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Dublin: 16 °C Tuesday 29 July, 2014

A snapshot of the Irish in World War I

The National Archives has digitised the wills of 9,000 soldiers killed in action during the Great War.

Image: National Archives via Website

THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES has digitised and released copies of more than 9,000 wills belonging to Irish soldiers who fought for the British Army in World War I.

Although about 35,000 Irish men died in action, only 9,000 wills have survived. These are the only official documents held in the National Archives which directly concern the soldiers of World War I. There are plans for the English and Scottish equivalents to be put online shortly but the Irish project is the first to be completed.

Archivist Hazel Menton told TheJournal.ie that the project took four years and involved the individual scanning of each envelope and piece of paper.

The British Army provided several alternative ways of making a will, including forms in their service book and separate pre-printed forms. Soldiers were encouraged to make wills because it simplified the settling of their affairs after their deaths.

Included in the collection are 29 wills from soldiers who died in the South African war of 1899-1902. These are quite different from the wills of soldiers of World War I as many are accompanied by letters to their families and loved ones.

The archivists describe them as “newsy, informative missives” from the soldier to his mother, girlfriend, sister or brother that give an insight into the lives of the men fighting in South Africa, their family, home life and concerns.

Most of the soldiers were very young and did not have wives or children, and in many cases the beneficiary was their mother or father, siblings or the friends serving with them.

The poignant moments captured in the letters that have survived give us unprecedented access into the hearts and minds of Irish soldiers who fought during the two wars. The whole collection can be perused here.

Letters and wills

On 23 November 1899, Patrick Campion wrote to his mother to wish her a ‘Happy Xmas’.

…do not fight on Sunday, they might not fight on Xmas day…

He died less than a month later, on 15 December 1899.

Joseph Robinson died in South Africa on 23 September 1901. In his emotional October 1899 letters to his sweetheart Susan in Virginia, Cavan, he asks her to stay faithful and not to marry until he returns.

He was also fond of marking his pages with x’s (or kisses).

Jack Madden wrote numerous letters to a Biddy Whelan of 24 Castle Street, Bray before his death on 27 October 1914. In one note, he showed his Irish side by telling his love he missed his cup of tea.

Others are more serious as he talks about orders and feeling “much happier” for taking her advice and going to his duty. It is clear from one of his notes that his mother had died and he was not coping with the news.

The page that marks him calling Biddy his “heir” is denoted with an X.

In the next page, he asks her not to think bad of him and that she may as well have the money he earns. He also returned two pawn tickets and orders to “tell the man I am gone to the front and I would not like to lose it”.

In the 12-page run-on letter, he enclosed photos and asked Biddy to show them to his father and tell him to “keep the heart up”. “We will all meet again I hope,” he added.

Biddy I do miss you fighting with me now. No matter we will fight again please god. Biddy don’t forget about what I say about the letter sa soon as you read this don’t forget forget me.

World War I soldier Michael Egan of the Irish Guards 1st Battalion asked his sister to pray for him every day until she heard of his death. “For I am going to the front. I am leaving London the morning I am going to France…”

The handwriting changes on page two and the soldier explains he had “his chum” write the first page.

He was killed in action on 1 November 1914.

Private James O’Connell, who died on 15 August 1915, wrote to his mother on 20 April of the same year.

I have a nice time of it here nothing dont trouble me and very fond of the army. It would be a lot better for me that I listed years a go if I come home safe…

The ‘will’ part of the letter was then underlined.

James Purvis gives an insight the process of drawing up wills.

Dear Mother we have got everything ready we have got our field badges sewed into our coats and we have got our small book and the little disks for going round your neck it is about the size of a penny with you…

And in the small book there is a place for making your will so I am making mine out for to leave to you so you can divide it the way you think fit if anything happens to me you would have all the money and clothing that belongs to me.

Purvis, who was part of B Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, also described the women up in Dublin. He claimed they would miss his company when they left because they feed and clothe them.

However, most of the correspondence from World War I was more simple, and often, was just a form filled in by soldiers. This will for James Delaney was simply signed with ‘his mark’ X.

Visit the National Archives website of Soldiers’ wills here>

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