During World War I, many families dreaded a visit from the telegraph boy. A few terse words explaining that their son had died in the war could tear worlds apart. A follow-up letter from his commanding officer provided little relief and no more answers. Worse, many families received telegrams about the death of a loved one only to find out later that they never actually died.
Private Fred Joslin was 19 when the War Office advised his mother that he had been killed by machine gun fire. By the time he wrote home from a hospital in Malta, they had already held a memorial service for him.
So how could these tragic mistakes happen? Sometimes fellow soldiers honestly thought that their comrade had died when he was only injured. That was what happened to Joslin. He went on to live to the age of 95.
Joslin wrote in his memoirs about the incident. “I was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire and thrown very forcibly to the ground where I lay on my stomach. The blood from my wounds in the back and shoulder ran around my ears. It appeared to those seeing me that the blood was coming from my ears and experience had proved that wounded soldiers bleeding from the ears had little chance of survival.”
He was paralyzed. The next day, a British major heard him shouting and rescued him. His mother was shocked to receive a letter from her “deceased” son. Since the letter was written by a nurse and not in his own handwriting, even the War Office would not accept that he was alive.
Joslin’s son, Peter, is a former chief constable of Warwickshire Police. He says that the death notification of his father hung over their mantle for years. “The biggest problem was that it took so long before the government would accept the fact that he was alive. His mother was wondering what on earth had happened, because he was in hospital in another country and had to ask a nurse to write for him.”
Once Joslin recovered from his injuries, he was sent back to the front. He did not get the opportunity to go home and reassure his family who thought he was dead.
David Bilton, a historian who wrote Reading in the Great War 1914-1916 and Vol II, 1917-1919, says that cases of mistaken identity also occurred. “Soldiers used to exchange items with their best friends when they were going over the top as good luck charms. They would wear one another’s identity bracelet, or give each other their last letter home. “Survivors who recovered bodies from the battleground would look for property on the body to identify them.”
Sometimes, when soldiers were taken prisoners of war, the Germans would neglect to fill out the paperwork that was required. The War Office would send letters home that the soldier was missing and eventually it was presumed they had been killed.
“Some prisoners of war were kept in France and Belgium illegally as slaves close to the front line. The Germans couldn’t admit it was happening so wouldn’t fill in the paperwork,” says Mr. Bilton.
Lieutenant Corporal Fred Hardy returned home after being injured in the war. When he arrived, he found that his parents had a handwritten note advising them of his demise. “He was hit by a sniper just below the eye,” Capt Maurice Turner of the 1/4th Suffolk Regiment wrote to Hardy’s father. “I am sorry to say he was conscious… but I am quite convinced he did not realize the gravity of his wound”.
Hardy survived and seemed to find the death notice humorous. He had the letter framed and hung on his wall, presumably as a reminder that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.