WWI Belfast soldiers' letters found in Cavan

By Jennifer O'Leary
Dublin reporter

Image caption,
The men took time out from the horrors of the war to write to their rector at St Mark's parish

Letters written by Belfast men serving at the Western Front during Christmas 1917, have recently been uncovered in the Republic.

The men all came from St Mark's Parish in Dundela in east Belfast.

They were writing to their rector, Reverend Arthur Barton, in response to Christmas parcels sent to them from their home parish.

"The women and people left behind were involved in making comfort parcels," explained Dr Susan Hood, an archivist at the Dublin-based Representative Church Body (RCB) Library.

"There was a lot of knitting going on, a lot of different activities and fundraising and they put together these comfort parcels which would have been sent out with the good wishes of the parish."

The soldiers from St Mark's Parish took time out from the horror of the trenches to thank Rev Arthur Barton.

Richard Vincent Palmer was aged 24 and the son of a grocer.

"I thank you all for your kind thoughts of me and also for the very useful box of comforts you sent. The box contained just the things that are needed I think most by the men in the trenches," he wrote.

"Socks are in great demand when the weather is bad and mud is everywhere, and the mitts and woollen headgear are desirable if not essential, when the weather is cold.

"We had both kinds of weather on our last trip in the line so you can imagine how thankful I was that your parcel had arrived the day before the battalion went into the trenches.

"I am now out on rest enjoying good health and am expecting to get leave soon.

"Again thanking you all for the parcel of comforts and trusting that before long we may see the end of the awful conflict.

I remain An Old St Mark's Boy, R.V. Palmer"

William Millikin was also grateful for the parcel he received.

"I take this opportunity of writing you a few lines to thank you also your church committee for the useful and beautiful parcel which I have received quite safe," he wrote.

"Also for your own kindness to my wife and children as [in] the letters I get from home my wife says that you are very attentive to the children.

"Wishing yourself and Church every success.

"Yours sincerely, W. Millikin."

In all, 10 men from St Mark's parish sent letters from the Western Front to their rector.

"From consultation with the Somme heritage museum in Belfast we were able to ascertain that none of them were killed," Dr Susan Hood said.

"Happily we know that they all came back safely."

The letters were recently uncovered from the basement of Kilmore See House in Cavan, where Arthur Barton had later resided between 1930 and 1939.

Image caption,
Rev Arthur Barton kept the letters from the soldiers

"They were kept safe by Rev Arthur Barton as he had put them into an envelope that he marked in his own handwriting 'soldiers presents'.

"The letters obviously had great poignant significance for him, perhaps in the aftermath of the war and realising just how awful it was."

The RCB Library is hopeful that the letter writer descendants will get in touch.

"We'd be delighted to finish the story and complete the circle," Dr Hood said

"And if the families of any of these men are aware of the connection with Dundela in east Belfast would like to get in touch with us and tell us what the story was after 1918 we'd be grateful if they would contact us."

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