British soldiers' World War I letters and wills go online

BIRMINGHAM, England It is the soldier's handwriting that draws the reader in - smooth, steady, well-written cursive rarely seen in today's age of social media and text messaging. But the letter is nearly 100 years old. The author: A rank-and-file British service member, who managed enough composure to pen a neat, often-thoughtful letter and will to loved ones - just before heading to the front lines of World War I.

"It is very frightful to see great big men fainting in the ranks, it makes one lose heart when he sees this," soldier Joseph Ditchburn said in a letter to his mother, dated August 6, 1914.

The near-perfect script on unlined military stationary continues to say, "I am prepared to move to the front [lines] at any moment...but...Mother dear, do not lose heart - I may come back again."

Government records show Ditchburn died of war wounds nine weeks later.

But Ditchburn's letter and hundreds of thousands of other World War I soldier wills were never delivered, because the soldiers included details about military movements or troop morale. Historians say military censors, sensitive to how that information could be used if intercepted by enemy forces, held on to the documents - until now. The British government agency Her Majesty's Court and Tribunal Service recently went live with a searchable database built from 278,000 scanned and digitized World War I soldier wills.

"Anyone around the world can go in, on to the website, search for their relative's name and date of death, and then any information will be made available for them," says Jon Apthorpe, director of business services for Iron Mountain, the data storage company contracted to safeguard some 41 million British and Welsh wills dating back to 1858. "Now that we've gone through this process of digitizing [the soldier wills], we've actually started uncovering this personal information."

Ahead of the centennial year of the start of World War I, there appears to be growing interest in the personal thoughts and last words of these fallen heroes. Apthorpe says Her Majesty's Court and Tribunal Service has had more than three million hits from 50 countries since the online database was made available.

But it is not free: each record ordered costs about $10, with no preview of what the record may contain. Some records, like that of Private Edward Warner, 1st Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment, were simple: "...I give all my belongings to my mother Charlott Warner." Other records are a combination of will, personal letters and records noting cause, location and date of death.

"The wills are kept in envelopes, so you don't actually know what's in the will, until you open it up," Apthorpe says.

Those who order records receive a digital copy of the original documents.

When World War I historian and author Peter Simkins was invited to the launch of the soldier will website, he says he jokingly challenged Iron Mountain to find more information about his great uncle who died fighting in World War I.

"You won't find [his] will, because he went missing and...Wills were usually kept on the soldier's body," Simkins says. "Within an hour, they rang me back on the telephone and told me they'd found it."

"It was very moving for me, because it brought me back into contact with my lost great uncle again," Simkins says.

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