Monday, 31 December 2012

Welcome to the New Year ... 2013 and 1918

Happy New Year everyone and may your 2013 be a good one.
Before I turn the clocks back to the First World War, here's a bit of festive whimsy from this century which I hope you enjoy - just click the arrow. What did your decorations get up to when your back was turned? 

And so to the Great War and below is a card - with ribbon still attached - sent home from Europe by an Australian soldier in 1918, the year that finally saw the end to a war so terrible that it's hard to imagine how anyone could have lived through it. The card is from a marvellous collection belonging to Lorraine Judge, an Australian family historian. I look forward to bringing you lots more interesting bits and pieces from my research during the coming 12 months, and I will also let you know how my book is progressing now that the writing stage has just begun. Happy New Year.

Friday, 21 December 2012

'Remembering absent friends at Christmas'

This week here's another of the Christmas letters George Lamb sent home to his family in Canada. The year is now 1917 and at last he's arrived in France, enjoying Christmas in fine style but also remembering absent friends. Tragically, this was to be his final Christmas. George Lamb was killed in action the following March, aged 22. His-larger-than-life personality comes alive in the letters he wrote home, though, and George will be one of the stars of my book. (For his 1916 Christmas letter, see last week's post.)

'Our menu was everything
that could be expected'

December 26, 1917

My Dear Mother,

As you will see by the date Xmas is over and although it was my first one in France, I hope I shall enjoy my next one as well in Canada. Our menu was everything that could be expected and the quantity was plenty, I wished I had one of the menus, in fact I remember now I have it, so will enclose it. You could not imagine the good time we had, several of the old faces were absent, but at the same time we have to expect casualties, and perhaps a greater percentage next year when our smashing will begin for a clean sweep.

The officers and sergeants acted mess orderlies and of course we made them all reply with speeches, which they did. In the evening a couple or so of us journeyed out to a little estaminet [cafe] where there are two of the nicest girls I have seen in France. They were driven from some Belgian city, have plenty of money, well educated and so obliging and different from most of the French over here. It was a fine finish after such a good day as we had.

Winter has settled in for good alright now, snow has fallen about four to six inches and although it is not so cold, the melting and snowing again make it disagreeable for the feet. One thing I felt glad about is when the 22nd of December, the shortest day, had finished and from now on we shall be getting longer days although it won't have much effect for awhile.

I suppose you received my card by now, it was kind of late coming. I only had two, it was all I could get, I sent the other to Cassie [his fiancee]. I haven't had any Xmas parcels from anyone. I suppose the mail will be tied up for a while, so much to handle. I had one from Aunt Alice in England, also several letters, she has been very good indeed to me and I wished you would write her once in awhile.

I am helping fix up cars to-day so must get back to work or I'll get fired. Very little news these days only that the war is still going on and glad that conscription passed in Canada.

With fond love to all, I am as ever your loving son George.

Friday, 14 December 2012

'Mud, booze and a bawling-out at Christmas'

Christmas was a testing time for soldiers and nurses during the First World War, especially if they had never been away from home before, and particularly if 'home' was thousands of miles away.

This week's post features a letter written by a Canadian soldier, 21-year-old George Lamb, at Christmas 1916 when he was in Kent, England, waiting to be posted to the front. Although he was missing home, he certainly wasn't feeling sorry for himself and his letter gives a peep at what Christmas was like in a camp full of men. 
Lamb was a larger-than-life character and his letters were always colourful and interesting. You'll be able to read more in my book.

Next week I'll post a letter Lamb sent to his mother a year later, Christmas 1917, when he'd been at the front for eight months.

December 27, 1916

My Dear Father,
Xmas has just passed and a very poor one it was for me, although under the circumstances as good as could be expected. Things were not realistic, the weather conditions were not as usual, the environment and surroundings were entirely different from my previous Xmas. Where I was always looking for a nice skate in the afternoon at home here we were trailing around in the mud.

I was on duty as Cpl of the Guards the day before, and was glad my turn had come that day instead of yesterday, when about 90% were extremely happy, in fact they were too saturated with booze to be anything else, it flowed around like water and officers and all were in the swim making it one jolly glorification of their first and perhaps last Xmas in khaki.

I got into a jackpot the day before, a sergeant bawled me out without reason in a rough shod manner and I told him in exchange that he wasn’t dealing with convicts now, as he was previous to enlisting employed as jail warden. This made him mad and he told a man off to put me under arrest, but as I studied what crime I was up against I prepared my defense and he knew I was right and he was wrong, so at the last minute before I was to come up before the OC [officer in charge] he withdrew the charge.
I have not got to France as yet, am earnestly waiting my chance. Fifty more of our boys went across the day before Xmas. I am beginning to think the war is very nearly over, as Germany is getting quite strong for peace, and by this morning’s paper, I see where neutrals have also butted in proclaiming that it should come soon.

I had a lovely parcel from Doris yesterday full of all nice things which are impossible to get over here. I have had seven in all, and they were all full of eatables and useful soldiers articles, its so nice to have friends and I will sure repay them if I get back to the old sod.
We are still getting lots of physical drill to keep us in trim, its great dope and I like it the best of any work we have. I still hear from Uncle Will and Flora and twice a week from Cassie & mother & sister, so I am pretty well informed.  I wrote a letter to the Plumas Standard [Canadian newspaper] a while ago. I don’t know whether he would publish it or not. I struck the slackers [Canadians who hadn't joined up] pretty hard. 
Wishing you a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Canadian winters were a thing of the past for George Lamb
'In England we are trailing around in the mud,' he wrote


Friday, 7 December 2012

Read all about it, my top reads of the year!

