Captain Maurice Asprey was, or at least would have been, my mother’s uncle. It seems strange to think that he was born in 1893, given that he is so closely and seemingly recently related to me. Many of you, too, will have grandparents who were similarly closely related to men and women who died during the First World War; indeed many of you, I am glad to say, like me, have done some research on those relatives, people whose lives live on in our memories, laid down in often the most awful circumstances so that we might enjoy a free life today.
Captain Asprey, or Uncle Maurice, as he is still known in our family, was killed aged only 23 at the Battle of the Somme in August 1916. My brother recently visited his grave, which, like so many, has been well-preserved and is nowadays well-documented. Thanks to my own uncle, Maurice’s nephew, the National Army Museum now owns and preserves all of Uncle Maurice’s letters home – and they were deemed of such interest that volunteers at the museum created out of them a learning resource for schools so that his experiences could be handed down to children today. These wartime letters from the front, considered quite typical of the time, are interesting in a number of ways. On the one hand they are incredibly mundane, concerned about the trivialities of daily life; on the other hand they are poignant – the 21-year-old Maurice is continually concerned about his younger brother, Philip, my own grandfather who survived the war and whom I knew in my childhood; and Maurice, his older brother, was desperate for news of him. As a package, the letters are revealing about what the men had to put up with. I select a few lines here and there for you to listen to now.
His first letter home from the trenches in November 1914:
Have got to the trenches at last. Having pretty decent weather. Only two nights rain since I’ve been up here. One gets plastered in mud from head to foot when it does rain, as we can’t help rubbing against the sides of the trenches. If you are making scarves, will you let me have about forty for the men of my platoon as they are all starting to ask for them in their letters home, and one wants them badly at night. I’m fixed up myself alright all except a pair of gloves. Will you ask Father to get me a pair of brown leather lined wool. A good strong pair that will last.
We’re all pretty sick of this show here, absolutely fed up with it, but we get along pretty cheerfully all the same. One sort of naturally drops into the run of things after a day or two. We get two or three hours night work to do, generally seeing things are alright, and get up about four but manage (or have managed so far) to get a good sleep in the day. Shall be jolly glad when we can get back to our huts and get a wash. Has Philip got a Commission yet?
Your Loving Son
On 28 December 1914:
Thanks very much for letters, pair of socks, handkerchiefs, and socks for the men. The other parcels have not arrived yet. The posts have evidently got hung up badly owing to all the extra Christmas stuff. We got plum pudding from some paper.
A Captain named Wells whom you spoke of in one of your letters was one of our third Battalion officers. He was killed while attached to another regiment. There are not many third battalion officers left now of the old lot who are fighting. Four have been killed, two are prisoners, and two have broken down from the strain of the heavy fighting they were in. I wish Philip was not coming out till the weather was better. I am afraid he will find it very hard at first, as it is very hard to get used to the cold suddenly. We had a sort of truce on Xmas Eve for about three hours. Our men shouting across to the Germans, and they answering us. Ever so many seemed able to speak perfect English. Will you send me some Asparins[sic] and a leather tobacco pouch (lined rubber if possible) out of what is left of my money if you have enough.
Your loving son
And his final letter, in the summer of 2016:
Have not heard from you for about five days now, but hope Eric is going to be alright. Have had an extra lot of work to do during the last weeks or should have written before. I am up in the trenches now. The Huns put a whiz-bang through my dugout while I was away at tea which was rather annoying, as shall have to find another. Still worse they have broken some of my things including a bottle of hair wash, the last serious as I shall not be able to get fresh supply for three days. We seem to be doing well down south. I only hope it will go on alright. Will you continue to send me butter when you have some to spare and a cake sometimes. Butter one gets out here is pretty horrible. Have just got two letters from you. Must end now, as postman is waiting.
Your Loving Son
“Must end now, as postman is waiting” – the last written words of a son to his mother, my own great grandmother. However, this is not simply the story of one man and his family. It is the story of all of them, on all sides of the conflict. 469 Old Bedfordians died during the First World War. This is more than the number of boys in the whole school at that time. Over 2,200 Old Bedfordians went to serve in the First World War, six or seven entire generations of Bedford School boys, of whom therefore over a fifth were killed. And don’t forget the rest of them. Statistically, it is likely that over half of the rest were wounded and over half of them seriously so. Even then, vast numbers of those who were not physically wounded either died later through gas or were severely mentally scarred. I would ask you all to go to Firefly over the weekend to have a look at the Archive section, and the work which Mr and Mrs Blythe did on behalf of the school in 1995 to trace details of every single one of these men. It is a truly remarkable salute to their bravery and memory. In their archive are brothers, fathers, sons and uncles, men not just in the flower of their youth, as is so often the picture, but aged from 17 to 61; not only officers, as so often envisaged from schools like this, but men from the rank of private all the way to Major General. One died after only a single day’s active service; another fought from the very start of the war only to be killed a month before the end. All left loved ones behind, families bereft and lives cut short. Personally, I cannot get that single phrase out of my own mind; as a family member who never knew him, it perhaps gives me just a trace of what it must have been like for families waiting back home in those awful years. “Must end now; postman is waiting.”