Friday, 27 February 2015

'School blown to the ground, little hats and coats all over the place'

Private Philip Luxton
One hundred years ago, Philip Luxton, a devoted husband and father of two, had just arrived in France with the Second Battalion, the Welsh Regiment. He came from the mining town of Abertillery, South Wales, and wrote regularly to his family, discussing the sort of thing that concerned all volunteer soldiers: food, weather, letters that had or hadn't arrived from home, and the need for cigarettes. He also described some of destruction he had already witnessed, and how Sunday - a day of rest at home - was just like any other day at the Front.

Private Luxton's story - and that of his wife, Hannah - is told in my book 'Letters from the Trenches'. Below are some extracts from his letters; more will appear on my blog in April.

22 February 1915

Dear Hannah [his wife], just a few lines to let you know I am allright and I hope you and the children are enjoying good health. ...Fancy doing a long route march on a Sunday, fancy what they would say in old England. We are having plenty of good food here that's one good thing. I have wrote to father so I hope he will answer my lettre and send me some fags, for they are most needed.

3 March 1915

I suppose you are thinking of me but no more than what I am of you. I am having a bit of a tent life at last. There is 12 of our chaps in a tent that is as big as our Henry had. I have never seen more soldiers in my life than what is here at the present time, there are thousands of all sorts here, Indians and all , but I am enjoying splendid health here but it is hard life I assure you but I can put up with it.

6 March 1915

Dear Wife, just a line to let you know that I am allright and in the best of health and I hope you and the children are the same. It is turned a fortnight now since I landed in this country and I have not heard a word from you yet, but it is my fault for I have not been giving you the right address, but  if you will address your letter as I have put it down on this letter I am sure it will find me, even if I gets shifted from here...I wish you would sent me out this week's Gazette for I heard one of the riders was killed in our pit.

22 March 1915

Dear Wife, you can tell the children I have seen a school as big as theirs blown all to the ground and it seems they had to leave it all in a hurry for they left their little coats and hats all over the place. The Germans did not leave one single house standing for they are all blown to the ground. I went through a public house and there was the beer barrels in the cellar, but the beer out here is not worth drinking, on pint of our beer is worth a barrel of this out here.

23 March

I was reading on the Gazette a few letters from some Abertillery boys at the front and the one that tickled me most was the one sent by Mr Stewart's son, it says about his plucky action, for I can tell you it is a [sic] action we have all got to do for we can't get to trenches without shot and shell whizzing over you so he have only done is [sic] duty which lies with us all. Dear Wife this Easter will find me in a far different place to last, but let us hope we will be together again in the following Easter. Now I must close having no more to say at present. So I must wish good night and God bless to you all.

From your loving husband Phil

(Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Anne Holland)

Saturday, 21 February 2015

A tribute to Britain's original Great War soldiers

Chatting over past times: me with Claire, left, and Andy
It took more than two years to research and write my book Letters from the Trenches, and during that time I not only learned a huge amount about the First World War, I also met many kind people who shared their families' WW1 letters and diaries with me.

Most got in touch after reading my appeal for letters in magazines and newspapers, including Claire Stewart and Andy Goodenough who read about my project in the Bristol Post. They are the grandchildren of one of my book's more prominent characters, Sergeant George Fairclough, of the 4th Queen's Own Hussars, and it was therefore a real pleasure to meet up with them for lunch recently at Thornbury Castle (no less!) - especially as Andy was on a trip from his home in South Africa.

A very good time was had by all, as you can see from the post-lunch photo above, and it was fascinating to chat to Claire and Andy about their grandfather. He served with the original British Expeditionary Force, regular soldiers who were fighting and dying long before the volunteers of Kitchener's Army had set foot in France. George Fairclough's letters and diary tell an unusual and dramatic tale which you can read in Letters from the Trenches (for book details see the tab at the top of the page). He also features in an article I have written for Warfare, Pen and Sword Books' online magazine, which you can read here: The Action-Packed Diary of a WW1 Cavalryman.

