Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Great War in Europe that nobody was expecting!

Irish home-rule poster
When the first rumblings of war were heard in Europe during the summer of 1914, it took most ordinary British people by surprise. Most assumed that, if there was to be any trouble at all, it would be Ireland where the demand for home-rule had been causing mounting tension.

This was certainly the opinion of Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol, when news of war came through after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinant in Serbia. In a journal she kept throughout the Great War, the following entry reveals how she - and many others like her - were taken completely by surprise:
The summer term was just completed and the holidays commencing, when on Tuesday, July 28 1914, the evening newspaper boys were shouting in the streets ‘War declared’. We had all been wondering and speculating as to whether there would be war in Ireland or not, as there has been much quarrelling and many disturbances there in connection with the Home Rule Question, so naturally one jumped to the conclusion that it had been decided at last to have war, but much to our surprise, we found that it was not in connection with Ireland  at all, but it was a little war between Austria and Servia [sic] which seemed, at the time, as though it would not affect us in any way.
Mabel called to see us and told us what a shock it had given her when she heard the newsboys calling out ‘War Declared’ as she quite thought then that we were to have a Civil War in Ireland. She said ‘I was so relieved to find that it was only a little war between Austria and Servia ... We none of us then knew or imagined what this little war was going to lead to.”
When Britain declared war on Germany a few weeks later, most Irish people backed the governement regardless of political affiliation, and the Irish 'troubles' died down for a while. But violence flared up unexpectedly in 1916 when republicans mounted an armed insurrection during Easter Week which lasted six days and became known as the Easter Rising.

Executed: Irish republican
Joseph Plunkett
The British Army used its vastly superior numbers and artillery to suppress the rising quickly and the ringleaders were rounded up, court-martialled and executed. Among them was Joseph Plunkett who came from a family of republicans. His brothers George and Jack were also sentenced to be shot, but both had their sentences commuted to ten years' penal servitude. They spent six months in the formidable Portland Prison, in Dorset, and their arrival on the island was witnessed by nine-year-old Mary Bool, whose recollections later in life are among many fascinating WW1 memories held by Portland Heritage Trust:
One day I was down the yard and was watching prisoners being unloaded. One of them was a member of the Plunkett family, a leader of the rebellion. They were difficult prisoners and the guards had quite a lot of trouble with them. When they were coming off the ship’s cutters and whalers and up onto Camber Pier, one of them got up on one of the bollards and sang 'Danny Boy' and there was loud cheering and hurrah-ing and all sorts. 
They were marched away up to the prison, and all night long they would be calling out from their cells to one another and keeping people awake singing Irish songs. Our home was about half a mile from the prison but, if the wind was in the south-east, we could hear them plainly. One of them, maybe the one who stood on the bollard in the dockyard had a very good voice, a tenor.
Mary Bool's recollections - and those of other children who grew up on Portland during the First World War - appear in my new book, Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War, which is out in October 2015. You can read more from Maude Boucher's WW1 journal in my books Letters from the Trenches and Bristol in the Great War.

The formidable Portland Prison: 'All night long prisoners would be calling out from their cells'

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

A heartwarming welcome for the boys far from home

A cheering feature of the First World War - although not one generally remembered today - were the friendships struck up between soldiers and the families in whose homes they were billeted while training for the Front. Many volunteer soldiers were sent to distant parts of the country to prepare for the fighting and it was often a great comfort to stay with families like their own, especially for those had never been away from home.

In some cases, soldiers were even treated like sons - perhaps by couples who had already lost their own - and when the day came to say goodbye, plenty of tears were shed. Many kept in touch by letter, like this soldier who was billeted with a Mr and Mrs Otter on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. SJ James wrote to them from Gallipoli at the end of 1915, where the weather was turning nasty and the Allies were facing defeat. Sadly, one of the other men who had been billeted with him had already been killed:

The letter written by SJ James to his Portland hosts
 'Just a line to wish you all a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year. We shall be up in the trenches on Xmas day but we hope to have as good a time as possible under the present circumstances on New Year’s Day when we shall be in our rest camp. I am in pretty good health just now and hope you are all in the best of health too … I wish we were all there at Portland again having a good time billeted with you, but alas that will never be for poor Fred has gone under ... It is bitterly cold out here now and of course it will be worse when our winter really starts in January. There are very few of our old hands left now, and only one I can really call a chum. Again wishing you all the compliments of the season.

I discovered this letter at Weymouth Museum while researching my new book Weymouth, Dorset and Portland in the Great War (out in October). Interestingly, I also discovered that not everyone on Portland had such fond memories of the visiting troops. Ethel Braund was seven when war broke out, and her recollections of the Great War are held by Portland Heritage Trust:
‘Ours was one of the few houses that had a bathroom and they wanted mother to take an officer. She said she couldn’t undertake to look after an officer, she didn’t realize he’d have his own servant to look after him and she thought she would have to look after him. She’d got a big family of small children at the time so they, very meanly, billeted the three roughest men in the lot – and they were a rough lot – on her. I remember them; I remember them, they were terrible.’
At around the same time in Northamptonshire, a Mrs Searle had obviously grown very fond of Private Tom Fake, when he was billeted with her at the end of 1916 before being sent to France. Once he'd departed, however, she was unable to write to him because censorship prevented him disclosing his address, so she wrote instead to his wife in Bristol:
Private Tom Fake,
like a son to Mrs Searle
Dear Mrs Fake, 
Mr Searle and I were more than please to receive the photo also letter from you ... I am glad Tom is alright I had a field card from him, dated 15th Dec. but of course no address so I really could not write to him but shall do now at my first opportunity. I feel awfully grieved for you but I hope you will keep bright for your dear little boy's sake [the Fakes had a young son] and I hope and trust that Tom will be spared so that you will be able to live that happy and contented life once again. I remain yours very sincerelyMrs A Searle 
PS I shall be happy to hear from you again when you can spare the time
Tom Fake survived the war and more of his story and letters can be read in my books Bristol in the Great War and Letters from the Trenches. Sadly, I wasn't able to find out anything else about SJ James, except that he served with the Royal Naval Division. If anyone reading this can shed light on him, I'd love to hear from you.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Weymouth Museum / Portland Heritage Trust / JackieCarpenter