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'