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 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