much work in progress as I find myself with far more questions than answers! Arthur's privileged life and background is almost a real life “Downton Abbey” but since I have been transcribing these letters I have been truly humbled by Arthur's dedication and bravery in what must have sometimes been horrendous circumstances. As a volunteer, and of course being Irish and not having conscription, Arthur could have gone home at any time, but he chose to return several times to carry on doing “his bit”, and in November 1918 was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his work with the French Red Cross, Section Sanitaire Anglais No.3.
As I write this there are approximately 80 letters from Arthur on the site ranging from January 1915 through to December 1918. I have many more to add. The content should be of interest not just to those interested in the military aspect of the First World War but also those interested in the social and Irish history of this period. I sincerely hope that these letters serve to remind us all of those heroes serving behind the lines in the Great War, and I will leave the final words to Arthur…….
“There is soldiering & soldiering, doing it comfortably at home strutting about in Kaki in safety & this sort of thing where one has no rank, no pay, bombed & bombarded not to say gassed & living in the woods, caves or cellars.” Letter home 23rd June 1918