World War 1: Soldier’s ‘treasure trove’ of artefacts brings wartime horrors to life

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World War 1: Soldier’s ‘treasure trove’ of artefacts brings wartime horrors to life

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The highly controversial introduction of conscription in the United Kingdom in January 1916 raised one of the largest all-volunteer armies in history, with more than two million men joining what became known as Kitchener’s Army. The mass of volunteers were destined to go into action at the Battle of the Somme, with the army reaching its strength of 4.5 million men by the end of 1918. World War 1 was one of the great watersheds of 20th Century geopolitical history, and resulted in the fall of great imperial dynasties in Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.

By the time war was over and the Allied Powers declared victory, more than 16 million people — soldiers and civilians alike — had died.

Britain lost an estimated 886,000 military personnel, with a further 16,829 killed as a result of military action and crimes against humanity.

More than 1.6 million British troops were wounded, one of whom was Captain Reg Malerbi.

Capt Malerbi’s quite remarkable wartime letter collections were discovered under a bed in a small Yorkshire village, and explored in the 2021 Channel 5 documentary ‘Secrets of the Imperial War Museum’.

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Capt Reg Malerbi

Capt Reg Malerbi astounded historians. (Image: Channel 5)

Capt Reg Malerbi wartime letters

The incredible collection was found underneath a bed. (Image: Channel 5)

Dr Dean Clarke, a retired probation officer, made the extraordinary discovery while clearing out his step-father Bernard’s house in Dore. Bernard had been Capt Malerbi’s son.

Dr Clarke told the documentary: “The whole place was full of junk because they were hoarders.”

Amidst the junk, however, was this “treasure trove”, hidden between dusty suitcases underneath a bed.

Dr Clarke said: “We found boxes called ‘war letters: Reginald Malerbi’ that had been sitting there that nobody knew about.

Capt Reg Malerbi wartime letters

One of the letters was written to inform Capt Malerbi’s parents of his death. (Image: Channel 5)

“There were hundreds and hundreds of letters that he and his family kept.

“In amongst all the boring things about ‘please send chocolate’ or ‘I’ve run out of tobacco’ there would be a paragraph of pure gold, which is ‘we’ve just gone up on to the line’ and ‘my best friend got killed’, or ‘I’ve just been shelled by the Germans’.

“It was like I was transported into the trenches and what it felt like, it was absolutely amazing.”

Capt Malerbi wrote of the horrors of war, conditions in the trenches and how he nearly lost his life at Ypres.

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Capt Reg Malerbi wartime letters

Capt Malerbi’s glass eye was also in the collection. (Image: Channel 5)

When asked by Alan Wakefield, head of World War 1 at the Imperial War Museum, if any letters immediately stood out, Dr Clarke immediately responded.

He said: “Totally randomly, we found a letter dated September 19, 1917.”

The letter was sent to Capt Malerbi’s parents and said: “‘My dear father and mother, if this letter ever reaches you, you will know that I have passed over. I am going over the top in the morning, and you know what that may mean.

“My greatest worry at this moment is the grief that this news will cause you.’”

Capt Reg Malerbi wartime letters

The shrapnel that severely injured Capt Malerbi (Image: Channel 5)

Dr Clarke said: “You can imagine what I felt when reading this.”

The letter continued: “‘You know that I love you both, goodbye until we meet again. Your loving son, Reg.’”

The next day, Captain Reg Malerbi did go over the top of his trench into battle.

He was severely wounded when assisting a wounded colleague, sustaining 12 shrapnel wounds and losing an eye.

Also in the collection was Capt Malerbi’s glass eye and a fragment of the shell that nearly killed him.

Other letters detailed close escapes and the perils of venturing into No Man’s Land, the wasteland between enemy lines.

Mr Wakefield told The Telegraph of the collection: “We’ve got everything here – his letters, his course notebooks when he was training, photographs.

“We get offered lots of individual objects or collections. It’s impossible to take on everything. We’re trying to collect really exciting material like this collection.”

Secrets of the Imperial War Museum is available to watch on My5.



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