Friday, 30 November 2012

Soldiers' First Noel on the Western Front

We all stand together: soldiers at the 1914 Christmas Truce
This week's post looks at the the heartwarming tale of two sides who lay down their weapons, climbed from their trenches, and greeted each other on No Man's Land with smiles, cigarettes and a game of football. Yes, it's the 1914 Christmas Truce, and however sentimental or unlikely it may sound, it really happened - although perhaps not in quite such a film director-friendly way that folklore suggests.

In December 1914 the Great War was four months old and exhausted troops were digging in for the winter. The volunteers of Kitchener's Army had yet to arrive and those at the front were mostly British soldiers of the Regular Army, professional soldiers who were doing their jobs and had no personal axe to grind against the Germans.

Christmas Truces were springing up all along the front, at different times and up in various forms and for those interested in finding out more, there is a link to a very informative article at the end of this post.

Sceptics may say that troops simply used the truce as an opportunity to spy on the other side, but having spent months reading soldiers' letters and diaries, I don't believe that - fellow feeling towards the enemy is not an uncommon theme.

In December 1914, Sgt George Fairclough wrote: 'I came down with 94 prisoners and a young officer of the German artillery - he had only been fighting for a fortnight when he got captured. I never met a nicer chap. I asked him, for a joke: what about knocking off for three days at Christmas?' He laughed and asked his men. They all said: 'Yah yah bong, bong, good, good'. He turned and said: 'These men don't like fighting; they would sooner be with their wives and children.'

Sgt Major Alfred Dowling was less fortunate than Fairclough, by December 1914 he was a prisoner of war. But he had no complaints about his captors: 'We feel properly out of the world here but the Germans are treating us very decently. They gave us cigars etc on Christmas Day,' he wrote to his wife.

There was fellow feeling towards the 'enemy' elsewhere on the battlefields, not just France. An Australian soldier, Ernie Hough, wrote home from Gallipoli in 1915: 'The Turks have fought a good clean fight and are still fighting that way. I know several instances wherein our wounded have been treated kindly by the Turks, and in no case to my knowledge has one case been proved where they have done anything offside. I think in justice to our enemies that this should be said of them.'

For those interested in reading more about the 1914 Christmas Truce, see:

Friday, 23 November 2012

Always look on the bright side of life

A pack horse is led through the mud at Beaumont Hamel
in Northern France, November 1916
Yes, that's what researching the First World War has taught me, always look on the bright side of life. Sitting in a steamed-up bus last week in a long queue of traffic which had ground to a halt on flooded roads in South West England, my feet were sodden and I still had a long walk still ahead of me. But did I mind? How could I.
I was warm and I was safe, unlike those poor souls in France 100 years ago who found themselves soaked to the skin not just by rain but mud and blood too - and with no end in sight, except perhaps their own (always a possibility too close for comfort).

It wasn't just the rain. Once winter set in on the Continent, there was freezing weather to contend with too. January 1917: 'We are having real winter weather snow, colder than anything we experienced last year.' wrote one soldier. 'There has been quite a depth of snow lying for the past 10 days and the ground is frozen hard. The temperature could not have been much above zero this morning which is very cold for this country.

'Fortunately we are not in the trenches but in billets in a village behind the lines. It is none too comfortable in billets but I hate to think of what it must be like in the trenches. The day the snow started we marched 10 miles in a thick storm. A very hard wind was blowing and the storm at times looked almost like a blizzard. The roads are now covered with ice and frozen slush. This mess makes very bad going for the horses.'

In such conditions, animals were often the only way to get stores up the front, as this soldier explains in October 1917: 'The last stunt we was in was one of the toughest jobs we have had since coming to France. As we had the wet weather and mud to contend with one would bog [sink] almost waist deep in the mud, and we had to use all pack animals in getting the supplies up to the boys as the wagons were out of the question and the pack mules would even bog at times and fall into a shell hole ...'

There then follows a story which would melt even the hardest of hearts, but I shall give no more away. You will be able to read the letter in full in my book.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Top five topics in soldiers' letters home

'I must tell you how delighted I was to
receive the Oxo' - a WW1 poster
from the stock cube company
The average serviceman in the Great War preferred to keep his letters home as ordinary as possible, steering clear of things that could worry his family. If trenches and warfare had to be mentioned it was usually in a matter-of-fact way, but many correspondents stuck to the more mundane things in life. So what were the most popular topics? Here are five of the most common that I have come across.

The weather nearly always got a mention, whether it was sweltering, drenching or freezing. 'It's snowing pretty thick and the ground is already white,' wrote Private Tom Fake from France to his young son in England in 1917. 'You will notice that some of the letters have traces of the pencil getting wetted, that is where the snow is falling on the paper as I write.'

Tiredness was another frequent theme, with servicemen sometimes having to go for days without proper sleep. One exhausted cavalryman wrote: '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.'

