Friday, 8 May 2015

'You can never be sure at what hour you will be blown to atoms'

A post-war photo of Stanley Goodhead, second right,
one of Kitchener's more mature volunteers 
It's easy to imagine Kitchener's Army as full of young men in their teens or early twenties, inexperienced and still 'wet behind the ears' - but that wasn't the whole story at all. A large number of volunteers were mature men with commitments at home (careers, relationships, young families) who had weighed up the pros and cons and felt it was their duty to go and fight.

One such servicemen was Stanley Goodhead, a railway engineer from Manchester who was 26 and courting his sweetheart when war broke out. He joined Manchester's 19th 'Pals' battalion and was sent to serve on the Western Front. His experiences are described in letters he wrote to his father, several of which feature in my book Letters from the Trenches. All are articulate, considered, and written by a man who was well aware of the risks of war.

In the spring of 1916 Private Goodhead was in France preparing for the Battle of the Somme. This was the first big offensive that would rely on Britain's volunteers rather than the regular army, and tension was evident in his letters:

8th May 1916

'Do not think I have any doubt about not seeing you all again, that is not so, but to tell the truth, the part of the line we now occupy is a death trap and you cannot be sure at what hour you will have a bullet in the brain or be blown to atoms by a shell or rifle grenade. I have a number of friends laid low these last few days and one cannot help thinking things.  All the same I am trying not to get down-hearted and it is a good thing indeed that we have plenty of work to do as it takes our mind off things.'

28th May 1916

'There is one thing I want to mention particularly to you, that is, very shortly now I am going into very dangerous work and, of course, anything can happen. I am just telling you so as I do not want you to be taken by surprise if anything happens.'

'Over the top' in the Battle of the Somme' - 'The line
we occupy is a death trap,' wrote Stanley Goodhead
28th June 1916

'Very soon now I along with many others will be going into very great danger and I am taking this opportunity of letting you know so that you will not be surprised at whatever may happen. You will understand Dad that I am not allowed to say too much so I must leave it to you to read between the lines and use your own discretion as to how you tell them at home. We are all in splendid condition and in good spirits and to see the lads you would hardly believe there was a cloud hanging over them. We are at present getting plenty of food and good rest and our hard training is at an end for the present.

'Everything is being done to make things a success and nothing is being left to chance and I am confident after what I have witnessed that good results will be obtained and the lads will not be found wanting when called on. Now Dad I have said as much as I dare in this line but I want to impress on you that anything may happen so don’t be surprised. I am not quite sure yet whether my work will be with the signallers or with the platoon but you may be quite sure that whatever I am told to do I will do it at once and cheerfully and my one hope is that my nerve will hold out that I may go on and not halt once till our objective is reached.

'I will bring my letter to a close now Dad reminding you that I am prepared for anything and fully aware of all the difficulties and dangers that are in front but full of hope for the best. I wish to thank you Dad for the way you have looked after me whilst our here also when at home and you have my very best wishes. If this should be my last letter you will find everything in order and it is my wish that Mother and Jinny [his sister] have every care and attention. Watch the papers.'

Three weeks after the offensive was launched, Goodhead wrote to his father on 28 July:

'I am very well and keeping up through all this turmoil and your letters cheer me up, however do not be alarmed if you do not hear from me for some time. Things are lively here and do not get alarmed at huge casualty lists.'

Belgian civilians celebrate liberation in 1918
The Battle of the Somme dragged on for five long months, but thankfully Goodhead survived - not just the battle but the war too. At some point during the conflict he was wounded and sent to Endell Street Military Hospital in Covent Garden, London, which was run and staffed soley by women and specialised in treating head injuries and femoral fractures. Later in the war Goodhead was transferred to the Royal Engineers, promoted to lance corporal, and was one of the first to enter newly-liberated Belgium in 1918. And here, a happier and more relaxed tone coloured the letters he wrote to his father:

 'I shall never forget the day we landed in Ostend from Calais, on our arrival the people went mad with joy, kissing us, shaking hands, hugging us, and in every manner possible they showered their thanks on the "English Gentlemen" as they called us.'

