Saturday, 30 August 2014

'Capt Sandes to proceed at once on active service!'

Captain Warren Sandes
Every regular British soldier wanted to serve his country during the First World War - it's what they had been trained to do - however, not all were sent to fight straight away. Captain Warren Sandes, of the Royal Engineers, was disappointed to find himself still based in India in 1915 and had resigned himself to watching the conflict from a distance when a telegram finally arrived summoning him to Mesopotamia. Here he would command a bridging train on the River Tigris as troops advanced north towards Baghdad.

This is how he broke to the news of his imminent departure to his mother at home in Weymouth.

4th April 1915

'My dear Mother

'I expect you will have quite settled down to the idea of my going on service by the time this reaches you as ... this letter will arrive a long time after the wire. Of course I am delighted to go anywhere where I may be of use in this crisis and to feel that after all I am not to be left in the lurch. It all happened suddenly, as these things do. We had been playing polo in a very hot and oppressive atmosphere and I had just dismounted and was wandering in a dripping state to the changing enclosure when a telegram was brought for Colonel Atkinson and I heard my name shouted so hurried back. The wire ran something as follows "Capt Sandes to proceed at once on active service".

'Everybody was full of congratualtions and envy for it was thought that no more RE [Royal Engineers] officers would go from India anywhere. Since this wire no news has come regarding where I am to go, or when, so it is a case of waiting. But meanwhile I am frightfully busy getting a new water bottle, new haversack, cape, hood, imitation turban even, and saddle bags, ropes, buckets, new valise and other things.The Sedgwicks will keep the gramophone and my shooting trophies.'

On 9 April Sandes wrote again, this time including details that suggested an uncertain future. His mother's heart must have sunk:

'I handed my despatch box with my will to Colonel Atkinson. He has it now and the key. It contains also details of insurances, investments and a lot of papers and mementoes which I value.'

The following day he sent another letter in which he tried to raise his mother's spirits with some reassurance and a bit of gentle teasing:

'I hope you have cheered up about my going off like this. I am sure you would wish me to go and do my part and of course I shall be very careful never to go near any battle or other disturbance for those might be dangerous! You will see me back in Weymouth within 18 months.'

In fact Captain Sandes would not return home for more than three years. In Mesopotamia he was held for five months in the desperate siege of Kut al Amara, then taken prisoner by the Turks until the end of the war. During his time in captivity he kept a diary detailing the grim life of privation, boredom, and cruelty that he and his fellow soldiers endured. Written in beautifully calm, clear prose, you can read extracts from these astonishing journals in my book Letters from the Trenches which is out in November.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

'No-one seemed able to smile during those first weeks of war'

Queues for food: 'People got very frightened and were buying in large stores of provisions'

August 1914

As soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force marched into Belgium to take on the German Army, and volunteers at home queued to enlist, hoping to see action before it all ended - the rest of Britain began to take stock. Now the initial excitement of going to war was over, the future was beginning to look uncertain and bleak. This is how Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol, described the mood on the streets ...

'It was very depressing here in Bristol during those first weeks of the war. There was the same sort of look about everyone one met that there was on the deaths of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. No one seemed able to smile and it was just as though some dreadful calamity had happened.
'People got very frightened about food and were buying in large stores of provisions, and one friend of ours who was shutting up her house and going away for a short time, told me that she had given a very large order to her grocer and had asked him to store the things for her until she came home and wanted them.
'Naturally, this food panic made everything go up in price very much which made it very hard for the poor people and for everybody. I wanted some grocery at the end of the week, and I found some articles double the ordinary price, and some I could not obtain at all, so I had to substitute instead. A few shops were obliged to close for a few days until they had replenished their stock having practically sold out.'

Little could Maude Boucher have imagined that four years later the country would still be at war, and she would be describing the hardships of food rationing in her journal. You can read more in my book 'Bristol in the Great War' which is published next week. and 'Letters from the Trenches' which is out in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'The streets were thick with people cheering like mad'

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force arrive in France, 1914

British soldiers were treated like heroes when they first landed at Le Havre in August 1914. As they marched north towards Belgium, locals couldn't do enough for the men who had come to protect them. The drama of those first few weeks of the Great War is recorded in the diaries of George Fairclough, a cavalryman with the 4th (Queen's Own) Hussars, who was one of the so-called 'old contemptibles' of the original British Expeditionary Force. Married with a young daughter, he had recently retired from the army but was recalled when war broke out and left for France almost immediately.

His early diary entries (below) describe the welcome he and his fellow troops received from the people of Belgium, how the men were involved in one of the first Allied encounters with the Germans...and how much he was missing his wife.

