From squashed tomatoes to scenes ‘too awful for words’: a Rugby soldier’s letters from the front

Horace Tilley
Horace Tilley
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Former Rugby woman Polly Dobell came across a fascinating and heart-wrenching find when clearing her late cousin’s house earlier this year.

She discovered a bundle of letters her great uncle Horace Tilley sent home to his family in Rugby during the First World War - the last of which was sent just ten days before he died, and two months before hostilities officially ceased.

Horace was a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and saw service in France. He was killed in battle on September 27 1918 and is buried in Arras, France, having joined the army in March 1917.

Horace’s mother lived in Winfield Street, while Olive, mentioned in the letter, was one of his sisters and lived in Railway Terrace.

Horace was born on March 28 1898 in south-east London. He was one of six siblings. The family moved in 1910 to Clifton-upon-Dunsmore, where he attended the village school. He left school aged 14 and was reported to be “a good scholar” and “a well behaved, industrious boy, very skilful with his hands”. He then went on to Rugby Evening School where he passed the school examination in maths.

In the letters - published below - various other names appear. These include George Clements, Les Best, a Charlie, a Mr Townsend and Bill Sleath. Polly would like to hear from anyone who knows anything about these people, or what became of Horace’s son, who is also mentioned. Email editorial@rugbyadvertiser.co.uk with any information.

Louisburg Barracks,

Bordon,

Hants

June 8th 1917

Dear Dad,

I have much pleasure in writing to you for the first time since I have been away from home. Mum tells me in her letter that you would like to hear from me. I never give it a thought or I might have written before this. It is exactly three months to-day since I joined up and it seems to me just about three years, I am longing to get home to see you all again. We are having to rough it just now and the food rations are getting worse every day. I think the country are getting fed up with the submarines that is the cause of the food shortage. I should like you just to have a bird’s eye view of Aldershot and round about just there, it would open your eyesight. I should imagine it is one of the largest military centres in the country, there are thousands and thousands of wounded soldiers there. The government are cultivating all vacant land round about here, they are busting it up with steam ploughs, the labour battalion is taking charge of this work. The soil is very sandy round here and they are chiefly cropping it with potatoes. I expect you and Charlie are very busy at present I have often wondered how you have been getting on together. As regards to myself I am getting on very nicely with my training, it will take me about another six weeks to be a passed out gunner, if I had been in the infantry I should be off to France by now. We are having a rough time with the mules and horses some of them are terrors, there are chaps taken away from the riding school every day on stretchers there has been several killed. Strange to say Mr Forward is head over the riding school, you know who I mean him as used to live at Catthorpe that kept the racehorses. And I have also dropped across a chap that lives at Weybridge, he used to work at Bimingham’s the grocers.

(The remaining pages of this letter appear to be missing)

Louisburg Barracks

Bordon,

Hants

Sep 1917

Dear Olive,

Am very pleased to hear from you after such a long time. But don’t think I have forgotten you being as I haven’t written to you just lately.

I often think of the times we used to have together, but I hope those day will come again soon. Dear Olive I was only thinking the other day I should like to have a photo of you, I think you have got some about the house somewhere, if you have you might send me one or else you can’t expect me to get you a boy if I haven’t your photo.

Well I think I shall be going to Aldershot on Thursday to a competition in gunnery no doubt you will see something about it in the Daily Mirror or else The Sketch. Dear Olive I daresay you keep wondering when I am coming home again, but different thing’s keep cropping up which enables me to get home but if nothing else happens I shall be home in a few weeks. When I do come home perhaps you would like the pleasure of taking me out as you know I have finished with Lucy for good. I have made up my mind to have a good time when I do come as I expect that will be my last leave for some time. George Clements went to France last week I feel very sorry as he is my only pal, I used to go about with him a lot in our spare time. Well Olive I think I will draw this letter to a close as I haven’t a great lot of news just at present, I have lots of news to tell you when I come home so I will now close hoping to hear from you soon. Give my love to mum and all at home.