You can read more of Private Stanley Goodhead's letters from the Front, and those of his fellow volunteer soldiers, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 1915 Jacqueline Wadsworth and Barbara Rosser

Thursday, 23 April 2015

In memory of those who died on the rocky Mediterranean peninsula

GALLIPOLI 1915 ...

‘Things were awful, dead and wounded men for our companions at all times. I saw so much suffering and death that it appeared to me to be the only thing to look forward to and expect at any minute.'
My word, our chaps are savage when they are fighting. I think the Gurkhas are ladies compared with Australians in a charge with their blood up.’

‘We live in dugouts cut in the side of the hill just like rabbits.'

'We are giving the Turks all the fight they want. They are very frightened of the bayonet. They squeal like blue hell when they get a touch.’

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and above are extracts from letters written by men who fought there, taken from my book Letters from the Trenches. Much will be written about the barbaric fighting on that rocky peninsula, the merciless Turkish enemy, and the huge toll levied by heat and disease during the campaign. So below are two letters from my book that reflect upon aspects of Gallipoli that are perhaps less talked about. One defends the Turks as honest, clean fighters - an opinion voiced by other soldiers too. The second reveals that the Mediterranean winter weather was every bit as severe as the scorching summer.

Private Ernest Hough
Australian Private Ernest Hough was a tram driver from New South Wales who enlisted at the beginning of the war when he was 30 and served as a stretcher-bearer at Gallipoli. In a letter home, he poured scorn on reports in Australian newspapers that the Turkish enemy was committing atrocities, and suggested such reports came from men who had experienced little of the fighting: 'Most of them were written by chaps that were on the shore from six to 24 hours before being wounded,' wrote Hough, adding sarcastically 'and they saw more than we, that have been now four months continually fighting.' He continued:

'We often read, for instance, of how our wounded have been mutilated by the Turks, and that is all rot, I can tell you in all sincerity, and I am sure the men of the battalion to which I belong will tell you the same, that is, the members that have been right through [the fighting]. The Turks have fought a good clean fight and are still fighting that way. I know of several instances wherein our wounded have been treated kindly by the Turks, and in no case to my knowledge has one case been proved where they have done anything offside. I think in justice to our enemies, that this should be said of them. Of course, I know what the Turk is capable of, but I do not think he is game to start, for he realises as well as we do that he will  receive just as much as he sends with compound interest added.'

The second letter was written in December 1915 by Private Sydney Town, a British soldier of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He describes to his brother the atrocious winter weather that troops endured at Gallipoli at the end of 1915, shortly before the peninsula was evacuated. A heavy rainstorm struck on 26 November and lasted three days, flooding trenches, drowning soldiers, and washing unburied corpses into the lines. It was followed by a blizzard at Suvla in early December, during which more men died from exposure. Like so many Great War soldiers, Town put a brave face on things:

4 December 1915

'Dear Brother, a line or two just to say your parcel arrived here the last day of Nov ... The apples had gone soft but not bad and had a spirity taste. The other cakes were hard but toasted all right. I am glad to say that I am keeping well. We had a bad storm here last weekend. The rain came down in torrents and the trenches were running with water 7 or 8 inches deep. Next day we had frost and snow and for three nights the weather was very severe.'

Private Town talked of men suffering from frost-bitten feet and rheumatism, and continued:

'They say this is only a taste of what we are going to get but at all events it won't be as sudden. We were enjoying almost summer weather during the week, cold only being noticed after sunset. The fly ointment arrived with the death of about the last fly on the peninsula. I hope you are all in good health at Wakefield and that you like you new house. With love and kisses to the children and with my best wishes to you.'

Although Town survived the horrors of Gallipoli, he was killed in France in September 1916 during Battle of the Somme. Private Ernest Hough survived the war and returned home to Australia. This post is written in memory of all those who fought and died at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline  Wadsworth / Sharon Fewings / Valerie Gilbert

Monday, 13 April 2015

Let's not forget the poignant pleas of desperate mothers

Exhausted Anzac troops take a rest at Gallipoli
The First World War Centenary, which made such an impact last summer, is beginning to stir again in readiness for the 100th anniversary of the Battle for Gallipoli. This ill-fated Allied campaign was launched in the Mediterranean on 25 April 1915, but ended in humiliating defeat just nine months later.

