Penny Blackburn, an archive volunteer, writes:
The Great War Letters of Arthur Powell, acquired by the Library in 2014, chronicle a soldier’s life on the Western Front during the First World War.
Arthur Powell enlisted with the Manchester Pals in October 1914, at age of eighteen. For most of the war he served with the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment. After a period of time in Salonika, Greece, where he was involved with the British withdrawal of troops, he finally reached home in May 1919. By the time of demobilisation he had risen to the rank of Corporal and the pride he had in his new title is clearly evident in the way he addressed his letters.
Arthur wrote home to his parents regularly, every three or four days, except when he was on the march, with his unit, or during periods of ‘fatigue’ duty when he was taken for Lewis Gun training and trench building. Otherwise the communication between son and home was frequent and unbroken. The letters demonstrate an affectionate, loving bond between son and parents.
This was the invisible thread between battlefield and home; love and hope. This came in the form of both news, and for our correspondent, essential food parcels (one of Arthur’s primary concerns!) Letters were an essential communication which kept alive the hope, for the loved ones anxiously waiting for news back home, and those separated by the call of duty and war. For soldiers fighting in the First World War letters and parcels made their situation almost bearable and something to which they could look forward to receiving; they were a taste and reminder of home.
This work has mirrored, most fortunately, work that I have been doing in the Archives and Cultural Collections Centre in Bury Central Library. There as a volunteer also, we have been collecting and saving digitized images and articles from the local newspapers of that time, building up to the Centenary of the end of WW1. In conjunction with the support of and involvement of the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum opposite the library archives, we’ve held open days and events which have been both rewarding and illuminating for ourselves and the public. I’m explaining this because I feel the letters which I’m currently transcribing here, have enriched and enlightened my understanding of this most terrible time.
Arthur’s letters begin at the time of his enlistment in February 1916, where he is despatched to a training camp in Sussex, until his demobilisation from the army in Salonika where he was stationed after the war. Arthur’s handwriting was neat and assured; he wrote on all sizes and forms of paper, lined and unlined, from tiny A6 sized pieces, to larger A4 pieces folded, with heavy margins drawn down the middle. Arthur took from whatever was to hand, from the backs of restaurant menus to letter headed paper of the YMCA and the stationary of the Church Army.
What has struck me most, in these deeply personal accounts of Arthur’s experiences, is the affectionate, and unswerving love and devotion shared by him and his parents. Arthur’s relationship with his parents is a healthy and happy one. He holds them in high esteem, as they do him. It is remarkable indeed, even in the grimmest of fighting conditions, when Arthur has been wading thigh high in mud, and ‘chums’ have fallen by his side as he’s ‘gone over the top’, that he is still able to find the courage and cheery disposition to console and reassure his parents.
Arthur’s accounts of the fighting conditions are surprisingly graphic, and he spares no unpleasant detail as to the reality of his situation. From assisting the chaplain in identifying the bodies, to burying the dead, left out on the open ground; all this done while under continual fire from the enemy, ‘As regards shelling & machine gun fire it has been the worst experience I have had by far’. Arthur pulls no punches and says it as it is, with honesty and realism.
In one letter home to his parents, Arthur is too exhausted to write, but he feels fortunate to be ‘still alive’. He has only received one small skin wound to his face, below his eye, while one unfortunate chum had a large piece of shrapnel embedded in his thigh, and sadly, more deeply affecting for Arthur, his chum ‘Norman’ was killed by a bullet through his stomach. We learn that as the soldiers ‘push over the top’, they are instructed not to go back and help a fallen comrade, they are told to ‘push on’. By the time Arthur returns to his friend it is too late, ‘he was dead as door nail’. He now has the unpleasant task of ‘writing to his people back home’.
We can be assured though that this will have been done with sensitivity and kindness, as in his letters Arthur demonstrates thoughtfulness and artistic imagination. In one letter he clearly describes a dawn on a glorious Sunday morning. Arthur can hear church bells ringing in the distance, it reminds him of home and he becomes reflective; ‘in fact I began to wonder if Father had gone down stairs to light the fire & brought Mother tea up. It is a beautiful day & I can just imagine Alex Park this afternoon with the band playing and all my old chums about me’.
Arthur upholds a strong tenacity to life; he believes he will return home in ‘A1 condition and very much smiling’.
What does shine through all the mud, blood, exhaustion and hunger, is gratitude, and a deep appreciation of his parents. Their loving devotion to him and diligent upbringing has helped shaped the character he has now become; ‘I think it reflects great credit on your dear selves, for my early rearing, that I should land in the strain of this terrible existence when so many men are breaking down’. Arthur is able to draw on their love for him, and seek comfort and reassurance, and for this he is eternally grateful and able; ‘to enjoy the very good health that I do today’.
Arthur’s optimism is remarkable, we might think that his words are merely to comfort his parents and on occasion, to disguise his true anxieties, but his letters are humbling and inspiring to read. He acknowledges the responsibility his generation faces, and admonishes his parents for even considering the idea that his Father should swap places with him, ‘It has fallen to the lot of our generation to see this war through & we must do it’ he concludes.
These letters go some way to reflect the strength of character of what must have been a remarkable young man. They are also a testimony not only to Arthur’s involvement in the war, but also to those many thousands of other men and women who so bravely fought and paid the ultimate price. Arthur concludes that the only souvenir he wishes to bring home will be; ‘myself, “yours truly Esq” & that will do’.