Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Another New Year without cheer in the grim Great War

Captain Warren Sandes
When the New Year dawned in 1916 there was little optimism among troops of the Great War. After 16 months, the conflict was still going strong, with large numbers of casualties and no sign of an end in sight, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the tone of soldiers' diaries and letters was resigned rather than hopeful. An example is the New Year entry from a rather unusual journal kept by Captain Warren Sandes, an officer of the Royal Engineers.

It was unusual because Sandes was not serving in the trenches of France but in the Middle East with the Mesoptamian Expeditionary Force, whose aim in 1915 had been to capture Baghdad. Their advance, however, was halted by the Turkish Army who forced them to retreat to the Arab town of Kut-al-Amara, and in early December the Turks laid siege to the town, trapping the men inside for five months. Among them was Capt Sandes and this is how he described his New Year inside Kut-al-Amara:

1st January 1916 
New Year's Day and 10 o'clock in the morning. Now about 7am in old England. Everybody will be waking up there to the usual New Year good wishes which few of us have had the heart to wish each other here for it seems ironical to wish anyone a happy day when all know that that is impossible. 
Still, every day one is thankful to be still alive when, day by day, one hears that such and such a friend is underground. The shelling of the enemy does little damage comparatively but some shells must find their billets; one for instance three days ago killed two and wounded one other of the RA [Royal Artillery] officers. In the two Sapper companies with us here, out of eight officers who came originally with them last October year, only one remains - and so on. One British regiment has, of its original officers, the Colonel, one subaltern, and the doctor. 
The siege has lasted nearly a month now but we are not yet really pinched for food or fodder. There is a lot of influenza about and I have it myself and was feverish last night but took a good dose of quinine and am better this morning - the result probably of having to live so much in shady corners after an open air life. Everyone looks forward to the stupendous mail which will be waiting when the relieving army arrives. The last letter from home was one dated, I think, about October 14th.

A few days later Sandes wrote to his mother, describing his New Year 'celebrations' at Kut. The letter remained part of his journal because it could not be sent:

My dearest Mother, 
On New Year's night at dinner all were fairly cheerful except myself [suffering from 'flu] till towards the end of dinner the dull distant boom of a big gun was heard. All talking stopped at once while we waited for the whistle [of a shell]. It came in a couple of seconds, rose to a roar and finished with a crash in the next house. A sergeant came running in to say that two sepoys were killed and five wounded. This was unfortunately true, and threw a gloom over the rest of the meal. People dropped away one by one and I went up to my room two houses away, and got into bed listening hard for another boom and prepared to bolt downstairs if one came. None came so I went to sleep rather feverish and depressed.

Despite several attempts, a British relieving army never managed to reach Kut. The siege lasted until April 1916 when the threat of starvation finally forced the British to surrender. Life inside Kut, and later in Turkish prison camps where the men were held, was often horrific and the story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches  using Sandes' journal, along with some extraordinary photographs he took during his time in Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

'Christmas Day in the trenches and not one shot was fired'

Illustration depicting the Christmas Truce of 1914
What does Christmas mean today? Presents, festive trees, tinsel, turkey ... and, since the WW1 Centenary began last year, a few lines describing the Christmas Truce of 1914. It's such a heartwarming story that quotes from the diaries of soldiers who were there are fast becoming one of the traditions of Christmas. And who am I to argue? In my book Weymouth, Dorchester  & Portland in the Great War  I used the wonderful diary of Portland soldier George Beck to describe the scenes he witnessed in on the Western Front in December 1914. Below is an extract - illustrated by an admitedly rather romanticised illustration of the truce! - and with it, may I wish all readers of my blog a happy and peaceful Christmas.

Diary of RSM George Beck, December 1914
24th December – Quiet day. Relieved 2nd R. Dub Fus. [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] in the trenches. in the evening. Germans shout over to us and ask us to play them at football, and also not to fire and they would do likewise. At 2am (25th) a German Band went along their trenches playing ‘Home Sweet Home’ and 'God Save the King' which sounded grand and made everyone think of home. During the night several of our fellows went over No Man’s Land to German lines and was [sic] given a drink and cigars.

25th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. Christmas Day. Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our ‘bully beef’ and jam. Majority of them knew French fluently. A few men of the Regiment  assisted in burying the dead of the Somerset Light Infantry, who were killed on 19.12.14. Fine frosty day. Very cold.
26th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. Unofficial truce kept up and our fellows intermingled still with the Germans. No rifle shots fired but our artillery fired a few rounds on the German 3rd and 4th lines and Germans retaliated with few rounds on D Coy’s trenches. 2 wounded. 
27th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. No sniping. A few whizz bangs [slang for a type of shell] on D Coy  trenches. 1 wounded.
The Christmas Truce on the Western Front fizzled out as the New Year of 1915 approached and, although small pockets of peace were reported the following year, it would never be repeated in the same way. Regimental Sergeant Major Beck, who served with the 1st Warwickshire Regiment, survived the war and returned to Portland where he settled down with his wife and worked as an inspector of the National Omnibus Company.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Joyful station scenes as soldiers return home for Christmas

