Letters home are bitter reminders of war’s cost

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THE modest personal effects of Ernest Briggs barely fill a table top, but they pack a powerful punch.

His wallet, containing numerous newspaper cuttings of Doncaster lads killed in action, sits alongside a faded, pressed poppy and a handful of postcards.

The items made it back to his mother Sarah in Bentley Road, Doncaster after he was killed in action at the age of 20 in July 1917 while serving in France with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve which was fighting alongside the Army.

Pride of place in the VC Trust’s growing collection is a perfectly preserved letter from Sub Lieutenant Walter Lyall to Ernest Briggs’s mother.

It says: “Dear Mrs Briggs. It grieves me beyond measure to have to convey to you the sad news of the death of your son, Able Seaman Ernest Briggs. He was killed today by a shell and death must have been almost instantaneous.

“You son was my servant and I never had a more lovable and faithful boy. He was frequently referred to in conversation with my fellow officers as ‘faithful Briggs’.

“If my grief and loss be great, what must be the terrible sorrow which this sad news will bring to your heart – his poor mother?

“Words fail me to express my deep sympathy with you in your irreparable loss. Be assured, Mrs Briggs, that I do sorrow with you, as do all the officers and men of the Battalion,

“May heaven give you strength and consolation to bear your heavy burden of grief. We will bury him in the British cemetery alongside others of his comrades and you will be duly notified of the position of his grave.”

It is signed: “I am yours very sympathetically, Walter Lyall, Royal Naval Reserve.”

The letter has been enlarged and will form part of an exhibition of artefacts from the First World War when the VC Trust has completed the renovation of its base at Balby, Doncaster.

Trust chief executive Gary Stapleton is gathering items ahead of the opening date, which is yet to be finalised, and is keen to hear from anyone with memorabilia.

Visitors to the self-styled “Ashworth Barracks” are greeted by ex-Army men in fatigues holding mock weapons. It will be as “hands on” as possible so visitors can get a feel for the size and weight of shells, rifles and the like.

Many of the objects have been gathered during visits to Belgium by Mr Stapleton and his team.

He has established contacts with explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams who recover unexploded munitions from former battlefields of the Western Front.

Among the collection is a 95kg mortar from a German minenwerfer (mortar thrower) and a Livens Projector which could throw drums filled with flammable or toxic chemicals. Lee Enfield rifles and German Lugers are waiting to go on display.

“We get a lot of support from the EOD team in Belgium,” says Mr Stapleton, who gave up his recruitment business to devote himself to the VC Trust.

“We have been across to Belgium three times and have brought back everything from pre-First World War items to modern day ephemera and things that are still in use. Everything we have acquired is explosives free and inert.”

Once opened, the museum will cover all aspects of warfare from 1856, the year the Victoria Cross was introduced by Queen Victoria, up to present day.

“I want to appeal to readers of The Yorkshire Post for any military items, large or small, from postcards to medals – whether British, French, German, American or whatever. They can be loaned or donated. We know that sometimes these items are thrown away after someone’s death, so would appeal for people to get in touch.”

The museum will include information about men awarded the Victoria Cross as the Trust was originally established to improve VC recipients’ graves, many of them in poor repair.

But the Trust museum will also help Army veterans employed as guides to find their way in Civvie Street.

“When visitors arrive, it is like coming onto a military base, which is part of the experience. We want visitors to ask questions about their military service so it becomes therapeutic for veterans and it is a ‘living museum’.

“How can you understand the First World War unless you have seen and handled a Lee Enfield rifle and felt the weight of it?”

The main purpose will be education and school children will be among the first visitors.

“It’s not glorifying war, it’s about education. I do think we have got some stuff that you are not going to see at any other museum.”

It is hoped the venue might open in time for Remembrance Sunday in November but official accreditation has yet to be achieved.

Among the staff at Ashworth Barracks is former Army infantryman Shaun Clark, 48, who believes the building is as an ideal meeting place for old soldiers.

“The lads want to come somewhere and chill out and talk about things. We have had soldiers visit who were injured in Afghanistan. The younger ones might not want to go to a British Legion club. This place is nice and peaceful.”

A space has been set aside as a veterans-only room and will be named in honour of an Army veteran from Doncaster found dead last year after suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The Victoria Cross Trust is on 01302 855 854.