World War 1 soldier in trenches

The Great War

Sometimes as a writer you scratch your head and wonder where the next paying proposition is coming from. Other times, it’ll just drop into your lap. In 1994, just after I’d published my first company history, of William Jackson & Son plc, the Chairman presented me with a suitcase containing some 700 letters written by his grandfather to his grandmother when they were courting, during World War I. 




Jack Oughtred had gone out to Flanders with the East Yorkshire regiment in 1915 and somehow survived until the end of the war. He had, at a conservative estimate, a dozen brushes with death, and twice returned from leave to find his battalion decimated.

These are love letters, very much of their time, and in places you have to read between the lines. But in Destiny - The War Letters of Captain Jack Oughtred MC , they paint a vivid picture of a middle-class courtship and a brutal war.

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The Oughtred project led to a second one, through a family friend who attended the launch of Destiny at the Museum of Army Transport in Beverley, East Yorks. Whereas Jack Oughtred burned his lover's letters lest they fall into the wrong hands, his fellow officer
Cecil Slack kept every one he received from his sweetheart, Dora Willatt. In fact, hers comprise the bulk of this book, and consequently offer a very different view of the war - from the point of view of those left at home. Dora wanted to serve, and managed, finally, to work as a nurse.

In Thank God I'm Not A Boy, among the most vivid episodes she describes is meeting survivors of battle in the streets of Hull to be told that her beloved was last seen in a shell-hole facing the German advance in the spring of 1918. It is several weeks later that she learns he is a P.O.W. These letters make a fascinating, deeply moving book and are - in the opinion of the late Leo Cooper - "almost unique".

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