Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Heartwarming tale of soldier's devotion to 'Old Joe' the mule

Friends for life: a WW1 soldier with his 'donk'
It gives me great please to mark the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele with a story about mud that has a happy ending! It is a simple, touching story about the close bond we humans form with our animals, and it is told in a letter written home in 1917 by an Australian soldier called Edward Judge. You can find it (along with many other heart-warming tales) in my book Letters from the Trenches.

Judge, a blacksmith from New South Wales, was serving on the Western Front at a time when intense shelling and the heaviest rains for 30 years had turned battlefields into quagmires. When the Battle of Passchendaele was launched in July 1917, mud could pose as real a threat to life and limb as the enemy. Soldiers drowned in glutinous craters that were deep enough to swallow them whole. 'I died in hell, They called it Passchendaele', was how Siegfried Sassoon summed it up.

With the scene thus set I'll let Edward Judge relate his story, written in his own Aussie vernacular:
"The last stunt we was in was one of the toughest jobs we have had since coming to France, as we had the wet weather and mud to contend with one would bog almost waist deep in the mud, and we had to use all pack animals in getting the supplies up to the boys as waggons were out of the question and the pack mules would even bog and at times fall into a shell hole and would have to remain there or shoot them.
"Leading pack is rather an exciting experience as the track you have to follow is generally through shell holes and over gaps bridged by boards about eighteen inches wide scarcely wide enough for the animals to walk across, so very often if they make a slip it is a gon coon [slang for 'they've had it'] and will get a drop of fifteen or twenty feet. 
"There was rather a dramatic turn on with one of our lads and our favourite donk the last turn we done to the line. Old Joe as the donk is known had the misfortune to come to grief in a hole filled with soft mud and was there struggling feet upwards with the pack on and his driver who is terribly fond of him trying to release him while old Fritz was overhead in a plane peppering away with the machine gun, but the driver stuck to the old donk and eventually got him rescued, needless to say they both got a warm welcome when returning to camp as neither was the least hurt."
Edward Judge
Excerpt from the letter written by Edward Judge

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

'We've come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz!'

We're in it together: American and British servicemen share a
muddy moment at Yate air base in 1919 (Yate Heritage Centre
April 2017 marks  the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into the Great War, so with this in mind I decided it was time to resurrect a post I wrote two years ago which proved popular among readers. You can read more in my books Letters from the Trenches and Bristol in the Great War.

WHEN American GIs were stationed in Britain during the Second World War, their 'un-English' ways put a lot of noses out of joint. 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here!' was a complaint muttered fairly often by locals who were unaccustomed to what they considered brash behaviour.

Similar feelings may have been aroused during the First World War, too, when American servicemen began arriving in Britain on their way to the Front, for accounts written at the time reveal that the Americans announced themselves as a fairly ebullient bunch. Among them was Corporal Ned Steel of Kansas City, who spent two months at the Third Western Aero Repair Depot at Yate, north of Bristol, in 1918.

'Twas the afternoon of April 20th when we arrived there, the first American soldiers to set foot in these parts, and we created no small commotion...Wherever we went in the next two months of our visit, the hospitality was unabounded. Talk about appreciation! Those Englishmen saw in us the reserve strength of the Allies come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz.'

The ocean liner Aquitania, which served as a troopship in WW1
Steel belonged to a squadron of airmen that had crossed the Atlantic aboard the Aquitania, formerly a Cunard ocean-liner which served as a troop-carrier and hospital ship during the conflict. Its sister ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915 with the loss of many American civilian lives. This catastrophe was one of the reasons that prompted the US to enter the war in 1917.

During their crossing, Steel and his friends had been amused at the differences between themselves and the British. They gently mocked the way everything the Brits said was littered with mild curses. Even when the Aquitania's history was being explained, wrote Steel, every other word seemed to be 'bloody': 'The ship had been in the hospital service between the bloody Dardanelles and England. This was her first bloody voyage as a bloody troop ship.' The Americans also smiled at the British penchant for keeping meals simple, with Steel mimicking: 'My Gosh! Fish for breakfast?'

