Thursday, 27 November 2014

Letters from the Trenches pays tribute to 'everyman'

I'm thrilled and proud to say that 'Letters from the Trenches' has now been published!

Yes, the book that inspired me to start this blog in July 2012 is now out, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. When I was asked to write Letters from the Trenches by Pen and Sword Books I knew very little about the primary sources that were available and I assumed I would be making trips to archives, museums and libraries to dig around in their collections. But no. The vast majority of my material came from ordinary people whose families had passed letters, diaries and photos down through the generations, and who got in touch because they wanted their stories told, and their relatives remembered.

And that gives you an idea about the sort of book it is. 'Letter from the Trenches' tells the story of 'everyman' - men, women and children just like us who lived through four extraordinary years of conflict.

History has a tendency to 'compartmentalise' and, as a result, the First World War in often talked about in terms of themes: plucky 'munitionettes', innocent volunteers sent to the slaughter, self-sacrificing Red Cross nurses, poets who railed against trench warfare, conscientious objectors who stood their ground and refused to fight.

But reality, of course, was very different ... as my book shows.

  • For every plucky 'munitionette' there was a mother at home fretting about how she would cope without her husband: ‘If only our little homes and our children’s welfare could be made secure. How many happy mothers would be able to bear the separation better, and how many soldiers would gladly do their bit the more contentedly?’
  • For every quietly-serving Red Cross nurse there was another with a mind of her own: ‘Went round with a nurse who did dressings, I put on bandages, one awful one on groin (disgusting) did it badly.’
  • For every volunteer whose life was lost needlessly, there was another who found the war was exactly what he had been looking for : 'Please don’t think I am unhappy or miserable I am just the reverse and enjoying all the fun.'
  • For every conscientious objector who refused to fight, there were far more who kept their objections to themselves: ‘I am sorry to tell you I am going to France on Monday next, quick work isn’t it?’
  • And for every poet who shed light on the horror of the trenches, there was another eloquent soldier who accepted the way things were and even tried to see the funny side: 'What dugouts there are, are flooded with mud and water up to the knees and the rats hold swimming galas in them.'

This is the way things really were. And it's only when we understand that those who lived through the Great War were not a different, stoical, noble breed, but people just like us, that we can comprehend what they really went through.

I hope you enjoy the book.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Sit up straight! It's time to dig out the school logs of 1914

Eyes straight ahead and hands out of sight: a class photo from 1914
Old letters and diaries are among the most popular primary sources for anyone researching the social history of a particular period in time. But there are many others of course. Reports of the old assizes courts bristle with fascinating detail and, on another tack completely, so do the school logs that used to be kept by all headteachers. School logs proved very useful when I was writing my book Bristol in the Great War (published September 2014) and they are bringing colour to the book I am writing at the moment, Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland in the Great War (out next year).

Below is a taste of these logs from 100 years ago. They were kept during the winter of 1914, just after the Great War had started, at schools around Bristol and on the Isle of or the Isle of Portland, Dorset. You won't find anything earth-shattering in the entries, but with mentions of the war, whooping cough, laundry classes and coal fires, the details could not be more evocative of a bygone age ...

Hambrook Evangelical School
November 23 - Some wounded soldiers visited the school this pm. The time table was suspended and the soldiers were entertained with country dancing & some patriotic songs.

November 27 - I [the headmaster] have obtained permission to attend the funeral of my uncle & to be absent for 2 or 3 days to assist my aunt, who is very aged, in making her arrangements for the future. Mrs Luff will take charge of the school during my absence.

Brinkworthy School, Stapleton

November 26 - To date 45 exclusions have been made for whooping cough.

November 30 - Received notice from LEA [Local Education Authority] that in view of the present circumstances, it has been decided that until 31st March next the school hours shall be from 2 to 4.15 in the afternoon.Two more exclusions for whooping cough were forwarded today.

