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 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.