Plenty has been written about Christmas in the trenches, about the famous truce of 1914, and the misery of soldiers who had to endure Christmas away from their loved ones. However, some troops were lucky enough to make it home on leave during the festive season and on 23 December 1916 a heartwarming report appeared in the Bristol Times and Mirror describing scenes of homecoming at Bristol Temple Meads Station. Today, nearly 100 years later, they are still wonderful to read about...
'All day the station was crowded with soldiers, coming, 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 of 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. Many of the soldiers wore sprigs of holly and ivy, and their genial humour and goodwill led them to hobnob with any of their fellows wearing the King's uniform and to share refreshment with them. There was no intemperance in imbibing, in language, or in acts. Chaff and banter went on all the time in the best of temper.'
Temple Meads Station, scene of joyful homecomings

Wounded at Temple Meads Station
During the rest of the year Temple Meads Station was rather more subdued as it received casualties from the battlefields. Wounded men began arriving from the Western Front from the very start of the war and it was reported that one soldier's wife could hardly believe that her husband had been to France, got wounded and returned to Bristol (as a patient at the Infirmary) in so short a space of time.
Initially, the so-called ambulance trains ran according to the rail system's timetables. But as the war progressed, so their arrival began to be scheduled later and later, sometimes not until the early hours, in order that the sight of wounded and sometimes terribly maimed men did not have a detrimental effect on public morale.
Whatever time of day or night the trains rolled in, the wounded were always assured of a warm welcome from Bristol's volunteers, as this report from 1919 shows:
'At no other centre were the wounded better cared for than at Bristol and the reception they met with at Temple Meads Station must have given them an encouraging first impression of the city. The admirably trained Red Cross and St John Ambulance men showed unremitting diligence in their efforts, and the convoys of wounded men were always got away from the station with commendable despatch. The Women's Voluntary Aid Detachment, who were always on duty at the station when the trains came in, served refreshments, which were immensely appreciated by the soldiers.'
You can read more in my book Bristol in the Great War - not just at Christmas but other times of year too!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The uncomplaining faces of the First World War

In the run-up to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day this year I've been busy on Twitter posting pictures of some of the ordinary people who lived through the First World War and who worked stoically and without complaint to do their bit for their country.

Their faces are close-ups from larger photographs which appear in my book Bristol in the Great War ... and here they all are below, with an explanation as to who they were in the captions at the bottom. I'm afraid I can't put names to any of them, but should any look familiar, do get in touch with me via @soldiersletters or by email Had we lived 100 years ago, these people could have been you or me. Let's not forget them.

Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4
Photo 5
Photo 6
Photo 7
Photo 1: A young 'munitionette' who worked for the Easton engineering firm Brecknell Munro & Rogers manufacturing shell cases, taken from a group shot of the wartime workforce. Photo 2: Wounded soldiers enjoying themsleves in the grounds of Cleve House Hospital, Downend. Photo 3: Ladies from the Women's Royal Air Force at Yate in 1918, taken from a formal line-up. Photo 4: A 'munitionette' producing shell cases for Brecknell, Munro and Rogers in their disused Baptist chapel in Thrissell Street, Easton, which was converted for the purpose. Photo 5: Men at work in the propeller shop at the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Filton, in 1918. Photo 6: A wounded soldier enjoying a day out at Clifton Zoological Gardens - a favourite venue for the entertainment of Bristol's wounded. Photo 7: When will it ever end? A young girl lost in thought as she watches the swans in Eastville Park. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

SSSShhhhhhhh ... for the very first two minutes' silence

November 1919: It was the King’s wish that on the anniversary of the Armistice, at the exact time that it came into force on 11 November, 1918, at 11 o’clock, a complete silence for two minutes should be observed by everybody in order that the thoughts of everyone might be concentrated on reverent remembrance of “The Glorious Dead”.

Respectful crowds gather in London, 1919,
for the first Armistice Day
These words were written by Maude Boucher in 1919, a mother of four from Bristol, who drew to a close the journal she had kept throughout the Great War by reporting on plans for the very first Armistice Day.

Her journal took the form of scrapbooks (a total of 21 volumes) in which she stuck newspapers cuttings alongside notes of her own. King George V’s idea for an Armistice anniversary caused a great excitement, as this cutting made clear: ‘It will be a wonderful two minutes, in some ways the most remarkable two minutes since Creation.’

On the day itself, 11th November 1919, Maude collected reports of the two minutes' silence from all over the country ... and very moving they were:

‘The business centre of London was transformed into a great congregation of worshippers outside the Mansion House...Police directing the traffic were like sidesmen in a church, new arrivals slipping in softly as if in the aisles of a cathedral...In the solid mass of upturned faces there was a revelation of awe, and out of the silence came the eloquence of sobs.’

Solemnity in the collieries
‘The miners at the collieries in the Manchester district observed the silence with the greatest solemnity...The surface men, with their coal-begrimed faces, stood with cap in hand and bowed head. Deep down in the Earth the raucous voice of the pony lad was hushed...A hardy veteran of the mine who had given his lad for his country’s sake remained kneeling for several minutes.’

‘Two laden hay wains were coming along the turnpike. The drivers heard the bell; they saw three old men and two lads in khaki stand still on the roadside – three bared, grey heads and two hands at the salute – and they stopped their teams and stood beside them on the road. A motor-car came rushing into sight and it was stayed suddenly, its engine shut off, and a man and woman alighted and stood reverently together.’

