The Lord-Lieutenant’s Award for Young People
For a decade the Lord-Lieutenant, Lady Gretton, has celebrated the achievements of young people in the county and city through the Lord-Lieutenant’s Award for Young People.
The Awards recognise the contributions that young people, aged 13-19, have made in specific categories, which includes a special category dedicated to commemorating the First World War.
This year, the WW1 category award is to be given to a young writer who puts themselves in the place of a 16 year old recruit. The year is 1916 and a young man, William Hackett, finds himself lying awake whilst staying overnight in Leicester’s YMCA on his way to basic training. He is writing home to his mother and many emotions are going through his mind at the time of writing.
Entrants were invited to go online (www.leics.gov.uk/llawards) to watch a short film of William Hackett talking about his feelings as he prepares for war. Having watched the film entrants then wrote his letter home.
There were some truly excellent entries – which will be published in due course – and the three finalists are highlighted below. The overall winner will be announced at the Awards Evening on 22nd April.
You know I’m not the best at writing stuff down. Remember when I was at school with our Dave, and he’d come home with ten out of ten on his spelling test and I’d only have four, and you’d sigh and ruffle my hair and send me out to play footy while he worked his way up to college? If you do remember all those times, you’ll excuse my bad spelling ‘cause you know I’m a “hopeless case” just like you used to say. Maybe I’ll play footy up the front, when I go. The chaps here, they’re always talking, talking about Christmas Day in ’14 when our boys and the Jerries played in No Man’s land. Can you imagine that? Jerries playing footy, like regular people? Some say it’s just a story, but I’d like it to be true. I’d like to think they’re not as bad as all that. I’d like to think the front won’t be that bad, if they can just up and have a game of footy, friendly like. I’m not scared – of course not! We’ve all got to do our bit, right? We’ve all got to chip in to the war effort, up on the front. We’ve all gotta haul our guns, shoot a few pigeons if we’re lucky.
If you read this, I’d like to say that I’m huddled down in a bunker somewhere, having a ciggie with a couple of the other lads, maybe a nip for courage. But, mum, if you ever get this, I …..
You must be wondering about my prayers. I was never good with them, was I? Kept forgetting the Lord’s Prayer, every time in Sunday School I’d just make it up. My favourite line was “Our father in Heaven, hollow is your brain”. Me and Dave always got a few kicks out of that one. I mean, he knew it proper and all of course. He knew everything proper, and all.
It’s funny. I never used to think that Religion was that big of a deal, Jesus and all…to tell you the truth, mum, I used to curse God for making me sit through two hours of Church every Sunday. I used to long to go back outside and join my mates for a play-war. Cowboys and Indians. Now it’s Brits and Germans. Lately, I’ve been saying the bloody prayer as often as I can. In bed, on the march, in the mess hall, wherever. We’ve all got it written out for us on a little card, so that helps me remember. One day, I think, one day I’ll be in heaven. So why do I feel like all of us will burn in hell? Maybe I’m burning now. Sometimes I lie here staring up at the dent in the top bunk where the man above me is lying, and I start wondering what’s going to happen. ‘Cos the footy story, it ain’t the only tale these old boys have been telling us. They’ve said such awful things, mum, you’d go crazy if you knew. They’ve said that on the front, there’s more blood than mud on a man’s boots, the blood of his country. They’ve said that a smart uniform counts for nothing when the air fills with gas that makes your lungs froth and bubble and melt like boiling sugar ‘til it burns you from the inside out. I think that one was a story. I hope that one was a story.
You won’t ever get this letter, you know, so I don’t know why I’m even writing. I’ll be home myself soon enough, in that fine uniform. Lord, when you see me in that uniform, mum, you’ll be dead proud. I know you will! It’ll be like when Dave went to University, but better. Dead chuffed, you’ll be. I’m mighty chuffed of myself, to be honest. It’s a new feeling. It’s a good feeling. See, y’know how I said you won’t ever get this? You won’t because I’ll come home safe and sound. But if you do, there’s something I want you to know.
You know, I’m so nervous right now that I’m laughing. A couple of other guys are giving me some funny looks through the dark. I can feel their eyes like bullets blasting into me. Those bullets…..does it hurt to die, mum? I feel like I’m six years old again, asking you why the sky is blue. Does it hurt to die? Will I have to find out any time soon?
Oh look, I’ve gone and smudged the paper. It was only a couple of tears – don’t worry, I didn’t wail like a girl. I’m man enough for that, at least.
Back to that thing I want you to know. This whole letter was just to tell you, really, but I’ve been putting it off, distracting myself with my fears. If you get this letter, I’m dead.
