Tuesday, 31 December 2013

'The French know how to raise good turkeys!'

Christmas celebrations on the Western Front
Source: Nationaal Archief, Netherlands
The traditions of Christmas were always appreciated by troops fighting at the Front, and New Year letters home were full of the celebrations they had enjoyed. Festive meals were often elaborate and well thought-out and lots of planning obviously went into this repast, described by a Canadian medical officer at the beginning of 1917:

8 January, France

'We had a much better Christmas this season than last. Fortunately we were out of the trenches in resreve and billeted in huts. The weather was fairly well behaved although we had some rain. All the men has a good Christmas dinner including turkey, plum pudding, beer, nuts, candy etc. We had previously ordred 500 kilos of turkey. We made a contract for them and the dealer shipped them in from Normandy. I must say the French know how to raise good turkeys.

'The tables were set in the YMCA hut and we hired dishes from the French civilians. We had to divide the dinner into four sections, one for each company. Two were held on Christmas day and two the day after. The band rendered musical programs during the dinners and each night put on a minstrel show which was really not at all bad. We had  good dinner in battalion HQ mess, but most of our pleas ure was derived from seeing the men have a good feed and enjoy themselves for once.'

But it wasn't long before Christmas was forgotten and the officer's next letter was more concerned with growling guns, frozen slush, and freezing 5.30am starts. Extracts will be published in the next post, so watch this space.

Friday, 13 December 2013

'A pretty sight, all the trees glistening white'

An embroidered card sent from France

A letter-writer who pops up frequently in my book is an unassuming soldier from Bristol called Tom Fake. He served on the Western Front (and survived) for two years and wrote regularly to his wife in a style that was plain and simple - he told it as it was. His letters have been beautifully kept by his family and below is a rather poignant one to his wife and young son written at Christmas 1917. It begins with some disappointing news...

Friday, 21st December 1917

'Well my dear I am not in the running for a leave this Christmas, just missed it, but I shall be in the next lot and that will probably be next week, so when you answer this letter, you need not write again till after I have been home.

'Well my dear, it won't be so bad if I am home for the new year will it? All the same I should liked to have been home for Christmas. I hope you will have a pleasant time, but I know it is no good to wish you a merry Christmas, make the best of it won't you, and all being well I shall be home to cheer you up for the new year.'

He goes on to describe the crisp weather they've been having in France, and explains plans for some early festive celebrations because his unit will be back in the trenches on Christmas Day.

'We have had some very hard weather ever since I wrote you last, it must be cruel for the men up the line, but where we are to it's is a pretty sight, all the trees are glistening white or at least it has been up to this evening, but since dark it has started thawing. We are keeping up Christmas Day on Sunday (as we are going up the line again) and I think we shall have a fine time by what I can hear.

'I had a small parcel from the Dowsetts a few days ago, it consisted of a handkerchief khaki colour, and an ounce of tobacco, very good of them wasn't it.'


Friday, 6 December 2013

'Every day the garrison became weaker'

Kut-al-Amarah in ruins at the end of the siege
Mesopotamia might not rank as one of the best-known campaigns of the First World War, but the stories and letters to emerge from it are every bit as gripping as those from the Western Front or Gallipoli.

I've been lucky enough to discover for use in my book a vivid account of the siege of Kut-al-Amarah, on the River Tigirs, which began on December 7th 1915 when the Turkish Army besieged soldiers of the 6th Indian Division.
It lasted five months, during which those inside held out in freezing temperatures and heavy rain against infantry assault, sniper fire, shelling and bombing. Hundreds died of wounds and disease and food quickly began to run short - especially as 6,000 Arabs who lived in the town also needed to be fed. The division's livestock was gradually slaughtered, but hunger was still rife among Indian soldiers whose beliefs stopped them eating horsemeat.

Three attempts were made to relieve Kut but they all failed and at the end of April 1916, on the brink of starvation, the men surrendered and were taken prisoner.

Besieged: Capt Sandes
Among those trapped in Kut was Captain Edward Sandes, a Royal Engineer who wrote a long, journal-style letter which he hoped to send to his mother but was never able to. Extracts from this letter will be used in my book. After the war, Sandes wrote a personal memoir which included a description of his time in Kut, and below is an extract which shows how food came to dominate the men's waking hours.

'Every day, as rations were gradually reduced, the garrison became weaker and less able to take the field. We were now getting only twelve ounces of bread instead of a pound, no vegetables or sugar, two ounces of jam or one ounce of butter, and half an ounce of tea. On the other hand, we received one and a quarter pounds of horseflesh instead of a pound of beef or mutton. Now that the weather was gettiing warmer I found horseflesh more repulsive than before and could never eat the whole of my ration.

'Three camels, the only ones in Kut, were slaughtered one day, and as my 23 men [Indians] still refused to eat horseflesh I indented for camel meat and received 29 pounds as their ration. They roasted it in the couryard below my room and had a great feast; but the smell nearly made me sick and I had to refuse some tit-bits they generously offered me.

'Only the coarsest type of tobcco could now be bought from the Supply and Transport Corps. European cigarettes had vanished, so cigarette smokers bought the Arab variety from a few small shops still open in the bazaar. This consisted of a narrow paper bag filled with tobacco dust and was provided with a tube as a mouthpiece. It was a dangerous contraption and unpleasant to smoke. Burning tobacco dust fell onto one's tunic, and the acrid taste made one's throat sore. Even before the price became prohibitive, I smoked very few.'