From your loving brother,

XXXXXX Horace XXXXXX

Louisburg Barracks

Bardon,

Hants,

Monday Sep 1917

Dear Mother,

Just a line to say I have received your parcel and letter to-day which was in good condition with the exception of the tomatoes which were slightly squashed. Thanks so much for the fruit I shall enjoy it a treat don’t forget to pay the postage out of my funds as I know you can’t afford to pay it such as times are at present.

We are all getting packed up here ready for moving from here I daresay it will probably be sometime during the weekend, the place is about ten minutes walk from where we are now.

We are going to have a concert this week in aid of all the boys who are on draught for India there are about 500 going, lots of their parents have come down from London and girls as well to see their soldier boys off. Dear Mum I am glad you tapped Lucy and told her about the trouble perhaps she will be more careful where she goes and what she does in the future.

I was surprised to hear that Albert Bristow has got his discharge I like to hear all such news. Well dear Mum I suppose I shall have to close now as I have to be on duty in a short time it is nothing else but toil from morning till night but I suppose it will finish some day. Give my love to all at home.

I remain your loving son,

Xxxx Horace xxxx

Ps, Dear Mum I will write you more next time as I had to cut this letter sort.

WRITTEN ON CHURCH ARMY PAPER FROM THE RECREATION HUT OR TENT ON ACTIVE SERVICE WITH THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

D/52 Brigade

R.F.A.

BEF

France

4/1/18

Dear Mother,

I received your letter posted on the 20th. Perhaps you will be surprised to hear that we have come out of action for a rest, I don’t know how long for but I expect it will be for a week or two at the least. Dear mum I was rather upset to hear that you was taken bad at Xmas but I hope you are alright again now. We had to postpone our Xmas until yesterday, all the lads in the battery gathered together in the Church Army hut in the evening we had a fine dinner followed by a concert which entertained us till about 11 o’clock we all had a good enjoyable time, plenty to eat and drink. Well dear Mum I am afraid I haven’t much news to tell you just at present of course I could tell you lots but you know we have to be very careful what we put in our letters. I will write a bit more after while we are at rest to let you know of any further movement. I will now draw this letter to a close and will write more the next time. Well dear mum I hope you are alright again now. Give my love to all I am wishing you all a happy new year.

I remain your loving son,

Horace xxxxxx

xxxx

D/52 Brigade

R.F.A.

BEF

France

20/2/18

Dear Olive,

Glad to hear from you after such a long time. I was beginning to wonder whether you had forgotten me. Well Olive I daresay you are looking forward to the summer weather, it is awfully cold out here it take a bit of sticking without a fire of description. No doubt you often wonder when you will see me again, if good luck continues I shall probably be home about August of course I don’t know for certain. Dear Olive it was rather a surprise to me when I heard of the coming engagement you can guess what will be coming off next. You asked me in your letter if I know of any nice boys out here I might tell you there are some very nice lads in our battery, if you wish to see them you better spend a holiday over here but don’t forget to bring your tin hat and gas helmet or you might get gassed. Dear Olive putting all the jokes one side I think I must draw this letter to a close there is not much new at present. Give my love to all at home, hoping to hear from you soon.

I remain you loving brother,

Horace xxxxxx

xxxx

BEF

France

7/3/18

Dear Olive,

I have much pleasure in answering your most welcome letter. Sorry I have kept you a few days in answering the same but never mind Olive as long as we hear from each other pretty often that is good enough for both of us. I was surprised to hear that you are being confirmed you will have to be a good girl after that. Don’t you remember those happy times we used to have together I often think of them. I wished I could have them over again I daresay I shall when this little lot is over. Well dear Olive I think I must draw this letter to a close not much new this time. Hope to hear from you soon. With best of love to all.

I remain your loving brother,

Xxxxx Horace xxxxx

D/52 Brigade

R.F.A.

BEF

France

6/4/18

Dear Mother,

I now take this opportunity of writing to you. I can’t make out why I haven’t heard from you lately it is just a month since I had a letter.

