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