It is still commemorated with reverence, however, and nowhere more so than in Australia and New Zealand where the anniversary is known as Anzac Day (after the abbreviation given to the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps). In 1915 both countries were cutting their teeth as new nations and, according to one historian, 'Gallipoli was the crucible from which the Anzac legend was forged'.

The fighting on the rocky peninsula of Gallipoli was ferocious and the Turkish enemy proved tough and dogged. Disease also thrived in the stultifying heat and claimed huge numbers of lives. Descriptions of the horror of battle are plentiful, with many gruesome accounts sent home to families, like this one written by Australian Private Henry Wright:

'We saw a poor chap staggering towards us ... A machine gun had made a horrible sight of him. The bullets entering his mouth, cutting away the bottom teeth then passing through his neck breaking the collarbone and making a nasty gash in his shoulder. He could not speak but wrote down on a piece of paper that he was not downhearted and that he was satisfied when he saw our boys had taken the position.'

Susan Butters and son Les
How unimaginably awful it must have been for the recipients of such letters, especially for families who lived on the other side of the world. While researching my book Letters from the Trenches, many Australians got in touch with me to share correspondence that reflected just how helpless those in the Southern Hemisphere felt during the Great War - particularly mothers. Many were not well educated, but they wrote polite and poignant letters to army officials in Melbourne begging to know what had become of their sons.

Below is one written by Mrs Susan Butters, of Lismore, Victoria, whose two sons, Les and Jack, both fought in the war. Les had been taken ill in Egypt, and would eventually died of dysentery in 1918, just after the Armistice had been signed. Jack Butters had been captured in France and was being held prisoner in Germany. Desperate to find out what had happened to them, Susan wrote this letter to the Melbourne Records Office in October 1917:

Dear Sir, I wish to trouble you once again to answer me a question: can Australian Prisoners of War in Germany still receive letters from their relations in Australia and their letters be forwarded from them to Australia. I noticed a paragraph in the ‘Age’ [an Australian newspaper] about a week ago where all mail through Switzerland to Germany was to be stopped ... Could you also inform me if there has been any further word come through concerning my other son who was reported ill in Egypt ... we are very anxious about him. If any other bad news should have the misfortune to have come through concerning either of my boy’s [sic] ...would you be kind enough to forward it c/o The Church of England Clergy or to Dr Paton Lismore, Victoria, as I have had a few shocks already, and urgent wires and telegrams are handed here to me as ordinary letters. Sorry for troubling you so much. 

Jack Butters (third left) pictured in German prison camp
This year, when we remember those who lost their lives at Gallipoli, let's also spare a thought for the mothers (and fathers) who had no choice but to wait at home, dreading the arrival of bad news with no idea what had become of their sons. You can read more of their moving correspondence in Letters from the Trenches.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth, Ken Wright & Helen Lang

Thursday, 2 April 2015

'We're tired of being crumped in the trenches day and night'

In some ways the spring of 1915 was not dissimilar to ours today - at least in Britain. The Meteorological Office's report for April told the same old story: 'During the first ten days of the month the weather was unsettled and the wind blew with considerable force at times.' Easter Sunday fell fairly early that year too, on 4th April. And then, as now, newspapers were always on the lookout for fresh ways to present long-running stories. With this in mind, the Sunday Post (right) had lined up some new ideas for its coverage of the Great War, which were revealed to readers on Easter Day 1915:

'For next week's issue you will be interested to know further new features are in store, arrangements having been made with more popular writers of the day to contribute to its columns. In addition to all the very latest news from the seats of war, our military and naval correspondents will again present their illuminating comments on the progress of the war. Then, you will get a splendid up-to-date Map of the Near East. This Map gives a clear outline of the scenes of war-like operations in that part of the world including the Dardanelles, Bosphorous, Smyrna, and the Aegean Sea. It will enable you to follow with thorough understanding the movements of the Allied Fleets in the great enterprise in which they are at present engaged.

