A VOLUNTEER at Ilfracombe Museum has unearthed a poignant, funny and illuminating series of letters written by local young men fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.
Jane Dendle discovered the letters by chance when she was using the newspaper archive at the museum.
"The letters are vibrant, graphic, evocative, poignant and at times very funny," she said. "They are eye-witness accounts of life changing events. A description of that first Christmas of the war, of the observation balloons, the horror of all the bodies, the realisation of the first gas attack and the experience of being captured by the enemy at sea. It is all here, along with their opinions of the enemy, and their wide-eyed wonder at the strange sights to be seen 'out east'."
It was only by chance that Jane came across a letter addressed to Mr Lord, who, during the early part of the 20th century, was head master at SS Philip and James' School, Ilfracombe.
It was obviously from an ex pupil who was fighting on the Western Front and it intrigued her. Were there other, similar, letters published in the local press?
It turned out there were and by the time Jane discovered one from her own grandfather, she was well and truly hooked.
"What is really clear is their belief in the cause for which they were fighting and their cheerful good humour, which is maintained to the end, frustrated though they might be by the tedious nature of the war," she said.
Jane was amazed at how well these young North Devon men could write a letter.
"Most would have left school at 12, or in their early teens, and yet they are all able to express themselves in a clear and literate way."
Jane felt it was hugely important that local people, some of whom might be related to the young lads, could have the opportunity to read the letters.
As the newspapers were old and fragile and could not stand too much handling, she decided to painstakingly type the letters up for others to read.
The letters are now available for reading at the museum.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed transcribing these letters and seeing the characters of the various writers shining through," she added. "Sadly, they didn't all return to 'Dear Old Combe' but you can be sure they all did their bit to the best of their ability."
Ilfracombe Museum on Wilder Road is open daily 10am to 5pm.
Here are some excerpts from the letters.