Thursday, 26 March 2015

'We dry our clothes by sitting in the sun whenever possible'

Maggie, in the white, with her family in 1900.
The letters her cousin, Fred, sent her from France
made clear the harshness of trench life
It's sometimes easy to forget that life in the trenches wasn't one relentless round of combat. There were often relatively 'quiet' times too, although things were rarely restful, and this is made clear in a letter written by Lance Corporal Fred Silvester to his cousin Maggie in Wallasey. Fred, who came from Herne Hill in London, had worked as a shipowner's clerk before the war and enlisted with the 1st Surrey Rifles in September 1914. Within a year he found himself on the Western Front.

When he wrote the following letter in August 1915 there was a lull in the fighting, but Fred still had plenty to contend with, including stomach problems, arrogant young new recruits, and miserable weather conditions.

4th August, 1915

'Dear Maggie,

'The parcel came last Saturday morning + many thanks indeed for both letter and parcel. The latter, you see, took eleven days to reach me. Everything was in good condition except the sausages, + those I had to throw away, because they had turned a bit green.

'I am pleased to see you are all keeping well, + hope this will continue. As for myself, I have had stomach trouble the last two or three days + have had to go to the hospital for treatment, where I am at the present moment. It is nothing serious, but I just needed a little doctoring + hope to be discharged in a day or two. This saught [sort] of thing is not to be wondered at out here when we have lived on nothing else for the last 4½ months on bully beef, biscuits, stew, potatoes, bread, jam, bacon + tea, + slept in damp clothes, in damp chalky dug-outs, nature must rebel against this sometime or other.

'Since writing you last we have had a heavy time of it going into the trenches for eight, ten + twelve days at a stretch + this has meant not only the usual firing line routine, but heavy working with the pick + shovel, day + night giving the fellows about four to five hours sleep a day + sometimes not that. When we have been relieved + going back for a few days rest we have still had to send out working parties every night to work with the engineers 8pm. until 2.30am, so you see we have not had a proper rest even out of the trenches.

'There is nothing very exciting to tell you as our part of the line has been quiet although I have seen some very fierce French + German artillery duels on our right. It is quite a common sight to see our aeroplanes going over the German lines + being heavily shelled, but I have never seen one brought down yet. Of course we get visits from the German aeroplanes + they are shelled by us + our airmen are soon after them, so they are soon hussled [hustled] out of it, but sometimes they get through. 

Although things have been quiet as regards rifle fire the Germans generally put over one or two light high explosives such as rifle grenades + trench mortars + once this was due to some of the new fellows of the new battalions exposing themselves over the parapet + making a target. When they first come out here they cannot realise the danger although it is a bit quiet. One of them made the remark that he had seen more excitement in a public house on a Saturday night, but he will change his views when he has to take part in an advance.

'The weather has been very trying. We had very heavy storms + the rain collects in the trenches to a depth of anything up to 2½ feet. Last Friday we had a heavy storm + we were wading up to our knees in water. This makes more work to bale it all out + then after that to clear the mud away. There is one good thing + that is the sun came out the next day + we were able to dry our clothes by sitting in the sun when possible. After all this our division is out at last + right back away from the firing line for a long rest + during our rest we hope to get some leave to come home for a few days + also have a few concerts. Well Maggie I have been rambling on + now must conclude but before doing so will say that I will endeavour to come to see you all at your new home when this affair is over. Thanking you once more for that parcel + trusting you are still well.

'Yours sincerely, Fred

'PS Yes, Ted [his brother] is out here but where I do not know. He is nowhere near me. I wish he was.'

Fred was killed in action, aged 25, the following year during the German assault at Vimy Ridge. His brother survived the war. You can read more from the letters of Lance Corporal Fred Silvester in my book 'Letters from the Trenches'.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Adrian Lea

Friday, 6 March 2015

'Pitiable plight' of Belgian refugees who fled brutal invasion

Belgians were driven out of their homes by the
advancing German army
When we look back at women during the First World War, it's usually the nurses, the munitionettes, or the land girls whose praises we sing. So I thought I'd mark International Women's Day (Sunday, 8 March) by paying tribute to a section of society who rarely get a mention - the ordinary women who stayed at home to look after their families and quietly help the war effort in whatever way they could.

One such was Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol who worked tirelessly for good causes throughout the war and encouraged her daughters to do the same. From the very start, her home was a hive of industry as 'comforts' for the troops were knitted and sewn, and good deeds were planned for those in need.

Unfortunately no photograph of Maude survives, but her compassion is clear in the scrapbook / journal she kept between 1914 and 1919, which is now held by Bristol Record Office. It comprises 21volumes, which were invaluable when I was writing my books 'Letters from the Trenches' and 'Bristol in the Great War' (see book tabs above for more details).

Below is an extract from Maude's journal that describes the sympathy she felt for the Belgian refugees who fled the brutal German invasion of their country in 1914 and found safety abroad. Official records estimate that around 250,000 Belgians took refuge in Britain; nearly all returned home when the conflict was over.

Maude Boucher's journal, September 1914

'The poor Belgium people who had been turned out of their homes, or whose homes had been destroyed, were beginning to come to England in the early part of September, in very large numbers. Some had lost practically everything they had and were in a pitiable plight, and some had had the most terrible experiences. Everyone felt so sorry for them, and that they would do all they could. Charlie [Maude's husband, who ran a pharmacy business] came home one day and asked me to see if I could find some clothes for very tiny children, so I searched and found a few things which were sent off at once to Folkestone.

'We were asked at first if we would give a home to one or two refugees in our own homes, but later several people offered the loan of houses, and it was considered preferable that they should live together in these houses rather than be distributed about amongst different  families where perhaps they would feel very strange and if they could not speak English, very lonely ... The upkeep of these various houses was met very often by the congregations of various churches and chapels and later on, the inhabitants of different villages undertook to look after a  party, or family, of refugees.

'The first party of refugees arrived in Bristol at the end of September. People on the route from the station were asked to hang out Belgian flags, and there were hundreds of people lining the streets who cheered and waved to them as they passed along in order to give them a good welcome.

Belgian refugees settle in at Yate, north of Bristol
(Courtesy of Yate Heritage Trust)
'The Belgians seemed very grateful for all that was being done for them, and so pleased to get into houses again after all their wanderings and having been homeless for so long. Many of the first arrivals were of the peasant class and most of the women wore large shawls and no hats, and were generally standing at the gates and doors of their homes.

'The family which came later on to Tyndall’s Park [where Maude and her family lived] were of the better class but had been obliged to leave their homes and had buried most of their possessions and treasures somewhere in Belgium. (That is as the story goes.) They had been able to bring practically nothing with them and as their family consisted of from ten to fifteen children in number, they were very glad of such a comfortable home as was provided for them, and for all the help they got.'

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth