Great War postcards reveal captive Shropshire soldier's thoughts of home

For over four miserable years Private Tom How was a prisoner of the Germans during the Great War, held in camps near Berlin.

This picture of prisoners – possibly including Tom How – was sent to Hilda Bentley.
This picture of prisoners – possibly including Tom How – was sent to Hilda Bentley.

And during that time the homesick soldier sent postcards to his cousin back in Shropshire sharing what news the censor would allow, and asking after family.

Mrs Alma Conboy, who will turn 91 in July, has kept those postcards safely in a drawer where they have remained for decades despite several house moves.

But a recent feature in the Star which shone the spotlight on prisoners during that conflict prompted her to get them out and take a closer look.

She had bought them at an auction in Market Drayton around the late 1970s when they were sold as part of a job lot of mixed items.

A pen and ink design by one of the prisoners for Easter 1916 which Mrs Conboy thinks includes disguised V for Victory signs.

At the time she lived in Newtown – she lives now in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury – and had a stall, and would go around auctions in Shropshire and Mid Wales looking for things that she could buy to sell on her stall in Newtown or at an antiques market in Camden Passage, Islington, which back then she would still visit once a fortnight.

"Among this job lot were these cards, which were intriguing," says Mrs Conboy.

"I knew nothing about that sort of item. I thought if I put them on the stall somebody would say they would give me a pound for them and I would have no idea if it was right.

"So I thought I would have a think, and put them in a drawer until I decided what to do. I found them very interesting.

"The cards were addressed to this Market Drayton woman long ago, the last one is from 1918. I presume she died and somebody else inherited them, and they ended up at auction."

In this card from September 1916 Tom tells how he is rubbing shoulders with a winner of the Victoria Cross.

She does not recall how much she paid.

"I supposed depending on what was in the job lot I would have paid a fiver for it. I quite liked the fact that I had got them but didn't know what to do with them. I have just kept them. I have been the guardian of them all these years."

There are 10 postcards in total, almost all written by Private Tom How to "Mrs Min Bentley, of The Pines, Little Drayton." Tom signs off the cards "from your loving cousin."

One or two are written to Miss Hilda Bentley at the same address, who was no doubt Min's daughter – in any event Tom signs his cards to Hilda in the same way, "your loving cousin."

His details on the front of the cards, which are posted from prisoner of war camps at Doeberitz or Dyrotz, are: "9595 Pte T. J. How, 4th Royal Fusiliers," with one card adding the detail that he was in "No. II Company."

He must have been captured during the 1914 fighting, and may well have been involved in the epic Battle of Mons at the very beginning of the war.

Tom commiserates in this February 1918 message about the "sad news of poor Jack."

In a message written on December 12, 1916, he thanks Min for sending a letter and a parcel, and writes: "I am glad to see Rache, Hilda, Louis are all well, also Aunt Polly. It does seem a pity about Jack having to leave.

"I should like to be home this Christmas. This makes the third Xmas here and I am getting a little homesick now."

During his captivity he rubbed shoulders with a Victoria Cross hero from his regiment. In a card to Hilda in September 1916 he says: "So pleased you got photo. You see that fellow who is sitting next to me with arms folded, that is Pte Godley, Roy. Fus. (i.e. Royal Fusiliers), who as been (sic) awarded the VC at Mons, Aug 23, 1914."

Another postcard does have a picture of prisoners outside their hut, and Mrs Conboy thinks it might be the one referred to, although there are question marks. Addressed to Hilda, the message on the back, which is not in Tom's handwriting, is dated December 11, 1918 – which was a few weeks after the Armistice – and says "In this picture you will find a face to whom you have been so kind altho (? writing unsure) he comes of a stubborn race. You'll find that what he says will bind (?)."

The signature is unreadable but looks like T Hendman or something similar.

A Christmas card sent by Tom from Dyrotz prisoner-of-war camp in 1916.

There is tragedy, as Jack, referred to as "Brother Jack" by Tom although the context points to Jack being the son of "Aunt Poll", goes missing.

Writing on February 5, 1918, Tom says: "Dear Min, was so pleased to get your letter of Dec but was very sorry indeed to hear the sad news of poor Jack. I do hope Min by the time you received my card Aunty Poll may have heard of some good tidings, he may have been taken prisoner and as (sic) not been able to write, but really Min one do not know what to think and I am sure everybody will be more than glad when this affair is over. I know the prisoners will be."

Private How seems to be an older soldier, perhaps in his late 30s, based on one reminiscence about Shrewsbury Flower Show from a card written to Min from Doeberitz on July 17, 1917: "Dear Min, I was so pleased to get your letter and was glad to hear that yourself, Rache and Hilda are in the best of health.

"As to myself Min things have been none too grand of late, have felt fairly run down. I put it down to the weather which as been (sic) terribly hot (a significant following passage is blacked out by the censor).

One of the heavily censored cards.

"Well Min I do hope Brother Jack is getting on quite alright in his new life. It must come so strange to him after always being so use to home. I expect Aunt Poll do miss him. Jack is placed like me, he is the only son. Well, I wish him the best of luck and I only hope he will pull through it all and be able to settle down once again at the Hill.

"Well Min I see Miss Hilda is getting on fancy 20 years, it must be quite all that time since I saw you and Rache at the Shrewsbury Flower Show when I was staying at Aunts. I remember it well although I was only 14 years old.

"So with best wishes to Rache and Hilda, I remain your loving cousin T How."

Some of the postcards are designs in pen and ink by the prisoners themselves, and Mrs Conboy has looked closely to see if there might be hidden messages to escape the attentions of the censor. She thinks she might have found one or two, such as what may be disguised V for Victory signs in an Easter card from 1916.

Mrs Conboy, whose maiden name is Lewis, was born in Llanidloes in July 1930, and then moved to Caersws, and then Newtown.

She's still learning – at the age of 89 she gained a BA honours degree in language studies at the Open University.

She has not done any research into the cards, so it is not known where Private How came from or what became of him, or indeed of Min and Hilda. Bentley is a relatively common name in Market Drayton area and there is a Bentleys Road in Little Drayton.

Mrs Conboy is now pondering what is best to do with the cards.

"I don't think they are worth much, to tell you the truth. They are more of interest, than value."

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