ON February 13, 1915, Second Lieutenant Christie Elmhirst of the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment sat down to write to his sister and six brothers.

His letter described a concert at his battalion dining hall in Grantham the previous night. It had been a sketch show based on the song Sister Suzy Sewing Shirts For Soldiers, the young officer wrote cheerfully – and he had sung the part of Suzy.

He wrote: “I wore a fashionable dress supplied by a fellow officer. The audience cheered and whistled. And since last night I have been complimented many times as to what a lovely lady I made. One remark overheard this morning was “It were a fine show, but Mr Elmhirst, eh, ’e made a champion lass”.”

That same letter, however, contained hints of something darker – though disguised beneath a very British stiff upper lip.

His regiment was to be sent overseas and his adjutant had told him he was to be a machine gun officer.

Christie wrote: “An officer called Ince has just arrived, he was at the front. He tells many tales and says that if anyone gets killed, it is the machine gun officer because, as soon as the machine gun is spotted, it is shelled by artillery and infantry. That is a lively look-out for me.”

So it proved. Christie’s regiment joined the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which fought at Gallipoli.

On August 11, 1915, at just 20 years old, Christie was killed in action at Suvla Bay.

He wasn’t the only one of the Elmhirst brothers to die in the First World War. Four of the seven brothers saw service.

The eldest brother William was killed. He had been commissioned into the East Yorkshire Regiment in October 1914. Two years later in October 1916, now a Captain stationed in France, he wrote he was going up to the trenches to “a rather unhealthy spot”.

On November 6, 1916, when he wrote to his mother, the mask of determined cheerfulness was beginning to slip. “Out here one becomes so used to the idea of death, and that in most unpleasant forms, that it comes to seem a very small thing indeed,” he wrote.

“I have seen some far from pleasant sights, but it is astonishing how little it affects one, though it takes people in very different ways.”

A week later, on November 13, he was killed in action at Serre during the Battle of the Somme.

Two brothers who survived the war were Tommy, who was in the Navy, and Vic, who enlisted on leaving school in 1917 and got his wings with the Royal Flying Corps, but never saw action.

Richard and Alfred, were too young and Leonard was passed as medically unfit.

There are countless stories of brothers who went off to fight in the First World War, never to return. What makes the story of the Elmhirst brothers so different is the letters they wrote.

At the very outset of the war, Leonard, the second brother, had the idea the brothers should all keep in touch with each other, and with their little sister Irene Rachael, by sending a series of round robin letters. These were letters posted on from brother to brother and sister, with each adding their own comments in turn.

This amazing round-robin was called the family budget. The family kept it up for five years throughout the war - even following the death of Christie and William.

The collected letters – written from the Somme, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, India, on board HMS Invincible or back home at Rugby or Barnsley – provide an astonishing insight into how the Great War affected one family.

A couple of years ago, after rummaging through family collections and archives, retired solicitor Paul Elmhirst managed to collect together about 70 of the round-robin letters, and published them as a book, The Family Budget.

Paul, the son of Alfred, the youngest brother, lives in Stillingfleet, near York.

He’d known about the letters for years, but it was only when he retired he had time to do the research needed to gather them together.

The tone of the letters is light, and often teasing – but they give an extraordinary account of life during the war.

Before the war, William had been articled to his uncle Charles’s law practice in Lendal, York. When the war broke out, he volunteered, joined the East Yorkshire Regiment, and was for a while a recruiting officer at Fulford Barracks in York.

It was fairly chaotic at first, he wrote in a round-robin letter on December 13, 1914.

“For the first week there were nine officers to look after 1,200 men, most of whom had nothing but what they stood in, the blue serge uniforms, no spare shirts, boots or socks or knives and forks or razors etc. Many of their boots through at the sole,” he wrote.

“Now at last we have got them all with two pairs of boots and everything except a spare uniform.”

There were still no rifles, however. “We hope to get them fairly soon,” William noted.

The tone of the round robin letters was generally upbeat and cheerful – and that continued even after Christie and then William were killed, said Paul. He has often wondered about that.

Christie and William simply drop out of the correspondence, he said.

After their deaths there is no reference to them at all in the round robin letters by any of the surviving siblings. Paul said: “You would have thought there would be some mention.”

He believes it was partly that British stiff upper lip again, but also something else – that the deaths of their two beloved brothers was simply too painful to talk or write about, at least to each-other.

Leonard did write about the death of his brother William in a letter to his father (so not one of the round-robin letters) dated January 1917.

He had been thinking of training for the priesthood, but William’s death – which left him the eldest brother – had clearly shaken him.

“And so Willie is gone,” he wrote.

“I cannot get myself to believe it. In the last few months my whole outlook on life has changed. The effect of it is that, for the time being, I do not see the way open to taking Holy Orders and I could not honestly put my name to most of the things the Church demands.”

Ten years later, Paul said, a friend read to him a copy of RC Sherriff’s moving play about the First World War, Journey’s End.

The effect on Leonard was striking. After listening to the reading, he walked alone in the gardens for two hours. He and his wife Dorothy then agreed to finance a production of the play at the Savoy Theatre in London. It became hugely popular.

Paul saw the play at the Theatre Royal in York ten years or so ago. He said: “I could see how my Uncle Leonard might have seen his brother William in the play.”

In a way, he believes, it was Leonard’s own memorial to his two dead brothers.

• The family Budget, edited by Paul Elmhirst, was published by York Publishing Services in 2011 priced £12.99

York Press:  The Elmhirst children before the First World War
The Elmhirst children before the First World War
 

• Throughout the year we will be looking back at the events of the First World War. If you have a story you would like to share – about fathers or grandfathers, uncles or great uncles who fought in the war, or about the women who suffered at home while their menfolk were away, we would love to hear from you.

Phone Stephen Lewis on 01904 567263 or email stephen.lewis@thepress.co.uk