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!