British troops going over the top at the Somme.

Rambling thoughts on the Letters of 1916

Today I had the absolute privilege of working with the Letters of 1916 project through transcription work, fittingly to do with the Great War.

One letter in particular stood out, that of Lieutenant Richard Henry Perceval-Maxwell to his father Colonel Robert David Perceval-Maxwell on the 7th of October 1916 (thanks to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland!). Richard or Dick’s letter home to his father caught my eye because of the jarring juxtaposition between the horror of the trenches and the banality of war evident in his writing. Dick is a junior officer writing about how “the Bosche dropped a few high explosives here and caused a few casualties” in one sentence and about how “we have had rain every day since I came up” in the next. In short, Dick’s letter describes the almost eerie nature that death and danger had taken on in the front – it was an everyday occurrence.

From Sassoon and Wilson’s poetry to the songs of the era, cultural memory of the Great War has always manifested itself in a twofold manner. Nowadays we often take the Blackadder approach to the war, the popular “lions led by donkeys” idea, when the reality is far more complex. At the time the Defense of the Realm Act maintained a strict policy against naysayers, thus letters from the front often contained a false sense of cheer; the stiff upper lip as it were. Dick’s letters emphasize this, he maintains that he’s doing well, that the “Padré” is looking after the men and they are content in their lot. Reading Dick’s words was both a chilling and deeply personal experience, something that the Letters of 1916 project should be lauded for. At times transcribing, you have to take a step back and think about the context of what you’re actually reading.

For example, digging through Ancestry.com (UK WW1 Service Medal and Award Rolls 1914-1920) reveals that Dick served with the Cameronian or Scottish Rifles regiment and was awarded both the British War medal and the Victory medal, making him one of the lucky ones to make it through the war. Looking into the regimental history of the Scottish Rifles makes it likely that Dick took part in the Battle of the Somme at the time the letter was written, either at the Battle of le Transloy or the Battle of Ancre Heights.

That such information is available at our fingertips highlights the inherent value of projects like the Letters of 1916 and the field of Digital Humanities itself. History is moving increasingly into the realm of the public and granting that public a privilege to actively ensure the preservation of the past into the future. The Letters project is ongoing, do your part and help out. Contribute, transcribe, commemorate.

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