Saturday, 22 February 2014

Army service with a smile!

Humorous hymn sheets kept the soldiers smiling 
Following my previous post's theme of faith at the Front, here's a hymn sheet that must have raised a few chuckles among the troops.

Entitled 'Daily routine of a soldier's life told by a few well-known hymns', it belonged to Stanley Goodhead, a Manchester soldier whose vivid letters from France and Belgium are included in my book.

Most men would have known these hymns well, but even in today's more secular times when they may not be as familiar, they still make an amusing read:

3.30am Reveille - 'Christians Awake'
6.45am Rouse Parade - 'Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid'
7am Breakfast - 'Weekly Wait and Murmur Not'

8.15am Company Parade - 'When He Cometh'
8.45am Manoevres - 'Fight the Good Fight'
11.15am Swedish Drill - 'Here We Suffer Grief and Pain'
1pm Dinner - 'Come Ye Thankful People Come'

2.15pm Rifle Drill - 'Go Labour On'
3.15pm Lecture by Officer - 'Abide With Me'
4.30pm Dismiss - 'Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow'
5pm Tea - 'What Means This Eager Anxious Throng'

6pm Free for the night - 'O Lord How Happy We Shall Be'
6.30pm Out of bounds - 'We May Not Know, We Cannot Tell'
10pm Last Post - 'All Are Safely Gathered In'
10.15pm Lights out - 'Peace, Perfect Peace'
10.30pm Inspection of guards - 'Sleep On Beloved'

A rather different mood was struck by this hymn that was written specially for men at the Front. The words certainly pulled no punches, for example: 'For those who weak and broken lie in weariness and agony'. But at least the truth of war was confronted, and support was offered in the form of faith.

Lord God of hosts, Whose Mighty Hand
Dominion holds on sea and land,
In Peace and War Thy Will we see
Shaping the larger liberty.
Nations may rise and nations fall,
Thy Changeless Purpose rules them all.

When death flies swift on wave and field,
Be Thou and sure defence and shield!
Console and succour those who fall,
And help and hearten each and all!
O, hear a people's prayers for those
Who fearless face their country's foes!

For those who weak and broken lie
In weariness and agony -
Great Healer, to their beds of pain
Come, touch, and make them whole again!
O, hear a people's prayers and bless
Thy servants in their hour of stress!

For those to whom the call shall come
We pray Thy tender welcome home.
The toil, the bitterness, all past,
We trust them to Thy Love at last.
O, hear a people's prayer for all
Who, nobly striving, nobly fall!

For those who minister and heal,
And spend themselves, their skill, their zeal -
Renew their hearts with Christ-like faith,
And guard them from disease and death.
And in Thine own good time, Lord, send,
Thy Peace on earth till Time shall end!

With thanks to Barbara Rosser for the hymn sheet, and Jackie Carpenter for the hymn.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

'The guns were firing all through the service'

'Church service before the battle'
'God' is a words that crops up frequently in WW1 soldier's letters, which is not surprising for men who grew up in a world in which Christianity was part of everyday life. Some were more devout than others and one particularly moving letter was written by 19-year-old Private Ernest Adams of Leeds, to be read by his mother and father in the event of his death. (He was killed in action near Ypres in September 1917):

'Dear Parents, I know how you will grieve and my heart aches for you, but I beseech you to think not of me as dead, but just gone home to God, there to dwell in peace and rest, freed from all earthly strife. Think too of how much pain and sin might have been mine had I lived. But now I am pure and white in God's own house. Well, goodbye, and may you find peace and joy that comes from God alone.'

Not all were quite as religious, but faith gave strength to far more men than is probably the case today. 'Thank God he has brought me through,' wrote Private Tom Fake, of Bristol, to his wife on Armistice Day. During two years in the trenches he had ended every letter to her with 'God bless you'.

Services were often held in the trenches, frequently before battle, and many found great comfort in hymns they would have sung in church at home with their families. This diary entry was written by Sergeant George Fairclough during fierce fighting on the Western Front in September 1914:

'The big guns were firing all night. We had a regimental service with the hymns: 'O God Our Help in Ages Past', 'Fight the Good Fight', 'Heavenly Father in the Mercy', and 'Lead Kindly Light', the guns were firing all through the service.'

Very often prayer books and bibles are found tucked away amongst soldiers' letters, and inside a prayer book belonging to Private Edwin Wood, a signaller with the Gloucestershire Regiment, are printed notes about the way to conduct services for troops:

The Lessons selected should be very short.
Hymns may be sung at the commencement and end of the Service,
and after the Sermon.
The Sermon should also be short.
'God save the King' should be sung before the Blessing at the end
of the Service.
Special Prayers may be added at discretion.

On the facing page is a Morning Prayer which begins:

'We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.'

The prayer then asks God for forgiveness and for help in following a more 'righteous, godly and sober life'. Let's hope someone passed on the message to the politicans and generals.

(With thanks to Sandra Lambert, Jackie Carpenter and Andy Goodenough for the letter extracts; the Wood family for prayer book extracts; and Bob Griffin for the postcard illustration.)

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Write fifteen chapters? That's the easy bit!

Sorry, no time for blogging!
Ever since July 2012, when I began this blog, the column on the right has confidently talked about 'Letters from the Trenches' being finished by January 2014. However, the more observant readers may have noticed that this deadline has now come and gone!

Let me assure you that the book has been finished (bar a few loose ends) and allow me to explain why I haven't proudly announced the fact....I'm afraid I simply haven't had time.

I had no idea that completing this, my first book, would involve so many small but time-consuming tasks that have kept me working - with no time for blogging - like a hamster on a wheel. Take the Introduction, for example, something I had thought would be a pleasure to compose after writing fifteen chapters that demanded discipline, accuracy and a lot of research. But without soldiers' letters to talk about I was bereft of ideas and it took me far longer than I had expected to marshal my own thoughts for the book's opening.

Meanwhile, I've been sorting out my bibliography and assembling credits for all the letters and pictures I've used in the book, a task made doubly difficult by my decision to list alphabetically every man and woman whose letters or diaries I've mentioned, along with their relatives who are letting me use them. It's a way of saying thankyou, and also a small tribute to the people who lived through the war or gave their lives. But boy, does it take a lot of checking!

I've also had two longstanding gaps in my text which were waiting to be filled by letters held at the Imperial War Museum in London. Only last week did I finally manage to get up there and copy them out (yes, I'm sure I could have had them sent to me, but I wanted to see the real things for myself). Were they were worth the long journey from Bristol? Certainly. One describes the final moments of the famous German pilot Baron von Richthofen before he crashed to earth; the other is a poignant letter written to a British family by a German soldier who comforted their dying son on the battlefield.

Whilst in London I also met up with my editor from Pen and Sword Books to discuss images for the book - another wearying matter! I have so many lovely pictures - all kindly lent by those who also shared their relatives' letters - that it's been an awful job deciding which to use, and one that is still ongoing.

So you see, writing the book was the easy bit. Tying up the loose ends has been far harder and...oh dear...I haven't even thought about the index yet. But none of this need worry you. I shall keep blogging even after 'Letters from the Trenches' is published - so keep watching this space!