Saturday, 24 October 2015

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!

While writing a magazine article about Christmas in the WW1 trenches last year, I was struck by how ever-present 'the church' was at the battlefront. Christian organisations like the YMCA and the Salvation Army ran huts for soldiers' recreation, bibles and prayer books were issued to troops as a matter of course, and army chaplains held services wherever they could for anyone to attend, whether or not they were church-goers - or even believers.

The Church was there to support soldiers in their hours of need and this, of course, was a reflection of the way Christianity was woven into the fabric of  life at home in the early 1900s. The same observation obviously occurred to John Broom, a fellow Pen and Sword author, who has taken things a step further by writing a book called: Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War.

'For millions of people the war was fought and commemorated withn a broadly Christian framework in Britain and abroad,' writes Broom in the introduction. 'As the importance of Christianity in the collective public life of Britain has crumbled in recent decades, so has the appreciation of some of the values that spurred our great-grandparents to action.'

Broom's book tells the inspiring stories of a number of very different characters who used their Christian faith to cope with their experiences of the First World War. Each story is a compelling one and some are well known, like that of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by German firing squad in 1915 for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.

Imprisoned for ten weeks before being shot, Cavell's final words to the Reverend Horace Gahan revealed that she accepted death with serenity : 'I thank God for this ten weeks' quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here [in prison]. But this I would say, standing as I do in front of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone'

A very different tale is told of Francis Gleeson, an Irish priest who served as an army chaplain on the Western Front. With no fear for his own safety, he tended the wounded in frontline trenches, often under fire, as if they were his own sons. 'If ... advocates of war were made to be soaked and caked and crushed with cold, wet trench mud, like these poor soldiers, and to wear those mud-weighted coats, they would not be so glib with their treatises on the art of war,' he wrote. 'These militants should be made to undergo a few nights in cheerless billets [and] mud-river trenches.'

Fight the Good Fight is an extremely readable book, excellently researched, well illustrated with 23 plates, and packed with notes and references for anyone who wishes to take study further. It addresses a subject that has been largely overlooked thus far into the the Great War Centenary, namely the importance of Christianity during the conflict. I'm pleased to report that Broom is now working on a second volume, and he has just put the finishing touches to a book about Voices of Faith from the Second World War.

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith From the First World War by John Broom is published by Pen and Sword Books.

British nurse Edith Cavell, who found serenity
through faith before her execution in 1915

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Sisters' diaries shed light on provincial life in WW1 Britain

Weymouth Pavilion, where Madge Sneyd-Kynnersly watched
'Prisoner Of Zenda' and heard a Russian exile speak in 1915.
This fine building was destroyed by fire in 1954
Among the most popular characters in my new book Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War are four Weymouth sisters whose diaries and snapshots I've used throughout to illustrate how war became part of everyday life at home. The Sneyd-Kynnersley sisters - Kitty, Sylvia, Madge and Rosie -  lived with their widowed mother and were in their late teens and early twenties when war was declared. All kept pocket diaries which, during the war, contained frequent references to the fighting and to casualties - especially when people they knew were involved.

In my previous post I included entries from Madge's 1915 diary in which she writes about the Battle of Loos. In this post I have transcribed (below) another week from Madge's diary which this time makes no direct mention of the war. But these entries, written exactly 100 years ago between 18-24 October 1915, are just as fascinating because they document the social history of the time, as well as Madge's very busy life!
Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley

The entries make reference to her work as a private tutor and the fact that, during her spare time, she was learning shorthand and typing in order to find office work. She talks about gramophones (hugely popular during the Great War), fashion, playing bridge, and going to the pictures. The conflict still manages to creep in, but subtly... for example in the mention of 'patriotic' handkerchiefs given as a birthday gift, and a flag day held to raise money for wounded Russian soldiers and the Red Cross. The unpredictable policitcal situation in Russia is also evident in her reference to a talk given by a Russian exile, Alexis Aladin.

Monday, 18 October: Taught. Shorthand at 6pm, afterwards calling on Simons, and town with mother [shops stayed open well into the evening]. M Onslow [a friend] to supper and bridge.
Winter fashions and furs, 1915

Tuesday, 19 October: Taught. Dentist. Sylvie's birthday: many happy returns of day. Mother gave her Onoto [a make of pen], Kitty patriotic hankies, Rosie cigarette lighter, me Turkish delight, gold hairpin case for vanity bag. M.Onslow to bridge with streaming cold.

Wednesday, 20 October: Taught for last time. Got paid 3 guineas and Lady H. [Madge's employer] said Betty had so enjoyed it! Tea with the Bragges, sat in kitchen with gramophone and saw their new clothes and furs.

