Writing to the bereaved

10 Jul

When service personnel died during the Great War, their officers wrote to the bereaved families. Others also wrote, including those who had recovered the bodies or belongings of the dead. One who did this was Jack Sweeney when he found the body of Londoner Alfred Salway in Mametz Wood in 1916.

On 10 July 1916, the 38th (Welsh) Division attacked Mametz Wood in France, in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme. Eventually the wood was cleared but only at the cost of 5,000 casualties in the division.

Newly hollowed out shelters for the British reserves at Mametz, July 1916 © IWM (Q 3968)

Newly hollowed out shelters for the British reserves at Mametz, July 1916 © IWM (Q 3968)

Among the Welsh Division’s units was the 1st London Welsh, otherwise known as the 15th Battalion of the Royal Welsh (or Welch) Fusiliers. Among the dead of that battalion was Alfred John Salway, from Hoxton, a meat market porter. He had left his wife Emily and two children (at 1 Buttesland Street) early in the war to join the battalion, going out to France with it just before Christmas 1915.

Battalion shoulder patch for the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (1st London Welsh) © IWM (INS 7649)

Battalion shoulder patch for the 15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers (1st London Welsh) © IWM (INS 7649)

In mid-July 1916, Jack Sweeney, a private in the Lincolnshire Regiment found Salway’s body in the nightmarish Mametz Wood that the Welsh Division had fought through a week earlier. He described the scene in a letter to his future wife Ivy (in Walthamstow) a few months later:

It was on the evening of the 18th or 20th of July (not sure of date) that I found the body of Pte Salway. I was sent with 30 men out of the firing line which was then in Mametz Wood. It was terrible fighting and the cries of the wounded were heart rending, we could not do anything for some of the poor lads but we managed to carry a few of them out with us. There were many dead of both sides but mostly German who I must say looked as thought they had put up a good fight.
The woods was being shelled everywhere – we lost 7 men getting out, 4 were blown to pieces, I cannot describe what it was like but we wanted bombs and someone had to get them.

After dropping off the bombs (grenades) they made their way back, slowly. They

stopped at the next line of trenches and Fritz was shelling a place on our right so we decided to get into the trench running from a road known as The Sunken Road. Just at the corner of the trench we saw 2 men lying, one on one side of the road the other on the other side.
The moon was very bright, the man on the right was in a terrible state, his blood was draining from him into the middle of the road, his head (what was left of it) was covered with a sandbag, we did not touch him at all. The other man was covered with a sandbag but he was not hit about the body like the man opposite. Well something seemed to tell me to look in his pockets, he is the first dead man I have ever touched but I did it and I found a few photos of himself and his wife and children, a pipe and baccy and 1 franc and ½.
Well we got a light and looked at his letters to see who he was, when I saw the address on the top of his letter (his home address) I could have dropped as I knew it very well and I believe I knew the man too. The letter was the last one from his wife and I kept it until after the battle and we got relieved. I left his Pay Book and also his identification disc so as the burning party would know who he was, then we went on our journey with our box of bombs…
After we were relieved we went by train to a place called Arras, I then sent that letter which I found on Pte Salway to his wife and she wrote back and thanked me and asked if I happened to find our where he was buried if I would let her known. Well when we left Arras to go to that ‘Hell’ again I had a look at a good many graves around the spot where I found Pte Salway but I did not find it.
I know where he must be buried now, it is one of the big grave grounds, I passed it on the march. There are about 800 buried there, the graves are well looked after but some of the poor chaps are buried where they fell and a bit of wood made into a Cross to show that some poor lad is buried there, some have no names, others bear on the ‘An Unknown English Soldier’.

The grave and simple wooden marker of an unknown British soldier at Thiepval, seen in September 1916. The cross reads 'R.I.P. In Memory of an Unknown British Soldier Found & Buried 25.11.15' © IWM (Q 1540)

The grave and simple wooden marker of an unknown British soldier at Thiepval, seen in September 1916. The cross reads ‘R.I.P. In Memory of an Unknown British Soldier Found & Buried 25.11.15’ © IWM (Q 1540)

After the war, the thousands of bodies around Mametz were consolidated into Dantzig Alley British Cemetery, where there are graves or memorials to 2,053 dead of the Great War – 518 of them unidentified. Salway’s body was identified (thanks to the items left on the body, which Sweeney mentioned) and he is buried there. He is also remembered on the memorial at his school, St Luke’s Parochial School.

What solace it gave Mrs Salway to hear from Sweeney, we will probably never know, but finding out that a loved one’s body had been identified and properly buried was often a real comfort to the bereaved of the First World War.

The Long, Long Trail
38th (Welsh) Division Memorial, Mametz Wood 
Greater Love: Letters Home 1914-1918 – (ed) Michael Moyniyan. This includes the Sweeney letters, which are held in the Imperial War Museum archive


Posted by on 10 July 2014 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead


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2 responses to “Writing to the bereaved

  1. Sarndra

    26 July 2014 at 4:06 am

    A fabulous post thank you.

    It is so hard to comprehend now what it must have been like waiting to get a letter. I suppose they were the lucky families in a way – to at least know what had happened to their loved family member and hopefully know that they did not suffer at the time of death.

    More than two months after my ex husbands distant cousin Otto Louis HAHN of the Canterbury [NZ] Infantry Battalion was killed 8 May 1915 in Gallipoli, a news item was printed in the newspaper. It went thus:

    “Sergeant-Major J. W. Langridge, writing to the parents of Sergeant Otto Hahn, who enlisted at Rangiora, and was killed in action, regarding the manner of his death, said: “On May 3 we were attacking a Turkish’ position and in the final charge poor Otto was hit so badly that he died instantly. His courage was splendid and I would like you to take comfort in the thought that he suffered absolutely no pain, and was not disfigured in any way. Otto was a true soldier, and there are many heavy hearts amongst his comrades for he had the admiration of all of us. My own brother was killed with him, and we buried them almost side by side in a spot which will never be disturbed. l am proud of my brother, I ask you to be proud of your son.”

    Lot’s of emotion in those few lines. That someone who had lost his own brother could write so caringly to Otto’s parents is truly touching.

    Otto doesn’t have a grave, his name is on the Twelve Tree Copse (New Zealand) Memorial, at Twelve Tree Copse Cemetery, Helles, Turkey. Maybe where he was originally buried was blown up. Here is a bit of a blog post I’ve done on him:

  2. Mrs Janet vaughan

    4 July 2015 at 8:07 pm

    After reading this very interesting and moving piece of history I realised that I used to live at number 1 buttesland street, my grandmother lived there too Sarah Allen. I lived there in the 50s, but my grandmother was there long before me.


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