Marcus Segal, Letters from the Trenches

This week I want to tell you about a remarkable man, Second Lieutenant Marcus Segal.

ImageThe museum has a collection of over 150 letters written by Marcus from World War I. I spent two days reading all the letters, getting used to Marcus’s handwriting and became completely absorbed by this intelligent and humble man.  Last week I visited the National Archives to find out more about the man behind the letters.

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Marcus Segal was born on 5th December 1896 in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, later moving to Kilburn in London with his family.  After school he went straight into the London Regiment.  

Below is his Attestation on applying for the army, it tells us that Marcus was 17 years 10 months at the time of enlistment.  He was a short man at 5 ft 2 ¾ inches with normal vision and a good physical development.

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Marcus was then commissioned as a temporary Second Lieutenant in the 16th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment on 29th October 1915 (he later became part of the 13th Battalion). 

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By September 1916 Segal had joined the British Expeditionary Force in France and it is from here that he wrote the letters.

While reading Marcus’s letters I felt like I got to know him and was able to understand his experience and emotions I would like to share with you some of the things I found out about him.

Marcus saw himself as a Jewish man and asked his parents to ‘let Grandma know I have carrying (sic) on my work as a Good Jew ‘. He tried to arrange Jewish Services in the trenches with Chaplains Rev Jacob Phillips and Reverend Adler and to participate in Jewish festivals, such as Succot;

‘I had my last dug-out full of leaves on top in honour of Succot but I dare not put any fruit hanging as fruit would not hang long here…life out here makes one very religious and it makes one think what the Almighty can do…we get issued with biscuits just like Matza..’

ImageMarcus was a keen sportsman and was the head of the sports committee for his regiment. He played football and rugby, and went skating and riding.

‘I have had a fine game of football and except for a few kicks on the ankle I had a glorious game.’

‘Yesterday we had a quick game of rugby against the Brigade staff and had a fine game. I came back full of bruises just as in olden times.’

Marcus also enjoyed listening to music on the Gramophone which reminded him of home. He also began to read a lot, telling his sisters he had become an ‘avid reader’.  Trench life was not all fighting and loss. Soldiers had a lot of time on their hands and were able to play sports, poker, listen to music and write home.

Marcus was a very popular officer with his fellow officers and men and made many friends, ‘I have met men galore I know out here and it makes matters very much jollier…naturally I am somewhat popular as I am jack of all trades.’

I believe he was so popular because he had a great sense of humour, and he liked to tell stories about his life in the trenches and home.  He joked about catching his brother’s measles ‘I patted his sweet letter against my face hoping to catch a few germs, but up to the present, no luck’ and told a story about the discovery of a teffillin.

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A strange thing happened, one of the Scots took a prisoner who had a teffillin in his pockets and he rushed to Hdquts (sic) thinking he had found some new signalling device. I did laugh’’

Segal was a loyal son and brother, he loved his family very much. He wrote to his parents, his siblings, grandparents, aunties and uncles. He was always asking after his family’s health and sending them prayers.  ‘I am sure there is no man in the world could be blessed with better parents than you are to me. I think all day of you just as you must think of me.’

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He believed they were too kind to him, that he needed to repay their kindness. ‘I…only pray to God that I might be returned safely to you and make myself worthy of your tender care.’

The letters from his family were so important to him and the other soldiers and I could really emphasise with him when he wrote, ‘I had no letters from home yesterday and felt very disappointed as that’s all we look forward to and keep awake to absurd hours to see if there are any letters for us, so you can imagine how we appreciate any correspondence and especially from our dear ones.’

Heartbreakingly Marcus Segal was killed by a shell at Arras on 19th June 1917 and reading what I knew to be his last letter home brought tears to my eyes. He was still full of hope and optimism the day before he was killed,  ‘I am keeping quite well despite pretty rough times. We expect to be relieved in a few days’ time and then hope to go out for a week or twos rest’.

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Everyone that reads Marcus letters is moved by his words and feels a great attachment to him. They give the reader an important insight into the conditions  of the trenches and the life of a First World War soldier, but most importantly they let us get to know a kind, funny, dedicated man who lost his life fighting for his country. 

 

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19 comments on “Marcus Segal, Letters from the Trenches
  1. Anonymous says:

    his story is so moving, but also sadly, one of millions!

  2. James says:

    Fascinating, I must visit the museum soon

  3. Kate says:

    A wonderful summary of a fascinating individual, its left me wanting to read his letters too!
    I’m so glad his experiences are being brought to light so a new generation can appreciate his life and his ultimate sacrifice.