Deccember 7 - School was closed by permission of LEA on Dec 7th & 8th for the purposes of a school play in aid of the school and War distress funds, and in which all the children were taking part.

All Saints School, Winterbourne Down

November 18 - The School visited by Mr Ward, to see about Laundry Classes. It was decided that none should be held at present.

November 26 - Colonel Lister, HMI [His Majesty's Inspector], visited the School late in the afternoon to speak about some bad behaviour at woodwork and cookery classes.

November 30 - School opened at 9.40, a service having been held at Church at 8.45.

December 4 - Owing to stormy weather, only 13 Infants were present in the afternoon, and the register was not marked.

Frenchay National School

November 9 - Miss Whale absent all day at London to be inoculated against typhoid fever, having volunteeered as a red Cross nurse for active service.

St George's Infant School, Portland

September 15 - Began coal fires today.

November 5 & 6 - Half day holiday each day, though owing to war there is no fair.

November 15 - Half day holiday there being a bazaar in the Jubilee Hall in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund and the fund for providing clothing for the Soldiers and Sailors.

These school logs are held by Frenchay Village Museum and the Portland Heritage Trust - my grateful thanks to both.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Armistice Day - the view from 1918

A hundred year after the armistice was signed, lavish commemorations are being held up and down the country and all over the world to mark the event. But for those who believe the pomp and ceremony is starting to take on a life of its own, here's what it felt like for the ordinary people who were actually there on 11 November 1918...

Private Tom Fake, of the Rifle Brigade, writes to his wife from the Western Front:

‘This is the day we have been looking forward to, hostilities ceased at 11 o’clock this morning, so I guess it’s fairly safe out here now with the exception of accidents. Of course we have to be on the alert in case of anything re-starting. But I did not think when I wrote my last letter to you that it would come so soon. Well, my dear, I can tell you I am more than glad for I have had more than enough of it lately, and thank God he has brought me through. I am quite well, but owing to marching etc I am as sore as though I have been kicked all over.’

Later he added: ‘I think the day the armistice was signed or rather the morning hostilities ceased was the most miserable day I have had since I have been out here, and all I feel is roll on the time when I am free once more.’ 

Maude Boucher, a Bristol mother of four, kept journal she kept throughout the war:

'The hooters from the ships were all sounded and the church bells pealed forth, so we understood the good news was true ... The workpeople at many of the big factories and laundries put on their hats and coats and left their work and in the majority of cases would not return again any more that week. Everyone got very excited and the streets were soon crowded with people and flags were seen flying everywhere.’ 

Eight-year-old Olive Fairclough, of Colchester, writing to her father in the Machine Gun Corps:

‘You better hurry up and come home now peace has come because we want either to spend Christmas or the new year with you. Yesterday, the day peace was declared, the soldiers were singing and shouting wrapping themselfs in flags and dancing catching the girl and some of them got in long trails and shouting left right all the time.'

Lance Corporal Stanley Goodhead of the Royal Engineers, one of the first to enter newly-liberated Belgium:

‘I shall never forget the day we landed in Ostend from Calais, on our arrival the people went mad with joy, kissing us, shaking hands, hugging us, and in every manner possible they showered their thanks on the “English Gentlemen” as they called us. I was carted off for tea at a large house near the Grand Promenade, and along with three other men entertained to music and dancing.'

Captain Warren Sandes, of the Royal Engineers, a prisoner of war in Turkey since 1916:

The loss of liberty is a severe punishment and becomes more and more irksome as time goes on. But the full rigours of captivity are not felt till the prison is reached and the doors are closed...Not until we settle down to the dreary monotony of monastic prison life among a semi-civilised people did the iron really enter into our souls. Some went to pieces under the strain. Most did not. Work was found to be the panacea for all ills, and those who worked hardest were the least affected.’

These extracts are taken from my new book 'Letters from the Trenches' which is published on 30 November and tells the story of the First World War in the words of those who were there. Lest we forget.