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)

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