Our Records: Letters from the First World War

In the summer of 1916, as a Highland soldier lay dying in a military hospital in Cambridge, he was visited by his mother and brother. Some of their conversation is recorded in letters written months after his death.

The two poignant documents can be found in ScotlandsPeople, and Ann Kerrigan was amazed to find them when searching for Donald Fraser, the ancestor that she knew had died during the First World War. She says: "It is fascinating  and yet so very sad to learn of the circumstances of my great uncle’s last meeting with his mother and brother."

Ann Kerrigan reads the letters written by Donald's family

Ann Kerrigan reads the letters written by Donald's family
National Records of Scotland

Through ScotlandsPeople she learned that Donald McAlpin Fraser was born in 1889 at Kingussie, Inverness-shire. His father was a police constable, but seems to have lost his job, and in 1891 was working as a labourer. His wife took Donald and his sisters to live with her parents at Onich, south of Fort William. In the 1911 Census Donald is listed as a woodcutter.

On the outbreak of war he enlisted at Fort William in the 1st Lovat Scouts, the mounted regiment recruited in Inverness-shire. He was later photographed near Beaufort Castle, the seat of Lord Lovat, the regiment's founder. A family letter revealed that in June 1915 Donald enjoyed a fortnight’s home leave after being hospitalised with measles for 9 weeks. He must have re-joined his unit in Norfolk, where various units of the Lovat Scouts formed part of Britain’s home defence.

Donald Fraser on a horse

Donald Fraser
Image courtesy of Ann Kerrigan

Donald fell ill again, and was taken to the 1st Eastern General Hospital at Cambridge, a huge military facility on the site of the present University Library. Up to 1,700 sick and wounded soldiers were housed in pre-fabricated huts.

Donald’s mother shared the widespread ignorance among families of the pay and pension entitlements of their loved ones in the armed forces. She worried that if he died, she would not receive any of ‘his estate or money’. When she visited Donald he set her mind at rest: ‘Mother that is not correct. You will get every penny that I possess.’ Their conversation was witnessed by his younger brother Peter, a private in a motor transport unit of the Royal Army Service Corps in London. In 1917 Peter stated the visit took place on 20 July, but Catherine noted it as 20 June.

The letter written by Donald's Mother, CatherineThe letter written by Donald's Mother, Catherine

The letter written by Donald's Mother, Catherine.
National Records of Scotland, Soldiers Wills, SC70/8/519/2-3

The letter written by Donald's brother, Peter Fraser

The letter written by Donald's brother, Peter Fraser
National Records of Scotland, Soldiers Wills, SC70/8/519/4

On 31 August 1916 Donald Fraser died of tubercular appendicitis, aged 27. His body was transported north and buried in the cemetery at Kilmallie Old Church, near Fort William. The two letters in which Catherine and Peter Fraser recorded Donald’s words were accepted as proof of his dying wishes, and are preserved among the 26,000 records in the Soldiers Wills series in ScotlandsPeople.

Detail from Donald Fraser's headstone

Detail from Donald Fraser's headstone
Image courtesy of Ann Kerrigan

 

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