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Thank you for the 40 pairs of socks: the Irish care packages of WWI

An Irishwoman and her friends sent comfort and hope to soldiers in the bleakest midwinters of the Great War.

roberts An envelope that contained one of the 453 letters sent to Monica Roberts by WWI soldiers whose lives she brightened with care packages and letters. Source: The Monica Roberts Collection via Dublin City Library and Archive

IT IS THE little details that still reverberate one hundred years later.

There is almost a painful amount of personal minutiae and vivid trivia in a collection of letters sent to young Irish woman Monica Roberts by soldiers away at World War I.

Monica Roberts lived in Stillorgan, Dublin with her father, a reverend and fellow of Trinity College. She ran a volunteer group called The Band of Helpers to the Soldiers, who fundraised to send necessities and small gifts to soldiers battling in the trenches and on the frontline.

But, it seems from the letters sent to her by those soldiers she supported, that the little notes included by Monica and the group in those care packages meant the most to them all.

These letters from soldiers, mostly in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (RDF), were donated by Monica’s daughter Mary Shackleton and the RDF Association to the Dublin City Archives. Some 453 of these letters and postcards were digitised and transcribed and are now fully searchable on the Dublin City Library and Archive’s dublinheritage.ie. You can browse them here.

Source: The Monica Roberts Collection via Dublin City Library and Archive

The letters are unfailingly polite, grateful and full of good wishes – in stark contrast to the daily slaughter of World War I that modern history students now understand was the fate waiting so many of the soldiers.

George A Hillman, a sergeant major in the Royal Flying Corps, wrote on New Year’s Day 1915, and told Monica that spirits were still high. Provisions at that stage in the war appeared to be in good supply with Hillman writing that on Christmas Day, “we had a very nice time indeed, the men all contributing a franc each and that was supplemented by our officers”.

Their Christmas dinner consisted of:

Roast Pork, Potatoes & Cabbage.Xmas pudding and pineapple.After which there were oranges, apples, figs and plenty of smoking material and drinks.Considering we are at war we all considered ourselves fortunate to be so well off.

Little dramatic vignettes from the war are related through the soldiers’ letters to Monica. Wesley Clarke, also in the Flying Corps, wrote to Monica seven times from 7 January to 26 November 1915. In one, he tells how one of the gifts – a scarf – she sent in a package had saved him from a sticky situation.

He tells how he had been returning with an important dispatch when his motorcycle chain broke and he was left stranded in the middle of nowhere. Another motorcyclist came along an hour later but he had no way of towing Wesley.

We thought we were done in again, when I hit on the happy idea of your scarf. I was afraid it would never stand the great strain, but it did wonderfully & it was the means of carrying [?] me home about 15 miles & enabled me to deliver my despatch.Now what do you think of that.That old scarf I will never part with, although it is stretched to twice its original length!

Source: The Monica Roberts Collection via Dublin City Library and Archive

Monica had her own personal heartache and concerns about the progress of the war. She appears to ask after the wellbeing of her brother-in-law, a Captain Conner, as several of the soldiers give her accounts of having seen him, and passing on her good wishes. One wrote:

I saw Captain Conner a few days ago and he looked quite well then, passing me in a car. I know he is very busy so I expect that accounts for no letters having reached you.

For many, what seem like mundane gifts now (one B. Weir writes that he was “delighted” by the “warm underclothing & tobacco” Monica sends) were lifelines for many.

Source: The Monica Roberts Collection via Dublin City Library and Archive

But at times too, the humour in the notes is black and gives away the terrible conditions in which the soldiers endure – William De Combe, a driver, writes bleakly:

I am not quite dead yet but very nearly. I have got another visitor, a beautiful cough not a beautiful doll and it’s clinging like ivy to me so we are all merry and bright you can bet.

Monica managed to send letters to soldiers taken prisoner of war by the Germans, and there are short telegrams of acknowledgement from Irish PoWs in the collection.

There is reference too, to events closer to home for Monica, as news of the 1916 Rising drifts over to France and Belgium. Private Joseph Clark says that many of the Irish troops are worried by the news from home. He also foresees the dire reception Irish-born soldiers will face from the Irish State and members of the Irish public for having fought the Germans as troops in the British Army:

We have just had some men returned off leave, and they tell us that Dublin is in ruins. It is awfully hard to lose one’s life out here, without being shot at home… We of the 2nd Battn the Dublins would ask for nothing better that the rebels should be sent out here and have an encounter with some of their (“so called Allies” “the Germans”)

Source: The Monica Roberts Collection via Dublin City Library and Archive

Ultimately though, the personal tragedies and suffering of these young people facing hitherto unseen levels of destruction and trauma are what press through the archive.

The words of one of the most prolific correspondents, Private Edward Mordaunt, who mainly wrote to Monica’s sister, K. Roberts, still sear a century after he committed them to paper.

He is eloquent on the daily hardships:

We can cook anything we are all experts, we are experts at making tea for that is all we ever get to make and very little of that. How we make it is this 1st Mix tea and sugar together in one bag 2nd Get mess tin full of water which holds a quart 3rd Put one hand full of mixed tea and sugar in cold water 4th Light a fire 5th Put mess tin on and leave till boiled. Then we put the milk in. IF any which we very seldome have. That is for Breakfast, Dinner and Tea.

His report of Christmas 1915 is in contrast to the previous year’s report on the fine dinner experienced by some of the troops in the letter at the top of this article:

Source: The Monica Roberts Collection via Dublin City Library and Archive

We are having a very hard time of it now in the trenches between rain, frost, snow and sleet it has us near Daed and that is not bad enough but when we lie down to get an hour’s sleep the Rats start to annoy us so that between them all including the Huns I need not tell you that we have a fine time of it.

Edward Mordaunt, Private 8723 of No. 6 Platoon, B Company, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, wrote 36 letters in all to Monica’s sister. He wounded his right arm in France in 1916, and has an inch of bone removed, leaving him in considerable pain.

He writes from Sussex to say that he had not forgotten her kindness to him in France. It appears that he is still in recovering in early 1917 but is looking for a transfer to Dublin. He continues to undergo numerous operations, and by December 1917, when their correspondence ends, Edward is facing into the world without employment and little use of his right arm.

He has however moved to Portobello, Dublin, where he is living on Windsor Terrace with a wife that he refers to only as Mrs E. Mordaunt.

Well Dear Miss Roberts, I must now close wishing you a very happy Xmas and a bright and Prosperous New Year.

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