Captain Sandes went on to become a well-respected writer of military history and his excellent book 'In Kut and Captivity' can still be found in secondhand bookshops.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The boy soldiers who served at the Front

Photo of a  young German soldier
(Copyright: John Sherwood)
IT'S WELL known that many recruiting officers during the First World War were happy to turn a blind eye to volunteers who were under-age. 'Why don't you go for a walk round the block and come back a couple of years older, sonny?' they would say.

The legal age at which British men could enlist was 18, and they could serve abroad once they were 19. However, large numbers slipped under the net. My own great-uncle enlisted in Bristol at the age of 17, was serving in France with the Somerset Light Infantry at 18, and shortly after his 19th birthday was killed in the Battle of the Somme. His body was never found.

It was no different on the other side - if anything the German soldiers often seemed even younger. Take a look at the photograph above that was picked up on No Man's Land by Yorkshire artilleryman Arthur Youell and kept as a souvenir of war. The German lad pictured looks as if he should still be at school and is reminiscent of the opening scenes of All Quiet on the Western Front, in which a fiercely patriotic German school teacher urges his class of boys to join the army and fight for the fatherland, which they do.

At 22, Corporal Youell was rather older when he enlisted and happily he survived the war. His family kept the letters, photos and other memorabilia he sent home from the Front and the collection has recently been lent to me by Youell's nephew. It has proved absolutely fascinating.

Tractor pulling a siege Howitzer
One of the most interesting items is Youell's field notebook in which he recorded, among other things, details of targets and ranges he used while serving with the 126th Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Siege units were equipped with enormous 15-ton howitzers which were used to bombard the enemy with high-explosive shells in high-trajectory, plunging fire, and were so heavy they needed caterpillar-tracked vehicles to move them. Youell wrote: 'We get into queer places with our old gun especially when we are moving, we have been stuck many a time...they take some moving on bad ground.'

While serving in France between 1916 and 1918, Youell wrote regularly to his mother and letters like this one in June 1917 reveal that there was rarely much time for rest:

'I have been in some rough places but I've managed to get out alright so far, so we must pray for God to keep me out of harm's way in the future. I saw nearly all the fighting on the Somme offensives, then the battle of Arras when we took "Vimy Ridge" [in April 1917]. You will see from the papers at home that we are givng the Germans a shock in another place.'

This was at Hill 60, a strategically important area of high ground which the Allies blew up using underground mines at the beginning of the Battle of Messines in June 1917. 'I shall never forget the night Hill 60 was blown up,' wrote Youell. 'I had gone to bed, the ground rocked and trembled. I though I was in a cradle then our artillery opened with a roar. It must have been awfull [sic] in the German lines they would be a mass of bursting shell.'

You can read more of Corporal Youell's experiences in my book 'Letters From The Trenches' which is due out at the end of 2014.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Keeping romance alive with a rhyme

MANY romances fell by the wayside when men enlisted for war, but Nellie Jones was determined to keep hers going when her sweetheart Harry Poole, right, joined the Army Veterinary Corps.
Nellie sent him picture postcards which came with rhyming messages that were lighthearted - but still serious enough to get the point across.
'It seems a thousand years ago, the day you went away. I'm lonesome and I'd like to know, how long you're going to stay,' was the message on one of the first cards she sent Harry in March 1916 when he was stationed at the Army Veterinary Hospital at Round Green, Luton.
The following month another followed in similar vein: 'I'm truly glad that you have had this chance to be a rover. A trip is nice, but I'll be twice as glad when it's over.'
Harry's work involved looking after army horses and he was moved to bases all over southern England including Pitt Corner Camp at Winchester, the veterinary hospital at Bulford, Wiltshire, and the Remount Depot at Shirehampton, near Bristol. This is where 'war horses' that were shipped to Avonmouth from abroad recovered before being put to work.
As the months passed by Nellie appears to have grown used to separation although she still sent Harry the odd nudge if letters became infrequent: 'Here's a picture of a penny I will very gladly lend, if you'll promise to invest it in a postcard for your friend.'
And by the end of 1916 it was Nellie who was doing the apologising:'Oh, what's the use of an excuse, to send along to you! I owe a letter, I should do better, and send it when it's due!'
Harry remained at Shirehampton until demobilisation in1919 and then went to work in Staffordshire as a gamekeeper for Sir Geoffrey Congreve. He and Nellie were finally married in 1923.


The postcards have been passed down to the couple's grandaughter, Helen Frost, who also has some lovely informal photographs of Harry's friends in the Army Veterinary Corps, like the picture on the left.

However, she is puzzled by one piece of information which has recently come to light, that at some point in his career Harry was invalided out of  'the Blues' (the Royal Horse Guards) under a 'Sergeant Norman'. It's a shot in the dark, but if anyone knows how Helen could shed more light on Harry Poole's service in the Guards, do contact me at jacwadsworth@hotmail.com and I'll put you in touch.

Friday, 4 October 2013

A taste of things to come in my book ...

This month you can take a sneak preview of my book 'Letters from the Trenches' in the latest issue of Discover Your History magazine.

Among the articles is one in which I examine some of the themes most often found in letters written home by First World War soldiers - and surprisingly, perhaps, they're rather mundane.