Letters themslves were often a topic for discussion: how wonderful it was to receive them, who had written, who hadn't, who was owed letters. Most soldiers tried to their best to keep correspondence going, but it wasn't always easy. In a letter to his wife, Private Fake complained: 'I have felt like swearing whilst writing this letter, twice since I started a shell has burst close by somewhere and I think it's like his impudence to disturb me when I am trying to feel I am at home talking to you.'

Teeth problems were often complained about and so too were army dentists: 'I had nine pulled in the cruellest fashion imaginable,' fumed one Canadian soldier. 'I had five filled and that was even worse as he never killed any nerves but hurried it through and slapped in the filling as if he were using a schoopshovel.'

And finally, the deafening noise of artillery, which could sometimes be heard as far away as southern England, was often described in letters by newly-arrived troops in France. One young officer gasped: 'Guns were booming all around us, the sky was vivid with flashes - and the noise!'

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in November's Down Your Way - Yorkshire's nostalgic magazine.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The answer is still blowing in the wind

This weekend it's Remembrance Sunday, marking the day when hostilities ceased on November 11th, 1918. It is still observed throughout the Commonwealth, often with poppies as a symbol of lost lives, so I thought I'd reflect that by giving this week's post a Commonwealth theme.

I'll start with a quote: 'We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.' This was written to a friend in 1916 by a South African soldier whose letters are almost childlike in their wonder at nature. Nicknamed 'Pansy' for that reason, he never stopped enjoying the lovelier things in life despite the mud and guns he faced on the Western Front. But sadly he survived only three months in France before being killed at Delville Wood on July 19th, 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. His moving letters will be included in my book.

South Africa was just one of the 'Empire' countries which rallied to the Allied cause during the Great War - Australia and New Zealand were two more, of course. So I'm pleased to give a big welcome to scores of newcomers to my blog from Downunder, whose interest was registered on my 'blog statistics page' this week after an appeal for WW1 letters was published in the magazine Inside History (left). I've already had a marvellous response with some fascinating letters, so thankyou very much. 

I'm now on the lookout for correspondence written between 1914-18 by servicemen from India, another 'Empire' country which made huge sacrifices during the Great War. If you have any letters, cards or notes I would be delighted to hear from you. Please drop me an email at

And so back to Remembrance Day and the poppies which flowered all over the battlefields in the spring of 1915 after that first terrible winter. It was those poppies that inspired Canadian army officer John McCrae to write his well-loved poem In Flanders Fields (below) after the funeral of a friend who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

One hundred years later, the final verse doesn't feel quite right any more and I didn't know whether to include it below. Then I realised that without it, John McCrae's friend would have lost his life for nothing, as would all those millions of other men, because there had to be something to fight for. So the verse remains and even though time may have changed our views, we must accept that, in the words of Bob Dylan, the answer is still blowing in the wind.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Diary of a war nurse who wanted to have fun

First World War poster
I've always imagined that First World War nurses were rather serious, completely committed, and consequently rather dull - unfair, I know, but probably the result of being made to read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth before I was ready.
But that's all in the past now because I've just discovered the diaries of a young Weymouth nurse who was exactly the opposite. She flirted with patients, was rude about fellow nurses, and expressed disgust at some of the nursing tasks she was asked to carry out. She jotted it all down in pocket diaries, but as I'm saving them for my book I'll give no more away.
However, it would be wrong to give the impression that she was a shallow girl who wanted nothing but fun, because she had a serious side too as can be seen from these thoughtful reflections written at the end of three of her diaries.
  • "1914 was on the whole a bad year. The great European war began on Aug 4th and so far Germany has had the best of it - has taken nearly all of Belgium and a lot of Poland in spite of all the efforts of the  allies - tho' they say she is bound to be crushed - already the flower of England's manhood has been killed and the war of the trenches seems endless...We all became Red + nurses and I nursed in Sydney Hall (pictured below) - chiefly Belgians ... Let us hope 1915 will see peace restored on earth and the desires of all our hearts granted."
  • "In 1915 the European war raged, and in spite of the allies efforts, at the end of the year we seem not much further. The Dardanelles gamble failed and the troops have now been withdrawn from Anzac and Suvla after most terrible loss of life among the Australians and Naval Brigade. In France there is a deadlock altho' we no longer lack ammunition thanks to Lloyd George ... Our sea power remains unchallenged and may it continue to do so! May 1916 bring peace and the desires of all our heart! (as I said in last year's diary)"
  • "In 1916 the war continued as usual. The big push and battle of the Somme beginning on July 1st was successful up to a point and though we did not advance very far, we took a great toll of the Germans. In November and December the Wait and See Cabinet resigned and Lloyd George and Bonar Law formed a new government of which much is hoped. At the Battle of Jutland - June 1st the biggest naval battle in the annals of the world, we gained a victory but at a great price. In December Germany proposed peace but the allies weren't having any - it seems possible indeed that the war will last forever."
Ready for action: Sydney Hall Military Hospital in Weymouth, 1914