Carluke railway station as it looks today
Carluke railway station as it looks today

YouTube user 'drs47802'

Soldier's last letter home thrown from window of moving train

Matt Pickles

Dear wife and bairns
Off to France – love to you all

On first reading, this note from George Cavan to his wife Jean and three daughters does not appear out of the ordinary.

But it was the last message he ever wrote to his family, two weeks before being killed in action on 13 April 1918 at the Battle of Hazelbrouck in France. The note only reached his family thanks to the goodwill of a passer-by.

George's granddaughter, Maureen Rogers, picks up the story.  'At the end of March 1918 George was away at training camp the orders came through to dispatch to France,' she explains.

'The train he was on with his troops went through his home station (Carluke in Scotland) but did not stop there. He threw out onto the station platform a matchbox containing a note to his family.

'On one side was the name of his wife and on the other the message to the family.'

The note came to light when Maureen submitted it to Oxford University's Great War Archive, which has collected and digitized more than 6,500 items relating to the First World War that were submitted by the general public.

The Archive was set up by Dr Stuart Lee of Oxford’s English Faculty and Academic IT Services and was used as the model for the Europe-wide Europeana 1914-1918 project..

Maureen lives in Australia and the subsequent blog post on the Great War Archive website triggered an unexpected set of events.

'We received a comment from George's family in Scotland who were unaware of the matchbox story,' says Alun Edwards, a project manager of the Great War Archive.

'Through this the family branches were able to join together their elements of their ancestors' stories. This formed the basis for a chapter of a book, published by the British Library, called "Hidden Stories of the First World War" by Jackie Storer.'

IT Services' work at the forefront of community collections will be presented at the forthcoming 19th annual Museums and the Web conference in April 2015 in Chicago.