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Introduction: 

These are two letters sent by Charles Laughton during his war service to Ms. Hepzebiah Thompson, receptionist at the Pavilion Hotel (Scarborough), owned by Charles' parents. The letters were kept by Ms. Thompson's relatives, and, as written underneath, were taken from a transcript and not from the original letters, therefore we can't analyse details which in a handwritten note would be more evident.  For technical reasons, our transcripts are not complete and hence the "(...)" gaps. We must thank Mr. Simon Callow for allowing us to read his copies of these letters.

We can only tell for certain that Laughton was drafted to the Western Front in August 1918... unless new information or documents resurface proving an earlier stay in France, the first letter must have been written from an undetermined place in England during training (at Catterick camp?)  or while patrolling the Lincolnshire coast in Bicycles.  The first letter clearly describes outdoor living conditions, and the mention of "sudden movements" is also interesting.

It's clear, from the contents of both letters, that extra food items sent from home were not unwelcome... which gives us a less than flattering view of army menus at the time.  Numbers within the letters refer to further comments.

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Letter Number 1


Paper headed: YMCA: with the British Expeditionary Force
Same address, 19-IX-17

My dear Miss Thompson

I don't know if I am doing wrong in writing to you in answer to the avalanche of notes which turned up with the topping parcel I received t'other day. I understand Miss Smith is responsible for it, Well, will you please thank her very much indeed for me and ask for a repetition as often as possible. Re her photograph: well, it wasn't very good so I didn't send it but am sending you a copy in this letter. I hope she likes it. Some beauty spot!

Well Pompo old thing you know your letters are like a sea breeze I can tell you. I always look forward to hearing from you. You always tell me about something I like e.g. theatres
(1)
, a subject which seems studiously avoided by everyone else who writes to me.

I hope mother didn't get the wind up when she got my whizz-bang
(2) but still that was better than nothing as owing to circs I couldn't possibly write. What does mother think of my letters? Do you think I could say more of some things and less of others or in fact change for the good in any way? I usually manage to write 6 or more pages, but you know really you can say nothing about things you are simply bursting to talk about.

Please excuse the grubbiness of this letter because just as I was writing that last bit we had order to pack up and had to make another move
(3). Oh my word the mosquitoes and other things nearly drive me crazy (4). I am scrawling this by candlelight so as I can try and catch tomorrow morning's mail.

Now re parcels. If you send me any butter again, please send it in a tin ditto sugar. You see we have to move so often and unexpectedly
(5) that things get jumbled up together with sad results. A good tin to try is an old 50 gold flake or Three Castles tin (6)
. Now if you think it is practicable I tell you what I would like in a small parcel by itself. 1lb of Greenlay's sausages, a little greece <sic> (7) to cook them in, also one of those Tommy's cookers to cook them on. But you know big parcels are really are really useless or worse than useless because if you get a sudden notice to move you have to leave stuff behind. That one Miss Smith packed was just about right.

Another interruption and this time a welcome one -the mail- letter from mother and a small mysterious looking brown package addressed
{END}

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Letter Number 2


Second letter: Same address but substitute 11 platoon for 9 platoon (8)             dated 30/9/18

My dear Miss Thompson

I hope that you are quite well. I was so pleased to hear from you the other day, but if I had been Miss Smith I wouldn't have disturbed you for worlds. You know I wouldn't. About the little mascot, so sorry I forgot to mention it. I will keep it and though I shall never be able to boast an aeroplane with phenomenal luck I may be in charge of a tank one day. If so my dear lady I hereby do swear that if there is no contrary paragraph in Kings Regs. I will affix it to the front thereof; but if of course that ever does come about, I shall have the opportunity of seeing you in your own especial sanctum (?)

You are totally mistaken about my expected good news. It was nothing to do with returning to Blighty unfortunately (9). I don't suppose by the time you sent this other parcel you had received my letter, at least you don't mention it.

Really it is very hard of the girls to remember me as they do. I assure (sic) I appreciate it to the full. My one fear as regards this do is that it will knock the fun out of me.
(10)

Tell Miss Smith I shall never forgive her for burning the toffee. I was deprived of the great treat I had been led to expect previously. Please thank Miss Taylor and Miss Smith for their letters.

You ask me Miss Thompson about the pot egg. I regret to announce that it passed away but in state with no mean pride that it came to its end in the execution of its duty. Owing to the lack of a better projectile I hurled it at rat which was in the act of making off with one of my pal's soaps. It missed the rat but saved the soap. Those blighted rats will take anything from paper to oil bottles. What they do with them goodness only knows. 
(11)

Well, Miss Thompson, I am getting bleary-eyed so I fain would bid thee au revoir. So I remain forever your little toddler of bygone days Charlie. P. S. "Do it again Mith Thompthon" 
   {END}

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Notes to the letters:

(1) It is quite evident from this comment that Laughton was already quite bent on the stage... it also reveals that such inclination was not encouraged by his entourage, except for a few sympathetic people like Ms. Thompson.

(2) Whizz-bang was the nickname for a high-velocity shell, but I doubt that the word, as used in the letter, has this meaning. Probably it was used to refer to something else. Mr. David Knight suggests the alternative meaning "fast paced", i.e. short and lacking in detail, as if to say that the previous letter to his mother had been written in a hurry (or maybe he just sent a quick field postcard)

(3) and (5) Note the mention of movements, also the unexpectedness of them (to the rankers).

(4) Outdoor conditions.  Living in the open? under canvas?

(6) I'd say he's asking here not only for butter, but obliquely for tobacco as well.

(7) Though "greece" is very probably a plain misspelling, I wonder if Laughton was here giving some clue, i.e. the destination of a group of Huntingdonshire Cyclists being drafted to a fighting front. At least I have found mention of one of them who served in Greece with the 7th Royal Berkshire Rgt., Horace Walter Hill (H C B 1202, Berkshires 3945) and was killed in action on 2-9-18.  However, since I have no clues yet as to when was Private Hill sent to serve in Greece (which could have been prior to 1917), no decisive conclusions can be reached regarding that matter.

(8) This is the second letter kept by Ms. Thompson's relatives, but since the letter states "same address", and Laughton was already at the front (and therefore not in the same battalion nor regiment), it is evident that there must have been more letters between these two which have been lost.  Of course, we can tell from here in which platoons he was at the time, and place him in "C" company.

(9)  Something led Miss Thompson to believe that Charles was to enjoy leave to England... quite improbable as he had been drafted to the front recently (and leave to Blighty was not easy to get for rankers).  We have no clue as for what the "expected good news" could mean... maybe something to do with his few days' work as an interpreter?

(10) The tone of the letters is affectionately humorous, surely to cheer those who might be worried about him.  In the last sentence in this paragraph, though, we get a sombre hint of what was going on inside his mind.

(11) A jocular depiction of average front-line conditions.

09/04/2012

The data on this page has very kindly been provided by Gloria Porta - many thanks to her and to all those mentioned for permission to use their information and research.  Where possible all credit has been given to them and the original source quoted.