'There will be another deeply interesting article on the subject of 'Germany from Within'. These articles supply that information which is now eagerly sought by the British public. Cartoons will again be a feature. A selection is made from all the best caricatures of the war published throughout the world. A Special Article of absorbing interest will be contributed by Constance Elizabeth Maud. It is entitled 'Our French Friends' and illustrates a phase of the war upon which, in the past, little light has been thrown.'

Newspapers like The Post endeavoured to entertain as well as inform, with interesting and colourful items that readers could follow while tucking into toast and marmalade at the breakfast table. But everything would change when the post thumped down on the front door mat, for letters from the Front told a rather less glossy tale. Soldiers like Private Philip Luxton, of Abertillery in South Wales, were tired of living cooped up in trench dugouts. He wrote about boredom, exhaustion, fear, discomfort; he yearned for tasty food, and to be able to take off his boots that were stiff with mud. And he longed to know for sure that he would see his wife and two young daughters again...

2 April 1915 (Good Friday)

'You said on your last letter for me to look out for a parcel of cakes. I can promise you I will do that for it will be a rare treat to have some cakes, for even bread and butter is a luxury here among we soldiers.
Dear Wife, this is my eighth day for me not to have my boots and socks off my feet and I cannot tell you when I will have them off and I tell you we are all beginning to feel the effects of tiredness for it is very tiring being crumped [sic] in the trenches day and night. Now I must close having no more to say at present.'

A scene from the Western Front: 'We are all beginning to
feel the effects of tiredness,' wrote Private Luxton
5 April 1915 (Easter Monday)

'Just a line in answer to your parcel of cakes and ham I received on Easter Monday morning so I had cakes for breakfast and I am going to have ham for tea and I know I will enjoy it. Dear Wife, I had the pleasure to take off my boots last night for we have come out of the trenches at last after eleven days and nights and I can tell you we were very thankful to get anywhere for a rest but they have not took us very far, but they intend to take [us] further away in two days time. Dear Wife, I should like it if you could see me now for you would never forget we are like rabbits buried in holes in the ground. Me and Fry is in one by ourselves for they will only hold 2 or 3 men and we must not come out from there in day light for fear of being shelled ... Dear Wife we had a very busy time on Easter Saturday morning at 4 o'clock and I am glad to tell you I came out of that scrummage [a reference to his pre-war days as a rugby coach ] safe and sound thank God, but cheer [up] and I am sure we will meet again for my spirits are very well considering the time we are having. Now I must close for I feel like having a rest, from your loving Husband Phil.'

Private Luxton, who served with the Welsh Regiment, was killed in action in October 1915.

Copyright ©1915 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Anne Holland

Thursday, 26 March 2015

'We dry our clothes by sitting in the sun whenever possible'

Maggie, in the white, with her family in 1900.
The letters her cousin, Fred, sent her from France
made clear the harshness of trench life
It's sometimes easy to forget that life in the trenches wasn't one relentless round of combat. There were often relatively 'quiet' times too, although things were rarely restful, and this is made clear in a letter written by Lance Corporal Fred Silvester to his cousin Maggie in Wallasey. Fred, who came from Herne Hill in London, had worked as a shipowner's clerk before the war and enlisted with the 1st Surrey Rifles in September 1914. Within a year he found himself on the Western Front.

When he wrote the following letter in August 1915 there was a lull in the fighting, but Fred still had plenty to contend with, including stomach problems, arrogant young new recruits, and miserable weather conditions.

4th August, 1915

'Dear Maggie,

'The parcel came last Saturday morning + many thanks indeed for both letter and parcel. The latter, you see, took eleven days to reach me. Everything was in good condition except the sausages, + those I had to throw away, because they had turned a bit green.

'I am pleased to see you are all keeping well, + hope this will continue. As for myself, I have had stomach trouble the last two or three days + have had to go to the hospital for treatment, where I am at the present moment. It is nothing serious, but I just needed a little doctoring + hope to be discharged in a day or two. This saught [sort] of thing is not to be wondered at out here when we have lived on nothing else for the last 4½ months on bully beef, biscuits, stew, potatoes, bread, jam, bacon + tea, + slept in damp clothes, in damp chalky dug-outs, nature must rebel against this sometime or other.