Dear mum I do hope I hear from you soon as else I shall be wondering what has happened to you all. Just lately I have been sending you all field cards as we are up night and day. Times are hard just now. I suppose you have read of the last big push made by the Germans if so you have a good idea where I am it is absolutely murder on this front.

The major of our battery has been killed and some gunners have been wounded in my sub section this happened last week. I have said my prayers just lately it is too awful for words. I got lost for a fortnight on the railway and when I reached the battery I was reported missing. Well dear mum I could tell you lots but I wont tell you all I have experienced what I never want to experience again. I must now draw this letter to a close and I do hope I hear from you soon as it makes me feel quite homeless after not hearing for such a long time. If good luck continues I hope to be home on leave in about three months.

When you write would you mind sending me a few cigarettes. I will close now hoping you are all in the best. Give my best love to all.

I remain your loving son,

Xxxx Horace xxxx

D/52 Brigade

R.F.A.

BEF

France

7/4/18

Dear Mother,

I suppose by the time you receive this letter you will have received the green envelope which I posted yesterday which I wrote in it saying I haven’t heard from you for quite a month but I had a big surprise last night. I received two parcels and birthday cards from Mable. I wrote in the green envelope asking you to send me some cigarettes but of course you will have to cancel that order now as I find I have quite a large amount in the parcels. Everything came in good condition.

Well dear mum I cannot stop to write much just at present. I was rather proud of Dad’s advertisement I think it is fitted together alright I hope he gets some good luck with it. Well I shall have to answer Mable and Ada and Olive’s letters as soon as I get a few spare moments so you might mention it to them. Give my love to all.

I remain you loving son

Xxxx Horace xxxx

Ps. I forgot to thank you for the parcels so thanks so much.

Saturday

13/4/18

Dear Mother,

I received yours and Olive’s letter yesterday. I think the birthday cards were good the verses were fine. I couldn’t hardly realise it was my birthday until I received the cards because every day is the same to us out here. We haven’t got a Sunday suit to put on but I hope that time will soon come. Well dear mum you asked me in your letter how I the poisoning in my hands well I can’t hardly tell you what caused it but in the first place it started from chilblains which broke and I suppose I must have got some dirt in them my arms turned blue up as far as my elbows and then a day or so after a rash broke out all over my body I was smothered from heat to foot. The doctor states on my report I.C.T. hands and septic “Erythema” and what the devil that is I don’t know. I also saw another doctor and he called it “Pryexia” so you have got it all.

Well dear mum, I am glad to hear how far advanced Dad has got with his patent (?) I hope he gets a stoke of good luck I will forward that advertisement which you sent me in this letter and Olive tells me that he is going to have some leaflets printed so you might send me one of those.

Dear mum I shall have to draw this letter to a close as I haven’t a great deal of new this time.

Give my best love to all

I remain your loving son

Xxxx Horace xxxx

Saturday

May 5th 1918

Dear mother,

I have much pleasure in answering your letter received yesterday. I can’t understand why you don’t receive my letters I always answer your letter as soon as I receive them. I daresay it is the same old cry lost in the post. Was sorry to hear Mable has been taken poorly I no doubt the cause of all the trouble is owing to not getting enough fresh air and exercise it speaks for itself because you know how often I used to complain when I was at home. But now I feel a different chap altogether now. There will be no indoor work for me when I get back home again I hope that wont be long. Dear mum you must still keep smiling and don’t look on the black side of things this war cant last for ever there will be an end some day which isn’t very far away now. I could tell you lots of the goings on out here but as you know I dare not say in my letters. As soon as I get a possible chance I am going to make a remittance to draw out all my credit which is due to me which amounts to about £7:0:0. I shall draw £6:0:0 out and send it home it will come from Blackheath in a Majesty Service envelope so don’t let it frighten you when you receive it. I though I would tell you because no doubt you would think it would be something else. Well mum I don’t think I have much this time I hope you receive this letter alright. So I will now close with love to all.

