Friday, September 21, 2007

Trench Testaments

A New York Times article from Sept. 30, 1917, reported that "trench wills" drawn up by soldiers in combat had been found valid in English courts even when unwitnessed.

In every case the War Office authorities make every effort to carry out the soldier's wishes, however crudely they are expressed, or however fantistic [sic] they may be.

Many of these trench wills have Tommy Atkins's characteristic touch of humor. Some are in dialect, some in phonetic spelling. Several have been in ciphers, solution of which has taxed the War Office experts. Occasionally they leave purely imaginary possessions to institutions of fictitious persons. Here is a will in rhyme which was written while the soldier was on duty at a "listening post" in No Man's Land:

I haven't a sweetheart, I haven't a mother.
I've only one sister, not even a brother;
My sister, Susan, is all I've got,
So of ought that's mine she can have the lot.

This will went through the courts without question, despite its unusual form. Another will in rhyme, leaving money to the "first comer," is the following:

Whoever first sets eyes on this
   Gets everything I leave,
For my kith and kin are dead and gone,
   And I've not a friend to grieve.
There's a tidy bit in the bank you'll find,
   And my army pay, though small,
So, stranger, breathe one sigh for me,
   You're welcome to it all.

This will was forwarded to England by the young sergeant who found it and he shortly afterwards received notification that the "tidy bit," which turned out to be a substantial sum of money, had been deposited to his account.

Still another will in rhyme was written by a private who had been cut off from his comrades for three days, without food or water and probably without sleep, for the greater part of that time, until the greatest desire in life seemed to him to get a big drink. It was as follows:

If I'm knocked out by bullet or bomb
   When over the top we go,
A gallon of beer I leave to Tom,
   Another to squint-eyed Joe.
We've borne the worst of a soldier's thirst
   Through days and nights of woe;
Give my dad the rest—but if I go west
   There's a drink for Tom and Joe.

There was some difficulty in carrying out this bequest, owing to the fact that half the men in the company insisted they have been called "Tom" and "Joe" by the testator, and the whole estate was finally turned over to the father, it being left to him to carry out the "two gallons clause" as he should see fit. [Link (pdf)]

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