Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Cavalryman's 1914 diary - the early days of war

Sgt George Fairclough in India, where
he was stationed before the war
In October 1914 the first phase of war in Europe was drawing to a close and what had begun as a mobile campaign would soon become mired in the trench warfare most of us associate with the Western Front. As both sides worked their way westwards towards the coast in an attempt to outflank each other, cavalryman Sergeant George Fairclough kept a diary which noted the relentless labour of each day, and how motor transport was rendering horses less and less useful.

Sunday, October 4th 
We crossed the River Aisne at last after a fortnight’s halt. We crossed at a pontoon bridge thrown across by the French as the iron bridge was completely wrecked by the Germans.
All the cavalry are to concentrate on the Allies’ left wing, and having left our other troops behind we are now among the French. The troops marched 45 miles and camped at Trier. There was terrible gun fire going on all night.

Monday 5th
Marched 35 miles and camped at Dormat-sur-la-Luce.

Tuesday 6th
We marched out but we had only gone about four miles when we were stopped by a motor car and sent back. We stood to all day, there was heavy firing going on all day.

Wednesday 7th
We were sent to assist the French force that had been driven out of their positions, but our men weren’t required after all as some French infantry reinforcements had arrived in motor lorries after travelling all night. There is not much use for cavalry at the present.
We have been travelling north-west each day to try to get around the enemy’s right flank – no fighting.

Monday 12th
Came into contact with the enemy early in the morning in dense fog, the 4th Lancers had five wounded, the  16th had one officer, one sergeant, and one private killed and several wounded.
In the afternoon two troops of ‘C’ squadron took a hill with a monastery, the Mont-des-Cats, on top.  My troop acted as the rear guard. The Germans, firing from fox holes killed Captain Gatacre.
My troop retired, and being fired upon dismounted for action, I had led the horses and came under shell fire. We were lucky to have no casualties. Billeted at Fletre.

Tuesday 13th
It was pouring with rain all day, we got drenched. We passed through lines of French infantry to get in touch with the enemy. We had a sharp fight which developed into a general engagement as our infantry came up. Mr Lonsdale and four men were wounded.

Wednesday 14th
We had a sharp fight but no casualties.

Thursday 15th
Still in contact, one corporal has been hit.

Friday 16th
Dense fog impeded movements, as it cleared we got in touch. Corporals Wakefield and Smythe were killed and Sergeant Dillon, Corporal Davis and another man of ‘C’ Squadron wounded. General Gough got the 4th and the 16th Lancers to trail a gun, by hand, up to within 200 yards of a barricade of a village where Germans were billeting ad then blew the barricade to bits. We took the village, but then had to retire. The Germans, afterwards, spent the whole night knocking the village to bits. They probably thought we were still there! There was beautiful furniture used to barricade the streets.

Saturday 17th
We had no casualties but the 5th had several including one sergeant killed.
I have learnt since that in the action my troops had taken part on the 12th, the monks from the monastery had picked up and buried 17 German dead and several wounded. The Prince Max of Hesse was among them. 

You can read more of George Fairclough's diaries and his dramatic story in my new book Letters from the Trenches which is published in November.

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

Friday, 3 October 2014

A breakthrough in the search for gallant Private Orr!

Private TH Orr's bravery is recorded in the
Citations of the Distinguished Conduct Medal
Could this be the the First World War soldier who was lauded in the columns of a Bristol newspaper for 'saving a chum under fire!' on the battlefield?

In my last post I published a verse called 'St Paul's Hero' which praised the bravery of a Private T Orr who risked his life saving a wounded comrade. The verse was discovered on a yellowing cutting that was tucked inside an old bible and I asked if anyone had any idea who the soldier could have been.

He was described in the verse as 'a Glo'ster' (soldier of the Gloucestershire Regiment) and there was some indication that he and his wife ran a business in the St Paul's area of Bristol.

Within hours of my post going up, Sarah Spink, an amateur researcher, got in touch to suggest that the man in question may have been Private Thomas Henry Orr who served with the First Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment (Regimental No 7640) and who, according to the 'UK Citations of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, 1914-1920', above, was decorated 'For gallantry in going forward 100 yards, on 19th September, to pick up a wounded scout, and helping to bring him in under heavy fire'.

Sarah's research also showed that Private Orr was born in the Eastville district of Bristol in 1887, and was married in the city in 1913. At the time of the 1911 Census he was serving with the Gloucestershire Regiment and his wife-to-be worked as a confectioner's shop assisant.

If anyone can confirm Sarah's findings, or tell us any more about Private Orr and his connection to St Paul's, I would be delighted to hear from you.

Sarah has also tried to shed light on the identity of RW French, who wrote the verse. 'I have seen several references to a RW French of Bristol on the British Newspaper Archive website, who was on the National Executive of Credit Traders in the 1940s and the Western Executive in the 1930s,' she said. 'Possibly the same one of Bristol who is referred to as being a Presbyterian Church Speaker in 1945.'

This isn't the first time Sarah has helped 'Letters from the Trenches' with its inquiries. Two years ago she managed to track down the family of another WW1 soldier, Ernest West, which resulted in two half-brothers meeting for the first time. I thank her very much for taking such a lively interest.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Who can help identify this brave Tommy from the trenches?

Can anyone shed light on the newspaper cutting to the right which has been discovered in an old bible? It was published in  newspaper that circulated in Bristol - an advert for a city tyre firm is printed on the back - but no more than that is known.

The verse was written as a tribute to a WW1 soldier called Private T Orr, who risked his life saving a wounded comrade, and the cutting was found in the bible of a woman who was related to a WW1 soldier - but she had no known link to Private Orr.

There are a couple of clues as to Orr's identity: he is described as 'a Glo'ster' (soldier of the Gloucestershire Regiment) and appears to have run a shop with his wife in the St Paul's area of Bristol. At the end of the poem is a line that explains that 'the verses were written and sent to Pte T Orr when he was in hospital'.

The poem's author is 'RW French' who, rather wittily, uses his name in a play on words in the last line, saying Orr had been 'mentioned in French's despatches.' (Sir John French was commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe from August 1914 until December 1915.)

The verse is transcribed below, do get in touch if you know who Private Orr - or RW French - were.

A St Paul's Hero

Said she, 'You go, I'll mind the shop.
Leave me to tend the 'biz;
You're needed the tyrant's game to stop,
Mid bullets and shells that fiz.'
But who can tell of the parting wrench?
Who count the tears it cost her,
As she thought of her soldier in bullet-drill'd trench,
Her own brave 'Tommy' - the Glo'ster?

The prayer she offered - was it in vain?
Her hubby - God bless him! A hero! -
Played his part as he lay in the cold numbing rain,
When the temperature stood about zero.
He bore with his fellows in the thickest of fight,
A Britisher true to the core!
As we hear of his daring it gives us delight.
We're proud to have known 'Tommy' Orr!

Men of great daring command our attention;
'Tis deeds of the brave that inspire:
Orr, be it known, has gained special mention
For saving a chum under fire!
The deed was full noted by officer, proud
Of his private who faced 'certain grave',
Whose courage by shell fire never was cowed
Who risked all - one wounded to save!

In hospital, kindly, he's now being nursed;
He's far from the battle that galls:
His dreams and thoughts will ever turn first
To his dearest one there in St Paul's.
We're waiting to greet him when homeward he hies:
His shop we will storm it in batches.
Oh! What a joy to e'er patronise 
Orr, mentioned in French's despatches!

'Her own brave 'Tommy!'

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.

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.

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)