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