Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Another New Year without cheer in the grim Great War

Captain Warren Sandes
When the New Year dawned in 1916 there was little optimism among troops of the Great War. After 16 months, the conflict was still going strong, with large numbers of casualties and no sign of an end in sight, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the tone of soldiers' diaries and letters was resigned rather than hopeful. An example is the New Year entry from a rather unusual journal kept by Captain Warren Sandes, an officer of the Royal Engineers.

It was unusual because Sandes was not serving in the trenches of France but in the Middle East with the Mesoptamian Expeditionary Force, whose aim in 1915 had been to capture Baghdad. Their advance, however, was halted by the Turkish Army who forced them to retreat to the Arab town of Kut-al-Amara, and in early December the Turks laid siege to the town, trapping the men inside for five months. Among them was Capt Sandes and this is how he described his New Year inside Kut-al-Amara:

1st January 1916 
New Year's Day and 10 o'clock in the morning. Now about 7am in old England. Everybody will be waking up there to the usual New Year good wishes which few of us have had the heart to wish each other here for it seems ironical to wish anyone a happy day when all know that that is impossible. 
Still, every day one is thankful to be still alive when, day by day, one hears that such and such a friend is underground. The shelling of the enemy does little damage comparatively but some shells must find their billets; one for instance three days ago killed two and wounded one other of the RA [Royal Artillery] officers. In the two Sapper companies with us here, out of eight officers who came originally with them last October year, only one remains - and so on. One British regiment has, of its original officers, the Colonel, one subaltern, and the doctor. 
The siege has lasted nearly a month now but we are not yet really pinched for food or fodder. There is a lot of influenza about and I have it myself and was feverish last night but took a good dose of quinine and am better this morning - the result probably of having to live so much in shady corners after an open air life. Everyone looks forward to the stupendous mail which will be waiting when the relieving army arrives. The last letter from home was one dated, I think, about October 14th.

A few days later Sandes wrote to his mother, describing his New Year 'celebrations' at Kut. The letter remained part of his journal because it could not be sent:

My dearest Mother, 
On New Year's night at dinner all were fairly cheerful except myself [suffering from 'flu] till towards the end of dinner the dull distant boom of a big gun was heard. All talking stopped at once while we waited for the whistle [of a shell]. It came in a couple of seconds, rose to a roar and finished with a crash in the next house. A sergeant came running in to say that two sepoys were killed and five wounded. This was unfortunately true, and threw a gloom over the rest of the meal. People dropped away one by one and I went up to my room two houses away, and got into bed listening hard for another boom and prepared to bolt downstairs if one came. None came so I went to sleep rather feverish and depressed.

Despite several attempts, a British relieving army never managed to reach Kut. The siege lasted until April 1916 when the threat of starvation finally forced the British to surrender. Life inside Kut, and later in Turkish prison camps where the men were held, was often horrific and the story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches  using Sandes' journal, along with some extraordinary photographs he took during his time in Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

'Christmas Day in the trenches and not one shot was fired'

Illustration depicting the Christmas Truce of 1914
What does Christmas mean today? Presents, festive trees, tinsel, turkey ... and, since the WW1 Centenary began last year, a few lines describing the Christmas Truce of 1914. It's such a heartwarming story that quotes from the diaries of soldiers who were there are fast becoming one of the traditions of Christmas. And who am I to argue? In my book Weymouth, Dorchester  & Portland in the Great War  I used the wonderful diary of Portland soldier George Beck to describe the scenes he witnessed in on the Western Front in December 1914. Below is an extract - illustrated by an admitedly rather romanticised illustration of the truce! - and with it, may I wish all readers of my blog a happy and peaceful Christmas.

Diary of RSM George Beck, December 1914
24th December – Quiet day. Relieved 2nd R. Dub Fus. [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] in the trenches. in the evening. Germans shout over to us and ask us to play them at football, and also not to fire and they would do likewise. At 2am (25th) a German Band went along their trenches playing ‘Home Sweet Home’ and 'God Save the King' which sounded grand and made everyone think of home. During the night several of our fellows went over No Man’s Land to German lines and was [sic] given a drink and cigars.

25th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. Christmas Day. Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our ‘bully beef’ and jam. Majority of them knew French fluently. A few men of the Regiment  assisted in burying the dead of the Somerset Light Infantry, who were killed on 19.12.14. Fine frosty day. Very cold.
26th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. Unofficial truce kept up and our fellows intermingled still with the Germans. No rifle shots fired but our artillery fired a few rounds on the German 3rd and 4th lines and Germans retaliated with few rounds on D Coy’s trenches. 2 wounded. 
27th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. No sniping. A few whizz bangs [slang for a type of shell] on D Coy  trenches. 1 wounded.
The Christmas Truce on the Western Front fizzled out as the New Year of 1915 approached and, although small pockets of peace were reported the following year, it would never be repeated in the same way. Regimental Sergeant Major Beck, who served with the 1st Warwickshire Regiment, survived the war and returned to Portland where he settled down with his wife and worked as an inspector of the National Omnibus Company.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Joyful station scenes as soldiers return home for Christmas

Plenty has been written about Christmas in the trenches, about the famous truce of 1914, and the misery of soldiers who had to endure Christmas away from their loved ones. However, some troops were lucky enough to make it home on leave during the festive season and on 23 December 1916 a heartwarming report appeared in the Bristol Times and Mirror describing scenes of homecoming at Bristol Temple Meads Station. Today, nearly 100 years later, they are still wonderful to read about...
'All day the station was crowded with soldiers, coming, going and changing trains. The Christmas spirit was noisily evident, and the singing of snatches of songs, continuous. Never, surely, were trains more crowded, never were travellers more good humoured and content with their accommodation. The men got into the trains anyhow - some through the windows. They did not ask guards of porters to find them seats, but jumped into any compartment not caring a toss whether they could sit or not. They did not mind so long as they got aboard and knew that they were going home. Many of the soldiers wore sprigs of holly and ivy, and their genial humour and goodwill led them to hobnob with any of their fellows wearing the King's uniform and to share refreshment with them. There was no intemperance in imbibing, in language, or in acts. Chaff and banter went on all the time in the best of temper.'
Temple Meads Station, scene of joyful homecomings

Wounded at Temple Meads Station
During the rest of the year Temple Meads Station was rather more subdued as it received casualties from the battlefields. Wounded men began arriving from the Western Front from the very start of the war and it was reported that one soldier's wife could hardly believe that her husband had been to France, got wounded and returned to Bristol (as a patient at the Infirmary) in so short a space of time.
Initially, the so-called ambulance trains ran according to the rail system's timetables. But as the war progressed, so their arrival began to be scheduled later and later, sometimes not until the early hours, in order that the sight of wounded and sometimes terribly maimed men did not have a detrimental effect on public morale.
Whatever time of day or night the trains rolled in, the wounded were always assured of a warm welcome from Bristol's volunteers, as this report from 1919 shows:
'At no other centre were the wounded better cared for than at Bristol and the reception they met with at Temple Meads Station must have given them an encouraging first impression of the city. The admirably trained Red Cross and St John Ambulance men showed unremitting diligence in their efforts, and the convoys of wounded men were always got away from the station with commendable despatch. The Women's Voluntary Aid Detachment, who were always on duty at the station when the trains came in, served refreshments, which were immensely appreciated by the soldiers.'
You can read more in my book Bristol in the Great War - not just at Christmas but other times of year too!