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WW1 letters from front go on show

Undated handout issued by the National Trust of Colonel Leonard Messel, as selected contents of letters sent to him by troops in the First World War are to be displayed for the first time at Nymans

Undated handout issued by the National Trust of Colonel Leonard Messel, as selected contents of letters sent to him by troops in the First World War are to be displayed for the first time at Nymans

Intimate accounts of life during the First World War have emerged in letters sent by British troops to a colonel debarred from active service.

When war was declared in 1914, Colonel Leonard Messel was unable to serve overseas because of his German ancestry.

Instead, he devoted his time to the UK training battalions of the Royal East Kent Regiment, and formed close, long-lasting bonds with the men.

Throughout the Great War, the troops wrote him nearly 500 letters, revealing personal accounts of life on the front line and at home.

Col Messel, who lived at Nymans in West Sussex, kept a bound book of the letters, which he treasured, and now selected contents are to be displayed for the first time.

For the soldiers, writing to Col Messel would have been one of the few opportunities to disclose their experiences of life in the trenches.

A Stanley Peters, 2/Lieut, wrote to Col Messel from a hospital in Rouen, France, on August 11 1917: “You will guess by the address that I have been hit again but it’s not very much.

“The same night poor Sherren was killed instantaneously. We all miss him - he was splendid in the line. Far worse than the shelling, the machine gun and this new gas (which leaves big blisters) was the mud.

“It was indescribable. Several of my chaps went in up to their armpits and I am afraid quite a number never got out. Still, the stunt went splendidly.”

Col Messel provided comfort and support to his men and their families during the war, writing personal notes to relatives whose men never returned.

One relative wrote: “Dear Col Messel, I had no idea until after his death what a favourite (Harold) seems to have been with everyone, from the High Commis of New Zealand in whose employ he was, and all heads of departments, down to small shopkeepers in our neighbourhood who have spoken to me in the same strain.

“He was so awfully keen too, to get to the front, and to do his bit. Again thanking you for your kind sympathy, and high opinion of our dear laddie.”

Col Messel, affectionately known as Lennie, had copies of the letters made into a book, which survived a large fire in 1947 at Nymans - now run by the National Trust.

His granddaughter Victoria Messel said: “Amazingly, I found this book of letters when turning out the house after the death of my aunt in 1992.

“How it survived the fire at Nymans, I simply don’t know. It’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Finding it hidden under the bookshelves in the nursery was like finding a Rubens.

“It was wonderful, one of the most precious things to come out of the house. You can hear voices from the past showing their affection for Lennie.”

To mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, Nymans will be displaying selected contents of some of the 491 letters to Col Messel, along with audio recordings.

Nymans house manager Rebecca Graham said: “We are incredibly fortunate that the letters forming the basis of this exhibition have been so carefully looked after, firstly by Leonard Messel himself and then by his granddaughter Victoria.

“Leonard had copies of the letters made into a book which he is said to have treasured, and which thankfully survived a huge fire at Nymans in 1947.

“We can only imagine what it must have been like for him, having to stay behind while the men he had trained gave their lives for their country.

“He must have written hundreds of letters to them, and to their families, which obviously gave them great solace. This is their story, and this is our tribute to them all.”

 

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