While on the subject of the British Expeditionary Force, below is poignant a letter written by another of the so-called 'old contemptibles', Corporal Saddler Ernest Pollikett, who served with the 10th (Prince of Wales Own) Royal Hussars. He was writing to his sister-in-law from France almost 100 years ago exactly, when the weather was atrocious and troops were doing their best to maintain morale.

6th March 1915
B.E.Force, France

Dear Emily,

Ernest Pollikett
I am well and in the best of health and not at all downhearted as we are not in the habit of getting downhearted as it takes something to get British troops dishearted [sic] I can tell you, especially if one has been through it all together. The weather over here has been and still [is] very bad, water and mud everywhere, we shall appreciate some fine weather when it comes to get this big job over. I think [it] will take a long time yet to come. What a blessing it will be when it is all over and the world at peace again.

I cannot tell you anything particular as all letters are censored but no doubt you will be glad to know I am all right at present and I am very thankful to you for your parcel and its contents.  You may be sure it was quite appreciated over here under the circumstances we find ourselves, we all share round to our chums what we have sent to us, but surely you must have denied and deprived yourselves of much to send it me being as living is so dear in England at present. Things are very very dear in France and not so good as in good old England, in fact some places you cannot get anything, but of course we get our rations and plenty of it, not like it was in S Africa [Pollikett served in the Boer War] when sometimes we nearly went starving.

I am glad you have heard from Louie [his wife], I thank God she was protected when the bomb was dropped [this is probably a reference to a raid by Zeppelin airships]. I know the soldier very well whose house it destroyed, I was only talking to him the other day before I left for the front.

But how we all long for that day to come when peace shall be proclaimed and come back to dear old England and to civil life again, but I am afraid that day is a long way off yet and we all need to pray that God in his own good time will bring this terrible crisis to an early close, and I can tell you there are men over here who never prayed in their lives before pray now. O what a difference when men have to face death nearly every day, it makes some think and some quite the reverse. I pray that God if it is his will I will be spared to see my dear Louie and dear children [the couple had two] once again, not as if I am a coward, not at all, but we all want to see our loved ones once again. But is all the difference if one is a Christian, he or she is not afraid to die where others are. I am sorry to say I know quite a number who have gone under, some real good fellows.

God bless you and remain yours sincerely,  Ern


Tragically, Ernest, who is thought to have belonged to the Salvation Army, was killed at Ypres two months after this letter was written. 'The only story we have is that after a shell attack he went out to collect the wounded, but another shell fell close by wounding him,' explained Ernest's great-niece Liz Moore. 'More soldiers came out to collect the wounded, but Ernest told them to collect others who were in a worse state than he was. Before the soldiers could return, another shell killed him.' Ernest is buried at Boesinghe in Belgium. An extract from his letter features in Letters from the Trenches.

(Copyright ©  2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Liz Moore)

Saturday, 14 February 2015

'Fancy seeing us galloping over the trenches picking off Germans'

The surroundings of this place is very pretty,' wrote Jim Swasbrick from  Salisbury Plain (above, with
Stonehenge in the background) where he was based at army camp in 1916

Jim Swasbrick
Continued from the previous post...

After months stuck in Egypt when he was desperate to join the fighting, Australian Jim Swasbrick finally made it to Europe in the summer of 1916, writing letters from army camp at Salisbury Plain (where he was joined by his brother Dave) and then from France. Jim's story had begun in such high spirits: 'I will bring a piece of the Kaiser home for you to have a look at,' he wrote to his sister shortly after enlisting in 1914, but sadly there was no happy ending. He was was killed at the First Battle of Bullecourt, France, in 1917. Jim is one of several Australian soldiers whose stories and lively correspondence you can read in my book Letters from the Trenches. More details about the book can be found by clicking the tab at the top of the page. But for now, let me hand you back to Jim...

