From annotated bibles, to heartfelt letters, to souvenirs from the battlefield. The impact of the First World War was felt by families in every part of Scotland and keeping mementoes was an important way of remembering wartime experiences or coping with the loss of a loved one.
Explore treasured artefacts that have been passed down through generations, providing a personal insight into the lives of those at home and on the front lines. A selection of these stories was on display in Next of Kin, an exhibition which toured across Scotland from 2015–2017.
With telephone and radio communication still in their infancy, letters and postcards were the main means of communication between individuals on active service and their families at home in Scotland. The delivery of letters and parcels from home was irregular. Telegrams were quicker but more expensive, and rarely available to those at the Front.
Letters home were censored for sensitive information, and much communication between individuals and families was intended to comfort and reassure.
“I am still in the best of health and getting along first class.- George Buchanan in a letter to his sister
You can listen to an extract from the letter here:
Families usually received official communication only when there was bad news. When a family member was killed in action or posted missing, military authorities tried to send and confirm information quickly. Where time and the circumstances of war allowed, more personal communication from officers, chaplains and comrades was sometimes received.
Letters received by the wife of Private William Dick reveal the agonising wait for news experienced by family members at home. William Dick was serving with 1st Battalion Scots Guards near Ypres, Belgium. Letters to his wife Margaret at home in Haddington, East Lothian give an insight into the hardship and fear of daily life in the trenches.
“You don’t know what it feels like going into action, knowing what a poor chance you have of coming back alive. This is the time we think of home.- William Dick in a letter to Mrs Dick
You can hear extracts of letters between William and Margaret Dick here:
In June 1916 William was wounded in the leg by an enemy shell. Margaret received a letter from William’s friend Corporal Stark, informing her that his leg had been amputated but that he was expected to recover. William even kept the fragment of shell after it was removed from his leg.
“He has the knee joint; that means he can in due time obtain, say, a cork leg and with the knee joint good, be able to walk as well as ever.- Corporal Stark in a letter to Mrs Dick
However, four days after he was wounded, his condition deteriorated and he died. Margaret was informed of his death by the Chaplain who was with William at the Casualty Clearing Station and also conducted his funeral.
“He had the best of care and medical attention and for some time we had good hopes of his recovery.- Chaplain in a letter to Mrs Dick
The last correspondence Margaret received was a card providing details and an official photograph of William’s grave in Belgium. Margaret kept these letters and papers along with a collection of William’s belongings in his memory.
Soon after the war ended, the British government began production of individually- named memorial plaques to be sent out to the next of kin – the closest living relative – of every serviceman and woman who had lost their lives. Bereaved families received them through the post in a cardboard envelope, with a printed message from the King. Commemorative scrolls were also sent.
An estimated 1,360,000 of these bronze plaques were issued from 1919 onwards. The design was by the artist Edward Carter Preston. It shows symbols of British identity, power and victory: the figure of Britannia holding a wreath, the lion, dolphins to represent British sea power and, at the base, a lion devouring the eagle of Germany.
Memorial plaque and scroll sent to George Buchanan’s next of kin by the British Government on behalf of the King following his death at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.
Memorial plaque sent to the next of kin of Sub-Lieutenant William Wilson, a naval officer who was killed in action in January 1918.
Memorial plaque sent to the wife of William Dick after his death from shrapnel wounds inflicted in trenches near Ypres.
Memorial plaque and cover slip sent to Hayden Mellor’s next of kin after his death on the Western Front in April 1918.
Each plaque was individually named. It was decided that no ranks or service units would be shown. Each life lost was represented as being of equal value.
Memorial plaques were frequently a focus for remembrance of lost loved ones and in some cases families personalised or mounted them in an individually designed frame. Private Alexander Shivas, 6th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, died of wounds in 1915 and the memorial plaque was sent to his father. The Shivas family, from Ballindalloch, Banffshire, added more information about his service and death to the plain back of the plaque.
Active service overseas qualified individuals to receive service medals from the British government in the name of the King. Millions were produced, and they were all individually named.
Service medals were usually delivered in the post, unlike gallantry awards recognising acts of bravery which were sometimes awarded formally in person. Most service medals were received after the war. When an individual had not survived the medals were sent to their next of kin. They later passed down through the family.
The most common service medals were the 1914 Star, the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. The two Stars were issued in the last years of the war to recognise those who had served at the beginning.
Servicemen occasionally received tokens of recognition from their home towns and parishes. Medals and watches were typically presented to add to official service medals and gallantry decorations.
Many service personnel carried pocket bibles and New Testaments, which were often distributed for this purpose by church organisations. These were frequently a comfort in the face of the risk of injury and death. In several cases individuals have used the pages to document their location or add their own religious text.
New Testament with ‘six short rules for young Christians’, handwritten by its owner, Private Henry Miller, 2nd Battalion Cameron Highlanders.
