Thousands Log On to Read Letters of WWI Soldier

Long before the blogosphere made authors out of Iraq-based U.S. soldiers like former U.S. Army Spc. Colby Buzzell, the soldiers who fought in World War I nearly a century ago were writing poems, keeping diaries and scribbling letters to send to their anxious families and friends.

Now, the letters of one such soldier, British Pvt. William Henry Bonser "Harry" Lamin, have begun to make waves in the blogosphere, attracting thousands of readers.

The letters were composed by Harry Lamin when he was serving with the 9th Battalion of the York & Lancaster Regiment in 1917 and 1918 and are now being posted online by his grandson, Bill Lamin.

Bill Lamin found the letters in a drawer while clearing the house. The 59-year-old information technology teacher then took them to his school to help the history department teach students about World War I.

"The department suggested I publish these letters," Lamin told ABC News, adding that his interest in IT led him to "thinking about blogs and how they can help with teaching."

"And then," he said, "I thought, why not publish the letters in real time? I had this idea towards the end of 2006, and I thought that if I waited until February 2007, I could begin posting the letters from the beginning of his stint."

The letters on the blog are posted and dated exactly 90 years to the day they were originally written.

Often, days pass when no new letters are posted online, and readers are compelled to wait to find out if Harry Lamin made it alive to the next day.

And wait they do. Thousands of readers, from countries as varied as Spain, Mexico, America, as well as Harry Lamin's own England, have been logging on for nearly a year to follow the British soldier's journey across the muddy trenches of France, Belgium and Italy.

British transport manager Dave Ross compared it to a soap opera, adding that "each letter is like the cliffhanger scene in any daytime soap that makes you desperate to find out what happens next and tune in to the next episode."

Journey Into the Trenches

The background to this story begins in the northern English city of Nottingham where Harry Lamin was born near the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border in August 1887.

He came from a farming family who had fallen on hard times and was working in one of Nottingham's lace factories when he was conscripted in 1917.

He was 29 and left behind his wife, Ethel, and their son, William, then just a year old.

Most of the letters that have made it to the Web site were exchanged between Harry Lamin and his siblings, older brother Jack, who worked as a senior clergyman in Leeds, and older sister Kate, a midwife in London.

When his grandson decided to post his letters online, Harry Lamin said that he only expected to "get about 50 people interested."

Since then, Harry Lamin's blogger profile — which lists his astrological sign, Virgo, and his zodiac year, the year of the rat, apparently — has scored more than 100,000 hits.

"I didn't know how well the letters would engage people," Bill Lamin admitted, "but they do engage people and they identify with him."

Even people who at first glance would appear not to have much in common with Harry Lamin.

Michelle Hays, an American missionary living in Mexico, told ABC News that "Harry's blog targets my interests precisely. I feel like my computer is a vortex that takes me back in time as I wait for my next letter. Is he OK? What stories does he have to tell? It is so neat to be an active participant in a real life novel."

Enduring Fascination, 90 Years On

How did the letters of an ordinary man who lived more than a century ago create such a rage in the blogosphere?

In an interview with ABC News, Jon Stallworthy, professor of English at Oxford University, described the events in Harry Lamin's letters as "another world," adding that "the decent, courageous reticence here is totally alien to most contemporary blogs."

Stallworthy suggested that one possible reason for the public's fascination with his story is that "people who may think of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan as remote will think of their grandfathers or great-grandfathers being involved in the First World War."

Indeed, interest in family history seems to be a guiding factor for several of the blog's visitors, like Dave Ross, whose father was a prisoner of war in Singapore during World War II.

But for many others, like 22-year-old British student Hugo King, the letters are the main draw.

King told ABC News that Harry Lamin's "very plainly and honestly written" letters engaged his curiosity in how an "unimaginable situation affects an ordinary man."

Ordinary Man: Extraordinary Letters

What makes Harry Lamin's letters remarkable is their lack of any obvious flourish. As Stallworthy observed, they display an almost "continual understatement."

Lamin wrote his first letter Feb. 7, 1917, while he was stationed at an army training camp in Staffordshire, England. Three months later, he arrived in France.

His first letter to Kate from the training camp reflects his signature restraint, as he describes his quarters. "We have four blankets a piece and a bag of straw about 6 in. from the floor on three planks to lie on." He ends the letter saying, "I have not got any fatter yet. I don't suppose I shall."

That same easygoing attitude prevails throughout the war. After landing in France, he wrote to Jack telling him that France was "not at all a bad sort of place."

Only a month later, Lamin was involved in the battle of Messines Ridge, in which his regiment suffered heavy casualties. But in his letter to Jack, he remains positive even as he admits that "it was awful."

"I got buried and knocked about, but quite well now and hope to remain so," he tells his brother.

In September 1917, Lamin's battalion played an important part in supporting the third offensive of Ypres in Belgium. He was injured by shrapnel, but dismissed the incident with characteristic understatement, writing: "I got a slight wound in the face with shrapnel but not much. it is alright now."

Later, he wrote to Jack, saying: "We have some rough times out here but I think the Germans have it rougher. We have to make the best of it."

Through it all, Lamin's focus never wavers from his family, especially his little boy, William, now 91 years old and living in a care home near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

A letter to Jack dated Oct. 27, 1917 expresses delight at the prospect of his older brother's wedding.

"I was very pleased to hear that you are thinking of getting married. I should not wait a day. I should not like to be single again and I think that you will say the same. let me know as soon as possible."

The tone of his letters and his continued focus on his family does little to suggest the horrors of a war that claimed millions of lives. As Stallworthy put it, "You would never guess that he was up to his waist in mud."

"He presumably didn't want to worry his family," Stallworthy said as he speculated on the reasons behind Lamin's reticence.

"But equally," he added, "he simply didn't have the words for it — to express the trauma of his experience."

Whatever his reasons, the touching simplicity of Lamin's words has won him thousands of fans.

And, like his family did nearly a century ago, these readers eagerly await his next dispatch, all the while praying that it will not take the form of a telegram from the British War Office.

His most recent letter was posted Monday in which he thanks Jack for his Christmas present — a box of cookies -— and tells him about his own Italian Christmas: "It is still very cold out here at night and we have had some snow. it is different to being out in France, very quiet."

Since then, there has been no news about Lamin, but his readers are hoping for a happy ending.