    • Sarah Fairhurst says:

      Thank you for your comments. The letters are being transcribed by our volunteers and will be digitised soon!

  4. Rosie says:

    Thanks for sharing his story. I love reading about the history of everyday people.

  5. Jason Rodriques says:

    Fascinating!! It’s a wonderful insight into the life of a soldier that could easily be reflected across millions of others, on both sides of the conflict. Work like this means their sacrifices won’t be forgotten. Great job!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Lovely blog entry – I like that the sources lead the story. I especially enjoyed his quip ‘I patted his sweet letter against my face hoping to catch a few germs, but up to the present, no luck’.

  7. Julian C Pollard says:

    Sarah,

    I discovered this collection of letters of Marcus Segal some years ago and with the consent of the Family I arranged for them to be donated to the AJEX Museum. Segal coincidentally attended my old School- his name is recorded on the War Memorial there and the story was written up in the Jewish Chronicle where a reader commented that he had Segal’s War Medals.

    Feel free to contact me if i can assist you further
    Julian Pollard

    • Hi Julian, thank you so much for your comment. We would be interested in hearing more information about Marcus or his family if you have any?
      Sarah

      • Julian C Pollard says:

        Sarah

        Call me on 020 8 455 0565 and i will be happy to provide any further information.

        In short the correspondence to which you refer was part of the personal effects of his late sister whose estate I wound up some years ago.

        She was 95, I recall, at her death but the correspondence was neatly preserved tied up with ribbon in a desk drawer- unread in all likelihood for 75 years.

        Given the number of uncensored letters, their content and candour I realised this collection might be of more than mere family interest and eventually it found its way to the Ajex Museum. The Imperial War Museum considered it unique in its explicit Jewish content:- the celebration of the festivals such as Succot in the trenches, the discovery of German soldiers wearing teffilin, the deliveries of kosher food (putrid by the time it arrived!) etc.

        As you have no doubt discovered, the correspondence is barely censored for the simple reason that his senior officers were quickly killed and he found his rise in the ranks meant that soon he was responsible for censoring the post of other soldiers. His own is free from redaction and is generally toned down to spare the family unnecessary concern and distress.

        The final letter from his batman after his death at Arras in 1917 is especially moving.

        His death is marked at the War Memorial at University College School in Hampstead where he attended as a pupil before joining up.

        Looking at the photographs of him it is hard to believe he was so young – 20 or so- at his death.

        Julian

  8. Hi Julian,
    Just to let you know that on Thursday 9th January I am giving a talk at the JMM (11am) about Marcus Segal and Michael Adler. I wondered if you could tell me the date that you discovered the letters? Were is ID tag and wallet also found with the letters?
    Many thanks,

    Sarah

    • Anonymous says:

      The letters were found while I was administering the Estate of his late sister- at least 15 possibly 20 years ago.

      I do not recall the ID tag nor his wallet being among those papers but I may be wrong on this. I know his medals were held by a collector who contacted me after the matter was covered by a 2 page spread in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper some time later.

      The Imperial War Museum expressed interest in the collection but in the end I decided it ought to go to the AJEX museum

      Hope this helps

      Regards

      Julian

  9. Larry Abramson says:

    I am in Arras, and took a walk today, ended up at the British cemetery and the first grave I saw was Marcus’s. I was completely unaware of his story, but I sensed that any Jewish 20 year old who could make Lieutenant in an army that was still rife with anti-semitism must have been someone very special. Thank you for this site, and allowing me to get to know Marcus better.

  10. Hi Larry,
    Thank you for commenting on the blog. Did you come across Marcus’ grave and then search for him online? If so I am so happy that people are moved when they visit Marcus’s grave. He really was an extraordinary man.
    Sarah

  11. Daniel says:

    Have the letters been digitized? Can we see them online?
    Thanks

    • Hi Daniel,
      The letters have all been digitized and are now part of an interactive in our WW1 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. This interactive will be put online very soon, the production company are fixing a few technical issues. Then youwill be able to look at all letters and listen to the ones we have had recorded. I will put a post up here when it goes live.

      Thanks,
      Sarah

  12. […] you can read all of Marcus Segal’s letters and Florence Oppenheimer’s diary with a video and the audio we recorded with Tom Barratt and […]

  13. Raphael Harris says:

    One small correction. The lady referred to, Hilda Segal, was in fact Marcus’s sister in law. She was born Hilda Harris in Cardiff in 1903. She married Albert, Marcus’s brother in 1927.

    Hilda was my father’s maternal aunt and my great aunt. She was also my father’s next of kin when he served in Bomber Command.

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