Last Requests Of WWI Soldiers Revealed

The last wishes of thousands of soldiers killed in World War One and unseen for a century are being made available online.

The wills of 230,000 British Empire soldiers written in their own hand have been placed on a new website, allowing families and historians to view them for the first time.

Some 5% of the wills contain a treasure trove of personal letters penned by the soldiers and intended for loved ones back home, but which were never posted.

Instead, those letters have lain alongside the writers' wills in sealed archive boxes for 100 years.

In one of the letters, written on August 10, 1914, Private Joseph Witchburn of 2nd Battalion The Durham Light Infantry tells his mother: "I dare say this will be the last letter you will receive from me until the war is over, as I am prepared to move to the front at any moment."

An anonymous government official recorded on his will that he died of his wounds on September 14, 1914.

Another will belonging to John Fleetwood, the grandfather of rock band Fleetwood Mac's Mick Fleetwood, reveals his death from dysentery in a hospital in Malta on December 30, 1915, after serving in Gallipoli.

That document was discovered by leading British historian Jon Cooksey who was given access to the new database before Thursday's website launch.

He praised the value of the archive and said: "What this does is help us, as historians, piece together the mosaic of facts which give us the real men."

Archivists at specialist record management company Iron Mountain spent five months first indexing and then painstakingly scanning by hand the soldiers' wills so they could be put on to a computer and then online.

The work was undertaken under contract from Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which is responsible for the records.

The wills are held in a secure facility run by the company on the outskirts of Birmingham, while the digital copies are stored in a data centre in Milton Keynes.

In total, the facility houses 41 million wills and probate records dating from 1858.

All the hard copies are carefully stored in pH neutral boxes in sealed climate-controlled and fire-proof rooms where the records should survive "in perpetuity" according to Iron Mountain.

John Apthorpe, the firm's commercial director, said: "With 230,000 individuals who died in the war, the emotions (that come through) are quite interesting when you read some of the notes they left.

"A lot have straightforward statements, but some of them do have personal letters and touches, and a bit more detail about what's happening."

Courts Minister Helen Grant said: "This fascinating project has opened the door to a whole new insight on our war heroes - it has given us the opportunity for the first time to hear the thoughts and emotions of the brave soldiers who died for this country in their own words."

The wills, classed as official records, were only previously accessible through direct requests. They were not released to beneficiaries because they belonged to the then War Office and the Government.

The short-form wills presented on small pieces of paper were often handed to soldiers by their company officers and senior non-commissioned officers to be completed before embarkation for a theatre of the war, which raged across the globe from July 1914 until November 1918.

:: The archive can be accessed here