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.

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