The forgotten letters that brought a First World War soldier’s story to life

When author Jo Fox discovered letters from her great uncle Fred in a drawer she went on a mission to find out who he was and his role in the First World War. Lizzie Murphy reports.

Monday, 27th September 2021, 5:10 pm

For more than 100 years, letters from First World War soldier Sergeant Fred Emms to his family lay in a little red box in a drawer.

The letters to his younger sister, Annie, in Leeds, documented his day-to-day life in the trenches with The 8th (Leeds Rifles) Battalion, The West Yorkshire Regiment in France from 1915 to 1918.

Now, for the first time, his great niece, Jo Fox, is bringing his stories to life in a new book, Fred’s Letters, which tells his story and explores key themes of life during the First World War.

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Jox Fox discovered a small red box containing 10 hand-written letters from her Great Uncle Fred Emms, who served in the First World War. Picture: James Hardisty.

“There are 10 surviving letters,” says Jo. “At some point the letters were passed down through the family to my mum.

“She mentioned them in 2014 when it was the 100-year anniversary of the start of the war but she didn’t know exactly who Fred was and what happened to him.”

With the help of Bradford historian and First World War expert David Whithorn, Jo, a tutor for children with additional needs, has spent the last few years uncovering who Fred was, his life in and outside of the military, and sadly his untimely death at the end of the war in 2018.

“I feel like I know him and, even though I’ve never seen a picture of him, I know exactly what he looked like,” she says.

David helped Jo to piece the story together. “Some of the dates of his letters were unclear,” Jo says. “But by looking at the information in them we’ve managed to work out when they were written.”

Fred’s earliest letter found, dated January 10 1915, recounts his experience of living in Aldershot’s huge army training centre before being posted to France.

At the beginning of 1914, Aldershot was the largest army camp in the country with 20 per cent of the home British Army was based there.

When war broke out, thousands of recruits came to train there. It provided the nucleus of the 1914 army, treated the wounded from the fighting, and ensured a constant supply of trained men for the fighting.

“We are all still at Aldershot, thousands of us in fact they don’t know where to put us, and what to (do) with us and the food is not hardly worth eating,” Fred wrote.

“Bread and marmalade for breakfast with a bit or half of a sausage for Sunday morning is not much and you have to keep your eye on it. But still they make you enjoy it with being out in the fresh air.”

Another letter recalls a friendly snowball fight between the British and German soldiers in their trenches in early 2016: “We have been in the trenches again, snowing nearly all the time we was in and it was cold I can tell you,” Fred wrote.

“We were so near the Germans that we were talking to them and they are fed up as well as we are and we were even snowballing one another only about 20 yards away. We had a bit of fun with them.”

Letters from the front line were censored, due to concerns that valuable information might fall into enemy hands if they were captured.

“He was probably too scared to talk too much about it and wouldn’t have wanted to worry his family,” says Jo. “He would have pretended everything was ok, even if it wasn’t.”

Through her own research, Jo 
has also pieced together Fred’s early life.

She discovered that Fred’s father, Robert, was born in Norfolk but moved to Yorkshire for labouring work.

Fred himself was an avid footballer and was captain of his local football team in Leeds during the 1890s.

He was an iron dresser, working in foundry cleaning cast metal and moulds before he volunteered to serve in the war.

During the war, Fred’s wife and two young daughters lived in a terraced house, off Elland Road, in Leeds.

Fred and his battalion fought in a number of high profile battles during their time on the front line, including The Battle of the Somme in 1916, The Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 and the Battle of the Tardenois or ‘Bligny Ridge’ in July 1918.

Their heroic role in the latter, when the division captured Bligny against strong opposition and helped to changed the course of the First World War, earned them the rare ‘Criox de Guerre’ – a high French military honour.

Fred also spent time in the Second Canadian General Hospital in Le Treport with a painful knee where he sent some of his letters from.

“We don’t know what happened to his knee but from what he says in the letters, he seemed quite happy in there, apart from the pain,” says Jo.

“He said that he felt safe and the food was better than in the trenches.”

Fred was killed on the first day of the Battle of Canal du Nord on September 27, 2018 – 103 years ago today.

The battle was part of the Hundred Days Offensive by the Allies against German positions on the Western Front.

The fight took place in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, along an incomplete portion of the Canal du Nord and on the outskirts of Cambrai between September 27, and October 1, 1918.

Fred was 35 and died a few weeks before the end of the war and five weeks after his last letter, in which he expressed surprise that he’d been made a sergeant and discussed his hope for returning home.

“You will be rather surprised when you see that I have been made Sargeant,” he wrote.

“I don’t know what I did for it, but anyway, I shall have to behave myself now. I did not want the other stripe. I told the officer I did not want it, but anyway, I have it.”

He added: “I am expecting to be told to get ready for home anytime. I think I am sure to be home for Holbeck Feast but just a little patience....I think this is all at present but I will let you know if I can at all, I am coming home to good old Blighty.”

Sadly Fred’s entry on the war memorial in Leeds Parish Church misspells his name, something which Jo is hoping to rectify. She is also searching for a photo of him.

“This project has been a bit emotional and obviously it’s tragic what happened,” she says.

“But ever since I knew these letters existed, I felt it was my duty to find out who Fred was and to tell his story.

“I feel like I’ve extended his legacy and now future generations can learn what these men actually did.

“Every family will have an ancestor with a similar story. As time passes on these stories get lost and it’s important they’re remembered. That’s why I put it into a book.”

She adds: “I’ve enjoyed it and it’s a job that will never be finished. There will always be more to learn and more records that get discovered.”

Fred’s Letters will be published in November for Armistice Day. To pre-order a copy of the book, visit www.fredsletters.co.uk