'This may be the last letter you receive from me': World War I soldiers' wills finally released

Professor Peter Simkins, of The Western Front Association, views the will of his great uncle Frank Hill, who was killed in World War I. Joe Giddens / PA via AP

LONDON -- The last wishes of thousands of World War I soldiers who died in battle have been released for the first time.

The new digital archive includes 278,000 wills that British soldiers kept in their pockets when heading into battle. Many of these included a final letter to their loved ones, which have been lying unread in boxes for almost a century.

One letter in the archive, from Pvt. Joseph Witchburn, of 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry, to his mother, said: "I dare say this will be the last letter you will receive from me until the war is over, as I am prepared to move to the front at any moment."

He died on September 14, 1914.

Historian Jon Cooksey, who was given access to the archive before it was made available to the public on Thursday, said: “It’s a large event. We do not have anybody left alive to tell it like it was. To see these records, which are in their handwriting, written to their wives and girlfriends in the event of their death, you know there must have been some emotional response from them.”

Cooksey, editor of the Western Front Association’s publication Stand To!, also found a letter by John Fleetwood, grandfather of Mick Fleetwood of rock band Fleetwood Mac. It revealed the soldier died of dysentery in a Malta hospital on December 30, 1915, after serving at Gallipoli.

None of the letters or wills were ever delivered to their intended recipients. Cooksey said in many cases this would have been because the correspondence contained sensitive information which could be used by the enemy.

“One of the letters says, ‘We are presently in Ireland and we are leaving soon to go round the coast of Belgium’ – you don’t want other people reading this sort of thing,” he said.

The documents have been scanned and uploaded by UK data company Iron Mountain on behalf of Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service.

It has been made available in time for next year's centenary of World War I. The agency and UK data company Iron Mountain plan to digitize all British war wills from the 19th century's Boer War to the 1982 Falklands War.