Saturday, 26 January 2013

A brisk trade in the souvenirs of war

The real thing: a piece of Zeppelin wire
raises money for the Red Cross
The word 'souvenir' is one we tend to associate with holidays or other pleasureable events we want to remember, so I was quite surprised by how often it crops up in letters written home from the battlefont. It was not all uncommon for soldiers to collect souvenirs of war- in fact it was a very popular pastime.

'I was hoping we should soon be home on leave and bring all those lovely war souvenirs such as Prussian Guard helmets and even Austrian helmets,' wrote one Tommy from France in 1916. 'I was in possession of lots of nice things but we were told we had to charge a wood on a certain day and so I had to abandon everything.'

Any old iron: WW1 memento
- an Austrian helmet
Some soldiers made a business out of buying and selling sourvenirs, like this Canadian in 1917: 'I had a lovely Fritz revolver and case, an automatic which an Aussie had taken from a German officer. I bought it for 75 francs and sold it to one of our doctors for 100. I bought a German watch since for 10 francs. It had been hit with shrapnel twice but still goes, so I am going to keep it till "Apa la Guerre" (some French eh!) [he no doubt meant "Apres la guerre"].'

But by the end of the war, some solders had no desire for keepsakes, certainly not this soldier who wrote to his wife in October 1918: 'I have not collected any souvenirs, but I have the chance to have plenty, but they do not apeal to me and I have plenty of weight to carry as it is. There is a little religious emblem I picked up at the place where I am now, and thought Tommy [the soldier's young son] would like it, so I am putting it in with this letter and I also got a small Rosary, but I have seen some beauties...'

Some souvenirs could be a reminder of happy events (if they could be called that) or friendships made during adversity. Early in the war, British soldiers were almost mobbed when they arrived in Belgium to take on the invading Germans. 'We halted in one village for an hour and a half and when we left there was scarcely a badge or a button in the regiment, all gone as souvenirs. Good luck to the Belgians,' wrote one sergeant.

Meanwhile something similar was happening at hospitals in Britain, where wounded Belgian soldiers were befriending the nurses: 'All Belgians in our ward left for camp, very sad, gave us coins and buttons for souvenirs,' wrote one Red Cross nurse in her diary in 1914.

Thanks to Lorraine Judge in Australia for the Zeppelin souvenirs, above and top

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The spying game - a wartime obsession

Trust in me: the notorious spy Mata Hari
A theme which constantly crops up in the letters and diaries I have been reading is spying - something made famous during the First World War by the notorious Mata Hari who spied for the Germans and was executed by the French.

From the very start of the conflict, British civilians were always on the lookout for spies in their midst and it didn't take much to start them talking. One young nurse from Weymouth wrote very matter-of-factly in her diary in early 1916: 'German spy caught on White Star liner, in harbour.'

Another teenage girl from Bristol, who was staying with friends in Cornwall in the summer of 1914, wrote home in great excitement to say that a German spy had been discovered at Porthcurno and was being taken to Penzance to be shot there the following week. In fact condemned spies faced the firing squad at the Tower of London - and there were far fewer of them than public speculation suggested.

There are some fascinating records of those who were tried for spying at this website: . Some accounts are fairly graphic, for example, this is what happened when 22-year-old Albert Meyer faced the firing squad: 'Before the bullets of the firing party could reach him he had torn the bandage from his eyes, and died in a contorted mass, shouting curses at his captors, which were only stilled by the bullets.'

Not all those who were accused of spying received a fair trial. One British soldier, who kept a diary while fighting in France during the early months of the war, witnessed what sounds like a fairly summary trial and execution. In the market square of Landrecies he saw a Lieutenant Colonel of the French artillery, who had been convicted of selling secrets to the German, sentenced to be shot. 'He was led away, as I stood there, to be executed.'

Back in Britain, anyone suspected of being a threat to national security could be interned and that is what happened to one Jewish refugee whose family had sought sanctuary in Britain after fleeing pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. He was interned as an enemy alien at the start of the war, although no-one in his family knows exactly why - maybe it was because of his German-sounding name.

Later he was released - only to be conscripted into the Russian Labour Corps of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and sent to France! From there he sent home a series of beautiful postcards on which he described the scenes of devastation at the end of the war. You'll be able to read these in my book.

Friday, 11 January 2013

At last, the hard work is about to begin!

Troops receive a warm welcom at Ostend, Belgium, at the beginning of the war

After six months of fascinating research into letters and diaries from the First World War, the time has come for me to start writing my book, and just as these troops must have felt when they arrived at Ostend in Belgium at the beginning of the war - the hard work is about to begin!

My background is in journalism and although this may sound well suited to book-writing, I'm afraid that's not quite the case. Writing for newspapers involves getting the facts across to the reader in an objective way, usually in as few words as possible because space is tight. Generally, there is a formula to writing news stories, they begin with an intro which gives the story in a nutshell, then continue with paragraphs explaining: who, what, where, and when.

A year or so before I was offered the chance to write this book, I moved on to writing articles for magazines, a fairly big jump in writing style which meant allowing my words flow rather than expressing everything in short, factual sentences.

Finally I'm starting work my book and yet more new skills are called for. I am having to develop a writing style which is comfortable and interesting for the reader. This means, among other things, not starting each new paragraph with 'However...', and lengthening my sentences with a few sub-clauses rather than pouncing at the earliest opportunity with a full-stop. I am now also interpreting information and presenting it my own way, rather than simply setting out the facts for the readers . This is very liberating - and also rather exciting - but I must constantly remind myself that I am allowed to do so!

There is one way, though, in which journalism has prepared me very well for this book - it taught me how to sniff out a good story. Without journalistic experience I would probably have taken the war letters at face value, simply as letters, rather than looking behind them for stories.

This is where those who have let me use their WW1 material have been so helpful. They have filled me with some some fascinating stories about their relatives during the war and I would like to say a huge thankyou. Their helpfulness, friendliness and interest in my project has made the last six months of research a pleasure.

My task now is to do justice not only to the letters but also to the men and women who wrote them. So let battle commence! (Meanwhile I'm still on the lookout for WW1 letters and diaries, so please get in touch if you have anything which may be of interest. Contact details are to the right.)