There are so many things in the Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham that could be my “My favourite thing” that it was incredibly difficult to choose something. The collections are so varied, span such a length of time, touch on so many aspects of Birmingham’s history, culture, communities, events, and experiences, but, eventually I settled on the first collection I ever catalogued as a newly qualified archivist in my first professional job, which was here in Birmingham.I have chosen a set of letters written to Canning & Co. by Private R. Smith of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (MS 2326/1/19).
In the 15 years since cataloguing the letters, I have never forgotten the reference number for the collection, I have remembered the names of the soldiers who wrote back to their employers describing so vividly their day-to-day lives and experiences on the frontline, their hopes, concerns, humours, and losses. I remember details with such clarity, because of the way they wrote. So many images from the letters play across my memory whenever WWI is mentioned, from lighting flashing off of bayonets to rats the size of kittens.
An extract from my favourite letter of all however, is transcribed here, and I think it speaks for itself as to why I chose it:
12th November 1915
Dear Mr. Evans:
I expect you will be somewhat surprised to see that I am writing in ink, but I happened to run out of pencils and a friend of mine kindly lent me his only pen and pot of ink. The Battln. is – as you are probably aware – some 12½ miles south of Arras, our line of trenches being at a village – or rather what was once a village – called Fonque-Villiers. (By the way I’m getting a fellow on leave to post this so that the censor won’t be able to use his pencil on it). To proceed, the village is in ruins, I’ve never seen such a mess made of a place since I’ve been out here and that’s saying something, there is not a single house without its shell hole, and in a great many instances a few heaps of bricks are the sole survivors of what have at one time been decent sized houses. All that remains of the Church is half the tower, and a mass of bricks and plaster. Of course, you will understand what this place comes in for when I tell you that it is only 800 yards from the German first line trenches. The Huns sweep the place regularly every day with machine gun fire, besides giving us a little diversion in the way of 4.2’s and other missiles of a like kind – and this is the place where we come for 8 days rest (?) out of the trenches.
I have nearly met with disaster myself here – in fact they did go as far as ruining a pair of my trousers, by putting a bullet hole though ‘em – whilst was in ‘em too, and the annoying part about it was that I hadn’t another pair, consequently I noticed the slightest draught all day. Vowing vengeance I marched up to the firing line – the casualty to my trousers occurred in the village – and taking a nice position between 2 sand bags, waited for the first head to appear above the parapet. In about 10 minutes a fellow in the rear of their lines stepped out of a trench to hang up a shirt he’d been washing, so I let drive at once, I missed him but he turned and ran for cover quite smartly, leaving his shirt on the line. I peppered that shirt for a good half hour, and one or two more of our fellows did the same, I’ll bet it’s a bit more draughty than my trousers if he’s wearing it now.
I chose this collection because it reminds me of why I do what I do – I help to preserve archives and special collections that make a difference, that inform us, educate us, and enlighten us to moments in time that would otherwise be lost. These letters preserve an aspect of a significant event in history from the perspective of an “ordinary” person, they bring the past vividly to life. For someone these letters are a connection with a family member, for someone else it is an invaluable resource for researching WW1, for others it is an interesting and enlightening window into a world at a pop-up exhibition that might spark an interest in history, a career, a hobby – whatever it is – it is enriching. There is something in the Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham for everyone.
Archives & Collections Manager
Don’t forget to pop along to our pop-up exhibition tonight from 4pm!