“My dear Glad”: Hugh John Chevallier Peirs’s Letters to Gladys Catherine Constance Peirs

There are a comparatively small number of letters in the collection addressed to Gladys, the middle Peirs sister. As a result, drawing conclusions from these relatively limited sources, which are often clustered together based on date, presents something of a challenge. This is particularly noticeable in contrast to the proliferation of Jack’s correspondence with other family members. Still, his fourteen letters to his sister offer a glimpse into the relationship between the siblings and reveal fragments of information about Gladys’s life before and during the First World War.

A partial explanation for the relatively scarcity of Jack’s letters to Gladys, who was often known by her nicknames “Glad” or “G,” may simply be her geographical location during the war. In 1914 she married William Russell and moved out of the family home at Queen’s Well. Like Jack, William was employed by the British military, and while the letters do not specify the branch of the armed forces he was involved with or the capacity in which he served, it is evident that the brothers-in-law shared in the experience of active service. As a military spouse, Gladys moved often, spending time with extended Peirs relatives or family friends and visiting home between her husband’s assignments. Logistics come to play an important role in Jack’s letters to his younger sister; he regularly mentions her location and, when he can, references his own, creating a timeline they can both use to better inform their correspondence. In sending Gladys “Many thanks for your letter from Sywell,” or requesting that she “Remember me to Lillie & other Aunts Uncles & Cousins, whom you may see,” Jack keeps her updated on his receipt of her letters and contextualizes his understanding of her activities.

The unpredictability of military life meant that Jack and his sister did not have many opportunities to see one another between 1915 and 1919. Despite their attempts to arrange concurrent visits home, they were rarely successful. In the summer of 1916 Jack expresses regret that “I have not been able to get back & see you before you go off but you know how things are.” (14 July 1916). Ever the reassuring brother, and with a hint of his customary wit, he urges her to take comfort in the fact that “you will only be away for a year & when you come back next time there will be no war….”

Though all of the Peirs siblings traveled abroad for work or family obligations during the war, Jack and Gladys spent the most time away from Carshalton. This mutual absence is another element that informs the content of their correspondence. The two worry privately about the state of their father’s health, and Jack often informs Gladys when he has received news from other members of the family. It is also distinctly possible that Jack forwarded some of the letters he received from his mother or other sisters to Gladys when she was not at home; it is at least clear from his letters that this process worked the other way around. Communications from the Russells abroad would eventually make their way to Jack on the Western Front after stopping at Queen’s Well.

Understandably, Jack felt uneasy when he was not sure where his sister was, and as such she figures importantly in his letters to other family members. He mentions her most often when writing to his mother and father. In February 1916, as she made her way back to England, Jack reassured his parents – and likely himself – of her safety, speculating which ship she might find passage on and when they might expect a wire of her arrival.

These apprehensions were magnified a few months later, as Gladys prepared for the birth of the first Peirs grandchild, who arrived in April 1917. Jack, who was honored by being named baby Doreen’s godfather, was seemingly determined to carry on a Peirs family tradition in nicknaming his goddaughter Jane. Despite his sustained efforts during the summer of 1917 (“I hope Jane behaved herself when being christened,” “I trust Jane is in form,” “Thank Glad for the photo of Jane”), the name didn’t stick. By November 1917, when he is finally able to visit with Gladys and William, as well as Odile, for the first time in at least several months, Jack concedes, reporting to his mother that “Doreen is very well, but distinctly noisy at intervals.”

Regardless of how well-prepared Jack might have been to deal with the temperament of a six-month-old, the excitement of a new baby in the family must have been something of a bright spot amidst the boredom of the trenches. The special distinction of being chosen as godfather provides us with some insight into the state of his relationship with a sister he did not see often. Jack and Gladys remained sufficiently close for him to engage in some characteristic teasing: “I am glad Jane is flourishing, but regret her determined temper. I notice that all the family comment on it & all say that it is acquired from her ma – so now you know.”

It seems as though Jack and his sister were fond of one another, though the preoccupations of the war made it difficult for the two to remain in contact as consistently as they might have liked. Though it is clear that they did correspond, many of their letters are lost to us; their respective situations and the historical circumstances surrounding their communication help to explain this scarcity. At the same time, knowing the greater context behind Jack’s letters to Gladys throws into sharp relief the extraordinary nature of their survival over time, and indeed that of any of the letters in the collection. The challenges presented by this small but remarkable group of letters between a soldier and his sister give us some idea of the true scope and influence of the First World War.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *