A Soldiers’ Letter Home

Archival Moment

November 21, 1914

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division A 58-152, For Victory

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives Division A 58-152, For Victory

There was a tradition in the early days of the First World War that saw many of the letters that were written by young soldiers, to their loved ones, published in the local Newfoundland papers.

One of the first “Soldiers Letters”, written home, that was published, was dated November 1, 1914 from Private Frank Richardson, Regimental Number 66 to his parents, Mr. Thomas and Mrs. M. Richardson at 68 Bannerman Street St. John’s. The letter was published in the Evening Telegram on November 21, 1914. Private Frank Richardson was 19 years old.

Frank Richardson marched with 536 other men, on October 3, 1914 from the training camp at Pleasantville, St. John’s to board the SS Florizel, a steamer and sealing vessel that had been converted into a troopship. He with the others, that we now call the First 500 or Blue Puttees, was cheered on by a large gathering of citizens, including his parents. On 21 October the men of the Regiment arrived at Pond Farm Camp, England, there they spent seven muddy chilly weeks.

A reporter form the prestigious newspaper Time of London described Frank Richardson and his the Newfoundland Regiment as:

A smart Newfoundland contingent which has recently come in has the name of the colony similarly on its shoulder-straps. The newcomers are usually distinguished from the Canadians by their blue puttees. The type of man is the same-sturdy, strong, and unassuming. They are a splendid body of men, and had a great welcome from their brothers-in-arms.” (The Times of London , November 5, 1914)

All of the “soldiers letters” are interesting in that they give a unique perspective into the daily life and routine of a young soldier.

Frank Richardson’s  letter is typical in that it starts with a standard greeting, wishing his parents good health. He wrote:

“I write you hoping to find you as well in health and spirits as I am.” He continues “Father and mother don’t be downhearted. I am all right and hope that you are the same.”

Private Richardson was aware that his parents were extremely stressed because of rumors that his transport ship, the Florizel, that carried the First 500 from St. John’s to England had sunk. He wrote:

“You must have received a shock when you heard we were gone down. I mean the time the news spread down there that we were lost at sea, but we are not, the Germans will not put us down. There are better times coming.”

The letters tended to also make the promise of regular communication. The young soldier wrote:

“Last night we went over to the Y.M.C.A. It belongs to the Canadians. It is place for singing and dancing; you can buy what you like there, so I brought a book of writing paper with envelopes. I hope that you will soon write me.”

He continued:

“It takes a letter a long time to come from here, so don’t worry about not getting letters from me every week. I will make it a practice to write you every Sunday evening, and post it Monday, and you do the same father.”

A constant theme that can be found in the letters is the sense of urgency on the part of the young Newfoundland soldiers to be part of the war. All of these young soldiers wanted to be in the trenches fighting.   Private Richardson wrote:

“I wish that we were the front. We are going to get our guns tomorrow’ we have the whole fit out now.   All the boys are well and happy. Just now we received our guns and bayonets, some class of regiment now.”

The early letters were also very revealing about military location and military strategy. He wrote:

“The Turks have declared war on Russia. We may be going to Egypt, the Turks will try to get through there and we have to try and stop them. That is the talk that is going around there.”

Following the publication of the first batch of letters home in 1914 official censors and newspaper editors were careful to omit details about troop locations and morale.

Richardson concluded his first letter home with the line.

“So I close now in love. I am your loving son Frank.”

Frank Richardson did get his wish to get to the front. He saw action in Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915; he was wounded at Beaumont Hamel, France on July 1, 1916 requiring extended hospitalization. He was killed in action on August 16, 1917. It is not known if other letters that he wrote have survived.

National War Memorial: On Wednesday, 11 November 2015 at 10:55 a.m., the Honourable Frank F. Fagan, Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador and Her Honour Patricia Fagan, will attend the Remembrance Day War Memorial Service at the National War Memorial where His Honour will lay the first wreath. Her Honour will lay a wreath on behalf of the Women’s Patriotic Association. Following the Service, His Honour will take the Salute in front of the Court House on Water Street.

Recommended Archival Collection:   From your home visit the website, The Great War: http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/part1_entering_the_great_war.asp  The site contains the military files of soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who served in the First World War,. These files are searchable by name or by community and will therefore provide invaluable information for all viewers, but will be of particular interest to those who are conducting either family or community research.

Recommended Exhibit: Pleasantville: From Recreation to Military Installation. Level 2 Atrium Pleasantville before the First World War was the site of the St. John’s cricket grounds. With the declaration of war, Pleasantville quickly emerged as a tent city, the home of the storied “First 500”. It was here that the First Newfoundland Regiment recruits began preliminary military training during the months of September and October of 1914. This exhibition highlights some of the activities and training of the Blue Puttees up to their embarkation on the SS Florizel for overseas service.

Recommended Museum Exhibit: Flowers of Remembrance: Level 2 Museum Vitrine: A number of flowers are associated with the First World War by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, including the familiar forget-me-not and poppy. Such commemorative flowers and their role in the collective memory of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are profiled. Using artifacts and period imagery relating to The Great War commemoration, The Rooms staff explore the significant role these flowers played across the last century

Recommended Song:   Recruiting Sergeant (Newfoundland-Great Big Sea) Recorded by Great Big Sea, Warner Music. Listen: http://www.wtv-zone.com/phyrst/audio/nfld/04/recruit.htm