The weather, the post and toothache were among the most common talking points, which just goes to show that for much of the time Tommies weren't living lives that could be described as exciting. On the contrary, they were often tedious, boring, dirty and cold, with few of the comforts we take for granted

Discover Your History is a new magazine - this is only the second edition - which is packed with fascinating features and colourful illustrations which will inspire anyone with an interest in social history.

This month you can read about the English secretary who became a French Resistance leader in the Second World War, the man who worked as a film set carpenter at the famous London Film Studios in the 1930s, and Henry Poole & Co, the company which founded Savile Row - the bespoke tailor patronised by royalty, statesmen and the aristocracy.

Discover Your History is on sale now, but you'll have to wait a little longer for Letters from the Trenches which will be out next year.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Look out, the Americans are here!

Sky's the limit: an American WW1 airman
The British are famous for their chippy complaint about American servicemen during the Second World War: 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here!' But from what I've seen in my research, the same was true a generation earlier when Americans arrived in Britain during the First World War.

Many passed through on their way to France in 1917 and 1918 and some were stationed in the UK. Among them were airmen of the 822nd (Repair) Squadron who spent two months at a Royal Flying Corps base at Yate, north of Bristol, receiving instruction in aircraft repair.

One of them, Corporal Ned Steel, later wrote a history of the squadron which reveals just how exasperatingly full of themselves the Americans could be. Greeted by cheering crowds on their arrival, he wrote: 'Talk about appreciation! Those Englishmen saw in us the reserve strength of the Allies come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz.'

During their sea crossing to Liverpool, the Americans had already amused themselves by poking fun at the British, especially the way every second word seemed to be 'bloody'...

'The bloody ship had been in hospital service beween the bloody Dardanelles and England. This was the first bloody voyage as a bloody troop ship,' was how Steel summed up one sergeant's potted history of the ship they were sailing in. 

The food couldn't be taken seriously either: 'My Gosh! fish for breakfast?'

When the airmen boarded their train to Bristol there were more smirks. 'A squad to each compartment on our funnny looking coaches, we started across 'Merry Old England', the dinky little engine quite surprising us with its speed.'

But as the carriages trundled through the countryside, Steel was taken aback what he saw: 'What a beautiful country...green green grasses covering every inch of untilled ground...stone walls...ivyclad farm houses...red-tile roofs...everything clean and tidy...for once even the Californians were mum [silent].'

Once settled in at Yate, the visitors had to get used to the famous British Army disipline - polished boots and buttons, rigid respect for superiors, and the purposeful way all men walked whether they were on or off duty. At drill each morning, the NCO's indecipherable barked instructions caused high amusement. 'The Tommies understood, however, and executed every movement with a snap, and unison was nothing short of perfection,' wrote Steel.

Local girls swarmed around the Americans
There was also reluctant admiration for the British way of working. 'Swinging the lead' (taking it easy) was quite universal in the workshops when the flight sergeants and officers weren't around. When it came to turning out first class products, however, Tommy was there.'

Local girls swarmed around the Americans, who loved the attention - especially when it put the Tommies' noses out of joint. Steel still couldn't resist a sly dig though: 'The girls complimented us on our fine teeth, and we could not return the compliment.'

But however patronising the Americans could be, Steet made it clear that he, at least was aware of their shortcomings. How did the Tommies view a typical Yank? 'As tho' he owned the world' he admitted!

  • You can read more about the Americans in Britain during WW1 in both my books: 'Bristol In the Great War' is being published in July 2014, and Letters From The Trenches' is due out at Christmas 2014.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The man whose memories spanned 100 years

Father and daughter: William Cole and Wendy
ONE OF the pleasures of research has the been the friendships I've made with people who have shared their letters and stories with me. In particular, William Cole whom I first met one bitterly cold afternoon in January when I visited him at home in St George, Bristol.
His daughter Wendy had already shown me the postcards his father had sent him from the Western Front when he was a boy. And that should give a clue as to one of the reasons William was so special. He was 103 years old.
Not that you would have known it. His quick mind, excellent memory and ready laugh made him charming and entertaining company. I visited again in the spring and he chatted about what it was like to grow up in in the early 1900s, recalling stories in wonderful detail.
Most recently I visited William - better known as 'Sid' to his friends - on July 4th for a wonderful party to celebrate his 104th birthday. Sadly, he died in his sleep a couple of weeks later.
I feel privileged that he and I were friends, and as a tribute to his long life and wonderful memory, here is a lovely account of his early working life in the retail trade...

WILLIAM Sidney Cole grew up in Salisbury and left school at the age of 14. 'I wasn't ambitious, I just took the first job that came along which was as an errand boy for a shop that sold groceries and provisions,' he said. 'My first job in the morning was to go into a little room at the back and put a pot of water on to boil, then I would have to scrub the shop floor and dry it before the customers came in. I remember the floor was tiled black and white.'
Can we help? A branch of the Home and Colonial Stores
Later in the day came the grocery deliveries which William made on a tricycle with a box attached to the front, rather like an ice cream seller. One particular trip was five miles. 'It was hard work!' he smiled. Next door was Boots the Chemist, where William's sister Ivy worked, and the pair used to run a mile or so home for sandwiches each day during their half-hour lunch break. Their sister Rosie worked nearby at the Penny Bazaar, which was later bought out by Marks and Spencer.

The business William worked for was the Home and Colonial Stores, one of Britain's earliest retail chains with branches all over the country. 'Everything we sold was produced either at home in Britain or in our countries around the world like Australia and New Zealand.'