Poppies that once flowered across the Flanders battlefields have now become a symbol of blood spilled during the First World War. 'We marched through the lands all red with red poppies,' wrote Private EG Kensit, a South African soldier, just before he was killed in 1916. You can read his moving letters, along with the journals of Maude Boucher, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

After the Second World War, Armistice Day was replaced by Remembrance Sunday to honour the fallen of both conflicts. King George' two minutes' silence was restored in 1994 and has been observed on 11 November ever since, alongside Remembrance Sunday - which this year falls on 8 November.


Saturday, 24 October 2015

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!

While writing a magazine article about Christmas in the WW1 trenches last year, I was struck by how ever-present 'the church' was at the battlefront. Christian organisations like the YMCA and the Salvation Army ran huts for soldiers' recreation, bibles and prayer books were issued to troops as a matter of course, and army chaplains held services wherever they could for anyone to attend, whether or not they were church-goers - or even believers.

The Church was there to support soldiers in their hours of need and this, of course, was a reflection of the way Christianity was woven into the fabric of  life at home in the early 1900s. The same observation obviously occurred to John Broom, a fellow Pen and Sword author, who has taken things a step further by writing a book called: Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War.

'For millions of people the war was fought and commemorated withn a broadly Christian framework in Britain and abroad,' writes Broom in the introduction. 'As the importance of Christianity in the collective public life of Britain has crumbled in recent decades, so has the appreciation of some of the values that spurred our great-grandparents to action.'

Broom's book tells the inspiring stories of a number of very different characters who used their Christian faith to cope with their experiences of the First World War. Each story is a compelling one and some are well known, like that of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by German firing squad in 1915 for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.

Imprisoned for ten weeks before being shot, Cavell's final words to the Reverend Horace Gahan revealed that she accepted death with serenity : 'I thank God for this ten weeks' quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here [in prison]. But this I would say, standing as I do in front of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone'

A very different tale is told of Francis Gleeson, an Irish priest who served as an army chaplain on the Western Front. With no fear for his own safety, he tended the wounded in frontline trenches, often under fire, as if they were his own sons. 'If ... advocates of war were made to be soaked and caked and crushed with cold, wet trench mud, like these poor soldiers, and to wear those mud-weighted coats, they would not be so glib with their treatises on the art of war,' he wrote. 'These militants should be made to undergo a few nights in cheerless billets [and] mud-river trenches.'

Fight the Good Fight is an extremely readable book, excellently researched, well illustrated with 23 plates, and packed with notes and references for anyone who wishes to take study further. It addresses a subject that has been largely overlooked thus far into the the Great War Centenary, namely the importance of Christianity during the conflict. I'm pleased to report that Broom is now working on a second volume, and he has just put the finishing touches to a book about Voices of Faith from the Second World War.

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith From the First World War by John Broom is published by Pen and Sword Books.

British nurse Edith Cavell, who found serenity
through faith before her execution in 1915

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Sisters' diaries shed light on provincial life in WW1 Britain

Weymouth Pavilion, where Madge Sneyd-Kynnersly watched
'Prisoner Of Zenda' and heard a Russian exile speak in 1915.
This fine building was destroyed by fire in 1954
Among the most popular characters in my new book Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War are four Weymouth sisters whose diaries and snapshots I've used throughout to illustrate how war became part of everyday life at home. The Sneyd-Kynnersley sisters - Kitty, Sylvia, Madge and Rosie -  lived with their widowed mother and were in their late teens and early twenties when war was declared. All kept pocket diaries which, during the war, contained frequent references to the fighting and to casualties - especially when people they knew were involved.

In my previous post I included entries from Madge's 1915 diary in which she writes about the Battle of Loos. In this post I have transcribed (below) another week from Madge's diary which this time makes no direct mention of the war. But these entries, written exactly 100 years ago between 18-24 October 1915, are just as fascinating because they document the social history of the time, as well as Madge's very busy life!
Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley

The entries make reference to her work as a private tutor and the fact that, during her spare time, she was learning shorthand and typing in order to find office work. She talks about gramophones (hugely popular during the Great War), fashion, playing bridge, and going to the pictures. The conflict still manages to creep in, but subtly... for example in the mention of 'patriotic' handkerchiefs given as a birthday gift, and a flag day held to raise money for wounded Russian soldiers and the Red Cross. The unpredictable policitcal situation in Russia is also evident in her reference to a talk given by a Russian exile, Alexis Aladin.

Monday, 18 October: Taught. Shorthand at 6pm, afterwards calling on Simons, and town with mother [shops stayed open well into the evening]. M Onslow [a friend] to supper and bridge.
Winter fashions and furs, 1915

Tuesday, 19 October: Taught. Dentist. Sylvie's birthday: many happy returns of day. Mother gave her Onoto [a make of pen], Kitty patriotic hankies, Rosie cigarette lighter, me Turkish delight, gold hairpin case for vanity bag. M.Onslow to bridge with streaming cold.

Wednesday, 20 October: Taught for last time. Got paid 3 guineas and Lady H. [Madge's employer] said Betty had so enjoyed it! Tea with the Bragges, sat in kitchen with gramophone and saw their new clothes and furs.

