How did these men experience the conflict?
There are 32 letters and 16 photographs in this resource. All letters have been transcribed, and selected letters have an audio version too. The documents should offer students a chance to develop their powers of evaluation and analysis. Teachers may also wish to use the collection to develop their own resources.
You may spot spelling or grammatical errors in the transcripts as we have transcribed the letters as they stand. Unusual or technical terms have been defined within the text. However, we have not included full images for several letters as these would have proved too difficult to read online. In such cases we have shown part of the letter in order to provide a sense of the original.
Across the online resources Letters from the First World War, 1915 and Letters from the First World War, 1916-1918 it is possible to find more than one letter from the same person, or find references within the letters to those who have written. For this reason is it is helpful to see the letters as a whole group to get the most out of them and appreciate the nature of the collection.
Letters from the First World War, 1915 is based on the first half of the RAIL record. We have labelled each letter according to a theme from the First World War. For example, some letter writers have detailed their experience of the trenches, injury, or active service in the Dardanelles and India or training prior going abroad. Others have touched on the technology of war, the movement of troops or conditions at the railheads in France. There are three accompanying PDFs, each containing a collection of letters on the themes of the Dardanelles, training and the trenches.
Railheads were the nearest points to the front from which men and supplies travelled by train and were then taken to the battle line by motor vehicle or horse. The Great Western Railway Company formed four companies of Royal Engineers as many men from the company, including these clerical workers from Paddington, had enlisted to serve. Due to their knowledge and understanding of the railways, many became Railway Troops based at railheads.
Unsurprisingly, in the letters many men showed a keen interest in all matters connected with railways or engines, other Great Western Railway ‘fellows’ and the Great Western Railway Magazine. Some soldiers mentioned having received the magazine or asked for it to be sent out. It included photographs of all those who served in the First World War from the GWR as a whole and employees could catch up on company business and news of sporting or social events.
How to use this resource
- Discuss any of the suggested questions below on a group/individual basis.
- Assign groups of letters on a given theme to groups/individuals in order to explore and interpret.
- Students could curate their own exhibition on the letters based on a theme/question of their choice using additional original material/secondary sources.
- Carry out research on the life of an individual soldier. Our research guide can help get you started.
- Use this resource in conjunction with our second online resource including letters from the later war period Letters from the First World War, 1916-1918 to consider further themes and ideas.
- Student work could be presented via various media for example Powerpoint Presentation, video film, radio documentary, newspaper article, role play interview, poster, blog, web page or classroom exhibition.
- How does their experience of the First World War vary amongst these letter writers?
- What training was carried out before they were sent to fight?
- How did the men feel about their experience of training?
- What can be found out about tactics/weapons/equipment used in combat?
- Do you get a sense of what these soldiers miss from home? Is this unsurprising/shocking?
- Describe conditions for those in the trenches on Western Front.
- What were conditions like for those who were sent to the Dardanelles?
- Can you get a sense of the experience of those who fought in Greece, India or Egypt, East Africa?
- How was the treatment of the sick or injured organized at home and abroad?
- Is there evidence of what the men thought of those whom they fought/or of their comrades?
- Do any soldiers give their opinion about the war?
- Do you think these men are typical of those who went to war?
- Can we find out anything about the characters of the men who fought from these letters?
- Have you found anybody who has written more than once, or spot any links between the letters which highlight particular friendships?
- Considering who the soldiers are writing to, can you explain if this has influenced the tone or style of the letters? Give examples.
- Is it clear if any details have been left out/put in for particular reasons?
- Can you discover a difference between what is being said and how it is being said in any of the letters?
- Which letters have you found the most interesting/funny/moving to read?
Working with written documents
For help on how to work with the letters you could take a look at the student section of our website where you can also find a brief guide on working with records.
Working with images
When studying the photographs and postcards in the collection, it is helpful to explore the idea that they were produced to provide a particular message. Pupils ought to consider the purpose and audience for which these sources were intended.
Thus for photographs it is useful to look at key aspects of their composition such as lighting, pose, background, foreground, formality, lack of formality and so on and evaluate the original caption if given. A further group of images from this National Archives record can be viewed on our Flickr board First World War letters.
‘Well old chap, I am glad I am wounded to get out of that hell, and if you ever meet a chap that says he wants to go back call him a liar’
These few words written by Albert Edwin Rippington, from a hospital in England, come from this collection of letters from staff at the Audit office for the Great Western Railway (GWR) based at Paddington, London, who had enlisted to fight in the First World War.
What makes this collection of soldiers’ letters so different from all others is the fact that it reveals the stories of a particular group of men who varied in class and education, who were writing back to their colleagues and bosses in the office while on active service during in the First World War. Many men enlisted from the GWR to fight, but these letters come exclusively from those worked at its Audit office. Staff at Paddington covered a range of different roles in insurance, accounting or ticketing for the Great Western Railway.
The letters (catalogue reference RAIL 253/516) belong to the RAIL series (which includes the records of the railway companies) at The National Archives. They are arranged in 12 carefully bound folders, rather like a series of scrapbooks. Starting from August 1915, each part represented what was known as the office newsletter, a collection of letters, photographs postcards, field cards and contemporary newspaper cuttings from those who had gone to fight.
Every newsletter opened with a news section listing those who had written and sent photos to the office and those who recently left to company to serve at the front. The totals of all men in khaki from the Audit office were given too. The news section also provided information about those who had died, been injured, visited the office on leave or been promoted.
The newsletters were circulated within the office departments and read by men when they came home on leave. Friends or relatives who had been sent their own letters or photographs often lent them or typed them out to be circulated as part of the regular Audit office newsletter.
The Audit office raised enough money through collections and the sale of Christmas cards, to create a temporary roll of honour for the office at Paddington to commemorate those who had fallen in battle by August 1915. Photographs of the Roll of Honour were sent out to several employees as their correspondence reveals.
After the war had ended and troops had returned, the GWR was able to quantify the contribution that it had made to the cause. The contribution made by the Audit office was high: 55.5% of male staff enlisted, whereas the average rate of enlistment across the GWR was 32.6%. This amounted to 184 men, 17 of whom lost their lives.
On 11 November 1922, The Great Western Railway War Memorial, dedicated to all 2,524 staff who had died in battle was unveiled on platform 1, Paddington station.
The First World War Digital Poetry Archive includes primary material from major poets Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, and Edward Thomas.
The National Archives Teaching the First World War, highlights The National Archives and other resources from the web.
These are all aimed primarily at KS3 and KS4 students.
Letters from the First World War, 1916- 18 Part two of this online resource, which covers the later period of the war.
Great War soldier’s record is a lesson for use in the classroom.
Great War 1914- 1918 website on the themes of outbreak, experience, peacemaking and remembrance.
All Pals Together. National Archives video conference session.Back to top