They were often found fluttering on the churned battlefields of France and Flanders, detailing a soldier’s last wishes should he not live to fight another day.
The informal wills of WWI soldiers were often discovered alongside their paybooks, a record of their service, and have come to offer a measure of the ultimate sacrifice the fighters knew they faced.
The wills often stretch to just a few paragraphs, written in haste by the rank and file in a moment away from the action.
Like that of Private Charles Simpson of the 1/6th battalion Seaforth Highlanders.
In old-fashioned cursive, it said: “In the event of my death I leave all my belongings to my mother, Mrs Simpson, of 7 Nicoll Street, New Elgin.”
That was written on January 27, 1918. And by the July of that year, he had been killed in action.
In some instances, no will was made and letters home would often be used in court to help determine the estate of the fallen.
Correspondence of Gunner William Sutherland, of 315th Royal Field Artillery, of Aberdeen, was used to such effect following his death on April 4, 1918.
He tells his father of “being gassed continuously” by the enemy before being pounced on in the fog and being “put on the run” for four days.
He added: “We have some very hard fighting before us yet. I hope the Lord keeps me safe through it all.”
It continued: “If anything should happen me (sic) I wish you to get the little money I possess and do with it what you think best.
“Nellie has got my bank book.”
Private Andrew Hamilton, of the 4th battalion Gordon Highlanders, was dispatched to France having enjoyed several successful seasons playing for Aberdeen Football Club.
He was killed in action on April 20, 1915, just two months after he arrived on the frontline.
Eight days before he died, Private Hamilton wrote: “In the event of my death, I leave personal belongings to my wife, Mrs A Hamilton, 11 Forbes Street, Aberdeen.”
She had been told by his captain that her husband’s death was instantaneous and that he was now buried behind the trenches, with a cross marking his grave.
More formal documents did exist for higher ranks, such as those located for Bombardier Alexander Dunlop Pope, of the Royal Field Artillery, who lived with his parents at 66 Skene Street, Aberdeen.
Records show that the former
employee of Sandlilands Chemical Company was shot by a sniper on September 26, 1916 while laying a
telephone wire in a communication trench.
A newspaper cutting recorded that the Bombardier, a recipient of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), had been embroiled in some of the “hottest fighting” of the conflict.
His will shows that he left all his personal belongings to his mother.