Thursday, 21 October: Red Cross and Russian Flag Day. Mother having a district, I sold around Greenhill, got a good deal but wet day unluckily. Mina and Miss Chapman selling in pack, also Sylive, Ida W and Morris boys selling. Thousands sold at St Johns Schools where kids illegally sold in streets beyond our district! Very good lecture at Pav [Weymouth Pavilion] by Russian member of Duma Alexis Aladin, awfully interesting and funny broken English, us selling programmes etc. Tea at Mayor's expense in Balcony with M.Sanctuary [a friend]. Taxi home - wet day.
A wartime advert for gramophones

Friday, 22 October: Dentist  at12. Fitted at Crabbe [outfitter] for old blue skirt for which he has made a hip-yolk [dress alteration]. Prisoner of Zenda and tea at Pav.

Saturday, 23 October: Wet day. Sylvie and I went to Tiny Morgan's wedding. Smart. She in short frock. Then pictures at Jubilee [Hall]. Good. Jungle [possible reference to1915 silent movie, 'Perils of the Jungle']. Cooncan [card game] at Onslows.

Sunday, 24 October: Wet day.

The Sneyd-Kynnersleys' WW1 diaries reveal in colourful detail how family life was affected by the war. They describe everything from food shortages, blackouts, and 'spy mania', to new opportunities for women in the workplace, and the Spanish 'flu epidemic which devastated homes at the end of the conflict. You can read more in my new book Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War.

Pages from Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley's 1915 diary

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

No escape in my new book: the relentless story of life at war

My new book: a story of life at war
The Great War Centenary is well into its second year and now that the commemorations of 2014 have died down, we historians are in the happy position of being able to return to normal life, while still 'switching on' every now and again for the various anniversaries such as Gallipoli, last April, and the more recent Battle of Loos.

But those who lived through those dreadful years were not as fortunate. For them, the war was their lives, there was no escape, and even those who remained at home found their everyday routine was coloured by the conflict. It is this story I have endeavoured to tell in my latest book, Weymouth, Dorchester & Portland in the Great War, in which dramatic tales of spies, PoWs, and hospital scandal are described alongside more predictable scenes of ordinary life.

No-one described such scenes better than a Weymouth family called the Sneyd-Kynnersleys, whose diaries I used throughout the book to add colour and humour. The head of the household was Margaret, a widow of independent means who originally came from Northumberland, and who brought her four daughters south when her husband died. The girls - Kitty, Sylvia, Madge, and Rosie - were in their late teens and early twenties when war was declared and immediately volunteered as Red Cross nurses. Their pocket diaries give brief summaries for each day, noting domestic details alongside great events in Europe that were being reported in the newspapers at the time.

Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley
Below are entries from Madge's diary from the beginning of October 1915. They open with a reference to casualties from the recently-launched Battle of Loos in northern France, and go on to mention the political situation in Greece, and the difficulties faced by the British War Office in recruiting army volunteers. On the domestic front, Madge was battling constant toothache while helping to nurse wounded soldiers, teaching as a private tutor, and training to become a secretary - a job she hoped would be more fulfilling.

Her spare time was spent blackberrying with her sisters, entertaining friends to tea, playing bridge, and keeping in touch with Spencer, her husband-to-be who was a naval officer serving aboard the battleship HMS Ajax.

Friday, October 1
Pages from Madge's 1915 diary 
Germans have 120,000 casualties in this last week's fighting!!
Sylvia and I went over Lodmore to get blackberries but very few.
Massandra [Hospital] 7-10pm, as Mina said so short-handed, but really heaps of nurses so came home early (8.30). Many new patients at Massandra who were fighting on Sunday - some sleeping on floor!

Saturday, October 2
Taught in morning only, very wet day.
Kings to tea. Then Rosie and I went to great Recruting meeting in Alexandra Gardens - (last attempt of voluntary service?) Patriotic band and speeches by Gens Pink and Johnson and the Mayor etc. They got about 10 recruits, including a policeman and an old man from Co-operative Stores with two sons fighting.

Sunday, October 3
St Johns [Church] 8.30am & 11am. Wet day.

Monday, 4 October
Taught. Dentist 12.30.
Went with M.Onslow [a friend] to first shorthand class, very difficult.

Tuesday, October 5
Taught. Dentist 12.30, two teeth stopped [filled].
Bulgaria coming in against us.
Sylvia and I to Bridge [card game] with Mrs Davis, Mrs Yates, and a boy from Spain. M.Lithgow there.

Wednesday, October 6
Mrs O had letter with form to fill in from London Board of Trade about posts in military hospitals.
Letter from Spencer.
Taught. Norrises to tea.

Thursday, October 7
In afternoon, town with Rosie to get her fitted [for a dress]. Lithgows to tea. Horrible King of Greece [Constantine, brother-in-law of the German Kaiser] has dismissed Venizelos (pro-Ally, premier) so they won't come to aid of Serbia as per treaty.

Friday, October 8
Photo of Ajax officers from Spencer.
Dentist 12.30, tooth stopped and bad tooth painted.
Town in afternoon, bought scent and writing paper.
Learnt shorthand.
Mary Sanctuary to tea, Mrs Chris Russell at Princess Christian Hospital told her, her brother in law was so awfully keen on me, but didn't think it fair to propose in war time!!!

