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The legacy of loss: last words of WW1 soldiers show how much strangers had in common

October 2014 by Iron Mountain

The last words of ten very different World War One soldiers buried side by side in the Belgian town of Ypres show that, for all their differences, the soldiers shared a common anxiety beyond the immediate concerns of their situation – they were worried about mum.

For British and Commonwealth forces, the First Battle of Ypres on 19th October, was one of the most significant battles of the First World War. Losses on both sides were high during many weeks of fighting to gain control of a series of strategically important low ridges around the Belgian town, ending the military struggle to protect the North Sea ports with both sides digging the trench lines that would characterise the Western Front and stretch from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.

To commemorate the centenary, the private thoughts of British servicemen who fought and died on the Ypres salient have been revealed thanks to the UK’s new online archive of soldiers’ wills. They ranged in age from 18 to 34, came from different parts of the UK, were members of different regiments and died in different places, at different times – but most decided to leave everything they possessed to their mothers.

The wills form part of a unique UK archive of 278,000 digitised WW1 documents; preserved, scanned and placed online by Iron Mountain and HM Courts & Tribunals Service as part of a modernisation programme and to mark the centenary of the start of the Great War. The wills, which were carried around by soldiers at all times in a pocket book tucked into their uniform, represent the soldier’s last ever personally written record. More than one million searches for individual wills have already been made since the archive went live last year. The ten soldiers buried at Ypres were all Privates and included William Cowell, who died eight months after joining the frontline, on 5 May 1918. His will amounts to a hastily handwritten note where he bequeaths all his property and effects to his mother. The soldier who acted in the mobile front line medical unit (Joseph Wallis Shaw, 22, Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps), the Private responsible for reconnaissance and communications between the lines (Cecil Christopher Iley, 28, Army Cyclist Corps), Sidney Lowe, age unknown and Joseph Houghton, 28, also left their worldly goods to their mothers.

The will of Horace Henry Cook, who is believed to have died on 11 August 1914, is a particularly touching story. His handwritten will requests that all of his property should be left to his girlfriend who should be treated as his wife, as that would have been the case had he not gone to war. The will of Private Jacob Conroy, 28, was never found after his death on 25 September 1915. Witness statements from his sister and brother to the War Office carefully explain that when Private Conroy was home on compassionate leave he stated his intention to leave everything to his sister Elizabeth. Courts Minister Shailesh Vara said:

"In the year of the hundredth anniversary of WWI it is important to remember those who laid down their lives for this country. “By working with Iron Mountain to make this treasure trove of documents easily accessible online, HM Courts & Tribunals Service is preserving the memories of our fallen soldiers. This will be an invaluable tool for historians, genealogists and anyone who wants to add detail to their family tree. It is a great example of the Government working innovatively to provide a modern and efficient public service.”

Marc Delahie, CEO at Iron Mountain France and Swiss said: “Every rank and file soldier heading into battle was asked to complete a page of his pocket service book to indicate what he would wish to be done with his property and personal effects in the event of his death. It was the first time that so many soldiers had been through an education system that equipped them to leave a written record. Many of the records are simple hand-written bequests, in the case of these ten soldiers, often to a mother. Some of the pocket books include personal notes and letters. Now, thanks to the latest digital scanning technology and document storage, the fragile paper wills, letters and notes left behind by these fallen soldiers are preserved forever, and tell the stories they couldn’t come home to tell themselves. The war wills are a legacy to the ordinary men who lived and died at an extraordinary time,”

The UK WW1 wills form part of the huge archive of 41 million wills preserved by Iron Mountain on behalf of HM Courts & Tribunals Service. This includes the pocket book of Phillip Reginald Woollatt, 21, who is believed to have been killed on 14 or 15 July 1916, which was found after the battle with a bullet hole through it – Woollatt’s body was sadly never found. The will inside the book, only partly legible due to the damage, bequeaths his property to his mother and his collection of Scott’s Waverley Novels to his dear friend. In excess of 3.5 million wills from 1996 to the current day are now available to order online.

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