Monday, January 7, 2013

'...the whole of my property and effects to Mother'

Facsimile of William Pell's Will page.
Appears with permission.
"In the event of my death, I give the whole of my property and effects to Mother", wrote the young Lance Corporal William Pell.

On 27 October 1914, just seventy-eight days before he was killed on 7 January 1915, my grandfather's first cousin, twenty-three year old William Pell wrote his last will and testament.  It appears on page 14 of his army service small book, the page that bears the title WILL. With a flourish reminiscent of the sort of cursive writing a young boy might have learned in a school room, William wrote his final wishes in pencil, bequeathing all to Mother.

'Mother', he wrote, as though Teresa Pell was the only woman in all the world to ever bear that moniker. Surely, in the eyes of William she was the only one. While it is not uncommon to see Mother written in the final wishes of many young soldiers, it is no less poignant.

Today is the 98th anniversary of the day on which William was killed on the bloody field of battle in Belgium. He was among the first to be interred, just over the border from France, in a small and simple cemetery called Prowse Point. In that place 225 other young men would find their final resting place.

Other than the stone which marks his grave in Belgium, and bits of his service record, all that is left to us of William Pell is his British army pocket book, known as a 'Small Book'.

Each man who served in the King's army of the British Forces during the First World War was given a Small Book. All of the regulations of the branch in which these men served were laid out, chapter and verse, on the pages of this little book. There were also blank pages on which the soldiers could record information about the details of their training. Among these blank pages was the one entitled ‘Will’. When a soldier was called to active service, this completed page would be given to his local army office. Sometimes the will page was not removed from his book until after his death, and some of these pages no longer exist at all. Although over 35,000 Irishmen were killed during the First World War, only 9,000 of their wills are extant.

The effects of most regular soldiers consisted of only their army pay and their clothing, and perhaps letters from home, small keepsakes tucked away in their kit bags. I often wonder, did the winds swirl overhead and the rain gently fall on that January day so long ago, and as William lay dying on the battlefield in Belgium, what was there left to be sent home to ‘Mother’?


Do you have an Irish ancestor or relative who fought and was killed during the First World War?

If so, then be sure to visit the National Archives of Ireland collection of the wills of soldiers who died in the First World War (1914-1917).  The collection is available for viewing online free of charge, via the NAI Genealogy website. The available wills comprise the first phase of an ongoing project by the National Archives to digitise the 9,000 wills of the soldiers who died. The remainder of the collection will be released online later in 2013.

In addition to the will pages, the collection also holds a number of letters, including those from the relatives of deceased soldiers, or fellow soldiers writing on behalf of the families of the deceased, stating the wishes of the deceased man with respect to the distribution of his effects. Other letters are from the soldiers themselves, letters which were sent to relatives or friends stating the soldier's wishes about who should inherit his effects if he died on the fields of battle. These letters were accepted by the British War Office in lieu of a will.

Click on image to view larger version.


  1. Think my Grandad was in the Irish Guards.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Thanks for your comment. The Irish Guards has a very interesting history, since it was formed by Queen Victoria in 1900 to commemorate the bravery of Irish soldiers during the Boer War. The Guards fought at Ypres, suffering major casualties, as well as on the Somme during World War 1. Do you have your grandad's record of service? If not, and if it is extant, you can get it from the Regimental Headquarters in London England. All of the RHQs are located in the Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk. They not only have records, but they have photographs as well.


  2. An interesting post. I searched it and came across a few familiar names. Have you found all your soldiers on it yet?

    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks for your comment. I am glad you were able to find some names on the website. So far, I have found two wills of deceased soldiers from my family, and look forward to the possibility of finding more once the digitization project is complete.



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