Sojourn in Salonica

Museum and Memorial alters Staffing During Pandemic

Like all cultural institutions, the National WWI Museum and Memorial faced challenging decisions with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Out of concern for the well-being of staff, volunteers and guests the Museum and Memorial was closed in mid-March, and a number of the organization’s team members in the guest services department seemingly lost their day-to-day work responsibilities.

Despite having no visitors, the Museum and Memorial applied a creative solution to ensure team members, in particular those in guest relations, still had plenty of work to do.

And, by “plenty,” we mean 10,000-plus pages. More than 15 team members transitioned to a group focused on creating transcriptions for the more than 10,000 pages of previously digitized letters, journals and diaries from the World War I era. This invaluable pivot means that the firsthand accounts of hundreds of soldiers, nurses and family members are now accessible, searchable and able to be translated into different languages.

This is the story from one of those soldiers:

The popular history of World War I usually features trenches and the war of attrition of the Western Front in France and Belgium. But the war’s story also has chapters about its “side-shows,” such as the campaigns in the Eastern Mediterranean — the Dardanelles, the landings at Gallipoli and in Greece at Salonica.

A collection of letters donated in 2011 from the service of a British soldier in the Salonica-Macedonian theater of operations vividly conveys the nature of this part of the war.

Thomas John Rees enlisted in the British army in 1916, having been raised on a farm in the Rhondda valley, South Wales. In 45 letters sent home to his parents and family, Rees described his training as a sapper in a Royal Engineers camp in Pembroke, England, his travel through France to Marseilles where he shipped to Salonica and his service in the trenches for nearly two years.

The letters provide details about Rees’ surroundings, but as was common to all of the war’s personal correspondence, they are self-censored, as place names and travel dates could not be mentioned. He describes weather that seems to alternate between snow and sunshine and “beautiful sights such as sunset and moonrise on the Mediterranean.” He comments that the area’s population lives in small villages, mostly Macedonians and Armenian refugees.

Rees was a typical soldier serving overseas in that he was doing his job — in his case, digging trenches and dugouts in the mountains. His homesickness comes through in his writing. He asked his family to send him cigarettes, cake, chocolates — luxuries that the Army provided of poor quality or not at all. “You cannot imagine what a great pleasure it is to receive parcels and letters from you as it is only the thought of home and loved ones that keeps us alive out here as the life is very monotonous,” Rees wrote.

The Macedonian landscape, with its “flower-dotted” mountain stream banks, reminded him of Wales. He mentioned that some soldiers from the Welsh regiment performed a choral concert at the YMCA tent.

His only tangible connection to home and family was his letters. His thoughts in the form of his words were sent a thousand miles home on a weekly basis, but even this tenuous contact could be interrupted by the sinking of a mail ship.

Despite bouts with malaria and influenza that hospitalized him, Rees survived the war. Eventually, he returned home to Wales, worked for a rural electric company and raised a family.

The collection of letters from Thomas John Rees and thousands of additional pages of letters, diaries and journals can be accessed from the Museum and Memorial’s Online Collections Database at theworldwar.org/database.

For more information on donating items to the Museum and Memorial, visit theworldwar.org/support/donate-object.

–By Jonathan Casey, Director of Archives and the Edward Jones Research Center National WWI Museum and Memorial 

Above: Undated letter on YMCA letterhead from Thomas John Rees to his parents. (Page 1 & 2) (all images courtesy National WWI Museum and Memorial)

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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