“My dear Cecily”: Hugh John Chevallier Peirs’s Letters to Helen Charlotte Cecilia Peirs

Jack appears to have gotten along quite well with his sister Cecily, who was older than him by two years. Despite each being actively involved with the First World War, the siblings kept up a regular correspondence from 1915 to 1918. While Jack spent time rotating in and out of the trenches in northern France and Belgium, Cecily volunteered as an entertainer with the YMCA and Red Cross, traveling across England and France to sing in concerts and variety shows for members of the British Expeditionary Force. The 20 letters addressed to her are marked by their sincerity and straightforwardness, and it is likely that Cecily’s unusual situation in close proximity to the war, as well as her familiarity with its sights, sounds, and hardships, inspired her brother to share the specifics of his war experience with her in a different manner than he did with any other family member.

The only two personal letters in the collection not written by Jack come from Cecily, who wrote home to her parents while touring France with the YMCA in 1917. These letters suggest an outgoing, optimistic, well-educated, glamorous young woman who seems to have been, not unlike her brother, a loquacious correspondent. On 9 June 1917, when sending “very very many happy returns of your birthday” to her “darling Father,” she excitedly reports that she has “had a racketing day and hardly a second to breathe in,” and the new concert her group is putting on “is going to be the very nuttiest thing.” In the midst of describing the “perfectly splendid time” they are having, she is eager to hear of Jack, “as no one ever mentions him in their letters, and he never writes to me so I would love to hear sometime of young Peirs where he is or whether he has been fighting or what is happening to him.” Cecily’s second letter, written to her “darling Mother” just before Christmas 1917, is similarly effusive, detailing her plans for holiday performances and closing with her “very best love and simply heaps of good wishes.” In reading her words, we form an impression of Cecily as a woman enthusiastic about and dedicated to her work, committed to doing her part in contributing to the war effort.

In general, Jack’s letters to Cecily are lengthy and informative, and although he is always quick to joke, not as lighthearted as those to his younger sisters. These letters often display a level of frankness not always seen from Jack; he discusses subjects ranging from personnel difficulties he faces as an officer and trench politics of the military hierarchy to specifics of positions that other family members might not fully appreciate. In January 1916, a particularly challenging month during the Queens’ first winter on the front line, Jack writes Cecily five letters revealing the true extent of his struggles. On 24 January, one day after assuring his mother of a stable situation and adding that the arrival of a new staff officer “makes our normal strength well over what it should be,” he discloses to his sister that “They landed a whizz bang on top of one of the dugouts yesterday… The place is in a most awful state.”  One day later he writes to her again, this time adopting a somewhat brighter outlook and reporting “I am still here in my little dug-out, a trifle moist but otherwise quite comfortable.”

While he is always careful not to cause any of his family members too great a concern, it must have been a relief for Jack to speak to his older sister more candidly. She is his chosen correspondent when he finally, begrudgingly acknowledges that “the weather is a bit chilly with a strong wind,” “the trenches here are a maze,” and “the rations cause rather a bother.” Though he might choose to gloss over such details as these in a letter to another relative, he clearly feels comfortable in acknowledging the bleak realities of military service, as well as admitting his apprehensions and concerns, when writing to Cecily.

Though Cecily often would have been kept busy by her job with the YMCA and the travel it entailed, she was also cognizant of and eager to fulfill her responsibilities as an older sister. Like all members of the Peirs family, she made sure that Jack was properly supplied, sending clothing, food, and cigarettes both at his request and of her own volition (a favor which her brother sometimes reciprocated). The majority of Jack’s letters to her open with thanks for packages and letters she had sent to him; she was particularly apt to send reading material, and when writing to other relatives he often acknowledges a magazine or novel “from Cecily.”

On 6 December 1915, the day he returns to the front after a two-week visit home to Carshalton, he sends her “Many thanks for your letter written the day of my departure.” Of all the family, it is she who thinks to write in advance, likely as soon as he is out the door, to ensure a letter will be waiting for him upon his arrival back in France. Though all of Jack’s immediate relatives were connected to the war in some way, Cecily was the most directly involved with the home front effort. Despite the obligations and preoccupations that came with her own work, she took on the commitment of ensuring her brother’s comfort – both emotional and material – in whatever way she could.

Many of Jack’s letters to Cecily, especially those dating from 1915, take on an almost confessional quality. Though he joined the British Expeditionary Force as an officer in September 1914, not long after the nation’s entrance into the war, he was still new to both military life and the leadership position he held. In contrast to the humorously braggadocious persona he sometimes adopts when writing to his mother, Jack is surprisingly willing to describe his various embarrassing moments for his sister. On 3 November 1915, he tells her of “a little jaunt to Poperinghe in one of the Divisional cars… In one place we crossed some rails & I was thrown off the back seat & hit my head against the canvas hood. Otherwise uneventful.” Three weeks later she hears the details of a journey back to camp under icy conditions, in which Jack was obliged to lead his horse, who “at once proceeded to collapse & repeated the occurrence twice afterwards once catching me an almighty crump on the leg with his forefoot.”

These admissions of blunders to his sister, while not always entirely serious, seem different than the self-deprecating jokes so typical of his letters. Though he concedes to his mother that the mess has suffered under his direction as “I am a rotten bad housekeeper,” he admits only to Cecily that he has barely made it across the English Channel with his officer’s dignity intact, as his trip was not a pleasant one and “I expected at any moment to be up & doing.”  In Jack’s letters to his older sister we see less of Major Peirs and more of the “young Peirs” she mentions in her letter of 9 June 1917.

Her own words, as well as those of her brother, render an image of Helen Charlotte Cecilia “Cecily” Peirs as an independent, distinctive, driven person, and one that Jack looked up to and trusted. Though separated by war, geography, and the demands and dangers of their jobs, the siblings’ commitment to keeping up an honest correspondence with one another demonstrates the closeness of their relationship. Jack writes to Cecily with a singular sense of straightforwardness and genuine humility that is unmatched in his letters other family members. She was, after all, his older sister, and having grown up with him knew him in a uniquely close way, allowing him to express with candor and confession his thoughts and feelings on the First World War.

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