Letters of the First World War: “Say I am only seventeen”

Stephen Brown only 17 PC picture

Shortly after coming out of hospital in England in 1915, Stephen Brown sent this postcard asking his mother to vouch for him as an underage soldier. Image © IWM (Documents.145); Text © Brown family c/o IWM

In desperation, 17-year-old Stephen Brown dashed off a postcard to his mother in April 1915, begging her to help him prove he was underage so he could leave the horrors of trench warfare behind.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll be familiar with Stephen Ernest Brown, an underage soldier from Deptford who joined up with the King’s Royal Rifles a few weeks before the First World War broke out.

His letters to his mother had previously been mostly cheerful, although he was clearly missing his family.

But when he came out of hospital after a short stay in April 1915, things changed.

Stephen Brown only 17 PC text

The reverse of Stephen’s postcard home requesting that his mother tell his commanding officer that he was underage. Image © IWM (Documents.145); Text © Brown family c/o IWM

He sent the above picture postcard, with the slogan ‘I am thinking of you’, from Sheerness, where the King’s Royal Rifles were barracked when they were waiting to return to the front. He hadn’t been away from the front very long –  no more than a few weeks.

“Stop me from going”

“Dear Mother

Just a line to let you know that I am quite well I am for the front on Tuesday But if you write to the commanding officer and say I am only seventeen it will stop me from going get it here before Teusday [sic] for I cannot get a pass to come and see you don’t forget

From Stephen”

Did his mother receive this postcard in time? What was her reaction? We don’t know.

The only piece of evidence we have is Stephen’s next postcard.

Stephen Brown to front 1915 PC

As he left for France again, Stephen Brown sent a single line to his mother to let her know. Image © IWM (Documents.145); Text © Brown family c/o IWM

A plain postcard, it was postmarked “On Active Service”, and simply read:

“Mother Just left for France

Stephen”

We may never know whether his mother wrote too late, or felt that he should remain in the army and didn’t write at all.

Stephen’s Life Story

Now that Lives of the First World War has launched, it’s become easier to piece together a more vivid picture of Stephen and bring a number of pieces of evidence together in one place – Stephen Brown’s Life Story page.

  • We know from census records that Stephen Brown was one of eight children, and we know their names – Frederick, Elsie, Edna, Margaret, Lillian, Kathleen and Charles. Lillian is clearly the “Lillie” he addressed a whole page of kisses to in his second letter home.
  • We also know that before the war, Stephen worked as a “Tin Box Manufacturer” for just over two months in the spring and summer of 1914, shortly before the incident which prompted his first letter home from the army begging his family to forgive him.
  • Stephen’s army service record notes that he had blue eyes, fair hair, and a scar on the side of his neck.
  • His service record also provides some clues as to what might have caused him to need that stay in hospital – there is a note about “frostbite”.

Find out what happened to Stephen next on Wednesday next week, when we publish the final letters from him which IWM has in its collections.

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2 Responses to Letters of the First World War: “Say I am only seventeen”

  1. Teresa Keech says:

    I don’t know about anyone else but I find this site so hard to follow,so my story will remain untold.What have other people found.Teresa

    • Miranda Brennan says:

      Hi Teresa,

      Have you seen our Guide to Getting Started? If you need further help, our FAQs might be of use, or you can contact us directly by clicking on the blue question mark in the bottom right of your screen on any page on Lives of the First World War. We would love to hear your story, so hopefully this will help. Adding it as a piece of Personal Knowledge to the Life Story you are interested in is probably a good solution if you don’t have many official sources of evidence for it.

      Best wishes,

      Miranda

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