A few days later, on October 13, Madge reported: 'Zep raid on London last night, 150 about casualties.' This raid - one of many on Britain during the war - had involved five airships and killed 71 Londoners. Despite such depressing war news, however, Madge did have something to smile about at the end of the month. After weeks of visiting the dentist she finally wrote on October 30: 'Tooth out with cocaine [used as anaesthetic], old wisdom, it didn't hurt, but bled all afternoon and evening.'

You can read more of Madge's diary, and those of her sisters and mother, in Weymouth, Dorchester & Portland in the Great War, which has just been published by Pen and Sword Books - one of their very popular 'Towns and Cities in the Great War' series. Extracts from the Sneyd-Kynnersley diaries also appear in my first book Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

Friday, 2 October 2015

'The village of Loos was a mass of ruins, death and destruction'

Fred Silvester's cousin Maggie, in white 
This autumn's 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos has prompted much to be written about the offensive, the largest to be launched by the British on the Western Front in 1915. Known as 'The Big Push', it began on 25 September and the aim was to restore a war of movement to a conflict that had become mired in the trenches. The battle was fought in and around the town of Loos, in north-east France, and was part of a much larger Allied attack on German lines in the Artois and Champagne region.

This was the first time the British used poison gas (chlorine) against the enemy. It also saw the first mass engagement of Kitchener's New Army volunteers on the battlefront. But despite initial successes, troops soon became bogged down in attritional fighting and, when the offensive was finally called off in October, the British had suffered 50,000 casualties. German losses were estimated to be much lower, at just half of the British total.

Fighting at Loos, where the British first used poison gas
Those are the facts viewed from a historical perspective100 years later ... but what was it like for soldiers who were actually there, fighting on the ground? Lance Corporal Fred Silvester described it all to his cousin, Maggie, in a letter I discovered while researching my book Letters from the Trenches.

Fred was a shipping clerk from Herne Hill, London, who enlisted as a volunteer with the First Surrey Rifles when war broke out. Maggie lived in Wallasey, on Merseyside, and although no picture of Fred exists, a family photo still survives that shows his cousin as a girl (above).

Below is the letter she received from Fred, dated 21 October 1915:
 "After reading about the big advance and the capture of Loos, no doubt you wondered if our regiment took part in it, Yes we did. The Territorials [Fred's was a Territorial unit] led off the attack – our own division, namely the 47th  and three lines of German trenches were captured, also many prisoners and guns, before being held up. Our battalion did not go forward at first but gave covering fire to protect those going forward and draw the enemy fire on ourselves. We went into Loos two days after the advance to relieve some of the Guards and found the village a mass of ruins, death and destruction being everywhere. Of course the Germans shelled us very heavily and we had some lucky escapes – one big shell dropped about 10 yds from us and must have wiped out many but fortunately for us who were near it did not explode. This is quite a common occurrence with German shells now.
"Our battalion were relieved from the trenches last Saturday night for a 48 hours rest and on arriving at a billet found awaiting for me your splendid parcel which was very welcome, so please accept my very best thanks. We came up to the line again on Monday night and for certain reasons found that a new firing  had to be made in front of us and this of course had to be done under cover of darkness so the peppermints and lozenges came in very handy for the nights are very chilly and one cannot work continually, although willing, at such a violent exercise.
"When it came to our turn to be relieved we had been about 30 days in the trenches and part of this time the weather was very bad, raining continually and sometimes the water was up to our thighs in the communication trenches so you can guess we were glad to get out for a while.
"You ask me about my promotion. Yes it does entail more work and more responsibility for I am in charge of a section and have to see that they get their meals and be responsible for those men in their work. Winter I dread and now what it means is longer hours on duty for while it is dark everyone must be on  –  and bitter cold days, but still it's in all parts – this [is] great work and we must not grumble. Thank God it is not in our own country.
"Well Maggie I could write you a volume but you can guess there is very little time to spare for oneself in the trenches so you must forgive me for not writing more at present. I am pleased that you are all well and hope you will continue to enjoy good health. As for myself I am very well apart for a cold but that will soon [blow] itself away. Before closing many thanks once more to you all for the tuck-box."
Fred was killed at Vimy Ridge in May 1916, aged 25

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Adrian Lea

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Great War in Europe that nobody was expecting!

Irish home-rule poster
When the first rumblings of war were heard in Europe during the summer of 1914, it took most ordinary British people by surprise. Most assumed that, if there was to be any trouble at all, it would be Ireland where the demand for home-rule had been causing mounting tension.

This was certainly the opinion of Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol, when news of war came through after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinant in Serbia. In a journal she kept throughout the Great War, the following entry reveals how she - and many others like her - were taken completely by surprise:
The summer term was just completed and the holidays commencing, when on Tuesday, July 28 1914, the evening newspaper boys were shouting in the streets ‘War declared’. We had all been wondering and speculating as to whether there would be war in Ireland or not, as there has been much quarrelling and many disturbances there in connection with the Home Rule Question, so naturally one jumped to the conclusion that it had been decided at last to have war, but much to our surprise, we found that it was not in connection with Ireland  at all, but it was a little war between Austria and Servia [sic] which seemed, at the time, as though it would not affect us in any way.
Mabel called to see us and told us what a shock it had given her when she heard the newsboys calling out ‘War Declared’ as she quite thought then that we were to have a Civil War in Ireland. She said ‘I was so relieved to find that it was only a little war between Austria and Servia ... We none of us then knew or imagined what this little war was going to lead to.”
When Britain declared war on Germany a few weeks later, most Irish people backed the governement regardless of political affiliation, and the Irish 'troubles' died down for a while. But violence flared up unexpectedly in 1916 when republicans mounted an armed insurrection during Easter Week which lasted six days and became known as the Easter Rising.

