Untold Stories of the First World War

News From the Front


Letters were a vital means of communication between the fighting fronts and the home front and were written on a vast scale. This was partly because mass conscription swept up millions of people, but also because by the beginning of the 20th century, Europeans were far more literate than in previous centuries. Military postal services, such as the German Feldpost and the British Army Postal Service became highly efficient in handling huge quantities of mail. While much of this was censored and sampled for intelligence reasons, the post meant the world to both sender and recipient.

Many families brought to our attention moving messages captured in a few words on the back of a postcard or through a drawing on a letter; this selection provides a unique way of identifying common sentiments and vocabulary on each side of the trenches.

Soldier sends last message home days before his death

When orders came through that he was being sent to France, Sergeant Major George Cavan knew he had no time to inform his family.

But as his troop train passed through Carluke Station, near his home in Scotland, Cavan seized the opportunity to at least try to let them know where he was going. He scribbled a note to his wife Jean and their two daughters, stuffed it into a matchbox and threw it out of the window.

The poignant message, dated March 29, 1918, stated: “Dear wife and bairns, Off to France– love to you all, Daddy.”

Amazingly, a passerby picked up the matchbox and delivered it to the family. But tragically, Cavan, who served with the 9th (Glasgow Highlanders) Bn. Highland Light Infantry, was killed on April 13, 1918, just a few days after arriving at the Front in France.

His granddaughter Maureen Rogers, of Sydney, said: “Incredibly, Jean first heard George had died when a woman in the street said how sorry she was about it. My grandmother screamed that she was lying and ran home where his regiment confirmed the news.

“For the rest of her life, Jean always wore a locket with a picture of George, and one of herself at the age at which she lost him.”

Cavan is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.

Dearest wife and bairns, Off to France – love to you all, Daddy.

Hitler’s message to his friend

The sentiments in this postcard from Munich seem so ordinary – yet the writer of them went on to become the most reviled dictator of the 20th century.

Adolf Hitler was wounded by shrapnel in October 1916, and had just been discharged from hospital in Beelitz near Berlin, when he sent this message to his regimental comrade, Karl Lanzhammer.

In it, Hitler says he is now with the reserve battalion, was undergoing dental treatment and would be returning to the front line as soon as he could. In fact, he went back as a news runner in March 1917 at the request of his 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.

The card, which says “Greetings from Nuremberg”, with a picture of the castle, was stamped on December 19, 1916. The brief text, penned in German, contains at least one spelling mistake. Hitler spelt immediately (sofort) with “ff”.

Lanzhammer, who had served with Hitler in Ypres and the Somme, was killed in a flying accident at Feldmoching on March 15, 1918 during a test flight. He is now buried in his home town of Dingolfing.

The card was contributed to the Munichroadshow by a stamp collector, from Dingolfing. It had been given to him on his 65th birthday by the director of the local savings bank.

Greetings from Nuremberg

Adolf Hitler

Dear Lanzhammer,
I am now in Munich at the Ersatz Btl.
Currently I am under dental treatment.
By the way I will report voluntarily for the
field immediately.

Kind regards A. Hitler

Lieber Lanzhammer,
Bin nun in München beim Ersatz Btl.
Stehe zur Zeit in zahnärztlicher Behandlung.
Melde mich übrigens soffort
freiwillig ins Feld.

Hrzl. Grüße A. Hitler

Wait For the Next Postcard to See What Happens!

When Michael Hannon sent these fascinating postcards home to his mother in Dublin– she never knew what she was going to receive.

In isolation, each missive from France appears to show a line of music, indicating a different military bugle call, such as First Call, Dinner Call and Lights Out. But put together, this set of 10 postcards forms one large picture of a French soldier.

Hannon was a private with the Leinster Regiment in the British Expeditionary Force. His granddaughter Deidre Archer contributed the postcards, along with a letter opener from France, which has Lille inscribed on it.

Hannon’s great-grandson is continuing the family’s links with military service. He is a member of the British Army and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Soldier’s sketches keep wife’s spirits high

Every postcard Marie Gaigl’s Prisoner of War husband sent her from France in November 1917 was a work of art.

Apart from a loving message, Hans Gaigl always ensured there was a pencil sketch of a person or scene to entertain his worried wife back home in Munich.

Marie received many cards from Hans, a soldier with the Bayrischen Landwehr Fußartillerie Batallion Nr. 2, 6 Batterie.

But while it was not uncommon for German soldiers to use plain cards to write home - decorating them with their own pictures, Easter and Christmas designs or trench scenes -Bavarian Hans was a particularly accomplished artist.

His wide ranging and evocative wartime material included: landscapes, portraits of soldiers from various nations, women, both grieving for war dead and nudes.