At the age of 20 William's loyalty and hard work were rewarded and he was sent to stores around the country as a relief manager or assistant during holidays. One part of the job involved window dressing: 'Every Monday there had to be a new shop window and headquarters in London would tell you exactly what to put on display.' This often involved some rather delicate balancing of tins and packets, and every item had to have a price card.

Those prices still tripped easily off William's tongue: 'Twopence farthing for 1lb of sugar, twopence and three farthings for sugar cubes, 4d for a 1/4 lb of tea, and 7d for best tea.'

  • More of William's wonderful memories - and Great War postcards - will be included in my book 'Letters From The Trenches', to be published next year.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

A bird's eye view of the First World War

The cover: A Round Of Robins
A fascinating acount of the way the First World War affected a family of brothers who were scattered all over the world has just been published as an eBook. A Round of Robins is a collection of 'round-robin' letters which the brothers began writing to each other in 1904 and which continued for 40 years.

The correspondence was sent in notebooks by Nix, Frank, Ed, Charles, Herbert and Fred Kendall, who originally came from Blackheath in South London. They worked, respectively, as a doctor, architect, wool broker, civil servant, P&O manager and banker in England, South Africa, Australia, India and the Orient. 'The bird' (as it was referred to by the brothers) travelled roughly eastwards around the globe.

This first volume of letters covers the years 1904 to 1918 and particularly interesting are the accounts of the Great War written from different countries.

Initially, none of the brothers knew quite what to make of the conflict, except that it posed a threat to their communication: 'It seems an unnecessary shame to risk birdie on the billows with German ships – aye, and Zeppelins – dogging its wing flaps. But I will risk it soon, I think,' wrote Frank from Cape Town in September 1914.

The six Kendall brothers in 1886 with parents and sister
It didn't take long for more adventurous comments to take shape, as when Ed in Sidney made clear his opinion about soldiers Downunder:

'Australians as a race make excellent fighting men but lack disipline to a horrible degree and one can never be sure what they will do if left to themselves,' he declared.

The youngest brothers, Fred and Herbert, were twins and both worked in the Far East, one for the P&O shipping company, the other for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Both were also eager to join the fighting, but only Herbert was 'lucky' enough to be released by his employer.

After a period of training in England, he was sent to the Western Front and wrote back some graphic accounts of life in the trenches. It all came to a dramatic end when he was sent home with shell shock. Charles, who had returned from India to work for the Admiralty, documented his brother's recovery: 'Herbert is going up for another Board today, so I shall probably be able to record the result in this bird. He is better, and as the electric treatment seems to be doing him good we hope he will be given another month of it.'

The oldest brother, Nix, had remained in England where he worked as a GP in Surrey, and his letters reflect Britain's stoical attitude during the Great War: 'We have distinctly heard the guns in Flanders lately when the wind and atmosphere are suitable. Rations are irksome but most people are getting used to doing without eating meat more than two days weekly, etc. We are lucky in being well off for veg and eggs. Cheese we get about once a week.'
'Rations are irksome'
Nicholas Kendall

This volume is a wonderfully entertaining account of the Great War from a kaleidoscope of  perspectives, it also describes exactly what life was like in Edwardian Britain and in the far-flung corners of the Empire. I have been lucky enough to use a lively extract in my own book Letters from the Trenches.

  • A Round of Robins is published by Eden Diaries and is available as an eBook from from www.edendiaries.co.uk. The price is £8.75 which includes daily extracts by email.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

'The sky behind us lit up with a sheet of flame'

Artillery firing from behind
Canadian lines, over Vimy Ridge
The explosive power of warfare on the Western Front was often nothing short of spectacular, and some soldiers could not help but be amazed by what they saw, despite the slaughter and devastation that resulted.

'A most wonderful sight never to be forgotten,' wrote one Bristol infantryman. 'Bombardment started four o'clock in the morning...Terrific noise. Guns take us off our feet.' His diary entry was made in the spring of 1917 during the Battle of Arras, a major British offensive that provided plenty of pyrotechnic brilliance.
It began on April 9 with a battle to win control of the strategically important high ground at Vimy Ridge. The attack was preceded at 5.30am by an artillery barrage of high explosives and gas. Then, as the day broke, 30,000 Canadian troops climbed 'over the top' and advanced across No Man's Land. The fighting cost a huge number of lives, but they secured a famous victory.
The action was vividly described by a Canadian medical officer in a letter to his sweetheart: 'We had some breakfast at 4.30am and afterwards waited for zero hour which was 5.30am. It began to drizzle rain just before the fateful hour. Promptly on the minute the whole sky behind us lit up with a sheet of flame from hundreds of guns and our barrage opened with a noise like a terrible peal of thunder. There was a wonderful display of fireworks for miles along the German trenches caused by the bursting of our shells and Fritz's frantic SOS signals. It looked as though the sky were raining fire.'

Adrenalin was still high when he wrote to his cousin: 'It was a wonderful battle, the best show I have been in...For miles we could see the artillery barrage sweeping like a blizzard across the German position and the whole country behind seemingly covered with our advancing troops. The sight must have struck a chill into the German hearts.'

The offensive continued until May, and afterwards the devastation was clear to see. 'Came through Arras, what was once a beautiful town is now a mass of ruins,' wrote the Bristol infantryman in his diary. 'Piano's mirrors etc smashed up and nothing but debris in roadway.'