Executed: Irish republican
Joseph Plunkett
The British Army used its vastly superior numbers and artillery to suppress the rising quickly and the ringleaders were rounded up, court-martialled and executed. Among them was Joseph Plunkett who came from a family of republicans. His brothers George and Jack were also sentenced to be shot, but both had their sentences commuted to ten years' penal servitude. They spent six months in the formidable Portland Prison, in Dorset, and their arrival on the island was witnessed by nine-year-old Mary Bool, whose recollections later in life are among many fascinating WW1 memories held by Portland Heritage Trust:
One day I was down the yard and was watching prisoners being unloaded. One of them was a member of the Plunkett family, a leader of the rebellion. They were difficult prisoners and the guards had quite a lot of trouble with them. When they were coming off the ship’s cutters and whalers and up onto Camber Pier, one of them got up on one of the bollards and sang 'Danny Boy' and there was loud cheering and hurrah-ing and all sorts. 
They were marched away up to the prison, and all night long they would be calling out from their cells to one another and keeping people awake singing Irish songs. Our home was about half a mile from the prison but, if the wind was in the south-east, we could hear them plainly. One of them, maybe the one who stood on the bollard in the dockyard had a very good voice, a tenor.
Mary Bool's recollections - and those of other children who grew up on Portland during the First World War - appear in my new book, Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War, which is out in October 2015. You can read more from Maude Boucher's WW1 journal in my books Letters from the Trenches and Bristol in the Great War.

The formidable Portland Prison: 'All night long prisoners would be calling out from their cells'

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A heartwarming welcome for the boys far from home

A cheering feature of the First World War - although not one generally remembered today - were the friendships struck up between soldiers and the families in whose homes they were billeted while training for the Front. Many volunteer soldiers were sent to distant parts of the country to prepare for the fighting and it was often a great comfort to stay with families like their own, especially for those had never been away from home.

In some cases, soldiers were even treated like sons - perhaps by couples who had already lost their own - and when the day came to say goodbye, plenty of tears were shed. Many kept in touch by letter, like this soldier who was billeted with a Mr and Mrs Otter on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. SJ James wrote to them from Gallipoli at the end of 1915, where the weather was turning nasty and the Allies were facing defeat. Sadly, one of the other men who had been billeted with him had already been killed:

The letter written by SJ James to his Portland hosts
 'Just a line to wish you all a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year. We shall be up in the trenches on Xmas day but we hope to have as good a time as possible under the present circumstances on New Year’s Day when we shall be in our rest camp. I am in pretty good health just now and hope you are all in the best of health too … I wish we were all there at Portland again having a good time billeted with you, but alas that will never be for poor Fred has gone under ... It is bitterly cold out here now and of course it will be worse when our winter really starts in January. There are very few of our old hands left now, and only one I can really call a chum. Again wishing you all the compliments of the season.

I discovered this letter at Weymouth Museum while researching my new book Weymouth, Dorset and Portland in the Great War (out in October). Interestingly, I also discovered that not everyone on Portland had such fond memories of the visiting troops. Ethel Braund was seven when war broke out, and her recollections of the Great War are held by Portland Heritage Trust:
‘Ours was one of the few houses that had a bathroom and they wanted mother to take an officer. She said she couldn’t undertake to look after an officer, she didn’t realize he’d have his own servant to look after him and she thought she would have to look after him. She’d got a big family of small children at the time so they, very meanly, billeted the three roughest men in the lot – and they were a rough lot – on her. I remember them; I remember them, they were terrible.’
At around the same time in Northamptonshire, a Mrs Searle had obviously grown very fond of Private Tom Fake, when he was billeted with her at the end of 1916 before being sent to France. Once he'd departed, however, she was unable to write to him because censorship prevented him disclosing his address, so she wrote instead to his wife in Bristol:
Private Tom Fake,
like a son to Mrs Searle
Dear Mrs Fake, 
Mr Searle and I were more than please to receive the photo also letter from you ... I am glad Tom is alright I had a field card from him, dated 15th Dec. but of course no address so I really could not write to him but shall do now at my first opportunity. I feel awfully grieved for you but I hope you will keep bright for your dear little boy's sake [the Fakes had a young son] and I hope and trust that Tom will be spared so that you will be able to live that happy and contented life once again. I remain yours very sincerelyMrs A Searle 
PS I shall be happy to hear from you again when you can spare the time
Tom Fake survived the war and more of his story and letters can be read in my books Bristol in the Great War and Letters from the Trenches. Sadly, I wasn't able to find out anything else about SJ James, except that he served with the Royal Naval Division. If anyone reading this can shed light on him, I'd love to hear from you.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Weymouth Museum / Portland Heritage Trust / JackieCarpenter

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

'We've come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz!'

