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.