The Ogilby Muster launched to the public on Wednesday 3rd November. The online platform brings together First World War archives from over 75 collections.
Participating collections have spent a considerable amount of time preparing material to be released on the platform for the public and in the process have uncovered some of the stories and experiences of soldiers.
Below is an abridged article created by Dot Boughton, the Documents, Records and Metadata Officer for the Fusilier Museum, Bury. In this article, Dot considers the letters of Captain Thomas Gordon Gribble in the days before and after the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
“My Darling Madeline….”
Letters from the Western Front: fragments of the life of one Lancashire Fusilier during World War I
Collections documentation is often portrayed as ‘boring’ because it seemingly reduces exciting objects to a string of numbers, a short description and a sticky label. However, I really enjoy museums documentation and I feel that there is so much more to it than just lists. It gives a collection structure, order and, most importantly, it helps curators, researchers and others to find objects in collections that often contain hundreds of thousands of objects. This is true for both collections in museum stores and online. Without the metadata, numbers and locations, neither insiders nor outsiders would ever find what they are looking for.
Having come to the project as a prehistoric archaeologist, one could say that I stepped into a completely undiscovered country when I started working on The Ogilby Muster (TOM) for the Fusilier Museum (Bury, Lancashire). However, what initially attracted me to the project was the prospect of working on TOM, the online database and resource, itself.
The Fusilier Museum holds archives, records and documents relating to the Lancashire Fusiliers and I have to be completely honest here – as someone mainly dealing with earlier periods of history and prehistory, I never really looked into British 20th century history at all (more on that in the conclusion) and I had (huge apologies!) never heard of the Lancashire Fusiliers before March 2021. However, THAT completely changed in the last four months – I now feel that, with having documented so much of their archives on TOM, I have become a small part of the Lancashire Fusiliers’ history and I am looking at many, many aspects of recent history in a completely different light. One officer – long dead – was integral to my journey from being completely clueless to becoming very much emotionally involved with the Fusilier Museum’s World War I archives: Captain Thomas Gordon Gribble. The Fusilier Museum holds hundreds of his letters, and they had been given to AMOT to get scanned and digitised for TOM. In order to add metadata (namely keywords) to our documents efficiently, I need to read or at least scan all of them and take in their contents. Mostly it’s just lists, orders and newspaper clippings, but sometimes, the documents are much more personal than that. Tom Gribble’s letters were the first archive that I was asked to add metadata to, and I can honestly say I was really sad when I put down the very last page of Tom’s last letter. To me it felt that through his writing, I was able to get a sense of what he went through during the Great War. Tom made it home from the Western Front, thankfully, and his letters, understandably, stopped when he was reunited with his family. We do not have letters written to him, but that doesn’t matter – he wrote home almost every day and paints a very intense and gripping picture of his and the other soldiers’ lives at the Western Front in the years 1916-1917.
Captain Thomas Gribble spent most of World War I on the Western Front. He wrote home to his wife, Madeline, virtually every day – and from his letters we know that she, too, wrote to him almost as often. His letters are loving, romantic and courteous. He tells Madeline how much he loves her and misses her and even though it is almost ‘too much’, I think that considering where he was at the time of writing it was his way of escapism and making sure that she knew. I don’t think anyone but a soldier can understand what went through his head when he was writing those letters. Generally, he keeps to the basics, asking Madeline about friends and family back home in England, asking her to send him certain items of clothes or thanking her for culinary treats she posted out to him. However, occasionally, the casual tone fades away and becomes more urgent and desperate. Not very often, mind. I think he was very aware not to frighten or worry her, so Tom keeps his accounts clear and concise and, of course, never mentions places, villages and towns he’s travelled through or was going to.
Looking at his letters from June and July 1916, the change in tone is most noticeable, however. On the 16thof June, he asks for summer underpants and describes a march that tired them all out, but I think he also hints at the events to come, saying “things are getting busy here now”. A day later, on the 17th June, he writes another letter, thanking Madeline for hers that had arrived the previous day, and stating that there definitely would be no leave authorised now, “… now it is quite out of the question as I am sure you will understand later”, again hinting at future events, which, as we of course now know, would be quite devastating. A day later, on the 18th, he writes to her again, thanking her for another letter and cake she sent to him. He also tries (probably in vain!) to dispel her worries, only to write a few paragraphs later that they all went to church and received the holy communion, “…and I am afraid it will be the last for many of us.” The letters he writes to Madeline in the following two weeks also straddle – very awkwardly and painfully – facts and potential worries.
Tom keeps hinting at the things to come, but I am sure his nervous attempts at dispelling Madeline’s worries achieved only the opposite. On the 21st June he told her that more officers had arrived and that there were rumours that the soldiers wouldn’t be able to write home for a while again, I am sure this did nothing to calm Madeline’s nerves. In her letters (that we don’t have – only Tom’s replies) she does her utmost to distract him with banal, every-day things and news, for example she describes her new wardrobe, what she saw in the cinema and who she met for tea: almost what husband and wife would casually exchange over dinner. But there was nothing casual about Tom’s days. Tom replies politely and acknowledges her new clothes, probably briefly indulging the thought of seeing her in a new outfit so much more than the worries of things to come. He writes to her every day and it is clear, reading between the lines, that he is very aware that each letter could be his last.
In his letters of the 26th and 27th June, he suggests that she will now be able to guess what is going to happen as he thinks that the papers back home may have been reporting something. On the 29th June he manages a short note – we can see from his handwriting, which was no more than a hasty scribble to let Madeline know he was still ok. Then, after the 30th June there are no letters until the 5th of July. I cannot imagine – ever – what he must have experienced, endured and seen in these first few days of July 1916, during the events that we now refer to as the Battle of the Somme. When he picks up the pen again, on July 5th, he starts off lightly, almost as normal – thanking Madeline for her lovely letters and explaining he hadn’t received any for some time “…owing to recent happenings.” Then, he says, almost casually (which, in my opinion, makes it even more raw and brutal), “…Things have been busy here of late and of course the papers are full. I am the only officer left in my company now and I have lost all of my chums in the recent fighting.” He had made friends with a soldier called Clegg, in the weeks leading up to the Battle of the Somme and says in his letter “…Poor old Clegg has gone and no one can say what has really happened to him and he was such a nice lad and I was very fond of him…” I think it is very likely Tom was still in shock when he added, on the next page: “I have seen some terrible things of late and it very hard to believe it is all real but thank God we are giving it to the Huns right + left. It almost seems more than a human being can stand…”
There is nothing I can add to that – Tom is devastated, with his entire being thrown into turmoil. And here am I, a cataloguer over a hundred years later reading these letters he wrote to his wife on the eve of battle and just after. I cannot convey in this article how emotional Tom’s letters made me. Being so close to someone else who lived over a hundred years ago, in his head and his thoughts. I am hoping that, with all Tom Gribble’s letters accessible on The Ogilby Muster – many others will be able to read and study them like I did (and probably in much more depth!). There’s so much to learn still – and online collections databases such as The Ogilby Muster can help to do just that.
AMOT would like to thank Dot and the Fusiliers Museum, Bury, for the time and access provided to some of their collection. Dot’s work gives an insight into one of the many stories just waiting to be found through The Ogilby Muster. For the full article, please see our 2020/2021 Annual Review, free to download from this website. Click here for your copy.
To visit The Ogilby Muster site and begin your own search, click here.