Oh what a lovely war


The style is so jaunty it might have come from an adventure holiday diary.

Tea on the Pyramids ... a fancy dress whist drive ... Christmas dinner overlooking the Suez Canal. It sounds like a spectacular vacation.

But these remarkable letters are one man's chronicle of the First World War - and a fascinating insight into the unbreakable spirit of British troops.

They were written by a Military Cross hero to his family back home.

Now - nearly a century later - they reveal not so much the horror of that conflict, but how soldiers used humour and optimism to see them through it.

In one, Lieutenant Hubert Wolton describes how he and his comrades organised a pre-battle whist drive - half dressing up as 'ladies' to take on the men.

In another, from Cairo, he recalls climbing 460ft up a pyramid and taking tea at the top.

There were games of football between attacks and constant jokes to make light of the prospect of death.

During a 1915 advance against the Turks, for example, Lieutenant Wolton casually records: "One fellow said to me, 'I would go to Hell with you, sir'. I told him I wasn't in much of a hurry at the moment."

And then, perhaps, a glimpse of grim reality.

From the trenches at Gallipoli, the young officer writes: "No words can properly describe a bombardment.

But from a distance it sounds as if a large empty tank was rolling down a cliff."

The unique insight into Lieutenant Wolton's war begins with crowds cheering him off in the summer of 1915, then follows his progress for more than three years through the trenches, into battle, and at one stage in a military hospital.

His adventures are described in a booklet comprising 55 letters that the lieutenant - later promoted to captain and awarded the MC for conspicuous gallantry at Gaza in 1917 - wrote to his family in Lavenham, Suffolk.

The young officer, from the 1/5th Suffolk Regiment (Territorial Army), used them to keep his loved ones updated on his service in Turkey, Egypt and Palestine.

They describe his brushes with death, but he also captures the humour and camaraderie among British troops - not to mention a young man's excitement at visiting exotic foreign locations.

On August 18, 1915, less than three weeks after leaving Britain, he saw his first action at Gallipoli.

"Talk about the fog of war," he says. "Nobody knows what is happening on their right or left and very soon all connection is lost."

Later he adds: "I had some narrow escapes. A shrapnel shell burst above and a pellet went right through the toe of my right boot and out the side - without so much as holing my sock."

Extracts from the letters of Hubert Wolton

On October 31, he describes their proximity to the Turks. "In some places are trenches that are only 15 yards apart, and then the danger is from bombs. But we amuse ourselves by firing at each others' periscopes."

Elsewhere, the drudgery of war emerges while protecting the Suez Canal.

"We had a fearful sandstorm last week which lasted 48 hours," he wrote on April 17, 1916.

"No cooking whatsoever was possible during the whole of that time, during which we remained in our tents."

But there were extraordinary experiences too, including a visit to the Pyramids in September 1915.

"We climbed to the top of the biggest one which is 460ft high," he wrote.

And in the true spirit of Britishness, he records: "We had tea at the top."

On Christmas Day, 1916, he describes how officers had a game of whist.

"Everyone was divided up equally and half wore their cardigans over their tunics, and these were the 'ladies'. You can imagine this caused a lot of merriment."

Even the end of the war was recorded with understatement.

On Nov 20, 1918, Wolton wrote: "The war is over. My feelings when I heard the news were like a person heaving a great sigh of relief. That is all. I did not feel inclined to rush about and make a noise."

Lieutenant Wolton was 25 when he and his two brothers, who were in the same regiment, were posted abroad.

His elder brother, Owen, a second lieutenant, was killed within days of arriving in Gallipoli, but his younger brother, Eric, was also promoted to captain and survived the war.

John Wolton looks through his father Hubert's scrapbook detailing his war experiences

After the war, Hubert became a quantity surveyor and fine art auctioneer, marrying his sweetheart Molly in 1923, by whom he had two children.

He died in 1977, aged 87.

His son John, 80, who has published the collected letters under the title Letters from the Front to Lavenham, said: "Like my father, I am not an emotional man. But when I read the letters, I felt great pride at what he had achieved."

Local historian Chris Lamb, who brought the letters to light, said: "They are not all doom and gloom. It is also an important social history which shows some of the fun these men had."

I have load of stuff from a great uncle killed in WW1, including letters. All great to keep & read.

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