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The Great War letters of an Oxford family

The First World War has survived as part of our national memory in a way no previous war has ever done. Below is an extract from Full of Hope and Fear: The Great War Letters of an Oxford Family, a collection of letters which lay untouched for almost ninety years. They allow a unique glimpse into the war as experienced by one family at the time, transporting us back to an era which is now slipping tantalizingly out of living memory. The Slaters – the family at the heart of these letters – lived in Oxford, and afford a first-hand account of the war on the Home Front, on the Western Front, and in British India. Violet and Gilbert’s eldest son Owen, a schoolboy in 1914, was fighting in France by war’s end.

Violet to Gilbert, [mid-October 1917]

I am sorry to only write a few miserable words. Yesterday I had a truly dreadful headache which lasted longer than usual but today I am much better . . . I heard from Katie Barnes that their Leonard has been very dangerously wounded they are terribly anxious. But are not allowed to go to him. Poor things it is ghastly and cruel, and then you read of the ‘Peace Offensive’ articles in the New Statesman by men who seem to have no heart or imagination. I cannot understand it . . . You yourself said in a letter to Owen last time that [the Germans] had been driven back across the Aisne ‘We hope with great loss.’ Think what it means in agony and pain to the poor soldiers and agony and pain to the poor Mothers or Wives. It is useless to pretend it could not be prevented! We have never tried any other way . . . No other way but cruel war is left untried. I suppose that there will be a time when a more advanced human being will be evolved and we have learnt not to behave in this spirit individually towards each other. If we kept knives & pistols & clubs perhaps we should still use them. Yesterday Pat & I went blackberrying and then I went alone to Yarnton . . . the only ripe ones were up high so I valiantly mounted the hedges regardless of scratching as if I were 12 & I got nice ones. Then I went to the Food Control counter & at last got 5 lbs. of sugar . . . It was quite a victory we have to contend with this sort of sport & victory consists in contending with obstacles.

Gilbert to Owen, [9 February 1918]

I have been so glad to get your two letters of Dec. 7th & 18th and to hear of your success in passing the chemistry; and also that you got the extension of time & to know where you are . . . I am looking forward to your letters which I hope will make me realise how you are living. Well, my dear boy, I am thinking of you continually, and hoping for your happiness and welfare. I have some hope that your course may be longer than the 4 months. I fear now there is small chance of peace before there has been bitter fighting on the west front, and little chance of peace before you are on active service. I wonder what your feelings are. I don’t think I ever funked death for its own sake, though I do on other accounts, the missing a finish of my work, and the possible pain, and, very much more than these, the results to my wife & bairns. I don’t know whether at your age I should have felt that I was losing much in the enjoyment of life, not as much as I hope you do. I fear you will have to go into peril of wounds, disease and death, yet perhaps the greater chance is that you will escape all three actually; and, I hope, when you have come through, you will feel that you are not sorry to have played your part.

Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France
Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France. Photo courtesy of Margaret Bonfiglioli. Do not reproduce without permission.

Owen to Mrs Grafflin, [3 November 1918]

This is just a very short note to thank you for the knitted helmet that Mother sent me from you some time ago. It is very comfortable & most useful as I wear it under my tin hat, a shrapnel helmet which is very large for me & it makes it a beautiful fit.

We are now out at rest & have been out of the line for several days & have been having quite a good time though we have not had any football matches & the whole company is feeling rather cut up because our O.C. [Officer Commanding] has died of wounds. He was an excellent [word indecipherable] father to his men & officers.

Margaret Bonfiglioli was born in Oxford, where she also read English. Tutoring literature at many levels led to her involvement in innovative access courses, all while raising five children. In 2008 she began to re-discover the hoard of family letters that form the basis of Full of Hope and Fear. Her father, Owen Slater, is one of the central correspondents. After eleven years tutoring history in the University of Oxford, James Munson began researching and writing full-time. In 1985 he edited Echoes of the Great War, the diary of the First World War kept by the Revd. Andrew Clark. He also wrote some 50 historical documentaries for the BBC.

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