Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Look out, the Americans are here!

Sky's the limit: an American WW1 airman
The British are famous for their chippy complaint about American servicemen during the Second World War: 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here!' But from what I've seen in my research, the same was true a generation earlier when Americans arrived in Britain during the First World War.

Many passed through on their way to France in 1917 and 1918 and some were stationed in the UK. Among them were airmen of the 822nd (Repair) Squadron who spent two months at a Royal Flying Corps base at Yate, north of Bristol, receiving instruction in aircraft repair.

One of them, Corporal Ned Steel, later wrote a history of the squadron which reveals just how exasperatingly full of themselves the Americans could be. Greeted by cheering crowds on their arrival, he wrote: 'Talk about appreciation! Those Englishmen saw in us the reserve strength of the Allies come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz.'

During their sea crossing to Liverpool, the Americans had already amused themselves by poking fun at the British, especially the way every second word seemed to be 'bloody'...

'The bloody ship had been in hospital service beween the bloody Dardanelles and England. This was the first bloody voyage as a bloody troop ship,' was how Steel summed up one sergeant's potted history of the ship they were sailing in. 

The food couldn't be taken seriously either: 'My Gosh! fish for breakfast?'

When the airmen boarded their train to Bristol there were more smirks. 'A squad to each compartment on our funnny looking coaches, we started across 'Merry Old England', the dinky little engine quite surprising us with its speed.'

But as the carriages trundled through the countryside, Steel was taken aback what he saw: 'What a beautiful green grasses covering every inch of untilled ground...stone walls...ivyclad farm roofs...everything clean and tidy...for once even the Californians were mum [silent].'

Once settled in at Yate, the visitors had to get used to the famous British Army disipline - polished boots and buttons, rigid respect for superiors, and the purposeful way all men walked whether they were on or off duty. At drill each morning, the NCO's indecipherable barked instructions caused high amusement. 'The Tommies understood, however, and executed every movement with a snap, and unison was nothing short of perfection,' wrote Steel.

Local girls swarmed around the Americans
There was also reluctant admiration for the British way of working. 'Swinging the lead' (taking it easy) was quite universal in the workshops when the flight sergeants and officers weren't around. When it came to turning out first class products, however, Tommy was there.'

Local girls swarmed around the Americans, who loved the attention - especially when it put the Tommies' noses out of joint. Steel still couldn't resist a sly dig though: 'The girls complimented us on our fine teeth, and we could not return the compliment.'

But however patronising the Americans could be, Steet made it clear that he, at least was aware of their shortcomings. How did the Tommies view a typical Yank? 'As tho' he owned the world' he admitted!

  • You can read more about the Americans in Britain during WW1 in both my books: 'Bristol In the Great War' is being published in July 2014, and Letters From The Trenches' is due out at Christmas 2014.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The man whose memories spanned 100 years

Father and daughter: William Cole and Wendy
ONE OF the pleasures of research has the been the friendships I've made with people who have shared their letters and stories with me. In particular, William Cole whom I first met one bitterly cold afternoon in January when I visited him at home in St George, Bristol.
His daughter Wendy had already shown me the postcards his father had sent him from the Western Front when he was a boy. And that should give a clue as to one of the reasons William was so special. He was 103 years old.
Not that you would have known it. His quick mind, excellent memory and ready laugh made him charming and entertaining company. I visited again in the spring and he chatted about what it was like to grow up in in the early 1900s, recalling stories in wonderful detail.
Most recently I visited William - better known as 'Sid' to his friends - on July 4th for a wonderful party to celebrate his 104th birthday. Sadly, he died in his sleep a couple of weeks later.
I feel privileged that he and I were friends, and as a tribute to his long life and wonderful memory, here is a lovely account of his early working life in the retail trade...

WILLIAM Sidney Cole grew up in Salisbury and left school at the age of 14. 'I wasn't ambitious, I just took the first job that came along which was as an errand boy for a shop that sold groceries and provisions,' he said. 'My first job in the morning was to go into a little room at the back and put a pot of water on to boil, then I would have to scrub the shop floor and dry it before the customers came in. I remember the floor was tiled black and white.'
Can we help? A branch of the Home and Colonial Stores
Later in the day came the grocery deliveries which William made on a tricycle with a box attached to the front, rather like an ice cream seller. One particular trip was five miles. 'It was hard work!' he smiled. Next door was Boots the Chemist, where William's sister Ivy worked, and the pair used to run a mile or so home for sandwiches each day during their half-hour lunch break. Their sister Rosie worked nearby at the Penny Bazaar, which was later bought out by Marks and Spencer.

The business William worked for was the Home and Colonial Stores, one of Britain's earliest retail chains with branches all over the country. 'Everything we sold was produced either at home in Britain or in our countries around the world like Australia and New Zealand.'

At the age of 20 William's loyalty and hard work were rewarded and he was sent to stores around the country as a relief manager or assistant during holidays. One part of the job involved window dressing: 'Every Monday there had to be a new shop window and headquarters in London would tell you exactly what to put on display.' This often involved some rather delicate balancing of tins and packets, and every item had to have a price card.

Those prices still tripped easily off William's tongue: 'Twopence farthing for 1lb of sugar, twopence and three farthings for sugar cubes, 4d for a 1/4 lb of tea, and 7d for best tea.'

  • More of William's wonderful memories - and Great War postcards - will be included in my book 'Letters From The Trenches', to be published next year.