Well I far from home but you are not out of my mind. I hope to be home by Christmas, if not before then.
These words were written by 18 year old Private Thomas John Morgan to his 7 year old brother Llewellyn in May 1916. Two months later, Thomas would be dead, one of 4,000 Welsh soldiers killed in Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The handful of letters he wrote home to his family in Llanfairfechan in North Wales survive as part of the Alfred Peacock Archive here at the Borthwick Institute, along with many other letters, postcards, diaries and photographs that tell of the terrible human cost of the First World War.
Thomas was born in early 1898, the eldest son of a Merionethshire quarry man and his wife. By 1911 the family had settled in the small Welsh town of Llanfairfechan, just along the coast from Bangor. Thomas was one of four surviving children, he had two younger sisters, Gladys and Margaret Ann, and his youngest brother Hugh Llewellyn, known as Llewellyn.
We know from Thomas’ surviving army service record that he worked as a baker before he enlisted. We also know that he lied about his age in order to join up. In this he was far from unique. It has been estimated that some quarter of a million British soldiers in the First World War were underage. Before the Military Service Act of 1916, recruits were supposed to be aged between 18 and 38, but they could not be sent abroad until they were 19. Thomas enlisted in November 1915 at the age of 17, giving his age as 19 years and 14 days so he would be immediately eligible to be posted overseas. He also barely met the height threshold of 5 feet 3 inches, coming in at only half an inch taller.
The ruse worked and Thomas was accepted into the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and posted to France in March 1916, at the age of 18. His letters home from France provide glimpses of his personality. Despite his claims that he is ‘not a letter writer at all’ he promises to write and send field postcards at ‘every opertunity [sic] I get’ and requests paper and envelopes from home and letters as often as they can send them. ‘You should see the smile on the lads’ faces when they get a parcel,’ he writes in May 1916, ‘It is the only thing to look forward to here.’
|Looking forward to leave and parcels from home in this letter from May 1916.|
The occasional odd phrasing and misspellings in the letters are a reminder that English was unlikely to have been Thomas’ first language, but that Welsh speaking soldiers were expected to use it regardless so that their letters could be more easily censored.
His letters are full of local concerns. He mentions local men he has seen at the Front, telling his mother he has seen ‘Lloyd’s brother’ in the camp at Boulogne, and has spoken with ‘Tom Parry’ and asks to be remembered to everyone at Llanfairfechan ‘who I know.’ In May 1916 he writes to thank his mother for sending her ‘bara brith’ (a Welsh tea loaf) which was ‘very good indeed’ and asks if his father knows anyone Manod Road as he had met a soldier from there by the name of Alun Jones. He also worries about his mother receiving enough of his army pay, ‘I know you cannot spare the money and I think I can do without it here.’
Born and raised in a still largely rural area of Wales, he is critical of the more wasteful practices he sees. In June he complains of skirmishing exercises taking place ‘in the middle of corn and potato fields which are to be seen for miles. Now it is all spoiled, it is a great shame I think. If the war happened to be there I wouldn’t say nothing but only for training it's a great shame we all think.’
The most touching letter of all is the one to his little brother Llewellyn, enclosed with a letter to his mother in May. ‘I received your kind little letter quite safe,’ Thomas writes. ‘Thanks very much for the song you sent me I am very glad of it. I am sending you a handichief [sic] and one for Gladys & one for Margaret Ann. You can pick for yourself which you like best,’ adding ‘I must say that you are getting on well at school to be able to write letters like you are.’
He ends one of his final letters home with the hope that he might soon get leave, finishing ‘Well good bye now and God bless you all & please don’t worry.’
The Battle of Mametz Wood began on the 7th July and Thomas was reported missing on the 11th, later confirmed as killed in action. By some administrative error, his mother Margaret received notice only that he had been ‘discharged to duty’ and wrote to his regiment on the 21st July seeking further information, ‘Could you please let me know where he is, as I am so anxious to hear from him & trust you make enquiries for me, as it is a long time since I had a field post card, trusting it will not be troubling you too much.’
|The letter informing Thomas' mother that he has been killed in action.|
The terrible news was sent on the 28th and Margaret spent the next four years desperately searching for further news of the circumstances of her son’s death and his burial place, to no avail. An army chaplain, replying to one of her letters in September 1916, wrote that ‘the probability is that he was buried where he fell with many of his comrades from the Battalion. We did not have the opportunity of burying the brave fellows who fell in Mametz Wood, as immediately after the battle we moved elsewhere.’
Thomas’ resting place was never found and today he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France and at home in Llanfairfechan on the war memorial on Aber Road. His letters, and those of his mother, are a testament to just one of the many individual and family tragedies that make up the First World War.