But the ribbing stopped when the Americans stepped ashore, to be greeted by warm and enthusiastic crowds. Perhaps for the first time, they began to understand the high price the British had already paid for the war:

'April 11, 1918 we awoke at the wharves of Liverpool. Then began our welcome in England. Ferries plying the muddy Mersey were lined with people waving handkerchiefs at us. And when we had landed a little later and were marching to our train through the uptown district of Liverpool great crowds along the way watched us. Crowds, mostly of women, they were - and rosy-cheeked girls. Young men were conspicuous by their scarcity, in fact were almost a minus quantity. It came to us forcibly then that England was doing her utmost in manpower, and some of our prejudice vanished.'

Steel appears to have been charmed by his rail journey south to Bristol:

'With a squad to each compartment on our funny looking coaches we started across "Merry Old England". The dinky little engine quite surprised us with its speed. What a beautiful country it green grass covering every inch of untilled ground...stone walls...everything clean and tidy...for once the Californians were mum.'

He noted how few level-crossings there were, with the train more often going over bridges or under roads: 'Only once in England did we see a wagon road intersect the railroad's right of way and then strong gates of iron shut out the traffic and the watchman tended them as the train went by.'

Men of the American Air Service form a 'propellor' at
Yate air base in August 1918 (Yate Heritage Centre)
Steel's description of his time in Blighty was included in a book he wrote about the history of his unit, the 822nd (Repair) Squadron, which I discovered while researching my own book Bristol in the Great War.

Steel gave an entertaining account of the girls he and his friends met in Bristol: in comparison with the ladies at home the Bristol lasses were much more forward, welcoming Steel and his friends with open arms, offering to buy them drinks, scrounging cigarettes and even asking for a goodnight kiss!

In the workplace, Steel observed the different way in which the two nationalities set about their jobs: 'The common impression among us in regard to Tommy was that he was slow but thorough. "Swinging the lead" [taking it easy] was quite universal in the [work]shops when the flight sergeants and officers weren't around. When it came to turning out first class products, however, Tommy was there'.

Meanwhile: 'Tommy was penning his impressions of us: how Sam carried himself as tho' he owned the world, was free-and-easy and took no rough talk from his non-coms [non-commissioned officers].'

Steel concluded: 'When the history of this war is written, let it be remembered that the American Aviaition Squadrons stationed in England did their bit by strengthening the hearts and wills of their English cousins at an hour when the war looked darkest to them.'

Confident words indeed, but after a few weeks in France things would often look rather different to the fresh young men who arrived from America with bags of enthusiasm but little experience of trench warfare. Such a caution were sent home by George Swales, one of the first American soldiers to arrive in France whose his story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches. In a letter to his wife he wrote:

I hope the Yanks don’t think they are going to have a walkover for they are in for a surprise. I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what it was and I expected it to be rough but it’s worse than what Sherman [an American general] said war was. It will take some of the swank out of them before they are two weeks in the trenches.’

Saturday, 21 January 2017

"Goodbye my wife, I have loved you faithfully until the last breath"

George Taylor and his beloved wife
Ginny after the Great War

Few of us will ever be in the unthinkable position of not knowing whether we're going to live or die, but that is exactly what soldiers in the trenches had to face up to every day. At any time their lives could be brought to an abrupt end by the enemy. And not just in big attacks. During quiet periods too, snipers could pick off Tommies before they knew what was happening; and even at a distance from the front lines, artillery shells were a constant threat to life and limb.

An insight into how soldiers managed to cope is often revealed in their letters and I read plenty while researching my book Letters from the Trenches. More often than not I was impressed by just how phlegmatic most men were, philosophical you could say, having come to terms with whatever hand fate chose to deal them.

Recently, family historian John Taylor passed on just such a letter to me, written by his paternal grandfather in September 1916. Private George Taylor was serving in the trenches with the 3rd Battalion, the Grenadier Guards. "George was in the front line trenches just outside Ginchy on the Somme battlefield ready to go 'over the top' with the rest of his battalion," said John. "On the eve of his attack, he wrote what he thought would be his last letter to his wife Ginny."

