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