Kith, Kin and Community

Dear Jelly: Brothers Robert and William Semple write to their sisters

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Intro to Kith, Kin and Community

To really understand the personalities of our Men Behind the Glass, it is important to look at them as people. It is important to see them as people with civilian lives before the entered uniform and with established relationships with parents, wives, siblings, children and friends, not just soldiers in khaki. 


Soldiers featured in this story

Brothers William and Robert Semple were born in 1894 and 1896 respectively. Their parents were Lieutenant Colonel Sir David Semple (born 1856) and Lady Ethel Semple (b.1866). They were two of seven children. The others were Maud (born 1895), John (1899-1900), Mabel (nickname ‘Suet’, b.1901), Eileen (‘Jelly’, b.1902) and Noel, (born in 1903 but who died in 1912 from meningitis).1 During the war, William and Robert wrote to sisters, Mabel (13 in 1914) and Eileen (12 in 1914), who were at the Princess Helena’s College, a private boarding school for girls, then located in Ealing, west London.2 They wrote letters to their sisters Mabel and Eileen and these were compiled into a book by Sarah Riley in 2014.3 Both William and Robert were later killed in the war.

Sarah Ridley's book of William's and Robert's letters

William served in the infantry as a Second Lieutenant in the 13th Battalion, Kings’s Royal Rifle Corps. His brother Robert was also an officer and was in the Royal Field Artillery, Guards Divisional Artillery. Both served on the Western Front in France and Belgium.

Their letters describe their daily life and jobs in the trenches.

In early October 1915, William tells Mabel and Eileen that ‘in the trenches we live in a comfortable ‘dug out’ – that is a hole in the ground with a good room and a comfortable bed…out of the trenches we do nothing but dig new lines of trenches all day and sometimes at night. The weather is still very hot and far from pleasant for digging in.’4

Robert told the sisters how the artillery supported the infantry:

‘while our troops were attacking, the guns had to fire away as hard as they could. The noise was terrible. There were thousands of guns all firing at the same time. All the horizon was one mass of smoke and bursting shells’.5
William complained to both girls about the mud: ‘the mud is as thick and plentiful as ever and it is great fun being dug out of it when one gets stuck there. I never knew what mud was like until this winter’.6
Robert Semple

They also wrote of the dangers; Robert described the problem of snipers. Even though he was in the artillery, he had to go up to the front line to observe where his artillery batteries shells fell so he could tell them to lengthen or shorten their range to ensure they hit the right target. He told Eileen and Mabel

‘that there are a lot of snipers round here. The other day I was laying a [telephone] wire down one of the trenches when I saw a soldier who was outside the wire get hit in the back. He sat down backwards and for a minute went on smoking his pipe as if nothing had happened. Suddenly he felt the pain. He dropped his pipe and let out a yell. Immediately three or four men jumped up to pull him to safety. Amongst them was the Sergeant Major. The minute the Sergeant Major got out of the trench he was shot through the heart'.7
William Semple

Both had a dark sense of humour where they made light of the dangers in the trenches. On 14 August 1915, William wrote to his sisters that ‘we expect to go to the trenches next week so look out for parcels of German scalps and van loads of helmets’.8

On 22 October 1915, Robert told them that ‘as you may guess, I have about twelve iron crosses and a string of medals’.9

In November 1915, both brothers were joking with their sisters about what they’d like to have on their tomb stones. Robert devised a poem:

‘Robert was a little sub
Had a tummy like a tub
But how he’s covered up with earth
So please restrain from ribald mirth’.10
German Great War Iron Cross

In 1916, William described how in the trenches ‘I managed to shoot at least one German who I met out at night in front of the trenches. I now feel very blood–thirsty and you will have to take care how you behave when I get back if you tease me at all!’.11

On 29 June 1916, William was killed during a raid on German positions. He was buried by the Germans. Through contacts at the War Office, William’s mother and aunt were granted permission to speak to a captured German officer who had witnessed the raid. The officer said that they had identified William by the tailor’s bill in his jacket pocket and buried him behind the lines. His mother was heartbroken and had a nervous breakdown.12

In the spring of 1917, Lady Ethel brought a small boy called Sam into the family. She said that the child was from a home for ‘illegitimate children’. Eileen, in her memoirs written later in her life, said that the ‘the owner of the home told mother that the father of the baby was an educated man who had been killed in the war’. Eileen and Mabel behaved badly towards their mother and the toddler. Eileen said ‘We were furious. We knew mother was trying to make up for the loss of Bill and Noel but the thought that this strange baby could take their place enraged us. Also, we had to look after him”. Lady Ethel had lost two young sons before the war.13 Evidence emerged after the war that suggested that Sam was the illegitimate child of Lady Ethel’s brother William.14

William Semple's grave

Robert continued to write to the girls. His first letter came on 11 July 1916. He wrote that he has transferred to a trench mortar battery but did not mention William’s death that had occurred only a few days before.15

His next letter came in September. He described how

‘plenty of things happen out here to prevent life becoming dull. The other day I was sitting in a shell hole with another officer admiring the view when all of a sudden an 8-inch shell burst in the shell hole just behind us. The exciting part of these big shells is that you can always hear them coming, and you always think they are going to land behind you’. He said he was in ‘fine health, and best of spirits’.16
Robert played in the 1914 1st Rugby XV

Another letter in November is similar in that it described his work and again ends it by saying ‘he is in the best of health’.17 His letters mark a subtle change in tone for much of 1917 and stressed his activities behind the lines, his safety and generalities about his life and humorous incidents, such as accidentally setting fire to his bed.18 However, he still retained his sense of humour. In his letter of 24 November 1917, he wrote that he is

‘writing you this letter during a few spare moments in the fray. Seated on a cannon ball with my sword stuck in the ground by my side. It is getting very blunt…The Crown Prince is seated within a biscuit’s toss. He carries a lance, but I will wait till I have finished this letter before we join in mortal combat’.19

The themes for his letters in 1918 were similar. He continued to remark how he is ‘safe and sound’.20

On 22 October 1918, Robert was wounded by a bullet and taken to hospital in Rouen. While there, he contracted Spanish flu and died on 5 November 1918, six days before the end of the war.21