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 was...green 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