You can read plenty more from soldiers at the battlefront in my book 'Letters From The Trenches', which is being published next year.

The city of Arras in ruins

Monday, 17 June 2013

'My darling wife, I wish with all my heart this terrible war was over'

A WW1 postcard shows how easy
it was for men to fall prey to
loneliness in the trenches

Who should we feel most sorry for during the First World War? The men who fought and witnessed such horror that meant, even if they survived, they would never be the same again? Or women who were left to cope alone with the children and the shortages ... and the fear that they may never see their loved ones again?

Having spent some time researching the lives of the latter I've tended to sympathise with their plight perhaps a little more than the men, who at least played an active part in it all. What could be worse than being the passive party, worn out by domestic life and living in constant fear of the dreaded letter or telegram?

Then, unexpectedly, I came across a soldier's letter so moving that I realised it was pointless trying to decide who had the better deal during the Great War. There were no winners.

When Private Phillip Loxton, a volunteer soldier from Abertillery in South Wales, wrote to his wife in June 1915 the initial excitement of combat had worn off. He'd been ground down by trench life, had just seen a good friend killed, and in his loneliness he began to fear that his family might be forgetting about him.

Mr Darling Wife,
I had very near thought that you had forgot me for it is a full week since I heard from you last and I can assure you it have troubled me awful for I always looks out for a letter from you every three days, even it it is the same news over again. For then I think that you are thinking about me as I do you, for I can assure you that you and the childen are never out of my mind.
There are many nights that I can't put you and the children out of my sight, even if you are miles away from me I can see you all in life and I wish with all my heart that this terrible war was over. For I find it very lonely now that I have lost my chum, for he was a good old sort in his way, for it cut me up awful when I heard he was killed.

Tragically, Private Loxton would never see his wife and two young daughters again. He was killed in action in October 1915 and his body was never recovered. You can read more of his moving story and letters in my book Letters from the Trenches.

Monday, 27 May 2013

My new book brings old family back to life!

Regular readers may have noticed a longer-than-usual gap between posts recently, for which I apologise, but I do have a good reason - I've taken on another book! It's called 'Bristol In The Great War' and while I carry out research, I've put 'Letters From The Trenches' on hold until the autumn. Both books are due out next year.

Bristol is of particular interest to me, not only because I live near, but also because three quarters of my family were living in the city at the turn of the last century. My research into the social history of that period has proved a real eye-opener because it has allowed me to understand my forebears' lives in terms of what was going on at the time.

Great-grandfather No1 moved from the countryside
and established himself as a haulier
For example, my Great-grandfather No1 originally came from a family of agricultural workers in Wiltshire, but he abandoned the countryside in the 1880s and moved to Bristol to work in a glue factory, which always puzzled me.

I now realise that his move coincided with the industrialisation of the North Somerset coalfields at a time when the countryside was severely depressed. The mines attracted many new industries to the southern fringes of Bristol, and glue manufacturing was one of them. I'm pleased to say that in the following years Gg-No1 acquired a horse and established himself as a haulier in the St George district of Bristol.

Great-grandfather No2 (with pipe) and friends,
one of Bristol's many bootmakers
Great-grandfather No2 lived at Easton and worked as a bootmaker. I now know that he was one of many thousands of bootmakers in Edwardian Bristol because the city was a huge manufacturer of boots and shoes. His father, too, had been a shoemaker. However, his son did not follow in the family footsteps - he became a clerk instead. In the early 1900s, improved education and an expansion in city offices meant that white collar work was now an alternative to traditional manual work.

Great-grandfather No3 'at the wheel'
with his wife outside the Cooper's Arms
Great-grandfather No3 was a publican who ran the Cooper's Arms at Ashton Gate. His three sons all played for Bristol City Football Club which was (and still is) on the pub's doorstep. Mostly they played in the smaller competitions, but one brother had just started to make an appearance in the first team when the Great War broke out.

Quite how promising their footballing careers would have been I will never know because the Football league was brought to a halt by the war in 1915, with only regional and friendly matches permitted. The brothers all served in the army and although they survived the war, their names were never mentioned on team sheets again.

Great-grandfather No4,
a Liverpool lad
My Great-grandfather No4 was a northern lad and came from Liverpool, but there is still a Bristol connection through one of his sons, also a footballer, who joined Bristol City as captain in the 1926 and helped them win promotion in the league.

All this just goes to show that although family historians have never had so much information at their fingertips, a study of local and social history will help make sense of it all and bring it alive.

And finally...even though I've got two books to work on now, please let me reassure you that I will be continuing this blog as usual using letters and themes from the First World War - and now including a few from Bristol.

'Letters From The Trenches' and 'Bristol In The Great War' are being published by Pen and Sword Books; both are due out next year.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Warm wishes from a 'munitionette' in Scotland

Georgetown munition workers take a break for a snapshot

This week I received a delightful letter which was written in 1917 by a girl who worked in a Scottish munitions factory during the Great War. She was replying to a soldier in France who had got in touch after discovering a note from her in a box of shells she had packed. 'Munitionettes', as they were known, often tucked away notes to bring a smile to the faces of soldiers in the trenches.

There is plenty of interest in the letter, which was passed on to me by the soldier's daughter-in-law. There is also a little sadness and some nice humour too, all of which will be revealed in my book so I won't give any more away here!

