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

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