I remain your loving son

Xxxxx Horace xxxxx

Friday

May 31st 1918

Dear Mother,

I have much pleasure in answering your letter received on the 29th. I am receiving your letters pretty regularly now I get them about once a week. Was glad to hear Mable is well again now and able to start work. Dear mum you say in your letter that the paymaster hasn’t got our new address but that is quite alright he has got it from me this end, so I expect you will get it some time during the week you will have to let me know if you don’t receive it. Well dear mum news is very scarce at the present but I must say we are having some splendid weather here at present. I am getting as brown as a berry you won’t know me when you see me again, I hope that time will soon come. Dear mum I was reading a paper the other day and to my surprise I see a bit about Mr Townsend of Clifton it appears that his son is missing I don’t know whether you have seen it if you haven’t I have enclosed the slip out of the paper. I think I will now close.

With best love to all at home

From you loving son

Xxxx Horace xxxx

Saturday

June 29th 1918

Dear Mother,

I am sorry to keep you waiting so long for the answer but I hope you will excuse me as we have been awfully busy just lately up day and night. I was very thankful to receive yours and Dads photo it makes me feel more at home when I can see your faces a little of times, in fact I should like to get one of all of you. Was I glad to hear that dad hasn’t heard any more about those papers I have been rather concerned about it. Dear mum I was glad to see you have solved the problem which I sent in Ada’s letter we have been here about three months I have always longed to let you know I have been, but you have got it this time, but of course that is one place of may where I have been. You have asked me to enclose dads advert so I will forward it on in this letter but I was glad you sent it as you guess I am naturally interested. Dear mum I am afraid I haven’t a great lot of news to tell you his time, I have been messing all day with picks and shovel digging in like rabbits to get out of jerry’s splinters. Well I must now close you will hear from me again soon.

Give my love to all at home

I am always your ever loving son

Xxx Horace xxxx

Sunday

June 9th 1918

Dear Mother,

I now have the pleasure in answering you letter received on the 7th. I was glad that you have received that money safely. I have also received the parcel the fruit went down fine that is one thing we never get hold of out here. I see in a paper out here that no more strawberry’s are for sale after the 23rd June as they are wanted to make jams for the army. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw it I am afraid that this will end when we get strawberry jams. Well dear mum I find it a hard job to write a letter sometimes as I dare not put anything in out of the way.

Everything is much about the same out here and I am still keeping in the best of health. I think I will now close. Give my love to all.

I am always your ever loving son

Xxxxx Horace xxxxx

June 30th 1918

Dear Olive,

I now have the opportunity of answering your letter received together with Ada’s on the 28th. I am pleased to hear that you have started work again and also glad you never accepted night work as it will ruin anybody it very nearly killed me.

Well dear Olive you asked me when I am likely to come home Ada has asked me the same question which I told her was difficult to answer but as near as I can say it will be somewhat about September or October that is if good luck continues of course. I don’t think you will have much difficulty in getting away from work you will have to save up a little and then we will be able to have a good beano.

Well Olive don’t forget to send me your photo which you said you have had taken in the park. I suppose you have seen that forgetmenot which I sent in mum’s letter I found it growing all by itself on the edge of a big shellhole. Dear Olive I find news as scarce as ever, everything seems much about the same out here. By the way I have told Ada about Les Best so don’t tell her that you told me she will wonder how I got to know I will tease her about him everytime I write. Well I think I must now close will write more another time. Give my love to all including yourself.

I am always

Your ever loving brother

Xxxx Horace xxxxx

PS. I didn’t get exactly splashed with the one you sent but it gave me a terrible jar.

July 4th 1918

Dear Dad,

Perhaps you will think it rather strange me writing to you as it is something out of the ordinary course of events. But if I remember right the last time I was on leave I promised to write to you, it is as the old saying goes better late than never.

Well dad putting all the jokes over side I have been wondering how you are going on with your business state of affairs. According to what mum tells me in her letters you have been putting in a lot of overtime just lately. Well I must say after this little lot is over you wont catch me at factory work again I have never felt so well in my life before it has taught me a lesson. You will see by mum’s letter near about what time I shall be coming home and I have got bags to tell you then. I suppose you know I cant mention a lot in my letters so I have got it all stored up. I have forwarded on your advertisement perhaps mum has received it by now. I think myself it was put together fine it looks quite attractive when I started to read it I thought I thought the war was over for a start off. Well Dad I hope you get some good luck I know you have always tried hard enough, I am looking forward to the time when I can get back and give you a help in hand. I will close now just remember me to Charlie and tell it won’t be long before I am with him.

With love to all.

I remain your loving son,

Horace.

July 4th 1918

Dear mother,

I now have a few spare moments to write you a few lines letting you know that every thing is going on alright. This letter is not in answer to one of yours I am expecting yours tomorrow night. Well Mum perhaps you will think that I am a lot of bother asking you to send books and different things but I want you to send me a nice pipe, because just lately we are being issued with tobacco instead of cigarettes. I don’t want an expensive one just a cheap one that will suit me, you know what I want.

Dear mum we are having some splendid weather out here just recently it makes this life go down much easier. Well mum I will close now hoping you are all enjoying good health at home. I am feeling in glorious trim myself.

With best love to all,

I am always your ever loving son,

Xxxxx Horace xxxx

July 19th 1918

Friday

Dear mother,

I now take this opportunity of answering your letter received on the 18th. According to what you say in your letter you haven’t received a letter from me for over a fortnight only two field cards. Well dear mum I must say I am very much upset to think that all my letters didn’t reach home, I wrote one about a fortnight ago which was enclosed some pressed forgetmenots which was growing wild which I thought would make a good souvenir and also another letter which I asked you to send me a pipe so evidently you haven’t received either of them. I think it is a down right shame. I have got two letters from Mable and also her photograph which I think is really a good one of her. I should like to get one from Olive, Florrie and Ernie and then I shall have one of everybody. Dear mum I forgot to mention that I wrote a letter to Dad so I suppose that one hasn’t reached home, but it is possible they have got hung up somewhere. Dear mum I think I will close this time this leaves me in the best of health at present. So I sincerely hope this letter will reach you safely and finding you in the pink at home. With love to all including yourself.

I remain your ever loving son.

Xxxxx Horace xxxxx

July 20th 1918

Saturday

Dear Mother,

Just a line in answer to your letter posted on 15th. I was glad to hear that you have received my two letters. I wrote yesterday in answer to your letter previous to this one, saying I couldn’t understand why you had not received them, but I am glad to see you have received the alright. I shall be looking out for the parcel so I will let you know when I receive it. Well dear mum I was much surprised to get an answer from Dad, I did not expect an answer from him as I know he has got enough to do without letter writing after he has done his daily work so you can guess I appreciate that very much. I am glad to hear the news form Clifton and also Bill Sleath’s promotion perhaps that will make them talk a little more now. Dear mum I told you I should be sending some more money home but I think I shall let that fall through now as thins are looking rather prosperous at present for my leave it cannot be above a month or two at the outside that is if things go on as they are at present.

Well dear mum I haven’t any more to say at present so I will close now. This leaves me A1 at present.

Love to all at home including yourself.

I remain your ever loving son

Xxxxxx Horace xxxxxx

September 19th 1918

Thursday

Dear Mother,

Just a line in answer to a few of your letters. Sorry I haven’t been able to write so often as I should like to owing to the fact that we have been so busy this last month. Now everything has slackened down a bit now doubt I shall be able to write a little more often. Dear mum I hope everything is all looking on the bright side at home. I am feeling in the best of health up to the present and I hope before so long I am in hopes of coming home to see you all. The leaves vary so much just lately so I am unable to recon up when my turn comes.

Well dear mum I had a bit of misfortune the other day and broke the pipe which you sent to me I had it in my pocket and I must have knocked up against somewhere and broke it. But never mind I have had another one given to me so I am just as well off now. Dear mum I am afraid I haven’t any more news for you this time so I will draw this letter to a close I daresay I shall be writing again in a day or so.

Good bye for the present hoping to see you all soon. Give my best love to all.

I remain from your loving son

Xxxxx Horace xxxxx

Xxxx xxxx

P.S. dear mum please could you send me a few envelopes and paper as I am run right out.