Cramming 10 years' worth of reading into one!
I've been researching my book for around six months now, and in that time I've probably crammed in more reading than I have during the last 10 years!

A great deal of it has been original letters and diaries from 1914 to 1918 of course. But I've also done a fair amount of background reading, which has meant putting on hold my (slow) progress through the works of Dickens. I'm pleased to say, though, that the First World War has proved just as engrossing.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, I thought it would be interesting to list some of the titles that I have enjoyed most. Please feel free to leave your own favourites in the comments section at the end.

  • FISHER'S FACE by Jan Morris - a portrait of Lord 'Jacky' Fisher, Admiral of the Fleet and a huge figure at the turn of the century, by an author who has always been transfixed by his face.

  • NOW ALL ROADS LEAD TO FRANCE, The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis - a beautifully crafted biography about a poet often overshadowed by Sassoon and Owen.

  • THE FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME, by Martin Middlebrook - military history at its best, the story of July 1 1916, when Britain suffered 60,000 casualties on the Western Front.

  • TRENCHES TO TRAMS, The Life of a Bristol Tommy, by Clive Burlton - local history is brought to life in this informative and well-illustrated book based on the memories of soldier George Pine.

  • UP THE LINE TO DEATH, The War Poets 1914-1918, selected by Brian Gardener - an anthology of haunting and memorable poems arranged in sections which follow the progress of the conflict.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Soldiers' First Noel on the Western Front

We all stand together: soldiers at the 1914 Christmas Truce
This week's post looks at the the heartwarming tale of two sides who lay down their weapons, climbed from their trenches, and greeted each other on No Man's Land with smiles, cigarettes and a game of football. Yes, it's the 1914 Christmas Truce, and however sentimental or unlikely it may sound, it really happened - although perhaps not in quite such a film director-friendly way that folklore suggests.

In December 1914 the Great War was four months old and exhausted troops were digging in for the winter. The volunteers of Kitchener's Army had yet to arrive and those at the front were mostly British soldiers of the Regular Army, professional soldiers who were doing their jobs and had no personal axe to grind against the Germans.

Christmas Truces were springing up all along the front, at different times and up in various forms and for those interested in finding out more, there is a link to a very informative article at the end of this post.

Sceptics may say that troops simply used the truce as an opportunity to spy on the other side, but having spent months reading soldiers' letters and diaries, I don't believe that - fellow feeling towards the enemy is not an uncommon theme.

In December 1914, Sgt George Fairclough wrote: 'I came down with 94 prisoners and a young officer of the German artillery - he had only been fighting for a fortnight when he got captured. I never met a nicer chap. I asked him, for a joke: what about knocking off for three days at Christmas?' He laughed and asked his men. They all said: 'Yah yah bong, bong, good, good'. He turned and said: 'These men don't like fighting; they would sooner be with their wives and children.'

Sgt Major Alfred Dowling was less fortunate than Fairclough, by December 1914 he was a prisoner of war. But he had no complaints about his captors: 'We feel properly out of the world here but the Germans are treating us very decently. They gave us cigars etc on Christmas Day,' he wrote to his wife.

There was fellow feeling towards the 'enemy' elsewhere on the battlefields, not just France. An Australian soldier, Ernie Hough, wrote home from Gallipoli in 1915: 'The Turks have fought a good clean fight and are still fighting that way. I know several instances wherein our wounded have been treated kindly by the Turks, and in no case to my knowledge has one case been proved where they have done anything offside. I think in justice to our enemies that this should be said of them.'

For those interested in reading more about the 1914 Christmas Truce, see:

Friday, 23 November 2012

Always look on the bright side of life

A pack horse is led through the mud at Beaumont Hamel
in Northern France, November 1916
Yes, that's what researching the First World War has taught me, always look on the bright side of life. Sitting in a steamed-up bus last week in a long queue of traffic which had ground to a halt on flooded roads in South West England, my feet were sodden and I still had a long walk still ahead of me. But did I mind? How could I.
I was warm and I was safe, unlike those poor souls in France 100 years ago who found themselves soaked to the skin not just by rain but mud and blood too - and with no end in sight, except perhaps their own (always a possibility too close for comfort).

It wasn't just the rain. Once winter set in on the Continent, there was freezing weather to contend with too. January 1917: 'We are having real winter weather snow, colder than anything we experienced last year.' wrote one soldier. 'There has been quite a depth of snow lying for the past 10 days and the ground is frozen hard. The temperature could not have been much above zero this morning which is very cold for this country.

'Fortunately we are not in the trenches but in billets in a village behind the lines. It is none too comfortable in billets but I hate to think of what it must be like in the trenches. The day the snow started we marched 10 miles in a thick storm. A very hard wind was blowing and the storm at times looked almost like a blizzard. The roads are now covered with ice and frozen slush. This mess makes very bad going for the horses.'