Park House Camp,
Salisbury, England
21 June 1916                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
My Dear Sister
Just a few lines to let you no [sic] Dave and l arrived safely in England, we had a good trip over and it is a very nise [sic] camp that we are in. It has been very cold hear [sic] this last few day but we have nice huts to live in so we don’t notice it so much, the surroundings of this place is very pretty, it is hard to discribe [sic] so l will send you some photos of it and you will see for yourself what it is like.

We are going to have a holiday and we are going to make the best of it as we are amongst the Germans hear, so one don’t no how long he is going to last as they are fighting very hard, but it is only in vain, they are beat and will soon give in. The Russians are running them down it's a good sign that they are tiring out.

Dave is keeping well, he and his mate is cooking for our squadron, and they are dishing us up...roast meat, mashed potatoes for dinner every day, sausage meat and bacon for breakfast, so you see we are not doing bad...Hoping you are all well as it leaves me the same.

9th Lancers cap badge
England, mid-1916
(only one page surviving)

The badge that you can see on this paper is the nineth [sic], Lancers badge [9th Queen's Royal Lancers], that is the regerment [sic] that we are attached to. They are a fine lot of boys to be with, you can fancy seeing us galloping over the trenches picking germans off on the point of them, it aught [sic] to be good sport...Remember me to all at home, poor old Dave get very home sick at times.

Tidworth, England
17 August 1916

Dear Maggie, Just a few lines trusting that you are keeping well, as Dave and l are in the best of health at presant [sic]. I sent a cable to you seven weeks ago [asking] for thirty pound and as l have got no reply I don’t no what to make of it. If you did not get the cable let me no by return mail and l will stir some of these heads up or l will get my money back. If you haven't sent the money before you get this letter would you kindly cable it without delay as it miserable been hear without any money. I hope you won't dissapoint [sic] me in delaying sending it along. I haven’t received a letter from any of you for four month now so l don’t no what the divel [sic] is going wrong. Dave had a letter from you a few days ago, you said that you sent some hankerchiefs [sic] to him and I, but they have not got hear yet...Well l will close for this time, remember me to all.

Some Where in France
10 December 1916

My Dear Sister
Just a few lines in answer to your ever welcome letter that l received today. I was very pleased to hear that you are all in good health as it found us both the same...You might think it hard not hearing from us but it is no fault of ours. The heads would not allow any letter to be sent away. All we could send was a field card and Dave sent some to all of you. We only come out of the trenches two days ago and this has been the first chance of writing a letter and the mail closes today so one don’t get much of a chance to write many letters. This mail l have got quite a lot to write. l got nine letters last night, it was the most letters l got in one lot since l've been over hear.

Well Maggie, we had nine days in the trenches and come up save  [sic] and sound. It was very cold and damp. Dave took the shell fire very well for the first time but he did not seem to realise where he was for a while...The first evening we went up to the front line Dave must stand on top of the parapet and have a look around not thinking of what he was doing. I looked around and saw him and l did roar him up for it and he has been careful since.

Well Maggie l received the pair of socks that you sent for me and they where what l wanted. I got the letter that you sent the hanckrieff  [sic] in, but there was no hanckrieff in it. Daves was missing too. Well l will draw this to a close for this time as Dave is waiting for the pad to write some. Give my love to all at home tell them l am alright. Ta Tar with fondest love. Wishing you a merry xmas and Happy New Year


That is the final letter of Jim's that still survives. The Swasbrick brothers remained together on the Western Front until 11 April 1917 when both took part in the Battle of Bullecourt. 'Their unit lay in snow before going over the top at 4am. It was murderous. Although some men managed to find their way into the German trenches they were driven back by a counter-attack later that day,' said Richard Crispin, Dave Swasbrick's grandson. Red Cross reports record Jim being hit by a machine gun on the barbed wire and after the battle he was posted missing then, later, killed in action. His body was never identified but his name is remembered on the wall at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

Dave was wounded but returned to his unit and survived the war. He married a girl from London in 1919 - Richard's grandmother - and they moved out to Australia. 'What a shock it must have been for her, from inner London to the back blocks of Australia, no electricity or running water, and bringing up nine kids!' said Richard. 'I remember her fondly as a lively and happy old lady. I was too young then to ask her the questions I would like to ask now.'