New Testament of Miss Rose West, Motor Transport Officer with the American Unit of the Scottish Women's Hospitals in Serbia, Macedonia and Salonika, 1918-1919
Book of psalms and hymns printed for soldiers by the Church of Scotland, belonging to Archibald Sneddon, 10th Battalion Cameronians.
One New Testament in the collection stands as a symbol of humanity and reconciliation between enemies. Private James Scouller from Paisley, Renfrewshire was serving with 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders when he was killed in action in the battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917. His family’s most treasured possession was the pocket New Testament which he was carrying the day he died.
It was sent to them by Erich Alfrogge, a German soldier who had found the mortally wounded Scouller and stayed with him to comfort him when he died. Alfrogge contacted the Scouller family through the police in Glasgow, and wrote to them describing their son’s last moments.
“Such hours like lived with your brother on can not forgotten and till my end of life I remember him ever with an art of fraternization.- Erich Alfrogge in a letter to James Scouller's brother
You can listen to an extract from the letter here.
The New Testament was sent from Germany in 1939, shortly before war between Britain and Germany broke out again.
When time and circumstances allowed, drawing was a popular way of recording individual and collective war experiences. Amateur artists made and kept their own pictures. Because photography was limited and strictly controlled, some drawings became the main visual record of the war service of a battalion or other military unit.
Herbert J Gunn left art school at the outbreak of war and joined the 10th Battalion Cameronians as a 2nd Lieutenant. Just before the battle of Arras in 1917 he sketched his fellow officers. Several of these portraits were later published in the battalion history. After the war he became a successful artist.
Self-portrait drawn in pencil in northern France, 1918.
Portrait of Lieutenant and Quartermaster FRH Needham, by 2nd Lieutenant Herbert J Gunn, 1918.
Portrait of Captain G Pride, 10th Battalion Cameronians, by 2nd Lieutenant Herbert J Gunn, 1918.
Keeping autograph books was another way of preserving memories of individuals encountered during service. This was a particularly popular practice in war hospitals, where nurses and patients collected drawings, watercolours, verses, jokes and messages from wounded soldiers in care.
Private Henry (Harry) Hubbard was working as an architectural draughtsman in Glasgow when war broke out. He enlisted in the 9th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, known as ‘the Glasgow Highlanders’, but his first winter in the trenches damaged his health. He spent 16 months in hospital in England and was unable to return to active service. While hospitalised he filled a book sent by his mother with contributions from fellow patients. Hubbard later worked as a draughtsman on the Scottish National War Memo.
People treasured a variety of objects which they found on the battlefield, bought or traded for. These could be mementoes of places or personal experiences, enemy weapons and equipment kept as trophies, or objects handmade or decorated to pass the time. Smaller items of military uniform, especially badges and hats, were also kept.
These, and the stories they related to, were often handed on to family members.
Mass produced objects were often personalised, with names and place names written by hand, later adding to the personal value of these objects for families.
Sister Annie Maria Locke joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1914 and travelled from Australia to work in hospitals in Britain and France. Sister Locke collected a number of unusual souvenirs during her service. Most were given to her by what she called ‘The Boys’ – wounded soldiers in her care.
Rifle bolt picked up by a soldier during the British retreat from Mons, Belgium in 1914.
Arrowhead picked up by a British soldier at Kut on the Mesopotamia Front (Iraq), in 1916.
Piece of biscuit, a reminder of Sister Locke’s experience of the rapid evacuation of her hospital from Rouen to Nantes, during the Allied retreat in France in August 1914. Biscuits were issued to staff and patients on the train.
Professional studio portrait photographs were common reminders kept by families separated by war. These might be taken at home before people departed on active service, or were taken in photographers’ studios overseas, away from the front line, and sent home as postcards. They were often preserved after the war as family mementoes.
A small number of servicemen and women carried their own pocket cameras. Until official restrictions on private photography became effective, and until personal stocks of film ran out, private photography was one means of recording individual experiences and preserving memories.
British and German soldiers pose together for the camera of Lieutenant AHC Swinton, 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, during the unofficial truce which occurred on parts of the front line on Christmas Day, 1914.
View taken from a dangerous position outside a front-line trench by Lieutenant LA Lynden-Bell, 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, 1915. He took the photograph lying down. His rifle can be seen in the foreground.
Nurses relaxing in their accommodation at a British hospital at Wimereux, France, 1918. This photograph was taken by Janet Cadell, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse serving with the Red Cross.
Three officers of the Royal Air Force pose together for the camera in 1918. On the left is Lieutenant JMW Hamilton whose flying training began in 1917 at Montrose Air Station, Angus.
These family stories and more featured in the Next of Kin exhibition, which toured across Scotland from 2015–2017. Each tour venue added two stories relevant to the local area and the exhibition was accompanied by a programme of events and resources. You can find out more about the project here.