A nineteen year old lad writes home to his mother from the trenches in World War 1 France: “I have seen all the life I want to see.”
A bundle of letters 100 years old, written in pencil on scraps of paper, are a poignant testimony to one young man's experience of war and his longing for home – home that he never saw again. His family in East Calder kindly let me read them and share some of the contents here.
Tom Pullar enrolled in the Scots Guards in his native North Berwick in 1917 aged nineteen. By spring 1918 he was in France in the thick of trench warfare. Writing regularly to his mother, Tom's letters are mostly optimistic, shot through with a clear longing for home and family.
His little sister Elsie, who was six years old when her beloved big brother joined the Scots Guards, treasured his letters, bringing them with her to West Lothian when she moved to East Calder.
16th April 1918. “I got your parcel today and I am very thankful to you for sending it so soon. I have just eaten one scone and I don't think I ever enjoyed anything so much in my life.” Tom also asks for “a small box of Harrison's Pomade for we can't buy it here and the lice have me nearly mad at times...I am lousy as a partridge.”
Touchingly, Tom is concerned to keep his mother's spirits up and not worry her with details of the hardships. Often an outburst of frustration is immediately followed by a reassurance that things are not too bad after all: “I never used to think much of soldiering at Wellington in fact I used to like it but this is making me more bitter against it every day. We are not so bad you know one gets used to it and one can always look forward to the end of the war then we will finish with soldiering, at least I will. They will take me into the army under escort the next time if ever I have to join it again.”
31st May 1918: “Now mother I ask you not to worry so much about me as I am all right out here.....You know you are not to run away with the idea that we live in the trenches all the time we are out here. We have our turn at it, and when we get out for a rest we have quite a good time altogether and of course we have to take the good with the bad.” And, looking on the bright side when the weather is good, “There is one thing when the sun is out we are not going about up to the eyes in mud.” - a reference to the notorious mud of the trenches.
Tom's letters are always signed off “I remain your ever loving and affectionate son Tam.” and almost every one has a reference to coming home.
28th June 1918 “I am sorry to think you have left that house for it was such a nice one. I always looked forward to coming back to it, but never mind when I come back I'll make sure that you'll have a decent house to live in.”
Tom was limited as to what he said about the war itself due to censorship – the envelopes are stamped with the Censor's Office mark. In a letter dated 26th August 1918, he says “I suppose you will understand why I haven't written the last day or two since you have seen the papers. I couldn't very well tell you where I was or what I was going to do, but I have been and came through along with the boys, and I am glad to think you won't need me to tell you anything about it except that I had the good luck to come through it and that I am glad I was in it along with the boys.”
He is referring to the massive offensive by Allied troops against the Germans on 8th August 1918 south east of Amiens - the turning point of the war. Tom seems relieved not to talk about the details of it, just that he survived.
22nd September: Tom sends home a map cut out of a newspaper and asks his mother to keep it for him as a souvenir and he will get it framed when he gets home as it shows the “part we went over”. He also says he has a bit off the wings of a German plane, but that it is too heavy to post home so “I must hang on to it until I come on leave that will be three months yet anyway and lucky if I get it then, but I do think I'll get leave before the war is over, if all goes well”.
By 25th September, less than two months from the end of the war, Tom writes, “I believe you are getting good news in the papers at home just now....I can't suppose it will be a great number of months before you have your laddies back again beside you.”
I must say I have been lucky lately I got a bullet through my mess tin and another through a tin of bully I have in my haversack. Then a bit of shrapnel hit my helmet but it didn't pierce it, only made a dent in the helmet.
In a letter dated 2nd October he makes a rare reference to the actual action he is seeing: “Now mother, I must say I have been lucky lately I got a bullet through my mess tin and another through a tin of bully I have in my haversack. Then a bit of shrapnel hit my helmet but it didn't pierce it, only made a dent in the helmet. Archie was with me nearly all the time and he said I don't know whether to stay with you or leave you, you seem to be drawing fire but we stuck together nearly all the time. Tell little Elsie her little prayers are being answered and will be too, her 'ain Tam' will come back to her some day. It may be a long time yet, but if we exercise a little patience everything will be all right.”
He also sent pressed flowers to his mother that he had picked in a French village they had captured from the Germans. (”Now mother it is a very big village in fact it is as big as North Berwick but of course not nearly so nice.”) His mother had kept the pressed flowers in a little box, they have been perfectly preserved.
Tom's last letter is dated 3rd November and starts, like many previous ones. “Just a note to let you know I am in still in the best of health, hoping this will find you the same.” and to let her know he had been promoted to Lance Corporal. She must have received this letter just before the end of the war was announced only 8 days later - a joyous time for her.
So the next letter is a cruel shock. Dated 22nd November, it comes from the base hospital at Etaples to announce that Tom is dangerously ill in hospital with flu. It is quickly followed by one on 26th November to say he had passed peacefully that day, and enclosing a lock of his hair.
One can barely imagine the grief – and surely the frustration – that Tom's mother must have felt, that he had survived the war to be taken just days after the armistice by flu.
The Spanish Flu pandemic killed more than the war itself. Many of its victims died within hours of coming down with their first symptom, some within a day or two. Estimates put the death toll at 50 – 100 million people worldwide. During its three year rampage from January 1918 to December 1920, the death toll peaked in October and November 1918 – the time it claimed LCpl Tom Pullar. Reporting of flu deaths was censored during the war so as not to adversely affect morale, although papers were free to report on its effects in neutral Spain. It was therefore perceived as a Spanish disease, hence the name.
Tom's mother requested these words engraved on his stone. “And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes” - a bill from the Imperial War Graves Commission for 14/3d is also included in the bundle of letters. Tom is buried at the British Cemetery at Etaples and his name is engraved on the war memorial in North Berwick.
Article published in Konect November 2014
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer
With thanks to Margaret Murray of East Calder, Tom's great niece, for letting us share his letters and photos.