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.

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