Sunday, 14 December 2014

‘I spent my Xmas in the frontline trenches 100yds from the Huns'



As the first Christmas of the WW1 Centenary approaches, our minds turn to all those the Great War soldiers who had to spend 'festive' seasons at the Front, separated from families and often in pretty miserable conditions. With few exceptions, they tried to make the best of things and celebrate as best they could, as you can see from the selection of Christmas letters below. It's a subject I talk more about on a podcast recorded for December's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine, which you can listen to here
Sgt George Smith

Sergeant George Smith wrote this from the Western Front in December 1915 where he served with the London Scottish Battalion:

‘ I spent my Xmas in the front line trenches 100 yds from the Huns & it rained the whole time and the only people who were allowed shelters were the platoon Sgts & we were continually dodging in & out on patrol. I had a nice box from the firm [probably C&E Morton, the food canning factory in east London where he had worked as a clerk], our best brands of tinned fruits etc which I divided up amongst the platoon. … We are going to try & make up for a bad Xmas on Hogmanay but we go up the line again on New Year’s Night I believe...With reference to your question about cocoa etc. we all think cocoa is about the best thing anybody can send out to troops for it is so warming & a food in itself.’

Bert Smythe, of the Australian Imperial Force, sent this humorous epistle home from Milbank Barracks Hospital, London, December 1915:

'Well its Christmas night...In the morning we went to Church. HM Queen Alex was there. I didn’t approve of things at all. Too much blooming ceremony & show for my liking. After church we had to wait for a long while in one of the wards for the Queen. When she came she gave us each a photo of herself & King Ned. After that was over I found that someone had shook my brand new hat out of the cloak room where they made us leave them. I got a clue as to where it went but before I could see about it myself a mate who knew of my loss went & got it back – but somebody had kindly removed the badge bust them.
'Then we had a spanking Christmas dinner. Turkey being the item in chief. Two bottles of beer or stout for each man but I had an orgy all on my own with lemonade.'

Private Tom Fake, of the Rifle Brigade, sent this letter to his wife and young son from France a few days before Christmas Day in 1917:

We have had some very hard weather ever since I wrote you last, it must be cruel for the men up the line, but where we are to it is a pretty sight, all the trees are glistening white or at least it has been so up to this evening but since dark it has started thawing. We are keeping up Christmas day on Sunday (as we are going up the line again) and I think we shall have a fine time by what I can hear. I had a small parcel from the Dowsetts a few days ago, it consisted of a handkerchief khaki colour, and an oz of tobacco, very good of them wasn’t it.’


Not all soldiers were stuck at the Front for Christmas, the lucky ones came home on leave and in 1916 these were the excited scenes of homecoming described by the Bristol Times and Mirror:

‘All day the station was crowded with soldiers, coming and going and changing trains. The Christmas spirit was noisily evident, and the singing of snatches of songs, continuous. Never, surely, were trains more crowded, never were travellers more good humoured and content with their accommodation. The men got into the trains anyhow – some through the windows. They did not ask guards or porters to find them seats, but jumped into any compartment, not caring a toss whether they could sit or not...They did not mind so long as they got aboard and knew that they were going home.'

May I wish all my readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.



Monday, 8 December 2014

The Australians: a breath of fresh air in wartime Britain

In my last post I paid tribute to the Canadian troops who passed through these islands on their way to the Front, often taking locals by surprise with their brash ways.

In many ways the character of the Australian soldiers was similar, coming as they did from a young country where life could be harsh. There was even an element of competition between the two nationalities according to one London doctor. In a letter that is included in my new book 'Letters from the Trenches', he wrote of the Aussies:

The Aussies: 'A fine looking lot of men'
Their language may be coarse; but I must say that a finer looking lot of men I never saw. They are not only athletic looking and of good physique to a man; but 5 out of 6 are noticeably handsome, with fine features and clear eyes. I hear there is a good deal of jealousy between them and the Canadians.