We're in it together: American and British servicemen share a
muddy moment at Yate air base in 1919 (Yate Heritage Centre
When American GIs were stationed in Britain during the Second World War, their 'un-English' ways put a lot of noses out of joint. 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here!' was a complaint muttered fairly often by locals who were unaccustomed to what they considered brash behaviour.

Similar feelings may have been aroused during the First World War, too, when American servicemen began arriving in Britain on their way to the Front, for accounts written at the time reveal that the Americans announced themselves as a fairly ebullient bunch. Among them was Corporal Ned Steel of Kansas City, who spent two months at the Third Western Aero Repair Depot at Yate, north of Bristol, in 1918.

'Twas the afternoon of April 20th when we arrived there, the first American soldiers to set foot in these parts, and we created no small commotion...Wherever we went in the next two months of our visit, the hospitality was unabounded. Talk about appreciation! Those Englishmen saw in us the reserve strength of the Allies come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz.'

The ocean liner Aquitania, which served as a troopship in WW1
Steel belonged to a squadron of airmen that had crossed the Atlantic aboard the Aquitania, formerly a Cunard ocean-liner which served as a troop-carrier and hospital ship during the conflict. Its sister ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915 with the loss of many American civilian lives. This catastrophe was one of the reasons that prompted the US to enter the war in 1917.

During the crossing, Steel and his friends had been amused at the differences between themselves and the British. They gently mocked the way everything the Brits said was littered with mild curses. Even when the Aquitania's history was being explained, wrote Steel, every other word seemed to be 'bloody': 'The ship had been in the hospital service between the bloody Dardanelles and England. This was her first bloody voyage as a bloody troop ship.' The Americans also smiled at the British penchant for keeping meals simple, with Steel mimicking: 'My Gosh! Fish for breakfast?'

But the ribbing stopped when the Americans stepped ashore, to be greeted by warm and enthusiastic crowds. Perhaps for the first time, they began to understand the high price the British had already paid for the war:

'April 11, 1918 we awoke at the wharves of Liverpool. Then began our welcome in England. Ferries plying the muddy Mersey were lined with people waving handkerchiefs at us. And when we had landed a little later and were marching to our train through the uptown district of Liverpool great crowds along the way watched us. Crowds, mostly of women, they were - and rosy-cheeked girls. Young men were conspicuous by their scarcity, in fact were almost a minus quantity. It came to us forcibly then that England was doing her utmost in manpower, and some of our prejudice vanished.'

Steel appears to have been charmed by his rail journey south to Bristol:

'With a squad to each compartment on our funny looking coaches we started across "Merry Old England". The dinky little engine quite surprised us with its speed. What a beautiful country it green grass covering every inch of untilled ground...stone walls...everything clean and tidy...for once the Californians were mum.'

He noted how few level crossings there were, with the train more often going over bridges or under roads: 'Only once in England did we see a wagon road intersect the railroad's right of way and then strong gates of iron shut out the traffic and the watchman tended them as the train went by.' At Bristol the men changed trains for Yate ('a town with one street').

Men of the American Air Service form a 'propellor' at
Yate air base in August 1918 (Yate Heritage Centre)
Steel's description of his time in Blighty is in a book he wrote about the history of his unit, the 822nd (Repair) Squadron, a copy of which is held at Yate Heritage Centre. I discovered it while researching my own book Bristol in the the Great War, in which I included an entertaining account of the Bristol girls he met. In comparison with the ladies he had left behind they were much more forward, welcoming Steel and his friends with open arms, offering to buy them drinks, scrounging cigarettes and even asking for a goodnight kiss !

In the workplace, Steel observed the different manner in which the two nationalities set about their jobs: 'The common impression among us in regard to Tommy was that he was slow but thorough. "Swinging the lead" (taking it easy) was quite universal in the [work]shops when the flight sergeants and officers weren't around. When it came to turning out first class products, however, Tommy was there'.

Meanwhile: 'Tommy was penning his impressions of us: how Sam carried himself as tho' he owned the world, was free-and-easy and took no rough talk from his non-coms [non-commissioned officers].'

Steel concluded: 'When the history of this war is written, let it be remembered that the American Aviaition Squadrons stationed in England did their bit by strengthening the hearts and wills of their English cousins at an hour when the war looked darkest to them.'

Confident words indeed, but after a few weeks in France things would often look rather different to the fresh young men who arrived from America with bags of enthusiasm but little experience of trench warfare. Such a caution were sent home by George Swales, one of the first American soldiers to arrive in France whose his story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches. In a letter to his wife he wrote:

I hope the Yanks don’t think they are going to have a walkover for they are in for a surprise. I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what it was and I expected it to be rough but it’s worse than what Sherman [an American general] said war was. It will take some of the swank out of them before they are two weeks in the trenches.’

Monday, 15 June 2015

The dreaded knock at the door that signalled bad news

Vera Brittain

The terrible moment when families received bad news from the Front has often been written about and is one of the abiding images of the First World War. Vera Brittain's account of the day she learnt her brother was dead is particularly chilling: ‘There came the sudden loud clattering at the front-door knocker that always meant a telegram. For a moment I thought that my legs would not carry me, but they behaved quite normally as I got up and went to the door. I knew what was in the telegram.’

Whether it was a telegram (usually reserved for officers) or a letter, the bald facts could not be softened: a loved one had been killed far from home and life would never be the same again. It was a natural reaction to try and find out more about the circumstances of death, how exactly a father, husband, brother or friend had died, and many wrote back asking for more details.

