Wednesday, 31 December 2014

'Let us hope 1915 will see peace restored on Earth'

Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley
Let me introduce you to Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley of Weymouth, a lifelong diarist whose journals from 1914-18 thread their way colourfully through the book I'm working on at the moment Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War. In 1914 she was in her early 20s and when war was declared she and three sisters volunteered immediately to work as Red Cross nurses.
This is how Madge summed up the year of 1914, a year in which the usual social routine of her middle-class family in the naval town of Weymouth was rudely interrupted by conflict:

1914 was on the whole a bad year.
The great European war began on Aug 4th and so far Germany has had the best of it – has taken nearly all Belgium and a lot of Poland in spite of all the efforts of the allies – tho’ they say she is bound to be crushed – already the flower of England’s manhood has been killed and the war of the trenches seems endless.

'1914 was on the whole a bad year' - a page from
Madge's diary (Copyright: Sandes Family)
In the beginning of the year mother was constantly ill becoming worse and worse. In April however we got a trained nurse and after a week's care mother was completely cured. In the first 6 months of 1914 I got to know Spencer Russell [a naval officer whom she would later marry] very well and saw a great lot of him. I was only away 14 days this year, visitng family in Woburn in July, but this time saw the passing of peace and the beginning of war. By the time I returned to Weymouth the Fleet had been mobilised and Spencer and I did not meet again [until 1915] tho’ we wrote. After war began we all became Red Cross nurses and I nursed at Sidney Hall and Princess Christian Hospital – chiefly Belgians. 

In the summer the French Fleet paid a visit and the ladies of Weymouth gave a ball to them, also I went to a dance in the King George. We were also friends with the people in the HMS Superb (Maycock and Co) and saw a lot of them. I had 3 days in London and saw 3 plays there. Muriel Sargeant, Gladys Mayer, Enid Martyn and Violet Buck stayed with us. The last persuaded me to try and make peace with Uncle Abel by my attempt failed.

This year therefore was a patchy one – parts black and terrible – other parts unusually nice. Let us hope 1915 will see peace restored on Earth and the desires of all our hearts granted.

Madge's sister Sylvia was also a diarist, but her summing-up of 1914 was rather more pessimistic:

The year 1914 has gone. I hope I shall never know on like it, with such terrible times as I have been through. In the whole of time I think there has never been such misery as Europe has known. We can only wait for better times.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

‘I spent my Xmas in the frontline trenches 100yds from the Huns'

As the first Christmas of the WW1 Centenary approaches, our minds turn to all those the Great War soldiers who had to spend 'festive' seasons at the Front, separated from families and often in pretty miserable conditions. With few exceptions, they tried to make the best of things and celebrate as best they could, as you can see from the selection of Christmas letters below. It's a subject I talk more about on a podcast recorded for December's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, which you can listen to here
Sgt George Smith

Sergeant George Smith wrote this from the Western Front in December 1915 where he served with the London Scottish Battalion:

‘ I spent my Xmas in the front line trenches 100 yds from the Huns & it rained the whole time and the only people who were allowed shelters were the platoon Sgts & we were continually dodging in & out on patrol. I had a nice box from the firm [probably C&E Morton, the food canning factory in east London where he had worked as a clerk], our best brands of tinned fruits etc which I divided up amongst the platoon. … We are going to try & make up for a bad Xmas on Hogmanay but we go up the line again on New Year’s Night I believe...With reference to your question about cocoa etc. we all think cocoa is about the best thing anybody can send out to troops for it is so warming & a food in itself.’

Bert Smythe, of the Australian Imperial Force, sent this humorous epistle home from Milbank Barracks Hospital, London, December 1915:

'Well its Christmas night...In the morning we went to Church. HM Queen Alex was there. I didn’t approve of things at all. Too much blooming ceremony & show for my liking. After church we had to wait for a long while in one of the wards for the Queen. When she came she gave us each a photo of herself & King Ned. After that was over I found that someone had shook my brand new hat out of the cloak room where they made us leave them. I got a clue as to where it went but before I could see about it myself a mate who knew of my loss went & got it back – but somebody had kindly removed the badge bust them.
'Then we had a spanking Christmas dinner. Turkey being the item in chief. Two bottles of beer or stout for each man but I had an orgy all on my own with lemonade.'

Private Tom Fake, of the Rifle Brigade, sent this letter to his wife and young son from France a few days before Christmas Day in 1917:

We have had some very hard weather ever since I wrote you last, it must be cruel for the men up the line, but where we are to it is a pretty sight, all the trees are glistening white or at least it has been so up to this evening but since dark it has started thawing. We are keeping up Christmas day on Sunday (as we are going up the line again) and I think we shall have a fine time by what I can hear. I had a small parcel from the Dowsetts a few days ago, it consisted of a handkerchief khaki colour, and an oz of tobacco, very good of them wasn’t it.’