In such conditions, animals were often the only way to get stores up the front, as this soldier explains in October 1917: 'The last stunt we was in was one of the toughest jobs we have had since coming to France. As we had the wet weather and mud to contend with one would bog [sink] almost waist deep in the mud, and we had to use all pack animals in getting the supplies up to the boys as the wagons were out of the question and the pack mules would even bog at times and fall into a shell hole ...'

There then follows a story which would melt even the hardest of hearts, but I shall give no more away. You will be able to read the letter in full in my book.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Top five topics in soldiers' letters home

'I must tell you how delighted I was to
receive the Oxo' - a WW1 poster
from the stock cube company
The average serviceman in the Great War preferred to keep his letters home as ordinary as possible, steering clear of things that could worry his family. If trenches and warfare had to be mentioned it was usually in a matter-of-fact way, but many correspondents stuck to the more mundane things in life. So what were the most popular topics? Here are five of the most common that I have come across.

The weather nearly always got a mention, whether it was sweltering, drenching or freezing. 'It's snowing pretty thick and the ground is already white,' wrote Private Tom Fake from France to his young son in England in 1917. 'You will notice that some of the letters have traces of the pencil getting wetted, that is where the snow is falling on the paper as I write.'

Tiredness was another frequent theme, with servicemen sometimes having to go for days without proper sleep. One exhausted cavalryman wrote: 'The men and horses are busted, it's been a very hot day and I've only had about 15 hours sleep in the last eight or nine nights.'

Letters themslves were often a topic for discussion: how wonderful it was to receive them, who had written, who hadn't, who was owed letters. Most soldiers tried to their best to keep correspondence going, but it wasn't always easy. In a letter to his wife, Private Fake complained: 'I have felt like swearing whilst writing this letter, twice since I started a shell has burst close by somewhere and I think it's like his impudence to disturb me when I am trying to feel I am at home talking to you.'

Teeth problems were often complained about and so too were army dentists: 'I had nine pulled in the cruellest fashion imaginable,' fumed one Canadian soldier. 'I had five filled and that was even worse as he never killed any nerves but hurried it through and slapped in the filling as if he were using a schoopshovel.'

And finally, the deafening noise of artillery, which could sometimes be heard as far away as southern England, was often described in letters by newly-arrived troops in France. One young officer gasped: 'Guns were booming all around us, the sky was vivid with flashes - and the noise!'

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in November's Down Your Way - Yorkshire's nostalgic magazine.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The answer is still blowing in the wind

This weekend it's Remembrance Sunday, marking the day when hostilities ceased on November 11th, 1918. It is still observed throughout the Commonwealth, often with poppies as a symbol of lost lives, so I thought I'd reflect that by giving this week's post a Commonwealth theme.

I'll start with a quote: 'We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.' This was written to a friend in 1916 by a South African soldier whose letters are almost childlike in their wonder at nature. Nicknamed 'Pansy' for that reason, he never stopped enjoying the lovelier things in life despite the mud and guns he faced on the Western Front. But sadly he survived only three months in France before being killed at Delville Wood on July 19th, 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. His moving letters will be included in my book.

South Africa was just one of the 'Empire' countries which rallied to the Allied cause during the Great War - Australia and New Zealand were two more, of course. So I'm pleased to give a big welcome to scores of newcomers to my blog from Downunder, whose interest was registered on my 'blog statistics page' this week after an appeal for WW1 letters was published in the magazine Inside History (left). I've already had a marvellous response with some fascinating letters, so thankyou very much. 

I'm now on the lookout for correspondence written between 1914-18 by servicemen from India, another 'Empire' country which made huge sacrifices during the Great War. If you have any letters, cards or notes I would be delighted to hear from you. Please drop me an email at

And so back to Remembrance Day and the poppies which flowered all over the battlefields in the spring of 1915 after that first terrible winter. It was those poppies that inspired Canadian army officer John McCrae to write his well-loved poem In Flanders Fields (below) after the funeral of a friend who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

One hundred years later, the final verse doesn't feel quite right any more and I didn't know whether to include it below. Then I realised that without it, John McCrae's friend would have lost his life for nothing, as would all those millions of other men, because there had to be something to fight for. So the verse remains and even though time may have changed our views, we must accept that, in the words of Bob Dylan, the answer is still blowing in the wind.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Diary of a war nurse who wanted to have fun

First World War poster
I've always imagined that First World War nurses were rather serious, completely committed, and consequently rather dull - unfair, I know, but probably the result of being made to read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth before I was ready.
But that's all in the past now because I've just discovered the diaries of a young Weymouth nurse who was exactly the opposite. She flirted with patients, was rude about fellow nurses, and expressed disgust at some of the nursing tasks she was asked to carry out. She jotted it all down in pocket diaries, but as I'm saving them for my book I'll give no more away.
However, it would be wrong to give the impression that she was a shallow girl who wanted nothing but fun, because she had a serious side too as can be seen from these thoughtful reflections written at the end of three of her diaries.
  • "1914 was on the whole a bad year. The great European war began on Aug 4th and so far Germany has had the best of it - has taken nearly all of Belgium and a lot of Poland in spite of all the efforts of the  allies - tho' they say she is bound to be crushed - already the flower of England's manhood has been killed and the war of the trenches seems endless...We all became Red + nurses and I nursed in Sydney Hall (pictured below) - chiefly Belgians ... Let us hope 1915 will see peace restored on earth and the desires of all our hearts granted."
  • "In 1915 the European war raged, and in spite of the allies efforts, at the end of the year we seem not much further. The Dardanelles gamble failed and the troops have now been withdrawn from Anzac and Suvla after most terrible loss of life among the Australians and Naval Brigade. In France there is a deadlock altho' we no longer lack ammunition thanks to Lloyd George ... Our sea power remains unchallenged and may it continue to do so! May 1916 bring peace and the desires of all our heart! (as I said in last year's diary)"
  • "In 1916 the war continued as usual. The big push and battle of the Somme beginning on July 1st was successful up to a point and though we did not advance very far, we took a great toll of the Germans. In November and December the Wait and See Cabinet resigned and Lloyd George and Bonar Law formed a new government of which much is hoped. At the Battle of Jutland - June 1st the biggest naval battle in the annals of the world, we gained a victory but at a great price. In December Germany proposed peace but the allies weren't having any - it seems possible indeed that the war will last forever."
Ready for action: Sydney Hall Military Hospital in Weymouth, 1914

