Introducing Our New "Memory Wall" Feature for The First World War: Personal Experiences

16 December 2010

As part our our forthcoming resource The First World War: Personal Experiences, we are introducing a thought-provoking new digital feature, the ‘Memory Wall’, which encourages users to interact with documents in the resource through a visual montage of objects, photographs and images of the war.

Memory Wall Thumbnail

By clicking on some of the arresting visual items in the Memory Wall, users can read about related documents in the resource. Written by members of the editorial team working on the resource, these articles introduce users to the rich and varied primary source material in the resource, and will provide inspiration for research and case study-based project work.

The following article on the papers of William Newsam McClean give readers a taste of the ‘Memory Wall’, which will be published as part of The First World War: Personal Experiences in September 2011. It was written by Liz Sargut, Publishing Associate, who is currently indexing the personal papers of soldiers sourced from McMaster University.

Papers of William Newsam McClean, Royal Engineers

McMaster World War 1914-1918 Collection Box 4 Folder 1 thumb

A large part of this fascinating collection consists of letters written by William Newsam McClean to his wife and gives us a vivid view of his life behind the lines on the Western Front. It would seem that he spent his time working on repairing roads and building trenches. He does not seem to be fazed by the bombing going on around him but bemoans the bright moon which makes them so visible. He recounts: “My dearest Aggie - …. Breaks in the road are repaired as quick as they are made. It is some war here. The Moon is glorious and keeps rather a weird watch over us methinks. We had bombing all around us from 8pm to 2am this morning – nothing very near us – one about 200 yards from our Men rather disturbed us. How would London like 6 hrs of it! Sheldon had a machine gun bullet through his hut. We don’t love the Moon at all and look forward to its early disappearance. Well, so long Old Gal and lots of love, your loving hubby Willie.”

He describes the conditions the officers have to endure with the cold and the wet and how they deal with them. It is intriguing to hear how they dress during the night! Interestingly he does spare a thought for the men in the trenches: “…. I believe most of us want a thaw here but I don’t in spite of the cold nights. We had a slight south wind here this morning but it has not thawed here and the temperature was zero last night. It goes right through blankets. However I keep warm until about 5am. I don’t know what the men in the trenches do – they must be frozen stiff. We were discussing today the different way people retired for the night – one officer keeps all his clothes on including boots and top coat and another discarded his boots but put his pyjamas on over the rest. Very few take everything off – but I believe a complete change does best….. I have no more to say tonight and am feeling somewhat bored with things. Socks are not arriving and they are generally a minus quantity at stores. It is d…d cold for washing and my sponge is getting smaller and smaller….”

His description of how they spent Christmas 1916 is illuminating as it shows they did manage to relax somewhat. He obviously had a sense of humour as the address he gives at the top of the letter is “Dug Out Villas”! He relates: “Another Xmas come and gone. It was quite uneventful. Gun straffing on our side was much as usual or a trifle more. The Bosch was rather quiet. The Orderly Officer, Bonette by name, got his gramophone up and it did a good days work. 11am a Padre turned up and we had a service in the Mess…. We had the mince pies for lunch and they were very good. 6pm we were invited to a concert…. the singing was not very great but quite cheery…. The Xmas pudding came in on fire in great style and I made up Snap Dragon and we felt like babies. So ended Xmas in this weary waste of France.”

The rest of this most interesting collection consists of a mixture of official papers, photographs, maps, greeting cards and ephemera together with a printed book on trench construction written by McClean.