Ginny was at home in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, looking after the couple's five children, with another one on the way. Poignantly, George asks Ginny to stay true to him in the event of his death; he also speaks tenderly of the couple's sixth unborn child, whom Ginny was carrying - 'my little stranger'.

George's letter to Ginny
from the trenches, 1916
My own darling,

I am writing this in case anything happens whilst I am out here and I don't  return but Heaven grant that I may be spared to return to my loved ones and I think He will now darling. I want you to promise one thing that you will look after my little kiddies, bring them up to love God and to know right from wrong. Also sweetheart as I have asked you many, many times never let your love to me go. Always remember me and never, dear one, let anybody else have your love. Don't marry again if you love me unless you find it too hard a struggle to live then darling you please yourself and I shall not know but sweet one I could not bear to think about someone else will share your love, the love that has made a man of me and the thing I hold most dear in
all the world. Oh my treasure I picture you as I write this letter the last one you will get from your ever loving hubby should anything occur. But sweet always remember that I loved you faithfully until the last breath my all in all my own darling. Oh if only I could be with you now just to show you the love I have for you. If you could only just put your arms around me if only for a minute I should be happy but as that cannot be dear I must be content with the happy memories of days gone by. God bless you my dear, dear wife my one prayer is that God will look after you serve Him faithfully darling so that someday we shall meet again never more to part. God bless you treasure I have much to thank you for dear, you have kept me up and made a man of me darling you have been a treasure of a wife the best any man can have. Always think of me dear never never forget me for a minute. Give my love to Clara, Alice and my dear mum and dad and all relations. Once more God bless you and keep you from all harm and trouble and give you happiness until we meet again to be happy evermore.

Goodbye my wife my all in all, I am your ever true husband Porge

George then sends love to his 'kiddies' (George, Frank, Ernie, Freddie and Tommy) and the baby his wife is carrying ('My little stranger, if a girl Jane Elizabeth, if a boy William'): 'God bless them, look after them and bring them to the love of God.'

Thankfully George survived - but only just. "The attack by the Guards was only a partial success, casualties were very high due to an unseen German machine gun post," said George's grandson, John. "George was terribly injured. He had already survived the effects of gas inhalation, but this time he suffered broken ribs and was buried (twice) due to shell fire. He was a broken man, shell shock left him terribly incapacitated and he was immediately taken to a field hospital and then returned to England."

Subsequent letters that George wrote to Ginny show that he was very well cared for. "Their letters give a different picture to the stories of lack of care to casualties suffering from shell shock that seem popular today," said John. "George was immediately sent back to Blighty and taken to a mental hospital – the old Wandsworth Asylum – later called Springfield Hospital. One letter from hospital reads, 'I saw the Major and he said: Well done old boy, are you feeling alright? and I said 'Yes sir' and he did a smile'."

George also received several visits from Mrs Neville, the wife of his company commander, who brought him clothes, took him out to tea, sent Ginny and her children Christmas presents, and chased up the Ministry when they were tardy paying her a pension. (The Taylors later had another son whom they named Neville.) George eventually returned home to a hero's welcome, and at last met the latest addition to his family, a little girl called Betty - the 'little stranger' in his Somme letter. When the war was over he was employed as a painter and decorator at the Derby Hippodrome, working his way up eventually to be put in charge of all front-of-house staff. But the story does not end there...