Friday, 26 October 2012

'A few lines to tell you that I'm in the pink!'

Downton Abbey, in the days before learning curves
I've given up trying to spot satellite dishes and road markings when I sit down to watch Downton Abbey every Sunday night. During the first and second series I lived in hope of catching out those whose job it was to get every Edwardian detail right. But they were too good for me and by the current third series I'd conceded defeat ... until last week. That's when I heard, rather than saw, something straight out of the 21st century - Matthew Crawley describing himself as being on 'a steep learning curve'. Are you serious? They didn't have learning curves back then!

They did, however, have their own words and phrases which come across loud and clear in their letters. Below are some of the most popular.

  • 'Swank' was well used: 'From here in my office (swank!) I have a glorious view of Falmouth Harbour,' wrote Sgt Maj John Glasson Thomas to his sweetheart before departing for France. And later: 'You will see that I'm swanking on official notepaper - 'tis cheaper than buying pads, eh?'
  • 'In the pink' was how servicemen let their families know they they were fine, and 'A1' was also a great favourite, probably deriving from the Army's classification which showed how fit for work a soldier was.
  • 'Lively' and 'exciting' were frequently used to describe fierce fighting and danger in the trenches; this no doubt reflected the British stiff upper lip, as the alternative was to say 'it's terrifying'.
  • And here's an unusual one (unless you're Canadian) - 'jake'. This crops up time and time again in Canadian letters - 'everything is jake' meant that everything was OK.
I have yet to start on letters written by Australians, but I'm sure they will provide me with a few more choice phrases!

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Edwardian passion for postcards

An example of Donald McGill's
humour (Courtesy of David Clark)
I had no idea how popular picture postcards were in Edwardian times until I started researching my book and saw just how many cards there were in people's collections of WW1 correspondence. Many had at least one or two among their letters; others had hundreds of cards which had been carefully saved and treasured over the decades. 

When I carried out a bit of research it all became clear: the early 1900s were known as the 'golden age' of picture postcards and by the time war broke out they had developed into quite a craze. Not only were they were ideal for short messages at a time when post was delivered several times a day (in Britain at least) and before telephones became widely used, they were also extremely popular with collectors.
Their popularity continued throughout the Great War, with servicemen sending carefully chosen cards home to their loved ones, and vice-versa. 

The WW1 recruting poster
which inspired Donald
McGill's card (above)

The variety of illustrations on the cards was enormous and I shall be taking a good look at them in my book. From what I've seen the most popular cards fall into three broad categories. First, the humorous card, designed to put a smile on the faces of the most careworn wives and battle-hardened servicemen. One of the best-known humorous artists was Donald McGill, who later became famous for his saucy seaside postcards. Pictured above is his amusing reply to the famous WW1 recruiting poster: 'Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?'

Second are the postcards soldiers sent home which showed the scenes of devastation which greeted them all over France. Charming villages which now stood as rubble, or once grand cities which had been reduced to ruins, like the card below showing Reims.

Finally, and most beautiful, were the embroidered cards know as 'WW1 silks' which were produced by French and Belgian women in their homes. These women embroidered colourful and patriotic symbols and greetings onto strips of silk mesh, often as many as 25 on a strip, then sent them to factories for cutting and mounting. These beautiful cards like the one below, were very popular with British and American servicemen.

One of the beautiful and popular  'silks' embroidered by
French women in their homes (Courtesy of Tina Mendham)
This ruins of Reims, sent home by a British soldier to his family.
The scene was photographed by Levy Fils & Co of Paris, well-known
photographers of the day (Courtesy of Bill Wadsworth)

Friday, 12 October 2012

Great news everybody - we've found Ern!

I can't believe it! Just a few days after my appeal for information about WW1 soldier Ernest West, his details have been tracked down by amateur genealogist Sarah Spink.
In last week's post I explained how family historian David Clark was keen to find out what happened to the uncle he never knew.
Ern and his childhood sweetheart Beattie married in 1918 after waiting for four long years for the war to end, but tragedy struck on honeymoon when Beattie died of Spanish flu.
Ernest and Beattie photographed
not long before tragedy struck
Subsequently Ern drifted away from Beattie's family - who hadn't approved of him anyway - and contact was lost. But David, who has kindly leant me the postcards Ern sent to Beattie while he was fighting in France, was keen to find out what happened, so we threw it open to readers: could anyone help find Ern?
After reading about the appeal on Twitter, amateur researcher Sarah was on to it straight away and, with some astonishing detective work, she quickly managed to track down records of Ern's later life.

