4th October 2017: Great Chart Soldiers in Context: The Great War 1914-1918

On Wednesday 4th October 2017 Wye Historical Society welcomed Dr Emma Hanna, from the University of Kent, to talk about "Great Chart Soldiers in Context: The Great War 1914-1918".

The Great Chart Collection was given to the Maidstone Archives in 2002 and consists of letters, postcards, memorabilia, greetings cards and photographs. Elizabeth Quinton Strouts (EQS) set up a fund in 1915 for parcels to be sent to the troops from Great Chart. Weekly parcels comprised food such as fruit and potted meat, cigarettes, hand knitted socks and local newspapers. In return the soldiers sent back letters and war souvenirs to EQS. 305 letters survive from 100 different men, eighteen of whom were killed or went missing in action. When EQS heard that a man had died she added a black border to their last letter. The collection provides a case study of the voice of the soldier. They weren't all in the same regiment and some were in the Navy; quite a few were regulars who were already in the army when the war broke out. As well as the Western Front men were stationed around the world including India and Mesopotamia.

Dr Hanna has used the letters to study attitudes to military service, which were patriotic - for example, Alfred Brunger was proud of the volunteers and hoped there wouldn#t be conscription. However, it is difficult to get at their true thoughts as they may have been writing what the people back home wanted to hear. They were also restricted by the censor on what they could say - couching their experiences in vague terms such as "we#ve had a rather hot time of it".

The men worried about Zeppelin raids back home, and attitudes towards the Germans hardened after the gas attacks began. The men were eager for local news and asked specifically for local newspapers to be sent, though they had little time for the national press. The soldiers were very happy to receive postcards of Great Chart and it was easier than we might think for them to receive reminders of home. With three posts per day it was possible to send flowers and fruit from the garden which would arrive on the Front either later that day or the next morning. The men were keen on hearing about friends from Great Chart and the flow of information seemed to escape the censor. Some letters included messages of condolence on hearing about local casualties.

No one was in the trenches for more than 48 hours so sport and leisure were very important to the men behind the lines. Chapels, games rooms and sports equipment for football and boxing were provided and concert parties were held. There were even 77 portable cinemas run by the YMCA. The letters reflect these activities, with one saying "The Follies visited us - very good". The men were also desperate for music, with one letter asking if an accordion could be sent. One in five men who enlisted from Great Chart didn't return and the funds left over from EQS's fund were used to pay for the war memorial erected in 1921. In EQS's words the archive represents "The boy's own record of their movements and their experiences".

Ellie Morris