Not all soldiers were stuck at the Front for Christmas, the lucky ones came home on leave and in 1916 these were the excited scenes of homecoming described by the Bristol Times and Mirror:

‘All day the station was crowded with soldiers, coming and going and changing trains. The Christmas spirit was noisily evident, and the singing of snatches of songs, continuous. Never, surely, were trains more crowded, never were travellers more good humoured and content with their accommodation. The men got into the trains anyhow – some through the windows. They did not ask guards or porters to find them seats, but jumped into any compartment, not caring a toss whether they could sit or not...They did not mind so long as they got aboard and knew that they were going home.'

May I wish all my readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Australians: a breath of fresh air in wartime Britain

In my last post I paid tribute to the Canadian troops who passed through these islands on their way to the Front, often taking locals by surprise with their brash ways.

In many ways the character of the Australian soldiers was similar, coming as they did from a young country where life could be harsh. There was even an element of competition between the two nationalities according to one London doctor. In a letter that is included in my new book 'Letters from the Trenches', he wrote of the Aussies:

The Aussies: 'A fine looking lot of men'
Their language may be coarse; but I must say that a finer looking lot of men I never saw. They are not only athletic looking and of good physique to a man; but 5 out of 6 are noticeably handsome, with fine features and clear eyes. I hear there is a good deal of jealousy between them and the Canadians.

When Australian soldiers arrived Britain it was for training, while on leave, or for hospital treatment when wounded and I'm sure it's true to say that most people found them a breath of fresh air. I noticed, almost without exception, that a well-developed sense of irony characterised the letters they wrote home and, as you can see from the extract below from my book, they seemed to write with a sense of fun and a twinkle in their eye:

Corporal Bert Smythe, from Sydney, made light of the uncomfortable, fly-blown conditions in Egypt as he waited to be sent to Gallipoli, writing reports for his family (complete with intentional misspellings) which must have had them in stitches:

March 1915

'If any norty words happen to appear you must please skip them. You see, the flies are the most persistent beggars that I’ve ever had the pleasure of squashing. The only thing, the beggars are so blooming lively & frisky that my poor cheeks are very red & very sore from the severe bombardment & the enemy’s casualties are dishearteningly small being one killed & 2 badly scared. The remaining 45,892,756,897 being merely amused.'

My next post will take us up to Christmas with some festive letters from the Front. In the New Year I'll resume the Colonial theme by paying tribute to soldiers from South Africa and India who fought with the Allies.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Brace yourself Britain, the Canadians are coming!

Proudly bearing arms, a battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

This post is my small tribute to the volunteer soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who helped Britain fight the Great War. Their reputation as fighters was second to none and as they began arriving in this country on their way to the Front, disembarking from ships in in large numbers, loud, brash and eager, it was clear they would take some getting used to!

At the turn of last century we Brits were a modest, mild-mannered lot. We liked our homes and gardens, we had no wish to travel further than the nearest seaside resort, and most of us were quite happy to abide by the established Edwardian social order in which everyone knew their place. Such folk had departed Britannia's shores in their droves during the early 1900s to make a new life for themselves in Canada, but their sons who returned were a different breed completely. Coming from a country that was huge and wide open, many found Britain stiflingly small ... and weren't afraid to say so.

The extract below is from my new book 'Letters from the Trenches' and describes the arrival of George Lamb, a bank clerk from Kamsack in Saskatchewan, in 1916. A tougher character you couldn't wish to find, although he had plenty of charm too.

English trains 'sure were a joke' said George Lamb
Coming from a land of wide open spaces, everything about the ‘old country’ seemed tiny to Lamb and his fellow Canadians. When they arrived in Liverpool, they could hardly believe the size of the train and the box-like little carriages that awaited them: ‘Eight men were put in each contrivance and there you were shut off from the rest of the train in this stuffy little room, they sure are a joke, their engines are about the size of a threshing engine’ he wrote. Interestingly, an American airman, Ned Steel, used very similar words to describe his first impressions of Liverpool when he there landed in 1918, en route to France: ‘With a squad to each compartment on our funny little coaches we started across “Merry Old England”, the dinky little engine quite surprising us with its speed. What a beautiful country.'

Lamb wasn’t blind to England’s bucolic charm either and he acknowledged it in letters home: ‘The scenery is beautiful and trees are still quite green, the hedges are cut off by the men who own the land and kept in fine shape.’ But such descriptions were now and again tempered by coarser observations: ‘The streets and roads are so narrow a person can spit across them.’

Not exactly what we were used to, but his heart was in the right place! There are plenty more of Lamb's colourful letters in my book - details of which are at the top of the page on the left - but I should warn you that his story does not have a happy ending. In my next post I'll tell you what sort of impression the Aussies made.