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

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