This is a letter from a young soldier from the trenches of the 1st World War, in June 1916. He is under arrest for cowardice, and being allowed only one letter it is in the form of a diary. It is to his parents in Peckham, London, England.


By Len A.Hynds

The young padre held his wife close, saying, "I will be back this evening my love. I am duty bound to go and see Mr and Mrs Roberts. All they were told in 1916 is that there son Will was killed in action. No hint that he was executed for cowardice. He wrote this letter to them, to tell them the truth, the injustice of what was really happening and I promised faithfully that I would deliver it to them, once the war was over."

"Was he guilty John?" she asked, feeling so sorry for her husband who had this difficult task to do. He replied, "He denies it in his letter to them, but all did that, but you can read it and you must judge for yourself". He took the unsealed envelope from his inside pocket and passed it to her. She sat at the writing bureau to read the letter, and he continued, "When they found him guilty, we discussed if his parents would ever be told how he had been killed and he was sure that some newspaper would find out the truth, and all those men shot for cowardice would have their names emblazoned across the papers, to the shame of their parents or loved ones. He told me that he must tell them the truth."

She read .............

Mr & Mrs C.Roberts Private 22046307 W.Roberts
10 Dragon Road, 2nd Battalion
Peckham East Surrey Rifles
London, S.E.15 Army Post Office 6277
England BEF. France
18th June 1916

Dear Mum and Dad,

I hope that you will never have occasion to read this without me being present. In any event it will not be brought to you until after this dreadful war is over. I am entrusting it to the padre, who has promised to deliver it personally to you. If what I fear is about to happen, you will have been notified that I have been killed in action, whilst fighting for King and Country, and I have no doubt that it will emphasise that I acted bravely to the last.

At the time of writing this, I consider that I have acted bravely, as you dad would have wished, but the army authorities have thought otherwise. I have been accused of cowardice, and have been under close arrest at this French farmhouse, the home of our provost people for over a week.

I must not pretend that matters are not serious, and the padre, who I feel believes me has warned me that I must expect the worst, He says that if I am found guilty, my family will not be told the truth, as it would be bad for the people back home. So I asked for pen and paper so I could tell you the truth. The trouble is I am only allowed the one letter to send home, so this will be written over a few days in the form of a diary.

It started eight days ago on the tenth. This was the day that cruel fate took a hand in my destiny. The East Surreys were part of the big advance at a place called Cambrai, and rumour has it that the British Army have lost half a million men. My own regiment had lost three quarters of its strength, many of them my closest comrades.

What were left of us, were holding a trench while we waited for the German counter attack. We had been under horrendous shell and mortar fire for days, so much so that most of us were concussed and two in my platoon had become deranged. All of our officers and most NCOs had been killed, and we had wounded everywhere.

In letters home we are not allowed to write of the sheer hell of it, the rotting corpses, the barbed wire, hunger and thirst, the sudden death, the rats and lice.

You remember Sergeant Attwood, whose people live in St Georges Way. He was our senior man and even he was wounded. He wrote a message on a dead officer’s notepad, and told me to run back to Regimental H.Q to inform them of our dire straits. I was not happy at leaving them, but he ordered me to go. I did suspect that he had made you a promise dad.

I ran crouching along the communication trench, until a nearby shell burst knocked me over making me unconscious. When I came to I had lost the message, but remembering the gist of it. I continued searching for the Colonels dug-out. I was stopped by provost who accused me of running away from the enemy as I was then apparently in one of the rear trenches. I was arrested and brought here. I told them about the lost message and one went forward to speak to Attwood, but he had also been killed, and a copy of the message could not be found.

I am to appear before a Field Court Martial tomorrow in this very farmhouse. All I can hope is that the satchel I was carrying with the message inside proving my innocence can be found in time. I shall continue this letter tomorrow mum and dad after the hearing, which I am dreading.

19th of June 1916
Oh mum and dad, I don't know how to tell you. The worst possible news, they didn't believe me, and I have been found guilty. Unless the General in this area shows clemency, I am to be shot at dawn tomorrow. I am sorry for the shaky writing, but my hand is trembling. From my window I can see the Pioneers erecting the post I am to be tied to. I am so shocked that I don’t know what to say to you, the best parents a person could possibly have. I seem unable to stop the tears coming into my eyes, because if I am shot tomorrow, I will never see either of you again. I pray that somebody, in the last few hours left will find that message which will prove my innocence. I will try and get some sleep now, Goodnight and God Bless. I will write in tomorrow’s date, the 20th of June, hoping that by this time tomorrow I can fill in another sweet day of life.

20th of June 1916

The padre's young wife wiped a tear from her cheek, saying, "That poor young man". The padre said, "I have often thought that I would not visit them, so they could think he died a hero, but I made him a promise so I must go. That young man showed real bravery when he faced the firing squad, and although he had just confessed to me of running away, I will not show the letter, or tell them that he confessed. They can live out their lives being proud of their son".