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020 8150 2010

A Soldier’s Last Words

It seems that old wills being made available to the public is the latest idea to interest people in history, as well as reminding them that it is important – essential, even – to prepare a will for themselves so that their estate is inherited by the people they wish to see benefit. But why is it so interesting to read what people hundreds of years ago wanted to do with their property?

Perhaps it’s not the minutiae itself, but rather the whole that these old wills represent – that no matter who we are or when we live, making sure that our hard earned possessions are looked after once we’ve died is something that all of us want to ensure happens.

With 2014 being the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, it seems especially poignant that it is now possible to obtain copies of the wills that the soldiers made in the tragic and terrible trenches of the war’s battles. The initiative has been created by Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) and aims to release the Probate Office’s archive of 280,000 fallen soldiers’ wills.

In order to find a specific will, you simply need to search the HMCTS’s online database, and fill in as many details as you can. For a small fee, it is possible to print off a copy of the will, which is both interesting and fascinating.

These wills, as might be expected, were written in the heat of battle. Young men who had not realised just what going to war really meant had finally understood that death was not only possible, but probable; they wanted to make sure that they had something written down. Often these ‘trench wills’ were written on dirty scraps of paper, or on the backs of maps. Anything that came to hand was used.

It became such a deadly war that it became a requirement that each man had to write a will before heading to the front line. The soldiers would carry the will with them so that, should they be killed, it would be found immediately and their estate attended to.

But these wills are not simply wills as we would think of them today. For the soldiers in those fatal trenches, they were a way of writing a final note to their loved one, a way to express feelings that they wouldn’t want anyone knowing they had whilst they were alive. It must have been a comfort to these brave and doomed men to have their wills with them, knowing that, even if they fell, at least the ones left at home would know that they were thinking of them.


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