It was interesting, though, to discover more about where the young lady worked. Her letter mentions 'Houston', west of Glasgow, but there is no record of a munitions factory ever having been there. It's likely she worked a short distance away at Filling Factory No 4, as it was officially called.

The site consisted of a shell-filling plant, a railway station and a 'township' of wooden huts to house the (mainly women) workers. It was later renamed Georgetown after a visit in 1915 by David Lloyd George who was then Minister of Munitions and later Prime Minister

At its peak, between December 1916 and August 1917, some 12,000 people were employed there filling shells with explosives to be shipped off to France. Georgetown did not manufacture its own explosives so these materials were delivered by rail, along with shell cases to be filled.

The factory had a lively social life with its own magazine, the Georgetown Gazette, which published the above photo of its workers. It closed in 1919 and today there is nothing left except the Georgetown Road which still runs past the site.

At work inside a Government WW1 shell-filling plant

Monday, 29 April 2013

A nice cup of tea behind the lines

Everything stops for tea!
It's easy to think that life on the Western Front was one long round of battles, booming guns, mud and screaming shells, but there were lulls in the fighting and also periods of rest for soldiers away from the frontline when life was slightly easier.

In July 1918, Private Tom Fake made the most of his rest period and looked up an old friend from home who was billetted nearby. The account he sent his wife almost made it sound like peace time!

'I went and saw Mr Fare...it only took me about five minutes to find him, I got there in good time too, they had just made a good drop of tea so I had supper with him, bread and mutton. Well, I should say mutton and bread as the meat was most - about 1lb of breast. T'would have made four good chops.

'I got there about 7.30 and left about 10 o'clock or just after and it was dark as pitch. I felt in a bit of a fix as I could see no mark to get my place, but found it in about 10 minutes. My mate was at the top of the house ready in case I should shout, so as to give me the direction.'

While away from the fighting, Pte Fake took the opportunity to get his teeth sorted out - dental problems were a constant problem for servicemen - but his wife must have winced when she read about it:

'I told you in my last letter that I could not get my teeth taken out as we had no forceps. Before that letter had hardly left my hands 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. I am not smoking much now, I have taken to cigarettes a lot lately as at times I have a job to hold the pipe between my teeth.'

By 1918, Pte Fake and his fellow soldiers were old hands at looking after themselves, especially when army rations were meagre:

'What money I have I spend on food, for instance sometimes we can get some potatoes. If about 30 of us put together we can have a good extra feed for about 1d or 2d each for one meal, you see I keep on learning how to make the best of hard times.'

Although there was still plenty of hard soldiering to be done during that final summer, hope was also in the air: 'I don't think it will last many more months,' wrote Pte Fake on 1st August 1918, 'I look at it like this. Germany must be getting played out, we are played out or getting on that way, and here is America [who joined the war in 1917] just starting...'

He was absolutely right. Three months later it was all over.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

An open letter from across the Atlantic

Get ready to Skype!
To the sixth grade students of Newton, New Hampshire in the US:
I hope you like the picture above, which was taken during our Skype session about the First World War. I had no idea that my face would be filling a wall! I hope the WW1 letters I was able to tell you about added a bit of colour to your studies - even if it was mud-coloured! - but how sad that so many were written by young men not much older than you.
Take my great-uncle Fred Wood, for example, a football-mad teenager from Bristol in England. He was just 17 when he joined up to fight in France, and his auntie obviously doted on him when she sent this message in December 1915: 'To Freddie, with all auntie's love and best wishes for a happy Christmas'. You can see the card below.
Auntie Pollie's card to her nephew Fred Wood
It was probably the first time Fred had been away from home at Christmas and, sadly, it was also his last. He was killed six months later on July 1, 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This was the bloodiest day in the British Army's history, when 19,240 of its soldiers were killed, or died of their wounds. It's most likely that Fred was killed by a shell while advancing across No Man's Land. His body was never found.
Let's finish on a happier note. Thankyou to your teacher, Ms Woulfe, for organising our Skype session so efficiently - you can still read all about it on the post below. And good luck to you all, I'll let you know when my book, 'Letters from the Trenches', is published next year.

Top teacher! Nicole Woulfe

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Rats and dead bodies in the classroom!

What did it really feel like to
be a soldier in the First World War?
(Postcard courtesy of David Clark)
When I think back to history at school, what do I remember? Two teachers. One droning on about Stone Age flints, the other instructing us to make notes from our  textbooks about Jethro Tull's seed drill while he nodded off at the front.

I'm sure they were both doing their best so I won't mention any names, but if only they'd used a bit of imagination history lessons would have been so much better. If only they'd been more like Miss Woulfe!

Nicole Woulfe is an American teacher from Newton, New Hampshire, who is currently teaching her class of 11 and 12-year-olds about the First World War. She got in touch, after hearing about my book on Twitter, to ask if I would be interested in having a chat with them on Skype about my soldiers' letters. I was more than happy to oblige.

The First World War didn't affect the United States in the same way as it did Britain, Europe, and countries of the former British Empire. As a result American students are far more familiar with their own Civil War. So what better way to make a distant conflict more interesting than through the eyes of those who lived through it?

Last week I spent a very stimulating afternoon (morning over there) talking to the students about the two topics they're covering: what life was like in the trenches, and the devastating influenza epidemic that followed the war. They were full of interesting questions, such as:

  • How long did it take to dig a trench?
  • Did soldiers eat rats?
  • What happened to the dead bodies?
  • Did soldiers get much sleep?
  • What effect did the influenze epidemic have at home?
  • Can you visit battlefield graveyards today?

