A new exhibition on Capital Collections brings together a collection of correspondence relating to Private Colin Rice [1880-1918], a soldier from Leith who served in World War One. The letters were kept by his family and we’re indebted to Ford Paterson, his great-nephew for donating the material to the library and sharing the story with us.
According to the census, Colin Rice was aged 30 in 1911 and living at Springfield Street in Leith with his father, mother, sister Jane and his nephew John Ford. Colin’s father worked as an iron moulder, his sister was a machinist for a waterproofs factory and Colin worked as a goods porter at the railway station.
In March 1916 the British Government introduced the Military Service Act, which meant compulsory enlistment for all eligible unmarried or widowed men without children between the ages of 18 and 41. We do not know when Colin enrolled in the army, but because of his age, and because the correspondence we have is dated from 1918, it is probable that he joined up after March 1916.
Unfortunately, the only messages written in Colin Rice’s own hand are the regulation postcards stating, “I am quite well”, and a “letter follows at first opportunity”, and so we can only imagine from other accounts of the time, the experience he endured in the trenches.
It was in May 1918, that Colin’s sister Jane received a letter from an officer in his 9th Royal Scots battalion informing her that Private Rice had been wounded in a counter-attack on 24th March 1918. The short letter concluded:
“In all probability he will be a prisoner in the enemy’s hands.”
Another letter arrived for Jane in September confirming that Private Rice was still missing since the date on which he was ‘wounded’ on 24th March. An official leaflet entitled, ‘Missing Officers and Men’ was enclosed for her reference.
In June 1919, a memo was sent to Jane Rice regarding her missing brother:
“no further information has been received in this office, and it is to be feared that, after such a lapse of time without any information, he no longer lives…. As soon as he is Presumed Dead by The War Office you will at once be communicated with”.
In September 1919, a letter arrived for Jane confirming that Colin was now missing, presumed dead. Private Rice’s battalion had been holding trenches in the front, near to St Quentin, (the Somme) when the Germans had “opened their great offensive in overwhelming force” in March 1918.
The collection of documents also contains a note of sympathy from Winston Churchill and a note thanks from King George V:
“I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.”
The collection tells a story of love and loss repeated in thousands of households across the country. The official starkness of the military correspondence makes the story seem all the more poignant when we’re left to imagine the missing side of the story: the family’s enduring hope and resilience in the pursuit of answers.