Thursday, 21 October: Red Cross and Russian Flag Day. Mother having a district, I sold around Greenhill, got a good deal but wet day unluckily. Mina and Miss Chapman selling in pack, also Sylive, Ida W and Morris boys selling. Thousands sold at St Johns Schools where kids illegally sold in streets beyond our district! Very good lecture at Pav [Weymouth Pavilion] by Russian member of Duma Alexis Aladin, awfully interesting and funny broken English, us selling programmes etc. Tea at Mayor's expense in Balcony with M.Sanctuary [a friend]. Taxi home - wet day.
A wartime advert for gramophones

Friday, 22 October: Dentist  at12. Fitted at Crabbe [outfitter] for old blue skirt for which he has made a hip-yolk [dress alteration]. Prisoner of Zenda and tea at Pav.

Saturday, 23 October: Wet day. Sylvie and I went to Tiny Morgan's wedding. Smart. She in short frock. Then pictures at Jubilee [Hall]. Good. Jungle [possible reference to1915 silent movie, 'Perils of the Jungle']. Cooncan [card game] at Onslows.

Sunday, 24 October: Wet day.

The Sneyd-Kynnersleys' WW1 diaries reveal in colourful detail how family life was affected by the war. They describe everything from food shortages, blackouts, and 'spy mania', to new opportunities for women in the workplace, and the Spanish 'flu epidemic which devastated homes at the end of the conflict. You can read more in my new book Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War.

Pages from Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley's 1915 diary

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

No escape in my new book: the relentless story of life at war

My new book: a story of life at war
The Great War Centenary is well into its second year and now that the commemorations of 2014 have died down, we historians are in the happy position of being able to return to normal life, while still 'switching on' every now and again for the various anniversaries such as Gallipoli, last April, and the more recent Battle of Loos.

But those who lived through those dreadful years were not as fortunate. For them, the war was their lives, there was no escape, and even those who remained at home found their everyday routine was coloured by the conflict. It is this story I have endeavoured to tell in my latest book, Weymouth, Dorchester & Portland in the Great War, in which dramatic tales of spies, PoWs, and hospital scandal are described alongside more predictable scenes of ordinary life.

No-one described such scenes better than a Weymouth family called the Sneyd-Kynnersleys, whose diaries I used throughout the book to add colour and humour. The head of the household was Margaret, a widow of independent means who originally came from Northumberland, and who brought her four daughters south when her husband died. The girls - Kitty, Sylvia, Madge, and Rosie - were in their late teens and early twenties when war was declared and immediately volunteered as Red Cross nurses. Their pocket diaries give brief summaries for each day, noting domestic details alongside great events in Europe that were being reported in the newspapers at the time.

Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley
Below are entries from Madge's diary from the beginning of October 1915. They open with a reference to casualties from the recently-launched Battle of Loos in northern France, and go on to mention the political situation in Greece, and the difficulties faced by the British War Office in recruiting army volunteers. On the domestic front, Madge was battling constant toothache while helping to nurse wounded soldiers, teaching as a private tutor, and training to become a secretary - a job she hoped would be more fulfilling.

Her spare time was spent blackberrying with her sisters, entertaining friends to tea, playing bridge, and keeping in touch with Spencer, her husband-to-be who was a naval officer serving aboard the battleship HMS Ajax.

Friday, October 1
Pages from Madge's 1915 diary 
Germans have 120,000 casualties in this last week's fighting!!
Sylvia and I went over Lodmore to get blackberries but very few.
Massandra [Hospital] 7-10pm, as Mina said so short-handed, but really heaps of nurses so came home early (8.30). Many new patients at Massandra who were fighting on Sunday - some sleeping on floor!

Saturday, October 2
Taught in morning only, very wet day.
Kings to tea. Then Rosie and I went to great Recruting meeting in Alexandra Gardens - (last attempt of voluntary service?) Patriotic band and speeches by Gens Pink and Johnson and the Mayor etc. They got about 10 recruits, including a policeman and an old man from Co-operative Stores with two sons fighting.

Sunday, October 3
St Johns [Church] 8.30am & 11am. Wet day.

Monday, 4 October
Taught. Dentist 12.30.
Went with M.Onslow [a friend] to first shorthand class, very difficult.

Tuesday, October 5
Taught. Dentist 12.30, two teeth stopped [filled].
Bulgaria coming in against us.
Sylvia and I to Bridge [card game] with Mrs Davis, Mrs Yates, and a boy from Spain. M.Lithgow there.

Wednesday, October 6
Mrs O had letter with form to fill in from London Board of Trade about posts in military hospitals.
Letter from Spencer.
Taught. Norrises to tea.

Thursday, October 7
In afternoon, town with Rosie to get her fitted [for a dress]. Lithgows to tea. Horrible King of Greece [Constantine, brother-in-law of the German Kaiser] has dismissed Venizelos (pro-Ally, premier) so they won't come to aid of Serbia as per treaty.

