Saturday, 30 August 2014

'Capt Sandes to proceed at once on active service!'

Captain Warren Sandes
Every regular British soldier wanted to serve his country during the First World War - it's what they had been trained to do - however, not all were sent to fight straight away. Captain Warren Sandes, of the Royal Engineers, was disappointed to find himself still based in India in 1915 and had resigned himself to watching the conflict from a distance when a telegram finally arrived summoning him to Mesopotamia. Here he would command a bridging train on the River Tigris as troops advanced north towards Baghdad.

This is how he broke to the news of his imminent departure to his mother at home in Weymouth.

'Roorkee
4th April 1915

'My dear Mother

'I expect you will have quite settled down to the idea of my going on service by the time this reaches you as ... this letter will arrive a long time after the wire. Of course I am delighted to go anywhere where I may be of use in this crisis and to feel that after all I am not to be left in the lurch. It all happened suddenly, as these things do. We had been playing polo in a very hot and oppressive atmosphere and I had just dismounted and was wandering in a dripping state to the changing enclosure when a telegram was brought for Colonel Atkinson and I heard my name shouted so hurried back. The wire ran something as follows "Capt Sandes to proceed at once on active service".

'Everybody was full of congratualtions and envy for it was thought that no more RE [Royal Engineers] officers would go from India anywhere. Since this wire no news has come regarding where I am to go, or when, so it is a case of waiting. But meanwhile I am frightfully busy getting a new water bottle, new haversack, cape, hood, imitation turban even, and saddle bags, ropes, buckets, new valise and other things.The Sedgwicks will keep the gramophone and my shooting trophies.'

On 9 April Sandes wrote again, this time including details that suggested an uncertain future. His mother's heart must have sunk:

'I handed my despatch box with my will to Colonel Atkinson. He has it now and the key. It contains also details of insurances, investments and a lot of papers and mementoes which I value.'

The following day he sent another letter in which he tried to raise his mother's spirits with some reassurance and a bit of gentle teasing:

'I hope you have cheered up about my going off like this. I am sure you would wish me to go and do my part and of course I shall be very careful never to go near any battle or other disturbance for those might be dangerous! You will see me back in Weymouth within 18 months.'

In fact Captain Sandes would not return home for more than three years. In Mesopotamia he was held for five months in the desperate siege of Kut al Amara, then taken prisoner by the Turks until the end of the war. During his time in captivity he kept a diary detailing the grim life of privation, boredom, and cruelty that he and his fellow soldiers endured. Written in beautifully calm, clear prose, you can read extracts from these astonishing journals in my book Letters from the Trenches which is out in November.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

'No-one seemed able to smile during those first weeks of war'

Queues for food: 'People got very frightened and were buying in large stores of provisions'

August 1914

As soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force marched into Belgium to take on the German Army, and volunteers at home queued to enlist, hoping to see action before it all ended - the rest of Britain began to take stock. Now the initial excitement of going to war was over, the future was beginning to look uncertain and bleak. This is how Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol, described the mood on the streets ...

'It was very depressing here in Bristol during those first weeks of the war. There was the same sort of look about everyone one met that there was on the deaths of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. No one seemed able to smile and it was just as though some dreadful calamity had happened.
 
'People got very frightened about food and were buying in large stores of provisions, and one friend of ours who was shutting up her house and going away for a short time, told me that she had given a very large order to her grocer and had asked him to store the things for her until she came home and wanted them.
 
'Naturally, this food panic made everything go up in price very much which made it very hard for the poor people and for everybody. I wanted some grocery at the end of the week, and I found some articles double the ordinary price, and some I could not obtain at all, so I had to substitute instead. A few shops were obliged to close for a few days until they had replenished their stock having practically sold out.'

Little could Maude Boucher have imagined that four years later the country would still be at war, and she would be describing the hardships of food rationing in her journal. You can read more in my book 'Bristol in the Great War' which is published next week. and 'Letters from the Trenches' which is out in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)
 
 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

'The streets were thick with people cheering like mad'

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force arrive in France, 1914

British soldiers were treated like heroes when they first landed at Le Havre in August 1914. As they marched north towards Belgium, locals couldn't do enough for the men who had come to protect them. The drama of those first few weeks of the Great War is recorded in the diaries of George Fairclough, a cavalryman with the 4th (Queen's Own) Hussars, who was one of the so-called 'old contemptibles' of the original British Expeditionary Force. Married with a young daughter, he had recently retired from the army but was recalled when war broke out and left for France almost immediately.