(Copyright ©  2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Richard Crispin)

Saturday, 7 February 2015

'Tell them I have not kicked the bucket yet!'

Jim Swasbrick:
desperate to get
to the fighting
Continuing from my previous post, here are some more letters written by Jim Swasbrick, the WW1 Aussie soldier who was desperate to join the fighting but, to his frustration, was stuck in the relative calm of Egypt for much of 1915 and 1916. When he wrote to his sister in October 1915, he was full of disappointment having just been pulled out of a draft that was about to leave Alexandria for Gallipoli. The reason? Jim's experience with horses was too badly needed where he was - he served as a driver with the 1st Light Horse Brigade, AIF. As if this wasn't enough, his mood was darkened further by the miserable army food rations, lack of money, and biscuits so hard they had broken his teeth...

17 October 1915

Dear Maggie
I am sending you some Xmas cards today. They are the only thing that l can afford to buy at present and l hope you receive them safely. Well Maggie l am very sorry to say l have not received the tobacco that you and Mary sent to me, it is the hardest thing in the war to get what is sent to you. The heads don't seem to care about complaints made through the papers every day but we can't get anything done for us, we can't even get butter or jam to eat now, we are on starvation rations, so l don’t know how they are going to keep us fit for fighting if they won't give us enough food to eat in this rotten hole.

Things are very quiet over hear [sic] now, nothing doing at all. It broke me up when l got stopped at Alexandera [sic] so l don’t care what becomes of me now. I thought l was right for the Dardenelles but a wire was sent to stop me there, so l have give up now, l don’t care if l never get there now. I toled [sic] the general he could  send me back home if he liked but he would not do that. I have been fourteen month in the army and l haven’t a mark on my crime sheet yet. But it won't be my fault if l haven’t got it full of crimes before another twelve month is over my head, while a man has got a good carictor [sic] he will never get away from hear. So l will see if l can get away by [making] a dam fool of myself.

I have not been too well lately but l am on the mend again. It is coming on winter again and their [sic] is sort of sickness going about especily Mederterrian [sic] Fever, it is very bad, l have missed it so far. I hope you won't delay in sending me some money for Xmas Maggie or l will have a starvation day. I had a good dinner last year but l had plenty of money then.
With fondest love to you all. Wishing you a merry Xmas and a happy New Year.

28 January 1916

Dear Maggie
Just a few lines to let you no [sic] l am still alive and going strong. l wish l was on my way home instead of this letter, we are having a good time hear [sic] now as there is not much doing except the carting of fodder for the horse and that only takes half a day. There was a sports meeting ... today but l did not go down, l am getting too lazy to lace my boots up now, l will be too lazy to work any more after this [is] over. And l don’t think it will be very long, this spring will see the finish of it or l am a bad judge of war, [the] fighting is all in our favour.

Well Maggie l have got to ask you to send me another £10 if you will by cable as l have broken four of my teeth off eating those dam [sic] hard biscuits, false teeth is no good for them. I tried to get them from the milatry [sic] but they have that many to do since they [fellow Anzac troops] came back from Garlopoli [sic] that it would be months before l could get them, but they told me if l got them done privatly [sic] they would refund the money.

I hope you got the cusion [sic] cover l sent to you, I sent one for each of you [his sisters]. They were not much but l will take some nice pieces when going back, it is not worth chancing with dear stuff as it might go the same way as your parcel went. Well dear Sister l will close for this time, hoping it find you in as good a health as it leaves me. Remember me to all around home, tell them l have not kicked the bucket yet.

Jim couldn't wait to join his
fellow Anzacs at Gallipoli

NEXT POST: Jim's finally off to the Western Front

(Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Richard Crispin)