Here is one of the letters we have transcribed, written by my grandfather during the First World War to his mother:
1/1st Wessex Divisional Cyclist Coy.
My dear Mother,
Yet another letter in typewriting, which really is the quickest and best method for me of letting you know how your Soldier Boy is getting on. Really my day is so full that I haven't got time to sneeze. I am in the Orderly Room working all day and very nearly half the night, and my tea time is occupied in attending an N.C.O's class at the Officer's Quarters. I can just manage to get a drink at about 9.20. prior to 9.20. roll, which I, of course, do not attend, but at which I have to hang round in case the Captain wants anything done.
To-day has been the day of days. Last night late a telephone message came through from Headquarters at Exeter to the affect that a big pot from the Staff would inspect the Company. Now a General's inspection is the only occasion on which the whole of the Orderly Room Staff turn out in full marching order. What was the consequence. After 10. p.m. I had to go back to billet get all my donkey's harness out on the deck and polish all the buttons and straps, roll my overcoat, put in a clean shift or underclothing, canvas shoes, towel, mess tin, and a host of other things too numerous to mention. I went to bed at 12. midnight, and was out at 6 a.m. to parade at 7.a.m. for the Platoon Commanders to inspect the Platoon to see if we were fit for the General. Home to breakfast at 8.15., and fall in again at 8.50.a.m. ready to march off to the Inspection ground at 10.a.m. Fortunately the rain kept off otherwise we should have had a wet shirt because out great coats were in our packs at the very bottom. Anyway we got over it. The old Gen. had a look at me, but my buckles were clean, my leather straps also, and I had a jolly good shave just before I paraded. My word, you would have laughed to see me folding my pack. This life is doing me a world of good, because if one's pack isn't properly squared what ho, out it comes on the floor and you get it across the neck, perhaps 3 days for being slovenly, and three day's pack drill isn't a picnic party.
Well, about my Billet. We came here on Saturday. I moved up in charge of the Sick in the train, and after reporting here was put in charge of the baggage guard. That is to say to look after the men guarding the kit bags as the waggons unloaded. I got one man in the Report for not bucking up. He is an old soldier, and tried to play the rotten on me because I am a young one, but as the Captain said, I would not stand any nonsense, and that is the man he wants. If you get a man in that way the Officers back you up fine.
When I got to my new billet, the Landlady had a nice warm dinner ready for me. I am with the young Canadian still, and we are in clover. They are young people, and only recently got married. He is an Artizan Attendant at the Exminster Asylum just across from here, and another such a man as Ern. In fact I can almost imagine it is Ern when he speaks. His very ways and sayings are the same. The grub is right up to dick, and the bed is comfortable enough for me to sleep like a top, and not wake until 8.a.m. I am too tired to bawl or walk. Besides the life is different.
I was going to keep the fact that I am in the N.C.O's Class from you until I knew the result, but I tell you now. I am penalised to a certain extent by being in the Office, because I am not learning my drills, but the Officers are very kind and appreciate the fact, and my knowledge of Company drill now is merely book knowledge. I have had a go at a squad once or twice, and can manage to make them hear. I didn't know I had a voice until now, and the harder you can shout, and the more sharp you get the words out the quicker the squad moves.
Topsham isn't a bad place. It is about the size of Ivybridge. There aren't many people and there are no amusements to go to, which doesn't affect me very much. I am too busy to go anywhere. I am, however, having a bit of fun with some Nurses at Exminster Asylum. Our Landlord said he could put us on to a few, so we wrote a note which he took over, which was to the effect that two lonely Soldiers wanted comforting, and they wrote back saying that they would be very pleased to have a try at it. Laugh, Mother, We are always laughing in billet.
Sergeant Major Dunn has had a very bad hand. Just before we left Exmouth he had to stop in bed for a day, and his hand was swollen up very bad. I wrote a card to Mrs Dunn for him, and I hope she got it. He could not possible handle anything with his fist. He sends his kind regards to all home, and his love to his Wife. I think he is of opinion that his Missus doesn't believe he has been bad, but don't for goodness sake say anything about it to her. We must not interfere with their affairs.
We are in the local Drill Hall here. It is something like the Mutley Barracks. There is a shooting range and everything for training purposes.
By the bye, did you get the photo of my Comrade?. I sent it from Exmouth. His people are shifting to Exeter this week, so I have a home to go to there. I am number one there I can tell you, and as we are only four miles from the City it is rather convenient. I have to go up to Headquarters to study the system of correspondence there, so I shall have a nice time with my friends. Go home there to meals, and probably to sleep. I know my way about.
Well, Mother, I am snatching this five minutes to write you, and you must excuse mistakes. I often think of home, and you and Dad and wish I could pop in to have a yarn with you all. But you will be pleased to see how I am looking. I feel different, and have got the military touch alright.
Has either Ern or Frank been attested for the Army yet?. Everbody is joining, and we had a batch of schoolmasters in last week. They are decent chaps, and it is quite a treat to yarn with them.
Please don't trouble about me, Mother dear, I wouldn't care two pennyworth of cold gin if I knew you were alright. I am serving my Country, and have the feeling that I am doing my bit to keep the roof over my parents heads, which is only a small repayment for the care and kindness shown to me ever since I came to town. I shall want a home Mother when I come back, and for that reason keep your pecker up.
Love to your dear self and Dad, and all,
Your loving Son Bert.
Please write me
109 ??? Mc Dermott
1/1st Wessex Divisional Cyclist Co.
4. Victoria Road