Far from home: graves at the battlefront
Painful as they are, the replies were often kept by families and some can be read in my book Letters from the Trenches. Below is one written to the sister of Second Corporal Rockett, who was killed on the battlefield in the spring of 1918. It was written by an army captain whose tone is weary, his letter almost formulaic: first the facts, then an offer of further help, followed by an expression of sympathy and praise for the soldier's heroism.

16th April 1918

"Dear Miss Rockett,

I duly received your letter of 11th inst addressed to the chaplain.  As there is at present no chaplain for this company I am giving you a short account of what happened to your brother 2nd Cpl Rockett. From the accounts of various men who were present at the time, your brother was shot through the head with a bullet. He was in the act of bandaging a wounded man at the time and his death appears to have been instantaneous. As our men were forced to retire from their position at that time, your brother’s body had to be left behind.
If there are any further particulars you would like I shall do my best to obtain them for you.
I should like to take this opportunity of expressing to you and your relations my deepest sympathy with you all in your great loss.
I myself had formed the very highest opinion of your brother and when I heard the sad news of his death I was more than sorry.
I trust that it may be some small satisfaction and consolation to you at this time of sorrow to know the heroic manner in which your brother met his death and also to know that he was very highly thought of by all the officers and men of the company. He was so thoroughly reliable and willing at all times, that his death is a great loss to the company.
Once again I would assure you of my heartfelt sympathy at this time."

An ambulance at the Front desperately tries
to reach the dead and wounded
There is no reason to believe that this isn't an accurate account of what happened to Second Corporal Rockett. But history suggests that families were often given a sanitised version of the truth, without the gruesome details of a death that may have been far from heroic. Not only was this kinder for all concerned, it was also vital if support for the war at home was to be maintained.

Such 'glossing-over' was the subject of one of Siegried Sasson's most disturbing - and heartbreaking -

The Hero

Jack fell as he'd have wishes,' the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read. 
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried 
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

In the chaos of war, who could know where the truth lay?

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

Friday, 29 May 2015

Can you help put names to these WW1 German faces?

Above and below are photos belonging to an unknown
German soldier, that were found in a wallet on the
Western Front - can you identify them?
Can anyone help identify the faces in the photographs on this page? They show the family and friends of a German soldier of the First World War and were found in a black leather wallet on the Western Front by a British artilleryman, Arthur Youell, who kept them as a ‘souvenir’. Nothing is known about those pictured, nor the soldier to whom the photos belonged, and for the last 100 years they have lain unidentified in the keeping of Arthur Youell’s nephew, John Sherwood.

Mr Sherwood, who allowed me to use his uncle's letters in my book Letters from the Trenches has always been very keen to discover more about the photos, so I am hoping that readers may be able to shed light on them. Here is what we know so far ... 

Corporal Arthur Youell, a farmer's son from Malton in Yorkshire, arrived in France with the Royal Garrison Artillery in July 1916 – the earliest date the photographs could have been found.  He discovered them in a black leather wallet and the assumption is that Youell picked them up on the battlefield or in a captured German trench, and that their owner was already dead. It is not known exactly where on the Front they were found, but it was common for soldiers to send home 'souvenirs' of war.

The wallet contained 18 beautifully-kept photographs, among them were pictures of young boys posing proudly in military uniform, and a baby on a rug. Most were studio portraits but there were also pictures of soldiers in the field. One bore the postmark 'Feld-Art.-Regt. 27' and two had faint messages on the back (see below). Some were taken by studio photographers in the German town of Weinheim, and in March a story was published by the local Weinheim newspaper appealing for information, but sadly no answers were forthcoming. 

Arthur Youell wrote regularly to his family but there is no reference to the photographs in his letters. His correspondence was, however, full of vivid and well-observed description – ranging from the cacophony of battle to the everyday details of life as an artilleryman – and you can read extracts in my book Letters from theTrenches. Here, for example, he describes the awesome sight of Allied howitzers in action:

'Each time they flung their massive "iron rations" over the German lines we could see the projectile whirling away and growing smaller and smaller till it passed the culminating point and vanished from sight. These shells are so heavy that two men are required to lift one of them, so what enormous power must be concentrated in that small charge – power sufficient to throw one of those heavy missiles a distance of half a dozen miles and more.'

Corporal Youell, a gun layer with the 126 Siege Battery, survived the conflict and returned home at the end of the war to run his own farm. Like so many First World War veterans, he spoke little of his experiences on the battlefield, and certainly not about the mementoes he picked up.

So on Mr Sherwood’s behalf I am asking readers if they can help shed light on the photos, which obviously belonged to a soldier who came from a loving family. Sadly the soldier was probably dead when his wallet was found, but it's just possible that it fell from his pocket when he was alive and that he survived the war. To trace his family and discover what happened to him after 100 years would be wonderful, so please spread the word in any way you can - especially if you have contacts in Germany.

You can get in touch with me by leaving a message at the end of this post. Or via Twitter @soldiersletters. Or email me at
I look forward to hearing from you.

Above, a message on the back of one
of the photos (can anyone translate it?)
and, below, the postmark on another

Some of the photographs with the black leather
wallet in which they were found on the Western Front