She discovered that after Beattie's death, Ern moved from Surrey where they grew up to Littlehampton in Sussex where he resumed his pre-war career as an accountant. It seems he became well established and successful, Sarah found him listed as an accountant in the West Sussex 1922 Telephone Directory; she also found him mentioned in a small notice in The Times in 1954, as the appointed liquidator of a company.
Ern eventually married again in 1920 and two years later he and his new wife had a son, who also married and had a son. Ernest died in Sussex in March 1984 at the ripe old age of 92 and David Clark now hopes to make contact with Ernest's grandson. He was thrilled finally to learn what became of Ern, in fact 'mind-boggling' is how he described it!

Friday, 5 October 2012

Can anyone reading this help trace Ern?

Where is he now? Ern West is pictured on the left
with sweetheart Beattie, brother Sid and friend
The generosity with which people have been sharing their WW1 letters has made researching this book a pleasure. So it's nice to be able to repay that generosity by offering some help, through this blog, to the relatives of sweethearts Beattie Grove and Ern West.

The couple, pictured on the left, came from Surrey and were separated during the war when Ern joined up with the Royal Fusliliers. He and Beattie wrote to each other almost daily and, miraculaously, Ern survived three long years in France - years which are documented in scores of their postcards which have been carefully catalogued by Beattie's nephew David Clark.

Ern and Beattie finally married in October 1918, however there was a tragic twist to what should have been a happy tale. Seven days after the wedding, Beattie died of Spanish flu aged 25. Heartbroken Ern, still in the army, returned to Germany and kept in touch with one of Beattie's sisters for a while. But eventually they drifted apart and contact was lost.

David Clark would dearly like to know what happened to the uncle he never knew, and it's just possible that Ern's photograph and story may ring bells with someone who is reading this.
  • Ernest Mac West was born in 1892 and grew up in the Camberley area of Surrey with his brother Sid and sisters Topsy and Ena.
  • As a young man, he moved to London and worked as an accountant for the chemists Savory & Moore.
  • When war broke out, he and brother Sid both enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers; Ern was a signaller with the 22nd Battalion and during the war was promoted to sergeant.
If you can help trace Ernest West, please get in touch with me at and I'll happily pass on details to his family.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

'Strewth mate, don't forget us colonials!

G'day! Troops from the land downunder
It's been very rewarding to see that my blog now has readers in lots of different countries, including South Africa, Canada and Australia, former British colonies which all sent men to the First World War. So this week, here's something for them ...

So far my research hasn't extended too far into 'colonial territory', but I have been introduced to a few colourful characters like George Lamb, a keen sportsman from Saskatchewan, Canada who enlisted in 1916. Full of ambition, enthusiasm and energy managed to keep smiling during five-day sea voyage to England, despite being chased by a German submarine and suffering dreadful seasickness, along with most of the men aboard. But perhaps not surprisingly, he was rather scathing about what greeted him:

'We arrived at Liverpool and put right on to a waiting train which we took to be so many buses but proved to be coaches. Eight men were put in each contrivance and there you were shut off from the rest of the train in this stuffy little room, they sure are a joke, their engines are about the size of a threshing engine, so you can imagine what they are like.'

Small-scale England could hardly compare to Lamb's vast homeland, and it was the same for some Australians who often became impatient with the motherland's staid ways. By the same token, however, the British didn't always appreciate the Aussie troops' easygoing behaviour and could treat them as rather coarse and backward.

A very different view came from a soldier from South Africa, Private EG Kensit, who landed in France in 1916. In a poignant diary that he kept to send home, he wrote: 'We were billeted in a huge convent with such a pretty garden in full bloom - tulips and pansies too - the schoolroom was in good condition ... Oh such nice buildings were shelled - all the houses here were tiled. Such pretty red tiles...all along the road can be seen places of worship with the Holy Mary's crucifix in them open to all who wish ... this is where we had our first gas attack - it lat 40 minutes but was not very severe ... it is pitiful to see all the little children going to school with their gas helmets on.'

Tragically, both Lamb and Kensit died in action, but their amusing, entertaining and tender letters will bring alive the pages of my book.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Even better than a shop full of sweets!

When is  sweetshop like
a family history open day?
You may wonder how this photograph could possibly have anything to do with my blog, but there is a connection - albeit metaphorical. Let me explain.

Last weekend, in my search for First World War letters, I decided to go to an Open Day being held at my local leisure centre by the Bristol and Avon Family History Society. I'd seen it advertised and there would be plenty of stands manned by local family history societies whom I could ask for help in spreading the word about my appeal for letters.

Never having been to anything like this before I was expecting a small 'fayre' type of event, but it was acually more like a huge convention! The sports hall was absolutely packed with genealogical 'goodies'. There were local FHS stands, stalls groaning with books about local, social, and family history, a table laid out with neat regiments of old postcards, experts offering to restore old family photographs, a lady with piles of old family history magazines that she was giving away ... it was enough to make any family history buff feel like a child in a sweetshop!

Family history societies are a marvellous source of information for anyone interested in the First World War. Many members have spent years researching their own wartime connections and are keen to keen to pass on their knowledge and expertise. Some of the correspondence I have received from family historians has been absolutely gripping in its detail, not only about the war, but also the personal lives of the correspondents, and Edwardian life in general.