There, I said it. I gave this letter to a trustworthy lad, a new mate of mine. He’ll be sending it back home, just in case I don’t make it. Because mum, I wanted you to know why I joined up in the first place. Maybe you already know.
At first I thought it was for the girls and for the chance to see the world. I thought I wanted to travel. But now, sitting here, it feels like sitting on the edge of a cliff that I’m about to tip over. So I reckon I figured it out, lying here in the dark, on the edge. What I really wanted was to make you proud, make you feel like I was the son you deserved. You never seemed to feel that before.
Don’t go feeling guilty or crying if you get this and you know I’m dead. I just wanted you to know see? That I was thinking of you. That I want to be a good son. And you’ll know if you get this that I died fighting for England, that I really did do something to make you proud.
Thanks mum. I feel better now, really.
Oh, I’ve managed to smudge the paper again. Sorry.
Bye mum. Give my love to Dave and Dad and the rest.
I’m writin’ to you from me bed in the YMCA, where I’ve been billeted for the night before we flit out to the big town. It is not like me room at home; the covers are thin, the mattress hard and stickin’ into me back, a frozen draught from the cracks in the door and the sounds of men snoring loudly all around me. This is me first night here and already I’m missin’ me home. Though I’m surrounded by sleepin’ figures, I feel more alone than ever before. This is why I’m writin’ to you; at least as I write these words I can imagine you readin’ them, as if you are really right here beside me.
I have a feeling’ I won’t be able to write to you often, so I’m grabbin’ the chance tightly before it slips away. This is the fourth try at writin’ you a letter tonight and it’s been getting more difficult each time I throw down me pen. I just don’t know what to say. I’ve tried to make meself sound happy and brave, but now I think I’ll just stick to the truth. This may be the last time you hear from me, so I might as well be honest; I owe you that.
When the officers first came to our home, it was like nothin’ I’d ever seen before – all smart dress and pride and companionship. It was like a parade of Britain’s finest men all marching together, in time to the swing of the great brass band that tailed them – like birds singing songs of victory and conquest from those stories you told me. All the girls liked them; swoonin’ over the “men in uniform”. To be honest, I’ve never really been the greatest hit with girls, and I couldn’t help thinkin’, ‘Wow. I’d like some of that.’
I knew it then and there that that was what I wanted. Even if I hadn’t signed up right then, I’m pretty sure I’d have done it in the end. I’d painted the perfect picture of it in me head; I’d sign up and join the fight. I’d be – I’d finally be – a part of something bigger. I’d be able to make a change. I’d become brave and strong like those men I the posters – I’d fight off the Jerries and I’d come home a hero. Back home just in time for tea. Yes, that’d be me.
I’m scared. In all me daydreams of being in the army, I’ve never thought about the actual fightin’. It seems silly but, when you want somethin’, you gloss over everythin’ else and only really think of the end prize. I’ve been hearin’ stories; stories about the front line. They use gas, mum. Johnny told me about it. Soldiers dyin’ – drownin’ in their own blood. Watchin’ their mates die right before their eyes and not being able to do a thing about it. Don’t fret though, mum, we’re given gas masks and you know I’m right quick. Then, there are the trenches. You get stuck in narrow, dirty, wet dugouts for months at a time, not doing anythin’, just sittin’ there. Waitin’. You can hear the Hun’s bombs flyin’ over your head as you try to sleep, curled up in a tight ball, pressed against the shiverin’ bodies of your mates. I ken, though, that I’ll be safe in the trenches – no bombs can penetrate our walls. There’s this disease they talk about. It’s called “Trench Foot”, or somethin’ like that, and it’s when your feet get wet from being in the trenches too long and start – start rottin’ away. I’m going in the summer though, so I’m sure it won’t be as bad. Anyway, we’ll be home by Christmas.
I don’t believe them though – I think they’re just tryin’ to scare because I’m the youngest here. I’m the only teenager – the rest are mostly old men. They stink like heck and their snorin’ keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I wonder whether they’lll last out the night, let alone the war. So where does that leave me?
Though I’m scared, I know that if I had to make the decision again I’d choose the army every time. It’s my duty and I want to make you proud of your no-good son. This is what I was meant to do and, though I know at times I will regret leavin’, I know too that when this is all over – when we’ve won, I’ll be a hero. I’m doin’ this to keep you safe, mum. I’m doin’ it for you and for dad and for wee Jamie and Lizzie. And I’m doin’ this for me.
Tomorrow, we leave for Salisbury Plain and we’ll start basic trainin’. I’ll learn to use a bayonet and a Lee-Enfield – it’ll be great. Those Jerries better watch out! I swear, mum, I’ll make you proud.
