An article in The Times describes the wartime enthusiasm for writing to lonely soldiers, and sending them gifts. In 1915 The Daily Express claimed to have found, in Private A. C. White of the 1st Rifle Brigade, “the loneliest man at the front”.
Within two days White had received 470 letters and 200 parcels. Barely a week later, the Rifleman had received more than 800 presents, newspapers and boxes, “almost enough to set him up for life as a grocer, confectioner, and newsagent”. His haul included 15 tuck boxes, 30 glasses of potted meat, 15 tins of Milkmaid Café au Lait, 15 packets of “nut-milk” chocolate, 15 tins of smoked sardines, 15 tins of herring in tomato, 15 tins of Oxford sausages, 15 pots of Bovril, 7lb of ginger chips, several pounds of mixed drops, and 15 tin-openers.
The personal columns of newspapers filled with advertisements from soldiers wanting a bit of communication with England, the chance to find a girlfriend and the opportunity to get gifts from well-wishers. The volume of goods sent could clog military lines of communication.
“By yesterday’s mail from England”, Captain T. P. Hobbins of the Royal Engineers complained in February, 1915, one Driver Pennery of the Field Artillery had received three sacks, one containing about 3,000 letters, and two more full of small parcels and packets along with 98 other parcels. It turned out that Pennery had advertised as a lonely soldier in the Daily Chronicle. Transport problems at the front were bad enough, the captain said, without this additional burden, and if any more men in the battery received this amount of correspondence “the transport and disposal of the mails would be seriously hindered”.
One magazine where soldiers advertised for pen-friends is not mentioned in the Times article – the Magnet comic. You realise how young the young men in the trenches were when you imagine them getting their weekly fill of Greyfriars School, Billy Bunter, etc. Some wartime issues gave an address in Paris where the comic could be bought by soldiers on leave from the front.
Thanks to Tim Kendall of the War Poetry blog for alerting me to the article.