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.