Some societies are already preparing to mark the Great War's centenary in 2014 with their own exhibitions, and other organisations are thinking along the same lines; one lady from Herefordshire FHS told me that her local library had begun digitising copies of the local paper from 1914-18 in anticipation of the surge in interest.

This is history at its most vivid, using primary documents which haven't been interpreted or edited (except perhaps by a wartime censor), which can be difficult to understand, are sometimes tedious and boring ... but are also amusing, shocking, englightening and moving.

History at its most rewarding.

  • For more information about UK Family History Societies, click on the Useful Links tab above

Friday, 14 September 2012

From jubilation to desolation, 1914

1914: Belgian crowds greet British Royal Marines at Ostend
The Western Front wasn't always a scene of stalemate and desolation, with its trenches, mud, and barbed wire. That only came towards the end of 1914 when exhausted armies began to dig in and defend their positions rather than continue with attacks. The Front was a far livelier place in the early months of the war when British troops were arriving to help their French allies take on the Germans, who had just invaded Belgium.

Soldiers were rarely in one place for long, which comes across clearly in a diary I've been reading by George Fairclough who was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Hussars, a cavalry regiment. As a regular soldier, he was part of Britain's small army of 'old contemptibles' who were first to arrive in Europe.

He describes how they were greeted with jubilation in August 1914: 'The streets were thick with people cheering like mad, giving away flowers and all sorts of fruit, chocolate, tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, beer, wine, cake and bread, they are vastly different to English people.'

A young Sgt Fairclough

Within days, however, such scenes were forgotten as the British began their retreat from Belgium after the Battle of Mons, closely pursued by the Germans which meant they had to watch their backs. Sgt Fairclough had a few close shaves: 'The first shell burst a little to my front left and almost cut the horse on my left clean in two without touching the man,' he wrote. 'The second shell struck a man in the troop in front and appeared to simply blow the man and the horse to pieces.'

He witnessed many more haunting scenes: 'I saw a Lt Colonel of the French Artillery in the market square, he had just been convicted of selling secrets to the Germans and was sentenced to be shot, he was led away, as I stood there, to be executed.'

Sleep became a luxury for the soldiers: 'We've been on the march since 03.00 this morning until 14.00 then camped down for a rest,' wrote Sgt Fairclough on August 30, 1914. 'The men and horses are busted, it's been a very hot day and I've only had about 15 hours sleep in the last eight or nine nights.'

Sgt Fairclough survived those first few months of the war, and the rest of the conflict too, including the first German gas attack at Ypres in 1915. Yet it was not the Germans who dealt him the blow that would affect him for the rest of his life ... it was his own officers.

But that's another story, to be told in my book through the bitter words he spilled out in letters to his wife at home.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Stopped in my tracks by tragic reality

Bristol Cathedral
The funeral of a young soldier stopped me in my tracks this week as I strolled along in the morning sun to do some work at Bristol Library. As I headed towards Bristol Cathedral on College Green, I noticed a large gathering of people in military uniform milling around. A policeman approached and asked if I could keep to the outside. He explained that a large military funeral was taking place for a soldier killed in Afghanistan.

So I stood quietly and waited for the hearse to arrive with the coffin of Lt Andrew Chesterman, aged 26, of 3rd Battalion The Rifles; he had been shot on August 9 at a roadside bombing. And as I watched, it brought home to me the deaths of all those servicemen who lost their lives in the First World War, just like Lt Chesterman, leaving grieving families behind.

Perhaps that sounds rather trite, but events are always less shocking when viewed from a distance and history has a way of taking the sting out of things. After Tuesday's sad funeral, the tragic deaths of all those servicemen whose letters I'm reading 100 years later, seemed very real.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Keeping love alive by letter

Love letters from the trenches
I've just finished reading a rather touching series of letters written in 1916 by John Glasson Thomas to Gertie Brooks, two teachers who became friends while they were working in London and who were separated when war broke out.

Thomas joined up and was sent to Falmouth with the Royal Garrison Artillery, where he played his part guarding shipping in the English Channel. But although their relationship was in its infancy, it went from strength to strength by letter, with Thomas' correspondence full of boyish fun which reflected an age of more formal courtship. In one letter he enthuses: 'I am very glad that you appreciate Cornish pasties, so do I, I often eat a hot one when on my way back from town. Can you fancy me climbing the hill to barracks cane in one hand a hot pasty in the other? Quite a study for a snapshot I assure you.'

When leave permitted, Thomas visited his friends in London, including Gertie, and after one he could hardly find the words to express himself: 'I only wish I could tell you how much I enjoyed my weekend, but 'twas too good for mere words to describe or qualify. The effects of my visit are still with me.'

Thomas obviously had high expectations about the way young ladies should behave, as is apparent when he describes having to keep order at a railway station where soldiers bound for France were saying goodbye to their loved ones: 'The behaviour of some of the yong females was really horrible; some had to be forcibly kept back ... ugh!'

Vera Brittain: contempt for the rules

Such expectations were part of everyday Edwardian life, but they enraged the likes of writer Vera Brittain, who grew up at the turn of last century and described her contempt for such etiquette in her book Testament of Youth - especially the requirement for unmarried couples to be escorted at all times!