'Since writing you last we have had a heavy time of it going into the trenches for eight, ten + twelve days at a stretch + this has meant not only the usual firing line routine, but heavy working with the pick + shovel, day + night giving the fellows about four to five hours sleep a day + sometimes not that. When we have been relieved + going back for a few days rest we have still had to send out working parties every night to work with the engineers 8pm. until 2.30am, so you see we have not had a proper rest even out of the trenches.

'There is nothing very exciting to tell you as our part of the line has been quiet although I have seen some very fierce French + German artillery duels on our right. It is quite a common sight to see our aeroplanes going over the German lines + being heavily shelled, but I have never seen one brought down yet. Of course we get visits from the German aeroplanes + they are shelled by us + our airmen are soon after them, so they are soon hussled [hustled] out of it, but sometimes they get through. 

Although things have been quiet as regards rifle fire the Germans generally put over one or two light high explosives such as rifle grenades + trench mortars + once this was due to some of the new fellows of the new battalions exposing themselves over the parapet + making a target. When they first come out here they cannot realise the danger although it is a bit quiet. One of them made the remark that he had seen more excitement in a public house on a Saturday night, but he will change his views when he has to take part in an advance.

'The weather has been very trying. We had very heavy storms + the rain collects in the trenches to a depth of anything up to 2½ feet. Last Friday we had a heavy storm + we were wading up to our knees in water. This makes more work to bale it all out + then after that to clear the mud away. There is one good thing + that is the sun came out the next day + we were able to dry our clothes by sitting in the sun when possible. After all this our division is out at last + right back away from the firing line for a long rest + during our rest we hope to get some leave to come home for a few days + also have a few concerts. Well Maggie I have been rambling on + now must conclude but before doing so will say that I will endeavour to come to see you all at your new home when this affair is over. Thanking you once more for that parcel + trusting you are still well.

'Yours sincerely, Fred

'PS Yes, Ted [his brother] is out here but where I do not know. He is nowhere near me. I wish he was.'

Fred was killed in action, aged 25, the following year during the German assault at Vimy Ridge. His brother survived the war. You can read more from the letters of Lance Corporal Fred Silvester in my book 'Letters from the Trenches'.

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Adrian Lea

Friday, 6 March 2015

'Pitiable plight' of Belgian refugees who fled brutal invasion

Belgians were driven out of their homes by the
advancing German army
When we look back at women during the First World War, it's usually the nurses, the munitionettes, or the land girls whose praises we sing. So I thought I'd mark International Women's Day (Sunday, 8 March) by paying tribute to a section of society who rarely get a mention - the ordinary women who stayed at home to look after their families and quietly help the war effort in whatever way they could.

One such was Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol who worked tirelessly for good causes throughout the war and encouraged her daughters to do the same. From the very start, her home was a hive of industry as 'comforts' for the troops were knitted and sewn, and good deeds were planned for those in need.

Unfortunately no photograph of Maude survives, but her compassion is clear in the scrapbook / journal she kept between 1914 and 1919, which is now held by Bristol Record Office. It comprises 21volumes, which were invaluable when I was writing my books 'Letters from the Trenches' and 'Bristol in the Great War' (see book tabs above for more details).

Below is an extract from Maude's journal that describes the sympathy she felt for the Belgian refugees who fled the brutal German invasion of their country in 1914 and found safety abroad. Official records estimate that around 250,000 Belgians took refuge in Britain; nearly all returned home when the conflict was over.

Maude Boucher's journal, September 1914

'The poor Belgium people who had been turned out of their homes, or whose homes had been destroyed, were beginning to come to England in the early part of September, in very large numbers. Some had lost practically everything they had and were in a pitiable plight, and some had had the most terrible experiences. Everyone felt so sorry for them, and that they would do all they could. Charlie [Maude's husband, who ran a pharmacy business] came home one day and asked me to see if I could find some clothes for very tiny children, so I searched and found a few things which were sent off at once to Folkestone.