Sun 16th
Set sail at about 04.00 to go down the Channel.
Mon 17th
A beautiful day, we met a fleet of French ships, there were cheers on both sides, we expect to reach Le Havre tonight and disembark in the morning.
Tues 18th
We entered the harbour, a fine big place, and started landing the horses – a hard day’s work down in the hold. We marched to a station at 12.00 and then for the front – four more hours of hard work.
We left at 04.30, no chance to write to ‘C’ [George's wife Cissie]. I am forbidden to say anything about our movements and all letters are censored.
We travelled through Rouen, St Aveille to Visaburg, then marched to a camp some miles away. It was day time, Wednesday 19th by the time we got pegged down – had no sleep.
While marching through the towns the streets were thick with people cheering like mad, giving away flowers and all sorts of fruit, chocolate, tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, beer, wine, cakes and bread, they are vastly different to English people. I managed to send ‘C’ a postcard but I don’t know if it will arrive or not.
Fri 21st
It’s the 5th anniversary of our wedding; I suppose ‘C’ is thinking of it as well.

We crossed the frontier into Belgium; I could never dream that such a reception awaited us; the people simply vie with each other to do the most for us. If English people were only as good to their soldiers, the soldier would have a good time.
We halted in one village for an hour and a half and when we left there was scarcely a badge or a button in the regiment, all gone as souvenirs. Good luck to the Belgians.
We billeted in a village, all the troops were wearing Belgian colours in their caps.
Sat 22nd
Reveille was at 03.00 and we moved out at 07.00.
We engaged a German force at about 10.30. The artillery commanded what was probably the first skirmish of the campaign near a village of Mossberg [Maubeuge?]. Both German and English shells passed over our heads. There were four casualties in the brigade, but the enemy seemed to suffer a lot from our artillery. ‘D’ Battery had a night march. We passed through Mons at about 01.00 on Sunday morning. The entire town was alive and the people were giving the troops all sorts of refreshments.
You can read more of Sergeant Fairclough's diaries, along with his dramatic story from the Western Front, in my book 'Letters from the Trenches' which is published in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

Monday, 4 August 2014

'Great Britain declares war - and may we win it!'

Weymouth on the even of war was unprepared for conflict
At the turn of the century Weymouth was a lively seaside town, made popular by the patronage of King George III in the late 18th century. Across the bay was Portland Harbour, a major naval base, and to the north was the garrison town of Dorchester, home of the Dorsetshire Regiment. With its naval and military presence, South Dorset would play a key part in the First World War, but in 1914 no-one was prepared for the events that unfolded that summer.

Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley, a young woman who lived Weymouth with her widowed mother and three sisters, kept a daily diary during the war years and her entries give a fascinating insight into the way town life was affected. In the days leading up to the conflict she followed events closely, both on the Continent and in the local area ...

July 30: On verge of war. Russian has to back up Servia [pre-war spelling of Serbia], and Germany Austria. So France (allied with Russia) and England (entente) is also involved...Spencer and Fanny [a naval friend and his sister] at The Pavilion on Tuesday when urgent message for all officers and men to return to ships came and just time to dash home and say goodbye, great scenes at pier Tuesday night.

July 31: Situation still worse. Waterworks and Ridgeway Tunnel patrolled, soldiers in and around Weymouth, our boom defences down and no ships allowed in harbour ... Urgent Red Cross meetings, mine in Watts’ garden.

August 1: Germany proclaimed martial law, will soon mobilise. Has sent ultimatum to Russia. Scarcely any hope. Food going up so Sylvia [her sister] & I went to town and bought 21lbs biscuits, 1 ton coal, 12lbs jam, 4lbs tea, also cocoa, beans, macaroni, Horlick, flour and soap, candle!

Sunday, August 2: St Johns Church, war sermon by Mr Coryton
August 3: Navy mobilised. Reserves called out. Germany declares war on France, asks England to remain neutral if they don’t blockade French coast. Cabinet divided. Shall we desert France? Gladys [a friend] and I bathed, we all went to tea and tennis at Lithgows.
August 4: Germany in violation of treaty invades Belgium to get to France’s weakest spot. England send ultimatum (Belgium having appealed to us) 12 hours grace for Germany. German prize ship captured here, we took her coal. Sylvia at Red Cross practice ... Army mobilised. Banks closed till Friday.
August 5: ARMAGEDDON Great Britain declares war on Germany last night and may we win it. Belgians repulse Germans. Great naval battle at any moment. Two [suspected German] spies from Westham tried to poison water last night. 7,000 Territorials to be billeted on Rodwell people tonight. C&M Stores closed.
Madge and her sisters' diaries will be continued from time to time on this blog; you'll also be able to read more of them in my book 'Letters from the Trenches', which is being published in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)