Cuthbert H T Lucas courtesy Steve Warburton

Your Loving Son: The Letters Home of Cuthbert H T Lucas 1914 - 1918

Posted on centenarynews.com on 25 July 2014
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History teacher Steve Warburton begins a series of articles, based on the diaries and weekly letters home of Cuthbert H T Lucas, which reveal a unique perspective on the First World War from beginning to end.

"I’ve got all his letters and diaries …." was how it started as my new mother-in-law told me about the General… and there they were.

Fifteen diaries, maintained meticulously with daily entries through the war and a cache of letters home.

Untouched for at least fifty years and their existence unknown outside the family, the weekly letters gave me an insight into a man who was very much of his time, a regular Army officer living through four years that his sixteen-year career both had – and definitely had not – prepared him for. Their very ordinariness is what makes them fascinating....

Capt Cuthbert Lucas was one of the first officers of the BEF to cross the channel in August 1914. He sailed from Southampton on August 6th to take up the role designated for him and some of his Staff College peers - Disembarkation officers for the BEF based at French ports.

Rotten lookout

It was not how he wanted his war to start and he would spend the next 8 weeks requesting a transfer back to his regiment, the Royal Berkshires, part of 6th Brigade, 2nd  Division in Haig’s First Army. 

I am still at the same place, and am likely to be at this dreadful job for the rest of the war, there seems to be no chance for any of us… it is a rotten lookout.
Letter to Father, September 18th 1914

Throughout the war it was normally his mother to whom Lucas wrote, as regularly as he could – normally once a week on Sunday, if operations allowed.

Most of the letters attempt to downplay the physical danger that he was normally in but occasionally the reality of his existence breaks through.

 They dropped a couple of bombs on us this morning, one fell against the wall of the house we recently moved out of, but only smashed most of the windows, the other was a most indifferent shot.
Letter to Mother, April 9th 1916

He was no literary genius – his letters are often perfunctory and almost detached from emotion – but they do offer a unique, long-running perspective on the four years of war.

 In mid-October 1914 Lucas got his wish and caught up with the Royal Berkshires at Metz Farm.  Placed in charge of B Company he would not have expected that the war would go on for another four years and that by its end in 1918 he would be the General Officer Commanding 4th Division. 

His career in those four years placed him in the forefront of some of the British Army’s finest but most distressing hours.

Gallipoli

After surviving 1914 and at one point being temporarily in command of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, Lucas was appointed a Brigade Major and given the task of rapidly organising the 87th Brigade as it mustered in the East Midlands in early 1915.

He was subsequently promoted to command that Brigade at Gallipoli, whilst still only officially a Captain and was to spend only 11 days out of the 260 days of the entire campaign off the Peninsula, being one of just a dozen officers to serve through the campaign and be ‘First In, Last Out’.

I wrote last week and said I didn’t want any more food, but I should still like soup, also a couple of tins of butter weekly. We had a gale and thunderstorm last night, it flooded some of the trenches, but we have a good slope so they rained off quickly; it also damaged the piers, and sunk some lighters. One of the brigades here had a small show the other day taking a couple of trenches. We exploded a couple of very fine mines, and they walked across into the trenches without anyone being hurt, and the Turks didn’t expect it. There were few casualties in the bickering afterwards, and also in five feeble and abortive attempts on the part of the Turks to retake them. 
Letter to Mother 18th November 1915

Somme

The 29th Division transfer to the Western Front in 1916 placed the 87th Brigade opposite Beaumont Hamel on the Somme.

Whilst the abortive advance of the Newfoundlanders alongside them has received more historical attention, the losses of the 87th on July 1st were nearly as severe.

We met the main German strength, as they expected the main push from us and so had everything ready. The result was that our brigade and another on the left went over the parapet and got a very unpleasant mauling, hardly anyone got through their wire. We collected a small percentage that night after dark. We came in for a good deal of heavy shelling all the remainder of the day, and there were some very nasty sights.
Letter to Mother July 9th 1916

Ypres

Lucas retained command of the Brigade and continued to be Mentioned in Despatches throughout 1916 and 1917. The Brigade were gassed as they defended Ypres in the summer of 1916, were back on the Somme in the Autumn, were again at the forefront at the Battle of Arras in 1917 and acquitted themselves with distinction repulsing a German counterattack during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.

Marriage

At the end of 1917 Cuthbert managed to squeeze in getting married to the younger sister of his best friend who had been killed commanding the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Berkshires on the Somme in July 1916.

After a short period commanding the Machine Gun Corps Training Centre at Grantham in the spring of 1918, he was quickly back on the Western Front commanding a Brigade in the aftermath of the German Spring offensive and – after being within 24 hours of being sent to Italy to command a Division  - he was instead ordered to take over command of 4th Division.

 You may have seen in Fridays’ Times that I have got a Croix de Guerre, it appears to be all right, and not a mistake.
Letter to Mother October 13th 1918 

Armistice

Throughout the war he had written home about the colleagues and family friends he met in hotels and dug-outs, the minutiae of trench life and the grand sweep of battle strategy, flora and fauna and trench weapons and shell explosions. He finished the October 13th letter ruminating about what lay ahead.

I suppose we shall have an armistice in a fortnight now. It oughtn’t to take them longer than that to evacuate all hostile territory. It will be very curious having peace again.
Your loving son
Cuthbert

As a History teacher I am intrigued about the ways in teachers can make use of the letters in the classroom. As the series develops, I hope it proves to be an antidote to the ‘selected highlights’ resources approach.

Using these primary sources, unedited and utterly contemporary, pupils will be able to plot Lucas’ career on Google Maps, investigate what happens to the fellow officers he mentions, analyse the focus of his writing using word clouds, perhaps even write letters in reply to his from the trenches.

Posted by Mike Swain, deputy editor, Centenary News.

© Centenary News Digital Ltd and author.