Two stories in particular that I recounted made an impression on the class, said Miss Woulfe: 'They were most touched by the story of the fellow who was arrested for drunkenness in the trenches, even though he was just exhausted, and they were most shocked by the soldiers shaking the hand of an already dead and buried soldier.'
Both stories will be told in full in my book.

Full marks to Miss Woulfe for combining vivd primary sources (soldiers' letters) with new technology (Skype) to bring history alive. It was certainly an afternoon that I will remember.

  • Watch this space! I hope to post a picture of the students of Newton, New Hampshire, soon.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Search for the Manchester music man!

Star of the show, Bob Ainscow!
Does the name 'Ainscow' ring a bell with anyone? In particular a Bob Ainscow from Manchester who was a playwright and musician during the First World War? If so, Australian family historian Debbie Gower would be delighted to hear from you.

The Bob Ainscow she would like to track down, a relative of hers, was an attraction at the Patricroft Picture House, near Manchester (right) where he was billed as a 'descriptive vocalist' who would 'render patriotics songs by request'. 

He was also the uncle of Ernest Ainscow, an Australian soldier whose letters Debbie has sent me for my book. Ernest was born in Manchester in 1899 and emigrated to Australia nine years later with his family: father Richard, mother Eliza, two sisters and a younger brother. Ernest was close to his sister Lucretia and wrote letters to her when he joined up. Like their uncle, it seems they both loved music.

Lucretia and Ernest Ainscow in 1916
'I have got some bonzer music here for you,' he wrote from Brisbane, shortly before departing for Europe. 'Miss Manwaring got it for me last week and she is going to play it for me before I sent it, so as to see if I like it.' A few months later in England he sent back more letters that were full of praise for the shows he saw locally while at army training camp at Hurdcott in Wiltshire. You'll be able to read them in my book.

While in England Ernest also paid a visit to Manchester and may even have called in on another relative Debbie wants to track down, a cousin called Hercules.

In June1917 Ernest finally landed in France but tragically he didn't last long. Within two months he had died of wounds sustained in battle. There is now a creek and a road named after him in his Australian home town of Cairns, in Queensland.

If anyone has any information about Bob Ainscow or Hercules, please get in touch with me at jacwadsworth@hotmail.com and I shall put you in touch with Debbie Gower.

Friday, 8 March 2013

'Our worst enemies at present are lice'

Trench life: not much to smile about
Vermin were part of everyday life on the Western Front, and so too were unspeakable tiredness and death. However, the following letter extracts show that although by 1916 these things were still worthy of comment, they were hardly a cause for concern. The letters were written by Manchester 'Pal' Private Stanley Goodhead, whose correspondence will feature in several chapters of my book.

'It is good to be alive, in fact I am very much alive, so much so that I dare not take my clothes off when in billets for fear of them walking away. I am sorry our worst enemies at present are lice which thrive on nearly every one of us.

'It is not our fault but the conditions under which we live make it impossible to be clean, for a bath is a luxury which we hope to have when we get back to England.

'We have just been relieved out of the trenches after being in occupation for 12 days and it will take more than livestock to keep me awake tonight for I am nearly dead for want of undisturbed rest.

'There is very little news to tell you this time except that the Allimans have been busy again and made a hole in our numbers which I expect will be replaced by more draft men in a day or so.'


'One of our lads after receiving his bread call last night humg it up on a beam so as to dodge the rats but they came in droves and made a raid on it and all that is left is the outside so we are sharing ours with him. When I was in bed last night quite a number walked over my head and body.'

Friday, 1 March 2013

Poignant, painful, precious mementoes

Cpl Butters and his mother Susan
(Thanks to Helen Lang for the photo)
Some of the most moving documents I have come across in my research are the official lists which accompanied the personal effects sent home to families of dead soldiers.

'Please confirm receipt of...' the families would have been asked, and on the form were listed those little bits and pieces that made life bearable for soldiers at the front, clothing, diaries, books, all still fresh enough to bear the smell or fingerprints of their owners.

It must have been a hearbeaking task to unpack such parcels and lay out all that was left of husbands and sons - men like Richard Butters of Victoria, Australia, whose family's story is told in my book.

Corporal Butters enlisted in January 1917, aged 23, and served in the Middle East with the 15th Light Horse Regiment. Tragically, he died of dysentery not long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918.

The following month his poor mother Susan received a package which contained not only the usual military acoutrements (shorts, shirts, pocket knife, spanner) but also more personal items like a volume of poems and an Arabic book. That was not the end to Mrs Butters' anguish for in March 1919 a second parcel arrived with yet more poignant posessions: nail clippers, a hat badge, a fountain pen (damaged), wallet and photos, a diary, and a lock of hair. These mementoes of her son must have been as painful as they were precious.

Cpl Butters' final resting place
(Photo: Helen Lang)

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Letters are pouring in from 100 years ago

Scrubbing up well for war: Bristol recruits Edwin Wood
and Wally Biffin (Thanks to Ted Wood for the photo)

At the top of this page is a 'Useful links' tab, and if you click it there is a list of archives and museums which hold letters from the First World War. These various repositories were all going to be visited when I began my research - with overnight stays in nice little bed & breakfasts where necessary. However, owing to the interest and generosity of members of the public, this simply hasn't happened!