John Taylor, left, at his grandfather's grave
at Guillemont Cemetery, France
John Taylor has discovered that, by an amazing coincidence, his maternal grandfather - about whom he knows little, and who died in the Great War - served in the very same battalion as George. "My two grandfathers would have known each other, walked past each other not realising that, 20 years later, their children would meet at the Hippodrome in Derby [where they both worked] and get married."
John would dearly like to find out more about his maternal grandfather's final days, and has asked if any readers can assist in his search? His name was Lance Sergeant 11314 Joseph William Milnes, of the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards. He was killed on 17 March, 1917 and is buried at Guillemont Road Cemetery in France.
"My family is desperate to find out more about him. Where and how he was killed, also a photo would be superb. We have researched extensively but we are mere amateurs at this. If you can put out an appeal to those knowledgeable people who read your blog it would be much appreciated."
So it's over to you readers! If you can help, please get in touch with me at, and I'll forward your messages to John.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Whilst Tommies fought, the well-heeled Londoners shopped

Christmas in the trenches
Never let it be said that WW1 soldiers did not make an effort to enjoy Christmas. Even in the trenches they enjoyed the season with as much jolliness as they could muster but by the end of 1916, no matter how hard they tried to disguise it, war-weariness was beginning to colour their letters home. Below is one written in early 1917 by a Canadian medical officer, Harold McGill, to the woman who would become his wife. Their touching love story is told, through the letters they wrote to each other, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

France, January 8th

"Just at present we are in support trenches but it will soon come our turn for the front line again. The weather is atrocious, cold with high wind and rain nearly every day. We had a much better Christmas this season than last. Fortunately we were out of the trenches in reserve and billeted in huts. The weather was fairly well behaved although we had some rain. All the men had a good Christmas dinner including turkey, plum pudding, beer, nuts, candy, etc. We had previously ordered 500 kilos of turkey. We made a contract for them and the dealer shipped them from Normandy. I must say that the French know how to raise good turkeys. The tables were set in the YMCA hut and we hired dishes from the French civilians. We had to divide the dinner into four sections, one for each company. Two were held on Christmas day and two the day after. The band rendered musical programs during the dinners and each night put on a minstrel show which was really not at all bad. We had a good dinner in Battalion Headquarters Mess but most of our pleasure was derived from seeing the men have a good feed and enjoy themselves for once."

He then continued:

"It is very good of you to send my sister [a nurse in France] the magazines. I am afraid she sometimes becomes a little homesick and lonely. She has just returned from having leave in England. She reached her unit Christmas night after spending nearly all day on the train from Calais. She should have crossed over from England on Dec 23 but there was a terrible storm that day and the Channel boats were held up. I expect to go on leave again about the end of this month. This will likely be my last leave for a time for the dust will be flying rather lively when Spring opens. Please excuse this short letter and do try to write more often."

It goes without saying, of course, that the sort of world Harold McGill described in France couldn't have been further from civilian life at home - especially if you were a well-heeled Londoner. To show you what I mean, here is an extract from The Times on 31st December 1917 about the New Year sales, published around the same time that McGill wrote his letter...

"Today the West End sales begin, and those who have refrained from buying many necessaries will find unusual opportunities in houses with a high reputation for worth and taste. On Saturday morning many women were seen touring the shopping centres and noting things of special value in the windows already ‘marked down’ for today.

A Burberry advertisement from 1917
"Debenham and Freebody begin their 12 days’ sale to-day when their choice stock will undergo the most drastic marking-down. Stockinette suits, trimmed with fur in many design and colourings, perhaps the most becoming of the newer fabrics, are in some instances less than half their original prices. Ready-to-wear gowns semi-evening and restaurant styles, and model gowns from famous French houses are reduced to a third of their former cost.

"Liberty and Co, Regent Street, have many bargains in silks and velveteens, and the beauty of their colourings is well known. Dickins and Jones, Regent Street, are having a two-week sale. Among the excellent things offered are cravats, wraps and short capes of Victorines, as they are called, of fur and muffs to match, with several guineas removed from their original prices.

"A Burberry weatherproof is always a possession. The lasting quality of all their goods, whether tailor-mades or coats, is one of the traditions of those who have tested them, and their half-price sale is eagerly awaited. There will be an immense assortment of Burberry top-coats, gowns, and hats at the great house in the Haymarket. Walking costumes in Harris tweeds, excellent for the country or for town in the morning, are exactly half price."

Happy New Year to all my readers, and let's be thankful that we've just welcomed in 2017 and not 1917.

London store Dickins and Jones in the early 1900s,
'a house of worth & taste'