When Australian soldiers arrived Britain it was for training, while on leave, or for hospital treatment when wounded and I'm sure it's true to say that most people found them a breath of fresh air. I noticed, almost without exception, that a well-developed sense of irony characterised the letters they wrote home and, as you can see from the extract below from my book, they seemed to write with a sense of fun and a twinkle in their eye:

Corporal Bert Smythe, from Sydney, made light of the uncomfortable, fly-blown conditions in Egypt as he waited to be sent to Gallipoli, writing reports for his family (complete with intentional misspellings) which must have had them in stitches:

March 1915

'If any norty words happen to appear you must please skip them. You see, the flies are the most persistent beggars that I’ve ever had the pleasure of squashing. The only thing, the beggars are so blooming lively & frisky that my poor cheeks are very red & very sore from the severe bombardment & the enemy’s casualties are dishearteningly small being one killed & 2 badly scared. The remaining 45,892,756,897 being merely amused.'

My next post will take us up to Christmas with some festive letters from the Front. In the New Year I'll resume the Colonial theme by paying tribute to soldiers from South Africa and India who fought with the Allies.


Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Brace yourself Britain, the Canadians are coming!

Proudly bearing arms, a battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

This post is my small tribute to the volunteer soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who helped Britain fight the Great War. Their reputation as fighters was second to none and as they began arriving in this country on their way to the Front, disembarking from ships in in large numbers, loud, brash and eager, it was clear they would take some getting used to!

At the turn of last century we Brits were a modest, mild-mannered lot. We liked our homes and gardens, we had no wish to travel further than the nearest seaside resort, and most of us were quite happy to abide by the established Edwardian social order in which everyone knew their place. Such folk had departed Britannia's shores in their droves during the early 1900s to make a new life for themselves in Canada, but their sons who returned were a different breed completely. Coming from a country that was huge and wide open, many found Britain stiflingly small ... and weren't afraid to say so.

The extract below is from my new book 'Letters from the Trenches' and describes the arrival of George Lamb, a bank clerk from Kamsack in Saskatchewan, in 1916. A tougher character you couldn't wish to find, although he had plenty of charm too.

English trains 'sure were a joke' said George Lamb
Coming from a land of wide open spaces, everything about the ‘old country’ seemed tiny to Lamb and his fellow Canadians. When they arrived in Liverpool, they could hardly believe the size of the train and the box-like little carriages that awaited them: ‘Eight men were put in each contrivance and there you were shut off from the rest of the train in this stuffy little room, they sure are a joke, their engines are about the size of a threshing engine’ he wrote. Interestingly, an American airman, Ned Steel, used very similar words to describe his first impressions of Liverpool when he there landed in 1918, en route to France: ‘With a squad to each compartment on our funny little coaches we started across “Merry Old England”, the dinky little engine quite surprising us with its speed. What a beautiful country.'

Lamb wasn’t blind to England’s bucolic charm either and he acknowledged it in letters home: ‘The scenery is beautiful and trees are still quite green, the hedges are cut off by the men who own the land and kept in fine shape.’ But such descriptions were now and again tempered by coarser observations: ‘The streets and roads are so narrow a person can spit across them.’

Not exactly what we were used to, but his heart was in the right place! There are plenty more of Lamb's colourful letters in my book - details of which are at the top of the page on the left - but I should warn you that his story does not have a happy ending. In my next post I'll tell you what sort of impression the Aussies made.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Letters from the Trenches pays tribute to 'everyman'

I'm thrilled and proud to say that 'Letters from the Trenches' has now been published!

Yes, the book that inspired me to start this blog in July 2012 is now out, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. When I was asked to write Letters from the Trenches by Pen and Sword Books I knew very little about the primary sources that were available and I assumed I would be making trips to archives, museums and libraries to dig around in their collections. But no. The vast majority of my material came from ordinary people whose families had passed letters, diaries and photos down through the generations, and who got in touch because they wanted their stories told, and their relatives remembered.

And that gives you an idea about the sort of book it is. 'Letter from the Trenches' tells the story of 'everyman' - men, women and children just like us who lived through four extraordinary years of conflict.

History has a tendency to 'compartmentalise' and, as a result, the First World War in often talked about in terms of themes: plucky 'munitionettes', innocent volunteers sent to the slaughter, self-sacrificing Red Cross nurses, poets who railed against trench warfare, conscientious objectors who stood their ground and refused to fight.

