University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Normalising the brutality of the Somme: a soldier writes to his aunt, 13 October 1916

In the first of a series on First World War sources, in this blog second year UoP student Oliver Rooney discusses the experiences of Charles Wyndham Wynne, expressed through his letter to his aunt Sophia Sarah Wynne on the 13th October 1916, several months before his death in June 1917, as well as the historiography surrounding the importance and limitations of First World War letters. [1]

The atrocities of the First World War have been conveyed through personal letters between soldiers and their families. These personal sources provide historians with a first-hand understanding of the soldier’s experiences during wartime, and the emotions they conveyed and attempted to conceal from their letters.[2] Charles Wynne (1895-1917) was an Irish soldier who served as captain in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War. Through regular correspondence between him and his mother, Alice Katherine Wynne, his letters have shown his journey throughout the war, from Fort Dunree in Belfast in 1915, to the 182nd Siege Battery in France by 1916.[3] However, his letter to his aunt on 13th October 1916, part of a collection digitised by Trinity College Dublin, contains a more brutal description of his experiences. On his arrival in France, Charles described the chaos left behind from the previous battery positions; “an old battlefield of the French, utter desolation and plenty of legs and arms and bones and boots”.[4] This description is explicit in telling the first-hand brutality of war, as Charles almost normalises the sight of death. Although, First World War historians argue that wartime letters were limited in describing the true nature of the trenches. Michael Roper indicates that there was “a relative absence of explicit descriptions of the horror of the trenches in British soldiers’ letters”, suggesting that letters avoided the truth to protect family members from the atrocities of war.[5]  However Charles’s letter challenges such arguments, as his experiences of France were graphic and honest, describing the country as “an awful network of wires everywhere you go”.[6] Therefore, although letter writing during the First World War became a “mass cultural phenomenon”, the majority of wartime letters were not graphic in nature, letters like Charles’ were relatively uncommon. [7]

Soldiers of the Royal Garrison Artillery at the Battle of the Somme, November 1916.

Soldiers of the Royal Garrison Artillery at the Battle of the Somme, November 1916.

When reading First World War letters, it is important for historians to understand where letters were placed in the context of the war. As for Charles Wynne’s letter, the 13th October 1916 is placed during the latter part of the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun; two of the most catastrophic battles of the war. This would explain the brutality of Charles’ experiences as described in his letter, and why everything was “in an awful confusion and muddle.”[8] Additionally, David Barton and Nigel Hall note that letters from the war hold forms of contextual understanding, by referring to the space and time of the writer and of the reader; two worlds invoked within the letter,

Charles in the brutality of war, and Sophia in the safety of home.[9] This idea indicates that wartime letters hold an insight into the life of a person, years after their death, whereby the historian can experience the same emotions felt by the first intended recipient, in this case Sophia Wynne.[10] They understand the same emotions that Sophia would have felt from reading his letter in 1916, to reading his letter in the present, although in hindsight, historians know the outcome of Charles’ death in 1917. Charles’ letter further describes the struggles of life in France, explaining to his aunt that she was “right about the mud in some of the trenches”, implying that she had warned him of the conditions that he would face during the war.[11] Megan Robertson argues that wartime letters imply a relationship, that establishes social contexts and connections within their content.[12] Thus, wartime letters like Charles’ are important for social historians as they display similarities in the relationships and emotions between the soldier and his family during the First World War, with people and their families in the present.[13]

The social context surrounding personal sources and wartime letters is important for social and cultural historians, as each letter displays a unique correspondence which provides questions about the emotions and motivations of the soldier, and what was included and concealed from each letter.[14] As for Charles’ letter, he describes himself as “a rotten correspondent”, but does not hide his morbid experiences, describing how he was told that “a leg was sticking out (of the mud) a mark used as a sign post for pointing out the way.” [15] Martha Hanna discusses how First World War epistolary was a means by which soldiers “maintained their civilian identity in the midst of war”: in Charles’ letter, he maintains his civilian identity while describing the barbarity of the war around him. His emotions are somewhat subdued from the letter, therefore, social historians need to analyse personal sources like these to understand how soldiers understood the nature of warfare and “their acceptance of the conduct of war.” [16]  Moreover, Summerfield indicates that wartime letters were subject to censorship by the military authorities. Thus, she indicates that some historians are sceptical about the usefulness of war letters, suggesting that “few correspondents communicated the ‘reality’ of the frontline.”[17]  Nonetheless, Charles as a wartime correspondent was useful in describing his personal experience of the “utter desolation” of the French battlefield, and the “plenty of legs & arms and bones)” that he witnessed, whereas other wartime correspondents from France may have been more implicit in their epistolary. [18]

To conclude, this blog has outlined the usefulness and limitations of First World War letters as personal sources for historical analysis, as correspondents on the front line often attempted to conceal their true emotions, and many letters from the war were absent of explicit descriptions of the trenches, likely due to censorship by the military authorities. [19] Charles Wynne’s’ letter, however, is useful in describing his personal account of the “desolation” of war, which provides historians with a broader context of the aftermath of First World War battles, such as the Battle of the Somme. [20] Overall, wartime epistolary faces limitations, as they were not intended to be read as historical sources, rather an insight into the soldier’s communications of life at war. Ultimately, letters convey a relationship between the soldier and his family, which establish social contexts of the First World War.[21]

[1] Charles Wyndham Wynne to Sophia Sarah Wynne, 13th October 1916. http://letters1916.maynoothuniversity.ie/item/922, Trinity College Dublin.

[2] Penny Summerfield, Histories of the Self: Personal Narratives and Historical Practice, 1st ed. (London; Routledge, 2018), 32. In, Michael Roper, The Secret Battle. Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester; Manchester University Press, 2009), 21.

[3] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 1.

[4] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 1.

[5] Summerfield, Histories of the Self, 31.

[6] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 3.

[7] Christa Hämmerle, ‘“You Let a Weeping Woman Call You Home?” Private Correspondences during the First World War in Austria and Germany’. In Rebecca Earle, Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600-1945, (London: New York; Routledge, 1999), 153. In Summerfield, Histories of the Self, 28.

[8] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 2.

[9] David Barton and Nigel Hall, Letter Writing as a Social Practice (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000), 6. In, Megan Robertson, “Epistolary Memory: First World War Letters to British Columbia”, Issue 182 (2014): 129.

[10] Miriam Dobson, “Varieties of primary sources and their interpretation”: Letters. In Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century History, edited by Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann, (London: New York; Routledge, 2009), 57.

[11] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 3.

[12] Robertson, “Epistolary Memory”, 129.

[13] Robertson, “Epistolary Memory”, 128.

[14] Summerfield, Histories of the Self, 28.

[15] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 1-2

[16] Martha Hanna, “A Republic of Letters: The Epistolary Tradition in France during World War I”, American Historical Review, (2003): 1339; Summerfield, Histories of the Self, 28.

[17] Summerfield, Histories of the Self, 30.

[18] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 2.

[19] Roper, The Secret Battle, 21; Summerfield, Histories of the Self, 30-31.

[20] Wynne, 13th October 1916, 2.

[21] Robertson, “Epistolary Memory”, 129.

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