A series of temporary First World War displays in the Castle Rotunda started last month with “Letters Home,” a moving display of personal letters and diaries which I curated for the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum (RNRM). I wanted to show what life was like for both soldiers and their families at home during the First World War and how essential written communication was at that time.
“Letters Home” draws on the RNRM’s archive of soldiers’ personal material, looking at various significant points during the experiences of men and their families throughout the War. I wanted to give a sense of what it was like for families waiting for news, the communications they would have received and the different ways in which they would have found out about aspects of a soldier’s life and death in the First World War.
Written communication at this time was vitally important. Letters were an essential means of keeping families and service personnel in touch with one another. Around 12 million letters were sent to the front lines each week and it took, on average, two days for a letter to reach the Western Front from England. When lines of communication were hindered, for example for Prisoners of War, many soldiers kept diaries to record their thoughts and experiences. Private Robert Sheldrake kept his prison camp diaries hidden in the false bottom of a cardboard box filled with books and keepsakes to avoid detection by the guards at Zwickau PoW camp in Germany.
The value of letters is revealed in a collection of correspondence kept by Captain John Hammond, a company commander in the 7th (Service) Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment. Like many officers serving at the front, it was his duty to write to next of kin, offering information and comfort in their loss. Unusually, he kept the letters that families sent in return. These poignant letters show the distress that wives and parents went through and the great uncertainty that they faced.
This will be the first time that much of this material has been on public display, giving an insight into the personal experiences of people with a local connection in the First World War. I hope that it will demonstrate the depth of information that we hold in the museum’s collection and will inspire visitors to start researching their own military family history.