'We were asked at first if we would give a home to one or two refugees in our own homes, but later several people offered the loan of houses, and it was considered preferable that they should live together in these houses rather than be distributed about amongst different  families where perhaps they would feel very strange and if they could not speak English, very lonely ... The upkeep of these various houses was met very often by the congregations of various churches and chapels and later on, the inhabitants of different villages undertook to look after a  party, or family, of refugees.

'The first party of refugees arrived in Bristol at the end of September. People on the route from the station were asked to hang out Belgian flags, and there were hundreds of people lining the streets who cheered and waved to them as they passed along in order to give them a good welcome.

Belgian refugees settle in at Yate, north of Bristol
(Courtesy of Yate Heritage Trust)
'The Belgians seemed very grateful for all that was being done for them, and so pleased to get into houses again after all their wanderings and having been homeless for so long. Many of the first arrivals were of the peasant class and most of the women wore large shawls and no hats, and were generally standing at the gates and doors of their homes.

'The family which came later on to Tyndall’s Park [where Maude and her family lived] were of the better class but had been obliged to leave their homes and had buried most of their possessions and treasures somewhere in Belgium. (That is as the story goes.) They had been able to bring practically nothing with them and as their family consisted of from ten to fifteen children in number, they were very glad of such a comfortable home as was provided for them, and for all the help they got.'

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

Friday, 27 February 2015

'School blown to the ground, little hats and coats all over the place'

Private Philip Luxton
One hundred years ago, Philip Luxton, a devoted husband and father of two, had just arrived in France with the Second Battalion, the Welsh Regiment. He came from the mining town of Abertillery, South Wales, and wrote regularly to his family, discussing the sort of thing that concerned all volunteer soldiers: food, weather, letters that had or hadn't arrived from home, and the need for cigarettes. He also described some of destruction he had already witnessed, and how Sunday - a day of rest at home - was just like any other day at the Front.

Private Luxton's story - and that of his wife, Hannah - is told in my book 'Letters from the Trenches' (click the the tab at the top of the page for more details). Below are some extracts from his letters; more will appear on my blog in April.

22 February 1915

Dear Hannah [his wife], just a few lines to let you know I am allright and I hope you and the children are enjoying good health. ...Fancy doing a long route march on a Sunday, fancy what they would say in old England. We are having plenty of good food here that's one good thing. I have wrote to father so I hope he will answer my lettre and send me some fags, for they are most needed.

3 March 1915

I suppose you are thinking of me but no more than what I am of you. I am having a bit of a tent life at last. There is 12 of our chaps in a tent that is as big as our Henry had. I have never seen more soldiers in my life than what is here at the present time, there are thousands of all sorts here, Indians and all , but I am enjoying splendid health here but it is hard life I assure you but I can put up with it.

6 March 1915

Dear Wife, just a line to let you know that I am allright and in the best of health and I hope you and the children are the same. It is turned a fortnight now since I landed in this country and I have not heard a word from you yet, but it is my fault for I have not been giving you the right address, but  if you will address your letter as I have put it down on this letter I am sure it will find me, even if I gets shifted from here...I wish you would sent me out this week's Gazette for I heard one of the riders was killed in our pit.

22 March 1915

Dear Wife, you can tell the children I have seen a school as big as theirs blown all to the ground and it seems they had to leave it all in a hurry for they left their little coats and hats all over the place. The Germans did not leave one single house standing for they are all blown to the ground. I went through a public house and there was the beer barrels in the cellar, but the beer out here is not worth drinking, on pint of our beer is worth a barrel of this out here.

23 March

I was reading on the Gazette a few letters from some Abertillery boys at the front and the one that tickled me most was the one sent by Mr Stewart's son, it says about his plucky action, for I can tell you it is a [sic] action we have all got to do for we can't get to trenches without shot and shell whizzing over you so he have only done is [sic] duty which lies with us all. Dear Wife this Easter will find me in a far different place to last, but let us hope we will be together again in the following Easter. Now I must close having no more to say at present. So I must wish good night and God bless to you all.

From your loving husband Phil

(Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth / Anne Holland)