However, not all young couples obeyed the rules. A man from the local history group has told me about his Aunt Beattie who refused to split from her sweetheart Ern, despite family disapproval. The relationship continued throughout the war and is documented by correspondence which the family still has. When Ern returned from the war the couple married. Sadly, the story doesn't have a happy ending though, Beattie died in the Spanish flu' epidemic which swept Britain just after the war.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

It's a tough life at the end of the queue

Dentistry on the frontline, 1917
My previous post about teeth and toothache appears to have stirred a few memories. My mother has been in touch to tell me that it brought to mind one of the rare stories her father used to tell about his time on the Western Front.
As a private with the Gloucestershire Regiment he often had grumbling teeth, as did thousands of others, but for him there was no quick remedy. When he took himself off to the Army dentist, his wait was always one of the longest. Why? Because his name was Wood and that not only came at the end of the alphabet ... it also meant the end of the queue!

My grandfather hardly ever mentioned the war, but one other memory that slipped out from time to time concerned moonshine. No, not that moonshine, but the sort that reflected on tin plates and mugs on a clear night in the trenches. He recalled that soldiers would keep their utensils well covered while eating becaue they were terrified that any reflection could make them a target for snipers. For the same reason he also held his lit cigarette inwards towards the palm of his hand - a habit that lasted his whole life.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The agony of toothache in the trenches

'My teeth have been troubling me this last couple of weeks, and I can't get them extracted as we don't possess any forceps.' So wrote one poor soldier from Northern France in 1918, whose letters I'm reading at the moment. As if life in the trenches wasn't bad enough, many servicemen were forced to endure grinding toothache too.

There were people who could help - officers attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps carried out the duties of dentists during the First World War, but they weren't always around when you needed them. 'I had to walk to Poperinghe in great misery to have a tooth put to rest or die in the attempt,' wrote the poet Edward Blunden. A similar tale was told by Robert Graves in his famous memoir Goodbye To All That: 'I got toothache which forced me to take a horse and ride twenty miles to the nearest army dental station at corps headquarters. I found the dentist under the weather, like everyone else ... After half an hour he dug the tooth out in sections. The local anaesthetic supplied by the Government seemed as ineffective as the forceps. I rode home with lacerated gums.'

My soldier, however, discovered that help was nearer at hand. Shortly after complaining about the lack of forceps, he wrote to his wife: 'Sgt Small came to tell me he had got a set that day, so last night I went to him and had two of the brutes out'!

Lack of proper dental care caused 'an extensive wastage of soldier manpower' during the Great War, according to the National Archives. 'This state of affairs could not be allowed to carry on.' By Royal Warrant on 4th January 1921, the Army Dental Corps was formed as a component of the Army Medical Services. Too late, unfortunately, for the gallant troops who fought between 1914-18, but one less thing to worry about for those who were called upon to defend their country 20 years later.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Sidetracked by a trio of enterprising brothers

Canadian picnic: Art, Fred and Ern are the three hatless men on the left

Self-discipline is something I've needed a lot of this week, not only to ensure that Olympic-viewing doesn't take over everything (although, goodness knows, that's been hard enough) but also to make sure that I keep my eyes firmly on the title of my book. With so many fascinating characters writing First World War letters, it's very easy to wander off course and spend time becoming interested in their lives rather than sticking to the letters they wrote. I'm not saying that background information isn't valuable, but recently I've had to remind myself that my aim is to write about the First World War rather than individual families!

The enterprising Stride brothers, for example, caught my imagination and were a case in point. The trio set off for Canada in 1909 in order to find work in the building trade. They came from a Somerset family which had run a successful building business since the 1800s, developing housing and shops in the Shirehampton and Avonmouth areas of Bristol. But by the early 1900s the business couldn't support the whole family, so the brothers set off for Canada in search of pastures new.

Ern, 27, was the eldest and drove the business forward; Fred, 26, was the easy-going one; and Art, 25, was the youngest, elegant and dapper. They found work in Vancouver and all three lived off Fred's wages while saving money earned by the other two, and in time they set up their own business. The brothers lived a lively social life which centred around the local methodist church. They were musical and played viola and cello, and there were plenty of outings, as pictured above.

For some years Fred and Art remained settled in Canada, both marrying Canadian women, but Ern's life took a less happy turn when became ill with tuberculosis. In the early stages he was nursed by Fred, however the Stride family was close and didn't want to bury one of their own in a foreign land. So Ern came back to England (and in the end he lived until he was 45).

Where do First World War letters come into this story? When Ern returned to England, conscription was in full swing and the Army lost no time in calling him up. Although he resisted, he was put on light duties at home. 'Well or ill everyone seems to be caught in the net,' he wrote. 'We are caught in the military machine alright, no escape.' There followed regular letters from Ern to his brothers in which he wrote about everything from his duties at an anti-aircraft station to the mood of the country.

Ern's letters give a fascinating insight into England at a time when trench warfare had started wear down public enthusiasm for the conflict and will provide valuable material for my project. But the enterprising Stride brothers deserve a book of their own!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

"You can't imagine what I've gone through"

Letterhead of one of Rifleman Fake's letters

How many of those who went to fight on the Western Front were cut out for life as a soldier? Not many, I'm sure, despite their British stoicism. Certainly not Rifleman Tom Fake of Bristol, whose letters from 1917 I've been reading this week. Judging from what he wrote, he would have been far happier at home tending his garden, keeping a proud eye on his young son, and chatting with his wife about the comings and goings of neighbours and friends.

