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1916: World War 1 letter - Belgian refugees' suffering, experiences in Egypt and France

Updated on March 20, 2012

In this letter, Reginald Trevor an Australian soldier, and my great-grandfather, describes life in Egypt, German prisoners of war in France, the suffering of the Belgian refugees who have fled to France, and his promotion to Lance Corporal.

Colour patch of the 5th Battalion
Colour patch of the 5th Battalion | Source

Transcribed letter:

France

1916

Dear Mother,

It is a very long time since I last wrote to you I know but posting letters has been so difficult owing to our moving about so much, when we left the Peninsular we stayed for a while at Lemnos and then went to Egypt and camped at a place called Tel el Kebir where there was a battle one time in the eighties I think. We then went out on the desert the other side of the Suez Canal and built defences in case the Turks thought of invading Egypt.

I had no chance to go to Cairo or any other large town to get the lace you want although I don’t remember seeing any native lace in Cairo. There is a terrible lot of fancy stuff sold there, mostly alleged silk shawls etc. synthetic silk I think – it does not appear to me to be genuine - of course the best shops have the real article but they want high prices. Anyway nearly all of those sort of goods are not Egyptian but are imported from France and England. The natives seem incapable of making anything but shoddy stuff even the antiques are faked and are not worth having.

Well we are here in France now – we landed at Marseilles and came right through the country by train but did not get near Paris. The country in the south is lovely - just the same as one reads about in books but up north here it is a lot different, very cold and wet.

I have seen a lot of German prisoners at Marseilles. They have them working on the wharves unloading trucks etc. and I saw some doing agricultural work all under guard of course.

It is very noticeable that there are only old men and boys about – the others have gone to the front I suppose and there are a lot of women doing men’s work, even in the fields and a terrible lot of women wear mourning.

The Germans had been in the place where we are billeted, but the British drove them out from all accounts I can hear in this place they behaved themselves fairly well. The worst I could hear was that they took all the chocolate out of one shop without paying for it.

It appears that they were very different in Belgium. I have seen and spoken to some refugees (the French treat them very well) – they have told me about burnt homes, cutting off the thumbs of young boys so that they could not be of military use, murdering old men and things that seem to horrible to be true.

I suppose we will be going to the trenches soon - from all accounts I don’t think it will be as bad as Gallipoli and we are going to be granted leave to go to England in our turn for eight days. It will be all right, some of us have not had a holiday for a long time. My turn is well on the list so I should be going in about a month’s time, of course only a very small percentage can go at a time.

I got your two parcels safely – one with the sheep’s skin coat and one with the plum pudding. The cigars were good – it is so hard to get a good smoke – we get issued with tobacco and cigarettes but as you can guess they are not of the best quality.

I have not received any of your letters for a long time now. The mail service seems to be disarranged with our shifting about, when you address my letters now just put number, rank, name, company and battalion, A.I.F. add nothing else.

I see in one of your letters Mary wants a badge and regimental colour. I will send her one when I get to London – one that has been in action – our colours are red and black, oblong, black on top. (Colour patch of the 5th Battalion pictured).

I am enclosing some stamps for Harold, tell him I will send him some curios when I can get the chance to get them. I forgot to tell you that I have been promoted to Lance Corporal. It is not much but may lead to something better.

Well I must now conclude so with best love to all at home,

I remain your loving son,

Trevor

P.S. I met Fred Nathan at Tel El Kebir.

For more information about Tel El Kebir, click here.

To read about the Battle of Tel El Kebir in 1882 where the Anglo army fought against the Egyptian army, visit the website British Battles.

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    • Rufus rambles profile image
      Author

      Rufus rambles 5 years ago from Australia

      Dear Judi Bee,

      Thanks for sharing your family story - it is very sad indeed. Yes - he was a very loving son - always reassuring his mother about his safety and shopping for lace for her! Thanks again

    • Rufus rambles profile image
      Author

      Rufus rambles 5 years ago from Australia

      Hi phdast7: Thanks very much for your feedback. The letters belong to my great grandfather. We recently discovered them and I wanted to preserve them for my family and also the public who might enjoy having an insight into life in the first world war. Thanks again

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 5 years ago from UK

      Fantastic glimpse into life for a soldier during WW1. Loved the idea of him lace shopping - how incongruous!

      I had two great-uncles who served with the AIF, both killed at Pozieres within days of each other. Last year I also traced a family member who was able to share a letter from a third great-uncle about the death of a fourth great-uncle (my grandfather and five of his brothers served; three came back). Uncle Edwin had tried to get to the bedside of his dying brother Sidney, but arrived a couple of hours too late. His letter to his parents is very poignant, the death of this third son coming only several months after the loss of two others.

      Voted up, thanks for sharing.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What an incredible Hub. What an incredible slice of life and a young man's experience during World War I. Are you doing research and writing an essay? paper? or book? about this young man? Do you have access to these letters because they are family papers? Fascinating and important stuff. Definitely "sharing" this Hub.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 5 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      Thank you so much for sharing this slice of history

    • Rufus rambles profile image
      Author

      Rufus rambles 5 years ago from Australia

      @UnnamedHarald: Thanks so much for your comment and your help in reading the letter! I was hoping someone would decipher that word for me. I will have to google what 'curios' are! Just shows my age haha. Thanks again

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I really enjoyed reading this. It's always interesting to read what the ordinary soldiers had to say. BTW, it looks like "I will send him some xxx" is "I will send him some curios". Thanks for sharing.