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.

No comments:

Post a Comment