Untold Stories of the First World War

Family Stories


The First World War broke or destroyed many families – but others were created when people who might not otherwise have met came together for the first time. In the stress of war, some married quickly – not knowing how long they had to live. Others were permanently separated. Soldiers were not the only ones affected: munitions workers, seamen and nurses all moved to meet the demands of industry and war. The threat of occupation and the emergence of new national boundaries resulted in a new wave of refugees, particularly from Belgium, parts of France and Eastern Europe. Here we provide a selection of stories to show how the war changed the fortunes of some European families.

Love in a Prisoner of War camp

Having been gassed, shot and held as a German Prisoner of War, the last thing Irish soldier Joseph Heapes expected to find was love.

Born in 1887, Heapes had already served in India and Burmawith the Royal Irish Rifles between 1906 and 1913. But when war broke out in 1914, he was recalled by the army and sent to the continent where he was injured, captured and held at the Limburg Camp.

It was while he was there; sending letters to his sister Theresa - a housemaid in Killiney, Dublin- that Heapes’ fortunes changed. She encouraged her co-workers to write to the men in captivity to keep their spirits up - and one of the women to answer the call was Mary Fearon, a cook from Dundalk.

She wrote to Heapes and the couple quickly became pen pals. Many letters and photos followed until Heapes finally returned home to Ireland in 1919.

Heapes’ daughter-in-law Máire Uí Éafa - who contributed official letters, a passport and medals to the Dublin roadshow - said Mary obviously liked what she saw because the couple were married in 1921 and went on to have one son and two daughters.

War through the eyes of children

A colour drawing of a bowler-hatted Englishman running away from German cannon fire sums up the honest indignation of two children who believe their country is being groundlessly attacked by enemies from all sides.

The illustrations, which are accompanied by text and rhymes, were created by the Koepke siblings, and reflect perfectly the patriotic and war enthusiastic feeling in the early stages of WW1.

They include one of a German sticking his tongue out at an Englishman, and another which depicts a Frenchman being taught German.

The youngsters, possibly from Hamburg, also penned poems referring to war events, such as the surrender of the French fortress of Maubeuge on September 7, 1914, and the sinking of three British armoured cruisers on September 22, that year.

Happy Easter from the Front Line

German soldier Reinhold Sieglerschmidt pledged to spend Whitsunday with his beloved wife, Helene Wiszwianski, during one of his many letters to her.

On April 20, 1916, the 32-year-old wrote: “My happiness, all my happiness, Easter I will still be far away – but the second spring festival, Whitsunday, will not come without us being close once more …. Your Reinhold.”

Sieglerschmidt was a reserve lieutenant with the 7th Battery of the 2nd Guard Reserve Foot Artillery Regiment serving on the Eastern Front near Dünaburg (Daugavpils, Latvia). Throughout the war he wrote in a diary to Helene, who was born in Vilna, Lithuania, of Jewish origin.

Sieglerschmidt was killed on the Western Front in February, 1918, leaving Helene to bring up their three children alone.

Photos and volumes of his letters were contributed by Sieglerschmidt’s grandson Jörn Sieglerschmidt at the Frankfurt roadshow.

Father sends his daughter toys from the trenches

There is no doubt that while soldier Charles Grauss was garrisoned with his regiment in France, the one person never far from his thoughts was his daughter, Ghislaine.

During his time as second lieutenant with the 339th and the 286th French infantry regiments, he carved and painted a number of miniature farm animals for his little girl to play with. The set, contained in a metal box, included: a pig, donkey, rabbit, dog, mouse, sheep, duck and hen. Grauss also sent Ghislaine a touching letter with comic illustrations of them both; the beautiful house he wanted to give her mother, and kisses for the child he loved so dearly. Grauss was killed in battle on April 29, 1918, aged 37.

The items, which were accompanied by a sketchbook with drafts, water colours and pictures of fellow soldiers from the different areas of France where he was stationed, were contributed by the Memorial de Verdun, a French museum dedicated to the 1914-1918 war.

Luxembourg girl taught English by US soldier

An American officer was so touched by the generosity of the Luxembourg family that housed him after WW1 he gave their little girl this spoon for her first communion.

Maria Wagener was nine years old when a young soldier, known only by his surname of Millner, came to stay at their home in Battembourg, with two other Americans.

But his time with the family certainly made an impression on the little girl. Not only did he take turns to look after Maria, he also taught her English. Irmine Thelen, Maria’s daughter who contributed the spoon, said her mother was also impressed that a stranger should want to help her family and fight for their freedom.

As a token of his gratitude, Milner gave Maria the silver spoon. On the front, which is engraved with an American eagle, it says: “War declared April 6, 1917”, “Defenders of US Freedom”, while the back says USA and is engraved with a plane.

Mrs Thelen, who says she would love to find out more about Millner, also contributed 20 postcards showing damage caused by the war in different locations, and German Prisoners of War at work.