Give me love to wee Lizzie – tell her I’m going to be fine and I’ll be back soon and let Jamie know that he’s to keep his hands off me catapult.
Dearest Mother and Father,
I hope this letter finds you in good health and know that I am missing you both, and wee Aggie and Clyde terribly. I hope they have been behaving themselves. Is Clyde helping Father take the sheep to the market now? I know that his legs use to ache terribly when walking uphill to the market to sell the sheep. God, I miss the smell of sheep and their soft, warm bodies – you never thought I'd say that did you? I will be collecting stamps for bonny Aggie and her spectacular stamp collection. All the boys have even agreed to give me the ones from their letters. I've been told the Jerries are moving north. Please be careful, I pray every day to God that he keeps you safe under the protection of his mighty hands. I will break their bones if even a hair on any of your heads is harmed.
I’m writing as I sit here at the YMCA in Leicester on my cold, hard bed with a thin, measly blanket the size of a scrap piece of paper, which barely covers my shoulders. I really do miss home. It’s strange that even in the company of so many, there are moments I feel completely alone. Everyone's fighting with their own demons. Can I tell you something, Mother? I'm so very frightened. The other night I heard stories from soldiers saying that the Jerries use a gas that kills men, by causing them to drown in their own blood. I hope I don’t die like that. I’ve been having nightmares of men with rivulets of russet coloured blood pouring out of their eyes. I now think that maybe I was a bit hasty in my decision to join up.
I am really sorry, Mother. Sorry for letting you down, but I hope you’ll still be very proud of me for not backing out. I’m craving your warm, stodgy homemade porridge with a hot bevvy first thing in the morning. I wouldn’t even mind some mince with tatties; here we only get fed cold, soggy stew. I thought it would be all brand spanking new uniforms, glory, and girls falling over themselves to get a look at us. It’s not at all like that. I mustn’t linger on what’s wrong though – I made my bed and now I must lie in it. I hope you'll write to me, though, and post me pots of thick fresh strawberry jam, knitted gloves and cigarettes like the other family members send for their men.
We’re due to head out to Salisbury tomorrow and begin training on the use of bayonets and rifles. The field is going to reverberate with all the noise BANG BANG DUSH DUSH! I'm sure the sound on the front line is even worse. How do they concentrate or talk to each other in battle when there's so much cacophony? Some of the soldiers say that the artillery is so heavy and cumbersome, that by the end of the day, your arms will ache and your fingers cramp. I think it will do me good, for if I return then I will be able to do double the work. The training is tough, I'll have to get up at the crack of dawn, but it will make me into a bold, brave young man, brave as a lion if I make it though I am petrified.
There are more men needed on the frontline and I know it’s inevitable with the training that is due to take place, that I will very soon be one of them. Maybe I might finally get to see some of those gorgeous French women, with skin the colour of alabaster; the soldiers are always talking about them. I’ve heard that men there don't look as smart as the ones we saw in Scotland, though. They wear tatty clothes and have to dig trenches, knee deep in black mud that's as thick as custard. It's bitterly cold out in the trenches the lads wear two pairs of woollen socks to prevent gangrene.
The thought of black stubby toes sickens me. I hope I don't lose mine. Though I suppose there are worse things; those in charge try to keep it quiet, but there's
talk of what's happening to those captured by the Jerries. Some say they're killed, others say they're kept in unsanitary conditions and forced to undertake hard labour. My heart bleeds for them and their families; to die in battle is one thing, but to live an endlessly tortured existence controlled by those you despise the most, would be unbearable. I don't think I could survive it.
There’s talk in the camps of some of the men losing their minds; I can’t imagine the atrocities they must have seen or endured for courageous men to lose their sanity completely. Maybe starvation or seeing the entrails of their comrades scattered like dandelion fluff across the battlefield. It sends chills through me, but I must accept the truth, I may never come back and even if I do I may not be the same as I always was. This is why I decided to write this last letter to you (before my words become tinged with the death and darkness of war) as the William you always knew and loved. So, still your nerves Mother, for if you’ve received this letter and it’s not been brought by me personally, then, by now, you must know I'm gone. All I can say is that I’m so sorry I’ve broken my promise to come back to you, that I never shared how scared I was before going, but I couldn't break down and allow you to convince me to stay. If I had, you would never have been able to face the village for the humiliation. I hope you will always remember me as the William you all knew, the caring, loving and brave William. I wish I’d taken the time before I left to cherish the days I spent with you all. Know I love you all from the very depth of my heart and pray I have earned my place in heaven.
Love From your,