Friday, October 8
Photo of Ajax officers from Spencer.
Dentist 12.30, tooth stopped and bad tooth painted.
Town in afternoon, bought scent and writing paper.
Learnt shorthand.
Mary Sanctuary to tea, Mrs Chris Russell at Princess Christian Hospital told her, her brother in law was so awfully keen on me, but didn't think it fair to propose in war time!!!

A few days later, on October 13, Madge reported: 'Zep raid on London last night, 150 about casualties.' This raid - one of many on Britain during the war - had involved five airships and killed 71 Londoners. Despite such depressing war news, however, Madge did have something to smile about at the end of the month. After weeks of visiting the dentist she finally wrote on October 30: 'Tooth out with cocaine [used as anaesthetic], old wisdom, it didn't hurt, but bled all afternoon and evening.'

You can read more of Madge's diary, and those of her sisters and mother, in Weymouth, Dorchester & Portland in the Great War, which has just been published by Pen and Sword Books - one of their very popular 'Towns and Cities in the Great War' series. Extracts from the Sneyd-Kynnersley diaries also appear in my first book Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

Friday, 2 October 2015

'The village of Loos was a mass of ruins, death and destruction'

Fred Silvester's cousin Maggie, in white 
This autumn's 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos has prompted much to be written about the offensive, the largest to be launched by the British on the Western Front in 1915. Known as 'The Big Push', it began on 25 September and the aim was to restore a war of movement to a conflict that had become mired in the trenches. The battle was fought in and around the town of Loos, in north-east France, and was part of a much larger Allied attack on German lines in the Artois and Champagne region.

This was the first time the British used poison gas (chlorine) against the enemy. It also saw the first mass engagement of Kitchener's New Army volunteers on the battlefront. But despite initial successes, troops soon became bogged down in attritional fighting and, when the offensive was finally called off in October, the British had suffered 50,000 casualties. German losses were estimated to be much lower, at just half of the British total.

Fighting at Loos, where the British first used poison gas
Those are the facts viewed from a historical perspective100 years later ... but what was it like for soldiers who were actually there, fighting on the ground? Lance Corporal Fred Silvester described it all to his cousin, Maggie, in a letter I discovered while researching my book Letters from the Trenches.

Fred was a shipping clerk from Herne Hill, London, who enlisted as a volunteer with the First Surrey Rifles when war broke out. Maggie lived in Wallasey, on Merseyside, and although no picture of Fred exists, a family photo still survives that shows his cousin as a girl (above).

Below is the letter she received from Fred, dated 21 October 1915:
 "After reading about the big advance and the capture of Loos, no doubt you wondered if our regiment took part in it, Yes we did. The Territorials [Fred's was a Territorial unit] led off the attack – our own division, namely the 47th  and three lines of German trenches were captured, also many prisoners and guns, before being held up. Our battalion did not go forward at first but gave covering fire to protect those going forward and draw the enemy fire on ourselves. We went into Loos two days after the advance to relieve some of the Guards and found the village a mass of ruins, death and destruction being everywhere. Of course the Germans shelled us very heavily and we had some lucky escapes – one big shell dropped about 10 yds from us and must have wiped out many but fortunately for us who were near it did not explode. This is quite a common occurrence with German shells now.
"Our battalion were relieved from the trenches last Saturday night for a 48 hours rest and on arriving at a billet found awaiting for me your splendid parcel which was very welcome, so please accept my very best thanks. We came up to the line again on Monday night and for certain reasons found that a new firing  had to be made in front of us and this of course had to be done under cover of darkness so the peppermints and lozenges came in very handy for the nights are very chilly and one cannot work continually, although willing, at such a violent exercise.
"When it came to our turn to be relieved we had been about 30 days in the trenches and part of this time the weather was very bad, raining continually and sometimes the water was up to our thighs in the communication trenches so you can guess we were glad to get out for a while.
"You ask me about my promotion. Yes it does entail more work and more responsibility for I am in charge of a section and have to see that they get their meals and be responsible for those men in their work. Winter I dread and now what it means is longer hours on duty for while it is dark everyone must be on  –  and bitter cold days, but still it's in all parts – this [is] great work and we must not grumble. Thank God it is not in our own country.
"Well Maggie I could write you a volume but you can guess there is very little time to spare for oneself in the trenches so you must forgive me for not writing more at present. I am pleased that you are all well and hope you will continue to enjoy good health. As for myself I am very well apart for a cold but that will soon [blow] itself away. Before closing many thanks once more to you all for the tuck-box."
Fred was killed at Vimy Ridge in May 1916, aged 25

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Adrian Lea