But reality, of course, was very different ... as my book shows.

  • For every plucky 'munitionette' there was a mother at home fretting about how she would cope without her husband: ‘If only our little homes and our children’s welfare could be made secure. How many happy mothers would be able to bear the separation better, and how many soldiers would gladly do their bit the more contentedly?’
  • For every quietly-serving Red Cross nurse there was another with a mind of her own: ‘Went round with a nurse who did dressings, I put on bandages, one awful one on groin (disgusting) did it badly.’
  • For every volunteer whose life was lost needlessly, there was another who found the war was exactly what he had been looking for : 'Please don’t think I am unhappy or miserable I am just the reverse and enjoying all the fun.'
  • For every conscientious objector who refused to fight, there were far more who kept their objections to themselves: ‘I am sorry to tell you I am going to France on Monday next, quick work isn’t it?’
  • And for every poet who shed light on the horror of the trenches, there was another eloquent soldier who accepted the way things were and even tried to see the funny side: 'What dugouts there are, are flooded with mud and water up to the knees and the rats hold swimming galas in them.'

This is the way things really were. And it's only when we understand that those who lived through the Great War were not a different, stoical, noble breed, but people just like us, that we can comprehend what they really went through.

I hope you enjoy the book.



Sunday, 23 November 2014

Sit up straight! It's time to dig out the school logs of 1914

Eyes straight ahead and hands out of sight: a class photo from 1914
Old letters and diaries are among the most popular primary sources for anyone researching the social history of a particular period in time. But there are many others of course. Reports of the old assizes courts bristle with fascinating detail and, on another tack completely, so do the school logs that used to be kept by all headteachers. School logs proved very useful when I was writing my book Bristol in the Great War (published September 2014) and they are bringing colour to the book I am writing at the moment, Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland in the Great War (out next year).

Below is a taste of these logs from 100 years ago. They were kept during the winter of 1914, just after the Great War had started, at schools around Bristol and on the Isle of or the Isle of Portland, Dorset. You won't find anything earth-shattering in the entries, but with mentions of the war, whooping cough, laundry classes and coal fires, the details could not be more evocative of a bygone age ...

Hambrook Evangelical School
                 
November 23 - Some wounded soldiers visited the school this pm. The time table was suspended and the soldiers were entertained with country dancing & some patriotic songs.

November 27 - I [the headmaster] have obtained permission to attend the funeral of my uncle & to be absent for 2 or 3 days to assist my aunt, who is very aged, in making her arrangements for the future. Mrs Luff will take charge of the school during my absence.


Brinkworthy School, Stapleton

November 26 - To date 45 exclusions have been made for whooping cough.

November 30 - Received notice from LEA [Local Education Authority] that in view of the present circumstances, it has been decided that until 31st March next the school hours shall be from 2 to 4.15 in the afternoon.Two more exclusions for whooping cough were forwarded today.

Deccember 7 - School was closed by permission of LEA on Dec 7th & 8th for the purposes of a school play in aid of the school and War distress funds, and in which all the children were taking part.
 

All Saints School, Winterbourne Down


November 18 - The School visited by Mr Ward, to see about Laundry Classes. It was decided that none should be held at present.

November 26 - Colonel Lister, HMI [His Majesty's Inspector], visited the School late in the afternoon to speak about some bad behaviour at woodwork and cookery classes.

November 30 - School opened at 9.40, a service having been held at Church at 8.45.

December 4 - Owing to stormy weather, only 13 Infants were present in the afternoon, and the register was not marked.


Frenchay National School

November 9 - Miss Whale absent all day at London to be inoculated against typhoid fever, having volunteeered as a red Cross nurse for active service.


St George's Infant School, Portland

September 15 - Began coal fires today.

November 5 & 6 - Half day holiday each day, though owing to war there is no fair.

November 15 - Half day holiday there being a bazaar in the Jubilee Hall in aid of the Belgian Relief Fund and the fund for providing clothing for the Soldiers and Sailors.

***
These school logs are held by Frenchay Village Museum and the Portland Heritage Trust - my grateful thanks to both.