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Letters of Bugler William Hills

Bugler Hills lived with his family at 154 Musley Hill, Ware. Joining the Hertfordshire Regiment as a boy bugler, he enlisted as a member of the TA in 1913. He went on to become a prolific correspondent. Hertford Museum holds a wonderful collection of letters and postcards he received from friends, relatives and girlfriends (both French and British), as well as many photographs and postcards he sent to his mother. 

Throughout the First World War, William corresponded with Emilienne, a French woman he met whilst on active duty. Emilienne wrote English very well, and judging by several letters from other women written in French, it is likely William had picked up a good grasp of her language, and the two swapped news, gossip and friendly advice. However, the following two letters from Emilienne are a good example of how misunderstandings could still take place.

Sunday August 18th 1918

Saint Saier

My Dear Willie,

At first I must give you the kind remembrance of Marie Louise she writes to me. “Dad brought to Marie Therese and myself two bicycles and we are riding all the day. So excuse me if I have no much time to spend in writing.” Poor Marie Louise: she is very busy, don’t you think so? 

Well I have to thank you for the long nice letter which I was so pleased to get. It is very good of you being so busy (not in having walks and rides) to write me so long. I congratulate you for the real success (a fine, too) at your examinations. I did not think you would have already had to pass through. I was very pleased to hear from your success though never doubt of it. I am very proud of my old friend and I am glad that you will soon be in Hertford. I wish you much courage and the best luck for the exams to come; many happy days to spend with your dear Mamma, too.

No dear Willie, that girl is no good, being engaged, to look after any other boy than her own one. It makes me think of the girls which serve at the confectioners in St. Saier. Oh! You see there are bad people anywhere, either married or not, particularly since the war. I heard from a few English wives and from a lot of French ones, several having lost their husband at the front. Dear we must not look at them. Apart of these are some of whom the loyalty, the courage has touched the sublimeness. I don’t speak for the young ones but those who have their husband at the front and some children to look after, with a farm or some trade. I know some of them and I am sure you have some of them too in England, doing cheerfully their duty and sometimes more than their duty. 

The world is ugly but one sees there some so beautiful deeds that it makes you love it again. Anyway if the world is ugly, nature is always beautiful, though melancholy it could be. We must look at the braves and try to do like them, isn’t it Willie?  Shall I look at you and try to be a soldier? Silly I am eh? Yet I could not stay like you in the trenches and go to an attack. I know a bit of the back lines of the front and by riding a truth of the first lines and the attack (there are very few books which give true details of the war as it is on the very front) I wonder how the soldiers do to keep their posts, how you have done yourself dear, all the while you have been there.

I’m “méchante” to speak to you again of those remembrances. Pardon me dear Willie will you? So you remember the first evening you passed at Madam Loir’s? That old billet of yours is quite down now. I think of your first coming as if it was in last March instead of March 1915. Oh is that time so far? “Time is flying” Charlie has gone back at the front. I think he drives a 75 gun on the front of Roye. Thanks dear for the good thoughts you think of me. You count too dear as one of my very best friends, you are affectionately in my thoughts.

Your sincere old friend


St Saier

8th September 1918

Oh! Dear Willie, 

I don’t like your last letter, at least a part of it. Were you laughing at me? Then I admit your way but then yet why not to tell me the true thing you would think of it. Do you fear to hurt me? No, you won’t. We are true friends aren’t we my dear? I am your true little friend at least and I believe you to be my great true friend and friends must lead each other in the right way. 

Well, when you understood that I had a bike (I didn’t mean that, I’ll explain it to you later on) and I had no time to write to a friend as dear as you are to me but I had time to spend even with Marie Therese or Marie Louise, why did you say I was right in doing so? I don’t think I would be right and I pray God to never go that way. I believe that you have thought that I was not like in Beuvry and you have been deceived to see that I had changed my ways.

No dear, there is a mistake, let us make peace and remain as good friends as ever. And now an explanation and I have  —– properly the matter is there! I can’t write proper English then I wrote to you putting in my letter a part of Marie Louise’s letter in which she said “ Dad (her father) brought two bicycles, one to Marie Therese and one to me” (me is not Emilienne but for Marie Louise since it is Marie Louise’s letter). She added “So I have no time to spend in writing to you as I have a lot of nice riding to have with friends”.

You know Marie Louise a bit, I suppose her mother was absolutely blinded on what her children may do of wrong. Then from what the neighbours told me, from what I saw myself when last I went in Beuvry and Bethune, Marie Louise and Marie Therese seemed to have grown very swankies. Marie Louise likes flirt too much for a girl her age and I am sorry that her sister will be at her school for I like Marie Therese much more than Marie Louise. Their cousins Helene and Nellie are more sympathetic than them now. You spoke of some “butterflies” but Marie Louise is now a “super butterfly” as there are “super aeroplanes” so I will not trouble myself in trying to change her mind. I don’t count her amid my real friends and so I told her just as you told me that it was very nice of her to spend five minutes in writing two lines. If she had been a real friend of mine I should have tell her my real thoughts though I could hurt her. I’m a silly girl ain’t I Willie. Well, don’t speak anymore of it will you.

I’m very glad to hear that you are in Hertford and of the good time you are having at home. You deserve it, then you have to be near your Mamma as often as you are able to. You are so lucky to have your mother Willie, and mothers are so fond of their great boys! How is Alice? How are little Ernest and his daddy? I’m glad to know all the rest of your people are well. All my family is well too. I must go to Elbeuf and Bourg-Achard for a week. I was in Rouen when your letter reached St. Saiers. Have you had the card I sent you?

Best remembrance and very affectionate thoughts from your old friend Emilienne.

William moved to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment during the latter part of the war but remained a member of the 1st Herts TA after returning home. Aged 83, William was the standard bearer for the Hertfordshire Old Contemptibles at a 1973 parade at Hertford Castle.

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