“My dear Mother”: Hugh John Chevallier Peirs’s Letters to Charlotte Sophia Paull Peirs

Of the nearly three hundred letters in the Peirs collection, the greatest number are addressed to Jack’s mother, Charlotte. He typically wrote her multiple times each week, acknowledging letters and gifts he had received from the family, providing updates on his location and activities, and venting about the large and small frustrations of military life. Jack’s letters to his mother are on the longer side, typically running six to eight or even ten pages, though sometimes shorter when he has little to share or is pressed for time. These letters contain a fascinating blend of reassurance and confession, as Jack clearly struggles to strike a balance between remaining honest with his mother about the dangers of war and preventing her from worrying too greatly for his safety.

Jack’s very first letter, written 14 September 1915 from Herly, France, is addressed to “My dear Mother” and serves as a good representation of how he writes to her over the course of the war. No matter who his correspondent is, Jack often shifts from subject to subject, seemingly without warning, but this feature seems particularly pronounced in his letters to Charlotte. Perhaps this is because he discusses an even greater variety of topics with her than he does his other relatives; whereas his letters to his father are generally more business-focused and those to his sisters center on aspects of the war they are more familiar with, letters to his mother describe what he sees and does, where he goes, and with whom he interacts. It is not difficult to imagine Charlotte, who had no connection to military life before her son’s commission, curious about the details of soldiering, as well as concerned for Jack’s security and happiness. Particularly when he has ample time to write, the language he chooses can be beautifully descriptive, as on 4 June 1916 when he tells her of “the big fat shells whispering their way through the air above & then at once the pip-squeaks nearer by & then one could distinguish nothing as the noise of all the guns reached one.” Though the letters to his mother sometimes reveal this more cerebral side of Jack as correspondent, his ironic wit is never far off, as he self-deprecatingly notes in the same letter that he soon “found I had urgent business within the depths of a very strong dugout which we inhabit on such occasions.”

Coming from a solidly middle-class background, Jack was never shy about expressing his feelings regarding the poor conditions the 8th Queens encountered both in and out of the trenches. However, in writing to his mother, he nearly always tempers his complaints with concessions. On 12 December 1915, directly after reporting on a “vile day,” he is quick to let her know that his own accommodations are not all bad, and as “I find a hot brick in bed every night, so I do not expect to perish of frost bite.” Another notable feature, unique to Jack’s letters to his mother, is the weather reports he includes unfailingly; these range from poetic to hurried to tongue-in-cheek.

Charlotte’s anxieties regarding her son were not limited to uncertainty over whether he was comfortably housed and fed. From 1915 to 1918, she dealt with the very real prospect that he might be wounded or killed, or perhaps worst of all, go missing indefinitely. When Jack does have a brush with action or injury, he is liable to downplay the danger he faces, as well as the severity of his situation. Often he uses humor to distract her (and likely himself) from particularly frightening possibilities, and while his more lighthearted anecdotes were probably welcome, he was also unafraid to include details that seem at times arrestingly direct.

Though Jack regularly relied on his father to assist him with business concerns and issues of supply, Charlotte also took an active interest in ensuring her son’s contentment and convenience. Her favors, frequently unasked for but gratefully acknowledged, are often intended to benefit the battalion as a whole, and she sends gifts like hats, socks, and newspapers, which can be distributed or shared. Along with her daughters, Charlotte baked apparently innumerable cakes for Jack and the other officers, sometimes drawing jokingly mixed reviews.  When Jack does write his mother with a specific request, she responds quickly, going above and beyond expectations to provide what assistance she can.

In addition to the material support she provided, she carried out a series of more personal favors for her son, visiting wounded men in English hospitals and offering consolations to bereaved family members, especially in the wake of the Queens’ heavy losses at the Battle of Loos. Charlotte was undoubtedly proud of Jack and the leadership role he took on, and she did her best to act in a way that appropriately represented and supported his position. In November 1915, when soldiers were unexpectedly billeted at Carshalton, she enthusiastically welcomed them into the family home at Queen’s Well. Though her letters inquiring how to provide a pleasant billet do not survive, Jack’s responses make it clear that she was eager to be the best hostess possible. It is touching to think of Charlotte, fearful for her own son and uncertain of his comfort, doing what she could in order to ensure that of other young men like him.

Jack’s correspondence with his mother is defined by two qualities: its proliferation and its consistency. He writes her longer and more frequent letters than any other family member, and even when he is under considerable stress finds time to let her know that he is all right. On 19 August 1916, during a week in which he writes no other letters because he is under bombardment at the Somme, he scribbles one and a half pages asking about her plans for an upcoming holiday. During the week of 20 January 1916, he sends three letters to her, and none to anyone else. In April 1916 following his parents’ car accident, he writes her nine letters in three weeks – his father receives three letters during the same period. He writes to his mother on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She is effectively his default correspondent, and though 24 letters in the collection are ostensibly addressed to “My dear Family,” they are truly directed to her. On the simultaneously chaotic and catatonic Western Front, sitting down to write a letter to his mother was one of the few routine activities Jack would have enjoyed. Over two hundred miles away in Surrey, receiving these letters – however short, sloppy, and sporadic they might be – was a routine, cathartic relief for Charlotte. The breadth of this correspondence between mother and son represents a mutual need for some form of constancy amid so much confusion. Its endurance is a testament to the sustenance it offered both over the course of the First World War.

Leave a Reply

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