His early diary entries (below) describe the welcome he and his fellow troops received from the people of Belgium, how the men were involved in one of the first Allied encounters with the Germans...and how much he was missing his wife.

AUGUST
Sun 16th
Set sail at about 04.00 to go down the Channel.
Mon 17th
A beautiful day, we met a fleet of French ships, there were cheers on both sides, we expect to reach Le Havre tonight and disembark in the morning.
Tues 18th
We entered the harbour, a fine big place, and started landing the horses – a hard day’s work down in the hold. We marched to a station at 12.00 and then for the front – four more hours of hard work.
We left at 04.30, no chance to write to ‘C’ [George's wife Cissie]. I am forbidden to say anything about our movements and all letters are censored.
We travelled through Rouen, St Aveille to Visaburg, then marched to a camp some miles away. It was day time, Wednesday 19th by the time we got pegged down – had no sleep.
While marching through the towns the streets were thick with people cheering like mad, giving away flowers and all sorts of fruit, chocolate, tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, beer, wine, cakes and bread, they are vastly different to English people. I managed to send ‘C’ a postcard but I don’t know if it will arrive or not.
Fri 21st
It’s the 5th anniversary of our wedding; I suppose ‘C’ is thinking of it as well.

We crossed the frontier into Belgium; I could never dream that such a reception awaited us; the people simply vie with each other to do the most for us. If English people were only as good to their soldiers, the soldier would have a good time.
We halted in one village for an hour and a half and when we left there was scarcely a badge or a button in the regiment, all gone as souvenirs. Good luck to the Belgians.
We billeted in a village, all the troops were wearing Belgian colours in their caps.
Sat 22nd
Reveille was at 03.00 and we moved out at 07.00.
We engaged a German force at about 10.30. The artillery commanded what was probably the first skirmish of the campaign near a village of Mossberg [Maubeuge?]. Both German and English shells passed over our heads. There were four casualties in the brigade, but the enemy seemed to suffer a lot from our artillery. ‘D’ Battery had a night march. We passed through Mons at about 01.00 on Sunday morning. The entire town was alive and the people were giving the troops all sorts of refreshments.
You can read more of Sergeant Fairclough's diaries, along with his dramatic story from the Western Front, in my book 'Letters from the Trenches' which is published in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)
 
 

Monday, 4 August 2014

'Great Britain declares war - and may we win it!'

Weymouth on the even of war was unprepared for conflict
At the turn of the century Weymouth was a lively seaside town, made popular by the patronage of King George III in the late 18th century. Across the bay was Portland Harbour, a major naval base, and to the north was the garrison town of Dorchester, home of the Dorsetshire Regiment. With its naval and military presence, South Dorset would play a key part in the First World War, but in 1914 no-one was prepared for the events that unfolded that summer.

Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley, a young woman who lived Weymouth with her widowed mother and three sisters, kept a daily diary during the war years and her entries give a fascinating insight into the way town life was affected. In the days leading up to the conflict she followed events closely, both on the Continent and in the local area ...

July 30: On verge of war. Russian has to back up Servia [pre-war spelling of Serbia], and Germany Austria. So France (allied with Russia) and England (entente) is also involved...Spencer and Fanny [a naval friend and his sister] at The Pavilion on Tuesday when urgent message for all officers and men to return to ships came and just time to dash home and say goodbye, great scenes at pier Tuesday night.

July 31: Situation still worse. Waterworks and Ridgeway Tunnel patrolled, soldiers in and around Weymouth, our boom defences down and no ships allowed in harbour ... Urgent Red Cross meetings, mine in Watts’ garden.

August 1: Germany proclaimed martial law, will soon mobilise. Has sent ultimatum to Russia. Scarcely any hope. Food going up so Sylvia [her sister] & I went to town and bought 21lbs biscuits, 1 ton coal, 12lbs jam, 4lbs tea, also cocoa, beans, macaroni, Horlick, flour and soap, candle!

Sunday, August 2: St Johns Church, war sermon by Mr Coryton
August 3: Navy mobilised. Reserves called out. Germany declares war on France, asks England to remain neutral if they don’t blockade French coast. Cabinet divided. Shall we desert France? Gladys [a friend] and I bathed, we all went to tea and tennis at Lithgows.
August 4: Germany in violation of treaty invades Belgium to get to France’s weakest spot. England send ultimatum (Belgium having appealed to us) 12 hours grace for Germany. German prize ship captured here, we took her coal. Sylvia at Red Cross practice ... Army mobilised. Banks closed till Friday.
August 5: ARMAGEDDON Great Britain declares war on Germany last night and may we win it. Belgians repulse Germans. Great naval battle at any moment. Two [suspected German] spies from Westham tried to poison water last night. 7,000 Territorials to be billeted on Rodwell people tonight. C&M Stores closed.
Madge and her sisters' diaries will be continued from time to time on this blog; you'll also be able to read more of them in my book 'Letters from the Trenches', which is being published in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)
 
 

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Countdown to the Centenary

As the Centenary of the First World War approaches, I am posting extracts from my new book, Bristol in the Great War, which is out in August. Using military events as background, it describes what life was like in the city between 1914 and 1918 and takes a look behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on this blog, the extracts include the words of people who were actually there. For more details about Bristol in the Great War and to pre-order, click the link on the left.


BRISTOL IN THE GREAT WAR - 1918
'The Tommies were out of luck if one of us Yanks were around'


US airman at Yate open their mail: 'The girls came miles to see us'
(Credit: Yate & District Heritage Museum)
Understandably, fun and laughter wasn’t what every serviceman wanted to see when he arrived home on leave, it didn’t take much for some to feel their efforts at the Front weren’t being appreciated. ‘If you had any idea what life was like in the trenches, you would think twice before being so gay and light-hearted,’ wrote one local newspaper correspondent. Another unwelcome surprise may have been to see just how well the American allies were settling in at home.

The United States had entered the war in 1917 when its merchant ships came under attack from German U-Boats. Hundreds of wounded Americans would be invalided back to the city, and US airmen were also stationed a few miles north of Bristol at Yate.

The Americans never had to look far for attention. ‘The girls came miles to see us as if we were a circus and the Tommies were out of luck if one of us Yank curiosities could be found for an escort,’ wrote Corporal Ned Steel, of Kansas City, who was based at Yate. He was amazed at how bold the Bristol women were and set the scene with American translations in brackets: ‘What quite took our breath away was to have a pretty girl cadge [bum ] us for an American cigarette, or in a “pub” (saloon) buy the treats of ale for us and think nothing of it,’ he wrote (with American translations in brackets). ‘And when a ‘”flapper” (Broadway chicken) in Bristol looked offended if we failed to kiss her goodbye (though we had just chanced to meet her ten minutes before) we nearly fell over. These habits, we were told, were the result of the war.’

Corporal Steel belonged to the American 822nd (Repair) Squadron, one of several US units sent to England to learn how to repair damaged aircraft before moving on to France. When he arrived in April 1918, Steel was fairly scornful of the British – their cooking came in for criticism, so too did the slackness in the workshop when nobody in authority was around, and the way every second word seemed to be ‘bloody’!

However, when his squadron departed for France ten weeks later Steel had new-found respect. The expertise he had observed in the aircraft workshops impressed him, and so did the sacrifices that ordinary people had made for the war. Waving goodbye to the girls who came to see them off, he reflected: ‘Nearly everyone one of them had lost brothers or other dear ones in the long never-ending war. Then, could you blame them for crying softly as they watched the train move away?’
 

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

 NEXT POST: War is declared!
 
 
 

Monday, 28 July 2014

Countdown to the Centenary

As the Centenary of the First World War approaches, I am posting extracts from my new book, Bristol in the Great War, which is out in August. Using military events as background, it describes what life was like in the city between 1914 and 1918 and takes a look behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on this blog, the extracts include the words of people who were actually there. For more details about Bristol in the Great War and to pre-order, click the link on the left.


