Hand-written wills of fallen First World War soldiers published online for first time

Thursday 29th August 2013
Submitted by Emma McFarnon

The wills of British soldiers killed during the First World War have been published online for the first time.

Ahead of next year’s WW1 centenary, Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has digitised its historic archive of 230,000 wills.

The archive features personal, often hand-written wills completed by soldiers before they departed for the frontline.

In one hand-written letter, a soldier tells his partner: “If I never come home again I leave the boy in your charge and I know you will do your best to him.

“I have got to make my will this afternoon. I shall make it out to you everything of what I possess.

“So if I do go under and you do not get anything you must apply for it.

“If I get killed in active service there will be a medal for me somewhere and I know you will try and get it and keep it for the boy to wear when he grows up.

“I must close now with fondest love to you.”

The wills, which laid out how soldiers’ estates should be administered if they were killed in battle, were kept in a pocket service book tucked into their uniform.

More than half the soldiers sent to the frontline were wounded and a quarter never returned home.

The WW1 wills form part of an archive of 41 million wills preserved by data storage company Iron Mountain on behalf of HMCTS. As part of a 25-year contract, Iron Mountain stores all English and Welsh wills dating to 1858.

Today’s digitisation of soldiers’ wills marks the first step in making the entire index available online.

Mark Connelly, professor of Modern British History and convenor of the War Studies Programme at the University of Kent, said the documents will enable historians to better understand the social demographic of soldiers. "It’s phenomenally exciting. We can see what each man had and what he left behind. It gives a snapshot of the type of person they were.

“And we can see if the wills fit in with perceptions of conscription. Are those soldiers the poorest of the poor, being combed out of the city to help keep the army going?

“It will also help us to work out whether there was a rush to the altar, and whether soldiers split their belongings equally between their parents and spouses.

“It will also enable comparisons between rural and urban soldiers.”

Dr Ana Carden-Coyne, co-director of the Centre for the Cultural History of War, University of Manchester, told historyextra: "I would imagine that most working class soldiers had not ever filled out a will or navigated the narrative structures of one, so the class dimension will be interesting.

“As well, wills can reveal touching sentiments left for lovers, children and family members. We can try to interpret what they intended to communicate and what they meant for the living families.

"They clearly mean something significant to us now, generations later.”

Dr Carden-Coyne continued: "Wills are very significant documents for many reasons, not just economic. They provide a thread between the life of a human being and their death. And the emotional and financial legacy they would liked to have left. So their ideal memory.

"Of course we know lots can happen that means wills are not fulfilled, but the writing of them by a literate working and middle class army should tell us something in addition to diaries.

"However, I do not think families should have to pay £6 to access the will. I would have thought it's actually their property."

Courts Minister Helen Grant said: “This fascinating project has opened the door to a whole new insight on our war heroes – 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."

To view the WW1 wills, visit www.gov.uk/probate-search.

Richard III should be buried at York Minster according to historyextra poll
previous news Article
Excavation search for soldiers killed on Flodden battlefield
next news Article