Friday, 8 May 2015

'You can never be sure at what hour you will be blown to atoms'

A post-war photo of Stanley Goodhead, second right,
one of Kitchener's more mature volunteers 
It's easy to imagine Kitchener's Army as full of young men in their teens or early twenties, inexperienced and still 'wet behind the ears' - but that wasn't the whole story at all. A large number of volunteers were mature men with commitments at home (careers, relationships, young families) who had weighed up the pros and cons and felt it was their duty to go and fight.

One such servicemen was Stanley Goodhead, a railway engineer from Manchester who was 26 and courting his sweetheart when war broke out. He joined Manchester's 19th 'Pals' battalion and was sent to serve on the Western Front. His experiences are described in letters he wrote to his father, several of which feature in my book Letters from the Trenches. All are articulate, considered, and written by a man who was well aware of the risks of war.

In the spring of 1916 Private Goodhead was in France preparing for the Battle of the Somme. This was the first big offensive that would rely on Britain's volunteers rather than the regular army, and tension was evident in his letters:

8th May 1916

'Do not think I have any doubt about not seeing you all again, that is not so, but to tell the truth, the part of the line we now occupy is a death trap and you cannot be sure at what hour you will have a bullet in the brain or be blown to atoms by a shell or rifle grenade. I have a number of friends laid low these last few days and one cannot help thinking things.  All the same I am trying not to get down-hearted and it is a good thing indeed that we have plenty of work to do as it takes our mind off things.'

28th May 1916

'There is one thing I want to mention particularly to you, that is, very shortly now I am going into very dangerous work and, of course, anything can happen. I am just telling you so as I do not want you to be taken by surprise if anything happens.'

'Over the top' in the Battle of the Somme' - 'The line
we occupy is a death trap,' wrote Stanley Goodhead
28th June 1916

'Very soon now I along with many others will be going into very great danger and I am taking this opportunity of letting you know so that you will not be surprised at whatever may happen. You will understand Dad that I am not allowed to say too much so I must leave it to you to read between the lines and use your own discretion as to how you tell them at home. We are all in splendid condition and in good spirits and to see the lads you would hardly believe there was a cloud hanging over them. We are at present getting plenty of food and good rest and our hard training is at an end for the present.

'Everything is being done to make things a success and nothing is being left to chance and I am confident after what I have witnessed that good results will be obtained and the lads will not be found wanting when called on. Now Dad I have said as much as I dare in this line but I want to impress on you that anything may happen so don’t be surprised. I am not quite sure yet whether my work will be with the signallers or with the platoon but you may be quite sure that whatever I am told to do I will do it at once and cheerfully and my one hope is that my nerve will hold out that I may go on and not halt once till our objective is reached.

'I will bring my letter to a close now Dad reminding you that I am prepared for anything and fully aware of all the difficulties and dangers that are in front but full of hope for the best. I wish to thank you Dad for the way you have looked after me whilst our here also when at home and you have my very best wishes. If this should be my last letter you will find everything in order and it is my wish that Mother and Jinny [his sister] have every care and attention. Watch the papers.'

Three weeks after the offensive was launched, Goodhead wrote to his father on 28 July:

'I am very well and keeping up through all this turmoil and your letters cheer me up, however do not be alarmed if you do not hear from me for some time. Things are lively here and do not get alarmed at huge casualty lists.'

Belgian civilians celebrate liberation in 1918
The Battle of the Somme dragged on for five long months, but thankfully Goodhead survived - not just the battle but the war too. At some point during the conflict he was wounded and sent to Endell Street Military Hospital in Covent Garden, London, which was run and staffed soley by women and specialised in treating head injuries and femoral fractures. Later in the war Goodhead was transferred to the Royal Engineers, promoted to lance corporal, and was one of the first to enter newly-liberated Belgium in 1918. And here, a happier and more relaxed tone coloured the letters he wrote to his father:

 'I shall never forget the day we landed in Ostend from Calais, on our arrival the people went mad with joy, kissing us, shaking hands, hugging us, and in every manner possible they showered their thanks on the "English Gentlemen" as they called us.'

You can read more of Private Stanley Goodhead's letters from the Front, and those of his fellow volunteer soldiers, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth and Barbara Rosser

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