George Taylor and his beloved wife
Ginny after the Great War
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
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
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
CAN YOU HELP?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll forward your messages to John.