“My dear Father”: Hugh John Chevallier Peirs’s Letters to Hugh Vaughan Peirs

From the 96 letters addressed to Hugh Vaughan Peirs, it is clear that Jack and his father had a respectful relationship. The tone of the letters is typically informative and honest, more often marked by professionalism and frankness than emotion. Jack is generally direct with his father when recounting his day-to-day duties; he spends little time discussing food, lodging, and people and focuses more on where he might be moving, when he must oversee a court martial, and how long he will spend in the trenches.

The two men were in many ways alike, and there are several subjects Jack is particularly apt to talk about with his father. These include business and financial matters related to his work, both as an officer in the army and in the law practice they shared. At times Hugh Vaughan functions almost as his son’s private secretary and banker – as Jack moves so often and is largely occupied by his official duties, his personal affairs are liable to be overlooked. With his son overseas, Hugh Vaughan makes sure this does not happen, taking care of such details as renewing licenses , cashing checks, withdrawing money, filing documents, and forwarding correspondence.

Additionally, when Jack finds himself in need of supplies in the trenches or has specific favors to be carried out at home, he nearly always relies upon his father rather than his mother or sisters. Hugh Vaughan addresses his son’s sometimes unorthodox, often idiosyncratic wishes with accuracy and promptness. On 28 May 1916 Jack writes with a particular request for a certain kind of typewriter, mentioning that he “would write direct to Harrods or some such place only they would be sure to send some-thing quite unsuitable.” By 3 June the typewriter, “just what we want,” has arrived, along with a new khaki tie, which Jack had cryptically asked that “someone” procure. By 25 August 1916 the 8th Queens receives a shipment of footballs Jack had requested from father just two weeks earlier, and on 8 December 1916 he is pleased by the arrival of his new telescope, one month after his previous one was broken. It is interesting to think that Hugh Vaughan, who at 59 years old in 1914 was unable to serve directly, might have seen his assisting his son in this way as his own contribution to the war effort.

In return for his father’s diligence, Jack remains conscious of his parents’ spending money on his behalf, and on more than one occasion insists on paying for things himself. The Peirs family was well off, as evidenced by the proliferation of gifts they sent over the course of the war, and there was really no need for Jack to send the money for newspaper subscriptions or divisional badges. However, making financial contributions likely gave him a better sense of control over his own affairs, which was lacking in the trenches even for an officer.

Jack also discusses politics back home in England with his father, often adding just a sentence or two about a newspaper article or rumor at the end of a letter. He is very candid in sharing his ideas about the military hierarchy and his superior officers, freely giving his opinion on everyone from ambulance corps to the Commanding Officer. Jack’s letters to his father tend to be more speculative  than those to other relatives. He is willing to hazard guesses about if and when gas attacks will come, what the opposing side might be up to, and what is going on in different parts of the line.

It appears as though Hugh Vaughan shared Jack’s interest in technology, as many of the letters contain descriptions of airplanes, guns, tanks, automobiles, gas, explosives, and more. The letters very often contain references to “the pram,” the name by which the family automobile was known. While the pram features prominently in Jack’s letters to each of his family members, it is clear that Hugh Vaughan came closest to matching his level of interest in the car, and concerns regarding fuel, tires, and carburetors were an important aspect of their correspondence.

In general, Jack’s letters to his father are somewhat less personal than those to his other family members. Though he is never a particularly emotional writer, Jack is far from objective in addressing his father, whether confessing his dislike of the battalion’s mess corporal or his distress at seeing his men go missing in battle. Often the silent aspects of the letters, the details Jack chooses to leave out, are just as revelatory as his words.

What is perhaps most striking about Jack’s letters to his father is the level of trust he places in Hugh Vaughan. Regardless of the subject being discussed, he writes with an implicit understanding that his father will realize where he is coming from, recognize what he needs, and (more likely than not) agree with and support his judgments. These letters in particular help us to form a better picture of the challenges soldiers like Jack faced and the importance of the encouragement and material support they received from home. Jack is a nearly thirty-year-old commissioned officer, an Oxford graduate, and a successful private lawyer. That he so frequently needs and asks for his father’s help is telling. While the letters might not be as entertaining or expressive as those to his mother and sisters, the trust and faith they reveal is just as poignant. Hugh Vaughan Peirs was, in his own way, a model of home front activism, and through his son’s letters we are able to gain a greater understanding of this man’s involvement in and relationship to the First World War.

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