Thursday, 31 July 2014

Countdown to the Centenary

As the Centenary of the First World War approaches, I am posting extracts from my new book, Bristol in the Great War, which is out in August. Using military events as background, it describes what life was like in the city between 1914 and 1918 and takes a look behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on this blog, the extracts include the words of people who were actually there. For more details about Bristol in the Great War and to pre-order, click the link on the left.

'The Tommies were out of luck if one of us Yanks were around'

US airman at Yate open their mail: 'The girls came miles to see us'
(Credit: Yate & District Heritage Museum)
Understandably, fun and laughter wasn’t what every serviceman wanted to see when he arrived home on leave, it didn’t take much for some to feel their efforts at the Front weren’t being appreciated. ‘If you had any idea what life was like in the trenches, you would think twice before being so gay and light-hearted,’ wrote one local newspaper correspondent. Another unwelcome surprise may have been to see just how well the American allies were settling in at home.

The United States had entered the war in 1917 when its merchant ships came under attack from German U-Boats. Hundreds of wounded Americans would be invalided back to the city, and US airmen were also stationed a few miles north of Bristol at Yate.

The Americans never had to look far for attention. ‘The girls came miles to see us as if we were a circus and the Tommies were out of luck if one of us Yank curiosities could be found for an escort,’ wrote Corporal Ned Steel, of Kansas City, who was based at Yate. He was amazed at how bold the Bristol women were and set the scene with American translations in brackets: ‘What quite took our breath away was to have a pretty girl cadge [bum ] us for an American cigarette, or in a “pub” (saloon) buy the treats of ale for us and think nothing of it,’ he wrote (with American translations in brackets). ‘And when a ‘”flapper” (Broadway chicken) in Bristol looked offended if we failed to kiss her goodbye (though we had just chanced to meet her ten minutes before) we nearly fell over. These habits, we were told, were the result of the war.’

Corporal Steel belonged to the American 822nd (Repair) Squadron, one of several US units sent to England to learn how to repair damaged aircraft before moving on to France. When he arrived in April 1918, Steel was fairly scornful of the British – their cooking came in for criticism, so too did the slackness in the workshop when nobody in authority was around, and the way every second word seemed to be ‘bloody’!

However, when his squadron departed for France ten weeks later Steel had new-found respect. The expertise he had observed in the aircraft workshops impressed him, and so did the sacrifices that ordinary people had made for the war. Waving goodbye to the girls who came to see them off, he reflected: ‘Nearly everyone one of them had lost brothers or other dear ones in the long never-ending war. Then, could you blame them for crying softly as they watched the train move away?’

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

 NEXT POST: War is declared!

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