By Bicester historian Matthew Hathaway.

IN researching the servicemen listed on Bicester’s war memorial for our Remembrance weekend event this Saturday, I have been reading through a lot of letters that had been published in the local newspapers.

They give a glimpse into the lives and attitudes of the men serving at the front that the obituaries and tributes tend to lack.

In May 1915, Trooper William Butler wrote to his mother to tell her about his experiences:

“I thought we were in for a nasty time at Sunday tea-time. We were just having some tea and the Germans started using their gas. It came right down to our trenches, and it is awful to smell. We were soon served out with pads to put over our mouths to stop it from getting down us.

"We were staying in a village the day before we came into the trenches and the Germans started shelling it about five o’clock in the afternoon. It was an awful sight to see the poor people running away with just what they could carry. There were so many wounded that even the Church was full.”

In August 1916, Private Henry Ashmore wrote home to his parents saying:

“The Germans were very good to us; they left rations behind in their dug-outs at ___. The papers make out they are starving, but it did not look much like it, not to mention the whiskey and soda.”

Sergeant Tom Ayris, after being wounded for the second time, wrote to his father to explain that, since two chunks of shrapnel had been removed from his knee, he was getting on splendidly.

He then delighted in explaining the strange coincidence in connection with his two injuries, that one occurred on May 11, 1915, and the other on May 11, 1916, and both in the same leg!

The most prolific published letter writer seems to be Private Arthur Coppock. Over a period of about five months he appears to have written to just about everybody. In March 1915 he wrote to his brother, telling him of his exploits:

"A shell burst six yards from me the second day I was in the firing line. I was laying in my dug-out at the time, and was the nearest man to the shell when it burst. One of the men of our section came round to see if I was hurt, but I told him the Germans had not got me that time.

"The nose of the shell went straight through the back of the trench and into the next one, where more men were. A man picked it up, but it was so hot that he dropped it pretty quickly; anyway we had a good laugh over it as no one was hurt by the shell."

Then, in May, he wrote again to his brother, who had recently joined the Oxfordshire Heavy Battery, to make a special request:

"If I get ‘done in’ before you get out here, don’t forget to have your own back; I know you will have the guns and the shells to do it with. Try and reach the Kaiser with one of your long-rangers, as he is the ‘bloke’ we want to get hold of."

This turned out to be rather poignant, as Private Coppock was killed in action a few weeks later, but I’m sure the Kaiser was quaking in his boots when he heard the news.

These are just three of the over 130 casualties who had links to Bicester. You can find out more about all of them at St Edburg’s Church on Saturday. The event will be open from 10am to 4pm and all are welcome.

I also urge you to watch the new film by Peter Jackson, They Shall Not Grow Old, which is being broadcast on BBC Two at 9.30pm on Sunday. It has been made using restored archive footage and interviews and gives a truly unique and harrowing experience of the 'war to end all wars'.