Images via HMCTS
For almost 100 years, the British government has been sitting on hundreds of thousands of last wills and letters to loved ones written by soldiers who fought and died in World War I. Up until now the notes have been stored in temperature-controlled boxes in fireproof rooms. They were classed as official records that belonged to War Office, and so never released to soldiers' families.
Starting today, digital scans of the documents are available to the public on the internet, for ancestors to finally read. An agency of the Ministry of Justice has archived some 280,000 informal paper wills and personal letters. They're searchable online by name and date of death, and cost £6 each.
While a marketplace of last words sounds somewhat morbid, experts point out it's a unique opportunity for historians to better understand what life was like on the battlefield nearly a century ago, and for families to connect with the memories of lost relatives.
The archiving project "has opened the door to a whole new insight on our war heroes," Courts Minister Helen Grant said in a news release. "It has given us the opportunity for the first time to hear the thoughts and emotions of the brave soldiers who died for this country in their own words."
The notes are handwritten on small pieces of paper that soldiers kept tucked away in their uniform. The men were given notebooks by company officers before they left for the frontline, and encouraged to write out an informal will in case they didn't return.
One in four soldiers that headed for the Western Front never came back. In the end, some 900,000 British soldiers died in the war, which ran from 1914 to 1918. Another 100,000 Americans were killed, though there's no US equivalent of an online database soldiers' last wishes.
The letters home make it easier to see the men as more than a casualty count. Some of them are really personal and eerie to read—you can sense the fear and get a glimpse into the personality of the men. The wills are intended for relatives' eyes only, but a few of the letters were made available to the press. BBC News published this letter written by Private Joseph Ditchburn in 1914:
Just a few lines to let you know how I am getting on hoping this finds you well as I am in the best. I dare say that this will be the last letter you will receive from me until the war is over as I am prepared to move to the front at any moment and I am only sorry that I did not see you all before I went, but then mother dear, do not lose heart I may come back again.
The private was 19 years old at the time, and died of "wounds" on the front a few months later.
Thousands of letters never made it home because they contained sensitive information—like the date the regiment was moving to the front—that could be used against the troops if the paper wound up in enemy hands. Instead, they became the property of Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), an agency of the Ministry of Justice.
HMCTS is working with data storage company Iron Mountain on an ongoing project to archive 41 million wills, from as far back as the Boer War in the mid-19th century to the Falklands War in 1982.
The WWI wills are the latest addition. They're being scanned and indexed now so that a complete cache is available in time for next year's 100-year anniversary of the war.