The letters Private Fake received from his wife were his lifeline: 'Shouldn't I just like to come up for the weekend and have a peep at you,' he wrote wistfully. Far from complaining, though, he got on with what he was told to do - but not always with happy consequences. Here he describes one nightmarish episode when his battalion was sent 'up the line':

'We had to go up to the front digging trenches and after we had gone cross country and through woods for about 3 miles I had to give up, absolutely lost and done up, didn't know which way to go and there was no one about. I wandered about for a couple of hours and then I came across an officer, he put me on the right way and I got back to the batt at six o'clock that night.

'The next day we went up to the trenches ... A couple of days after I went with a party to a village to fetch water. I kept up alright going, but coming back with the water I was completely done up. Any rate I stuck to the water and carried it to the trenches, when I got there I found that our men had advanced further on, so I had to stay in those trenches all night on my own as I did not know where to go. Next day I found them again and I am glad to say that night we were relieved. The next day I could not walk at all, so I have finished up in hospital.'

Private Fake was diagnosed with myalgia or, as he called it, rheumatics. 'You can't imagine what I've gone through,' he wrote.

His letters are full of stories like the one above, as well as amusing little asides. For example, he tells his wife that the biscuits she has sent him have ended up in crumbs, the chocolate has been crushed, and the French nougat was 'like some sausages that had been stepped on'. 'Try and persuade yourself it is no use sending them,' he writes in exasperation!

I'm pleased to say that this endearing man survived the war and lived well into old age. His great-niece has a holly bush planted in his memory in her garden and she has kept all his letters beautifully. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a recent meeting of Thornbury U3A's Family History Group in South Gloucestershire, a thriving get-together where she and several other members brought their wartime letters for me to read. They will be invaluable for my book and I'll be quoting more snippets from servicemen's letters in the months to come.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The search is on for servicemen's letters

The Ball brothers with their parents
and sister - my grandmother
I’ve been quite taken aback by the response to my letter in the Bristol Evening Post, appealing for readers to get in touch if they had correspondence from the Great War. A number of people replied with tales that painted a vivid and varied story.

One told me about his grandfather who had fought in the Battle of Jutland and was one of the last men alive to have witnessed the scuttling of the German Fleet in 1919. Another reader's grandfather spent the entire war as a prisoner in Germany, captured in 1914 and not repatriated until 1918.

There were some very sad tales, like the soldier who joined up in 1914 as a healthy young man, but was discharged in 1919 with shell shock, to spend the rest of his life in an institution.

Other readers told me about brothers who had joined up and gone to fight - with only one coming back. This happened in my own family; my maternal grandfather managed to survive both Gallipoli and the Western Front, but his younger brother was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On the other side of my family, three great-uncles went to war and, mercifully, all came back. They're pictured above, in uniform, with their parents' and younger sister - my grandmother.

Readers were also kind enough to send me copies of some marvellous postcards which were a real Edwardian feature of correspondence during the First World War.

Such an encouraging response to my letter in The Post made me realise that there was plenty of correspondence to fill the pages of my book, and I look forward to discovering a lot more.

It’s also reassuring to know that all over this country there are huge archives full of historical correspondence, so if my own enquiries hit a barren patch, I can always fall back on these. Museums are the most obvious repositories, among them the Imperial War Museums and the National Army Museum, both in London, where vast numbers of letters from the First World War (and many other wars) are held. These documents are available for the public to view, and helpfully they are catalogued online. The RAF and the Royal Navy also have their own archives. And a network of regimental army museums spread all over the UK is a veritable treasure trove of information. Click the Useful links tab at the top of this page for details of all of these.

If you have any letters from the First World War tucked away in old suitcases or at the back of drawers, I'd be very please to hear from you. Get in touch at .

Saturday, 7 July 2012

There in my inbox, an offer I couldn't refuse!

For some time I'd been thinking how nice it would be to write a book of my own, without the limits of feature-writing. As a freelance writer for magazines I was lucky to be able to choose the subjects I wrote about without having to labour through articles which bored me, as was often the case when I worked for newspapers in my youth.

But there were always two drawbacks. First, I was limited to a fairly standard feature length of 1,500 words or less, which isn't very long when you're writing about something you find fascinating. And second, it's hard work trawling your ideas around magazine editors to find a buyer, especially when you've got one you consider brilliant and nobody's interested!

So when I opened my inbox one day and saw an email asking if I would be interested in writing a book based on First World War letters, I couldn't believe my luck. It came from the former editor of a magazine I had contributed to in the past who was kind enough to remember me when she became a commissioning editor at the publishers Pen and Sword. The sort of book she had in mind would tell the human story of the war using the letters of servicemen - would I consider it? I jumped at the chance.

Some basic research showed me there was a wealth of documents I could use, and to test the water further I wrote a letter to my local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, asking if readers could help. There was a marvellous response and I received some really fascinating (and moving) stories which will be the subject of a future post.

My deadline is January 31st, 2014, which leaves me around 18 months to research and write the book. You'll be able to follow my progress on this blog. First though, I've gone into organisational overdrive to ensure that when my letter-collecting begins everything is filed in an orderly fashion to make writing my first book a pleasure.

Jacqueline Wadsworth