 Aussie soldier Sam Pearson
(Photo: Carol Evans)
I have been kept far too busy at home with correspondence sent to me by people who have read about my project in various magazines and newsletters. This method of letter collection has had several advantages, not least of which is that most letters I have received have never been published and will therefore be completely new to readers - however widely read they are.

It has also meant that the owners of WW1 letters have been on hand to provide background information which has sometimes turned seemingly ordinary letters into extraordinary ones. They have also supplied me with photographs and cards, all in excellent condition, some of which you can see here.
And finally, I have had plenty of time to read all the correspondence thoroughly and shape my book accordingly, to give a true reflection of what was written 100 years ago.

Working in the comfort of my own home has had one big disadvantage though - none of my overnight trips to museums has materialised yet! Not to worry, there are still some gaps in my correspondence that need to be filled; for example, I don't have any letters relating to the Royal Flying Corps, very few about the Navy, and none written by Americans who were involved in the war. So once the weather improves I shall look forward to a few trips away to see what I can discover in the archives.

War-torn France: a card sent home from the front, April 1916
(Thanks to David Clark for the image)

Saturday, 9 February 2013

'Cannon and musket balls flew around me'

Page 1 of Michael McCarty's letter
(Thanks to Brendan Foley for the image)
This week I thought we'd have a bit of change from the First World War, although you may not guess it from the first few lines of this soldier's letter:

'My dear wife, I take my pen in hand in order to let you know that I am well and I hope this may find you enjoying the same. No doubt but that you have heard of the great battle, which was fought last Thursday the 7th. I was there and done all I could for my adopted country.'

No, it wasn't written during the First World War but in 1861, during the American Civil War. Its author was a Unionist soldier called Michael McCarty and the things he wrote about were very similar to those in letters some 50 years later: a vivid description of battle, acceptance that death may be just around the corner, the wait to be paid, and concern for those at home.

McCarty was an immigrant from Ireland who served with the Illinois 31st (nicknamed the 'Dirty First') Regiment and he wrote the letter three days after the Battle of Belmont, in Missouri. It was kindly sent to me by McCarty's great-great-grandson, Dan Foley, and you can read the rest below. The gunboats mentioned were on the Mississippi River (in case, like me, you were wondering whatever boats were doing in the middle of a continent!) and the 'Sesh' referred to the Confederates - the Secessionists.

'The battle was fought in Missouri at a place called Belmont opposite Columbus on the Kentucky shore. The gunboats began the battle about 9 o'clock in the morning and we infantry a little before 11o'clock, which lasted until night. I can not give you a full account of whole fight as it would fill several sheets of paper but this I know that I never saw such a time in all my life and I hope that I may never see such another. But if I must, I must and therefore am ready.

'I escaped unhurt, but how it was God only knows for I am sure that I don't. Cannon and musket balls flew around me as thick as hale [sic]. Cutting down trees and bushes and tearing up the ground in every direction. Others of whom there were many were less fortunate and met a soldier's doom - Death. The Sesh were badly cut to pieces losing a great many more than our side, but ours is bad enough and who the victory belongs to it is hard to tell but it is claimed by the Union troops.

'We captured and spiked their guns but had to retreat to the boats hotly pursued by the enemy who were reinforced by many thousands from Columbus. We lost a considerable of clothing. Consisting of coats and other equipments. I would have written to you before but was expecting to get paid off every day and will write to you again when we get paid, we are looking for it every day. Write me how you and the children are getting on. No more at this time, but remain yours Michael McCarty'

Sadly, McCarty was injured later in the war at Atlanta and did not survive, but his family remains proud to this day: 'He died in the service of his new country. He was a hero, as the letter establishes pretty well,' said his great-great-grandson.

'I escaped unhurt but how, God only knows' - pages 2 and 3 of McCarty's letter
(Thanks to Brendan Foley - McCarty's great-great-great-grandson! - for the image)

Saturday, 2 February 2013

'My washing water is frozen every morning'

Freeze-up in France
How soldiers on the Western Front must have longed for the winter to finish!
Even those who were used to temperatures falling well below zero were finding things hard going by the end of January 1917.

This medic, for example, came from central Canada where severe weather is the norm, but he certainly wasn't feeling at home in France. He wrote home: 'We are having real winter weather now, colder than anything experienced last year. There has been quite a depth of snow lying for the last 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 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 horses. I have sick parade now at 6.30am and this means getting up at 5.30. My washing water is frozen in the room every morning.'

Six months later, though, life was transformed as can be seen from this letter he wrote in June 1917 which makes it hard to believe there was a war on at all!

'Yesterday was the Brigade sports day and the program lasted all day. It was blistering hot but everything went off well.Our unit won a number of events including 1st and 2nd in the mules race.

'This morning after church parade a few of us got our horses and rode off to our swimming pool which is about 3 kilometres away. The pool is an old disused quarry filled with water. It must be about 500 feet long, half as wide and very deep. It makes an ideal place for swimming although I must confess that I shouldn't mind having a chance to take a dip in the sea again. However, we all enjoyed both our ride and swim. The day is too hot for walking. 'I noticed some children out picking wild strawberries. It made me think of strawberry shortcake. Lord! It seems to me to be years and years since I have seen or eaten a piece of strawberry shortcake.'

It's good to see that soldiers knew how to enjoy themselves when the opportunity arose; after all, another harsh winter was only months away