Illustrated Letter


When Fergus Mackain wrote this illustrated letter to his 6 year old son in New York, he had been in France
for about one year. During that time he had been wounded at the Battle of Delville Wood, and had survived
the bitterly cold winter of 1916/17, when men literally froze to death in the trenches.

His battalion, the 23rd Royal Fusiliers, had recently experienced intense fighting at Vimy Ridge, and the
following month were billeted at La Comte, Enquin-les-Mines, and Camblain-Chatelain. In the same
month, the United States entered the war to fight alongside their allies in France.

The illustrated letter was reproduced in Scribner’s Magazine in December 1917, along with extracts of an
earlier letter from Mackain to his wife letting her know his whereabouts and situation. In all likelihood, he
is documenting the start of the ill-fated Somme campaign.





The following letter was written just before the artist was wounded and sent back to the base hospital:

“. . . Just a bit of a note to tell you where I am. I have been ‘up the Line’ for the past few days; and it’s rather nice, too. There’s a thundering big battle raging not far from here, and last night and three nights ago, we were within less than a mile of it, on a working party.

“I am sure that when the World was Created, the spectacle was nothing compared to what I saw, and heard, these two nights.





MY DEAR LITTLE MACKIE:               APRIL 27, 1917

This is the first letter your dad has ever written to you,
isn’t it? I made these pictures for you, so you could see
some of the things I have been doing over here where
the War is.




No. 1

is your dad in the trenches. See how brave he looks!





Cloth colour patches

The soldier is wearing various colored cloth patches on his back and shoulder. The patches made it easier for observers in the rear to track the progress of battles and troop advances in no man’s land from the relative safety of the trenches.

The blue-grey felt silhouette of a grenade was worn during the period 1915-1916 and signifies the 23rd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. The red patch most likely indicates the soldier is part of the 99th Brigade (2nd Division). The blue flash on his epaulette probably identifies his company. Each battalion used different color schemes, so it is almost impossible to tell whether he is in A, B, C, or D company.

Rifle number                                           

Rifles were zeroed to individual shooters, and the rifle’s butt number was stamped on a circular brass plate screwed to the stock and recorded in a soldier’s “small book”.



No. 2

is how we come marching out of the communication trenches. Papa is always leading the single file – coming out.





Communication trenches

Communication trenches were used primarily as a means for communicating orders to the front lines from farther back without exposing the messengers to enemy fire.

The front line trench would have a communication trench that ran perpendicular from it to the headquarters of the commanding officer, and from there he could send a messenger to the front line. They were also used by troops moving to and from the front lines as well. As more troops need to be moved in large numbers, more communication/ perpendicular trenches were dug in order to make this movement safer and quicker.



No. 3

is Dad in bed in one of the lovely billets in France. Look at all the nice things to eat he’s left untouched: a dixey of tea, beans, jam and corned beef! Yes, poor daddy as a nawfull belly ache and all sorts of things the matter with him.





On active service a billet could have been anything from a shed to a chateau. In this case it is a farmer’s barn. Note the similarities between this and Tommy’s Life card OR#10.

A Dixie (or Dixey) was a 20 pint cooking pot that was carried into the trenches by soldiers “out on rest”, but otherwise on fatigue. In this case the dixey is in reality a mess tin that contains the soldier’s individual ration. Also note the references to beans (aka “pork and beans”), jam, corned beef (aka “bully beef”), which also appear in Tommy’s Life card AB#5.

The soldier is likely suffering from gastritis (also known as gastric flu and gastro-enteritis) a reaction due to insanitary conditions (especially tainted water), monotonous diet, etc. Enteric fever (dysentery) was also widespread in the trenches during WW1.




“There’s nothing to frighten a fellow – it’s all far too big and splendid for that.  I wish you could experience it for a few minutes.  This Man-made storm surpasses Nature’s feeble efforts to such an extent you would laugh at anything she does in the way of a disturbance afterward, I fancy.

“As I mentioned in my last letter, I expect to return to England shortly – if I don’t go to Heaven, or some other place, before.

“How are you and the boys?  Write me at the following address ……………………….

“You see, of course, I’m now out of the 30th and in the 23rd. ‘B. E. F.’ means, as I suppose you know, British Expeditionary Force. . . .”



No. 4

shows your Dad being rushed in an ambulance to a fine hospital where a lot of fine doctors will tell him there is nothing the matter with him at all.





Sunbeam-Rover Ambulance

The ambulance illustrated in the letter is almost certainly a Sunbeam-River type. During the First World War, the company built motorcycles, trucks, and ambulances.

After some problems experienced with privately donated ambulances, the British Red Cross laid down a specification for bodies and some form of standardization was achieved which made it possible for ambulance bodies to be ordered direct from the manufacturers.



No. 5

Papa has his first bath in five weeks.





Base Hospitals

There were two types of Base Hospital, known as Stationary and General Hospitals. They were large facilities, often centered on some pre-war buildings such as seaside hotels. The hospitals grew hugely in number and scale throughout the war. Most hospitals were assisted by voluntary organizations, most notably the British Red Cross.



No. 6

Dad in a real bed and a real girl to do all sorts of things to make life pleasant for him.





T.F.N.S. Nursing Sister

The nurse illustrated in the letter is probably part of the Territorial Force Nursing Service, which was created originally to provide nursing staff for the territorial force general hospitals planned for the United Kingdom in the event of war.

Following the outbreak of war in 1914 many of the members were posted overseas to help staff military hospitals. TNFS nurses wore a dress of blue-grey washing material the same color as their cape, with a white linen collar and cuffs and white muslin cap. In the illustration the nurse is wearing a red cardigan over her dress as protection against the cold weather (the same reason she is kindly providing a hot water bottle).



No. 7

is daddy walking about weeks afterward in a pretty blue suit and an adorable red tie.




Hospital blues

When soldiers were well enough to go out from the hospital, they were very noticeable in the street as they were dressed in saxe blue suits made of a type of lightweight flannel material, and wore bright red ties.

The special hospital uniform consisted of a blue single-breasted jacket with a white lining - worn open at the neck, blue trousers, a white shirt and a red tie. The suit was known as the ‘blue invalid uniform’, ‘hospital suit’ and ‘hospital blues'. Complaints were often made by patients who found the suit was too large.



No. 8

is the way he looks now.





Tommy is in his smartest uniform – bedecked with  a white lanyard tucked into the left breast pocket, breaches, the badge of the 23rd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers on his shoulder, and a blue epaulette flash signifying his company.

Note the similarities with the soldier in OR#9:




Show these pictures to dear little Brother and dear Mama and give my love to all of them. With the greatest of great love from your Dad.

4299   Pte. Fergus Mackain 23rd R. F.

army printing and stationery depot

boulogne     france

The British Army Service Corps’ Supply Depot in Boulogne was located near to the Railway station at Etaples, as highlighted on this map:

Fergus Mackain was transferred to the Army Service Corps in June 1917, and served with the ASC until demobilization in December 1918. During this time he published the “Sketches of Tommy’s Life” postcards.



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