BRISTOL IN THE GREAT WAR - 1917
'Mr Wadlow was in  terrible state and fell to the ground'


Harry Wadlow - middle row, right - wasa talented
sportsman who me a tragic end
(Credit: Frenchay Village Museum)

Despite all the advances, flying was still a hazardous occupation for pilots during the Great War, especially as they didn’t carry parachutes. Estimates of life-expectancy at the Front vary considerably but most are measured in days or weeks. The riskiness of it all was brought home to the community of Frenchay in May 1917 when the son of a local headmaster was killed in a flying accident in Kent.
 
As a child Harry Wadlow had been a pupil at the Frenchay National School, where his father Henry was still the head. He went on to Bristol Grammar School where he excelled at sport as well as his studies, and when war broke out Harry joined the Army Service Corps. He served in the Dardanelles and France, where he was promoted to captain, then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916.
 
The fatal accident happened when he was training to fly a single-seater De Havilland fighter at Joyce Green Aerodrome near Dartford. Situated on marshland, the airfield was not a popular one and Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Stanley Gould Lee, a pilot during the First World War, later explained why: ‘A pupil taking off with a choked or failing engine had to choose, according to wind direction, between drowning in the Thames (half a mile wide at this point), crashing into the Vickers TNT (explosives) Works, sinking into a vast sewage farm, killing himself and numerous patients in a large isolation hospital, being electrocuted in an electrical station with acres of pylons and cables; or trying to turn and get back to the aerodrome. Unfortunately, many pupils confronted with disaster tried the last course and span to their deaths.’

Exactly what happened to Harry is unknown, but he died instantly when his aircraft struck a hut on his landing approach. The news was broken to his father at morning school and the effect was awful. ‘Mr Wadlow was in a terrible state when he got the news and he fell to the ground,’ recalled one pupil. It was the second time tragedy had struck, for in 1901 his wife Laura had died, aged 31, of scarlet fever.  Harry Wadlow was buried at Frenchay with full military honours in a grave shared with his mother. He was 22 years old.
 

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

 
NEXT POST: 'The Tommies were out of luck if one of us Yanks were around' - 1918

 



Friday, 25 July 2014

Countdown to the Centenary

As the Centenary of the First World War approaches, I am posting extracts from my new book, Bristol in the Great War, which is out in August. Using military events as background, it describes what life was like in the city between 1914 and 1918 and takes a look behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on this blog, the extracts include the words of people who were actually there. For more details about Bristol in the Great War and to pre-order, click the link on the left.


BRISTOL IN THE GREAT WAR - 1916
'Sewing, scrubbing, scraping and fetching for the British Army'

Nursing often involved scrubbing floors, cleaning sinks
and washing filthy bandages and dressings
(Credit: Frenchay Village Museum)
AS MORE and more men departed for war, Bristol women were now being asked to take on new roles which they did with enthusiasm. Large numbers were recruited for the Land Army and although many had been working in dairies, keeping poultry, and helping at harvest-time for generations, the less experienced girls were thoroughly checked to make sure they would ‘stick at it’. They had to supply three character references and were then interviewed by a panel. Selection boards were held in the city once a week at the Victoria Street Exchange and some 1,400 women applied in total, of whom about 660 were accepted.
It was impressed upon the successful candidates that although they would be wearing smocks and breeches, they were still expected to behave like ladies. For some, however, the freedom of being billeted on farms unchaperoned was too much of a temptation and many a boisterous night was spent at the local pub!
Despite the prominent part women were now playing, many citizens were still more comfortable to see them in supporting, decorative, or even subservient roles. Frenchay’s parish magazine, which was largely written by the rector, revealed an almost aggressive satisfaction in reporting that nurses at Cleve Hill Hospital in Downend were scrubbing kitchen floors, cleaning sinks, cooking for nearly one hundred people, and washing filthy bandages and dressings.
‘It is work that anyone may be proud and thankful to do,’ declared the magazine, continuing in Churchillian style: ‘For there will come the day when those who limped in can march out, when all bandages and slings can be cast off...these men will leave England again for the battlefield, and those Red Cross members who sewed and scrubbed and scraped and fetched and carried for them, and nursed them back into health, will know that they have had a finger in the pie which feeds the British Army.’



(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)


NEXT POST: 'Mr Wadlow was in a terrible state and fell to the ground - 1917