Monday, 21 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 next month. 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 use the words of people who were actually there. Today's post describes Christmas in Bristol, and in 1915 it was business as usual. For more details about Bristol in the Great War, click the link on the left.

'Electric torches - a most acceptable present for soldiers'

The Bristol Times and Mirror advertise
tempting treats for Christmas
(Credit: Bristol Reference Library)
AS 1915 drew to a close, it was reported by one London newspaper that, despite the war, women were still spending freely as the festive season approached. While shops that depended on male customers were finding business slack, those for women were reporting record sales. The same was true in Bristol, and a look through the local newspapers in the week leading up to Christmas 1915 shows that women had all the encouragement they needed from advertisers.
Alongside a big, bold appeal for army recruits, the pharmacist Henry Hodder, of Wine Street, commanded: ‘Do your Xmas shopping now’. The Misses Weymouth of Corn Street offered their furs as ideal ‘yuletide gifts’ with motor wraps from five guineas and foot muffs at 10s 9d. James Phillips & Sons, a household goods store in Union Street, helpfully let it be known that ‘You cannot do better than inspect our large and choice assorted stock of goods’.

In Clifton, the Alexandra Company proudly advertised its ‘dainty fancy goods’, while in Augustine’s Parade, MW Dunscombe Ltd showed off its ‘Meccano for boys’, and suggested their electric torches and pocket Kodaks were ‘a most acceptable present’ for soldiers at the Front.
Who could blame women for indulging in a bit of retail therapy? They were the ones who were left to bring up families by themselves, who struggled when food and money was short, and who could not forget that their loved ones might never return. 

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)

NEXT POST: 'Sewing, scrubbing, scraping and fetching for the British Army' - 1916

Wednesday, 16 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 next month. 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 use the words of people who were actually there. Today's post describes the arrival in Bristol of Belgian refugees. For more details about Bristol in the Great War, click the link on the left.

'Many of the first arrivals were of the peasant class'

Belgian refugees arrive in Bristol,
many looked drained and bewildered
Credit: Bristol Reference Library
AS 1914 drew to a close, the reality of war was becoming clear. Wounded soldiers were now arriving back at Temple Meads Station, filthy, bloodied and bandaged. One Bristol paper published this soldier’s letter which described conditions at the Front: ‘In the daytime it is a butcher shop and at night it is like Madam Tussaud’s, nothing but dead and wounded, dead horses, burning towns and villages, murderers and refugees...It is painful to see women and children seeking a place of safety when shells go over and blow them to pieces. We are in a farm at the present time...and a Belgian refugee is here with three children on his own. His wife got shelled as they were flying for their lives.’

Belgian refugees were now seeking refuge in Britain and Bristol would accommodate 2,000. They were found homes and jobs, education was provided for the children, and money was raised to support them. The first Belgians arrived in the city on 22 September and were cheered by waving crowds. But as they paraded through the centre by tram many looked drained and bewildered.

For some like Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Clifton, the culture difference took a bit of getting used to. ‘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,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘The family which came later on to Tyndall’s Park 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.’

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)
NEXT POST: 'A most acceptable present for soldiers' - 1915

Saturday, 12 July 2014

At last, the Centenary of the Great War is in sight!

After two years of writing books about the First World War, I can finally see the Centenary coming into view - and what a welcome sight it is! For at last it means the publication of my first two books: Bristol in the Great War, which will be out in August, and Letters from the Trenches, out in November, A third title, Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland in the Great War is still being written and that will be published next year.

In the run-up to the start of the Centenary on August 4th, I shall be posting extracts from Bristol in the Great War as a tribute to those who lived through those awful years. Using military events as background, the book describes what it was like to live in Bristol between 1914 and 1918, and looks behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on my blog, the extracts will use the words of people who were actually there.

The book is arranged in five chapters, covering the five years of war, and I shall be posting an extract from each one, along with illustrations (the book is packed with 100 photographs, many of which have never been published). I hope you enjoy them, even if you're not familiar with Bristol, and if you feel inclined to buy a copy of the book, simply click the link on the left.

Things have changed enormously in the two years since I began my writing projects, In 2012 it wasn't unheard of for children to confuse the two world wars, or simply not know the 1914-18 conflict existed. There's little chance of that now, with schools very much involved in the Centenary. Some even have their own WW1-themed blogs and twitter accounts.

Interest in the war has also inspired people to investigate their own family histories, and I have listened to some moving accounts by people who have discovered exactly how their relatives were involved in the conflict. A huge amount of research is now being published - from sweeping tomes to local stories - and it's noticeable that information about Britain during the Great War is now being pulled together in books and on websites. Two years ago it was often scattered among many different sources and hard to find.

I hope my books will play their own small part in ensuring that, long after the Centenary is forgotten, those who lived through the Great War are always remembered.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Soldiers never forgot that 'home is where the heart is'

Private Tom Fake
(Photos:Jackie Carpener)
Letters written by Tommies from the Front reveal just how important their lives at home still were despite everything that was going on around them. Duties on the battlefield obviously came first, dictated as they were by military orders that couldn't be ignored and an enemy that always always had to be watched. But when men settled down quietly with their pencils and paper, family life came alive again and domestic details took precedence over mud, exhaustion, barbed wire and the incessant roar of guns.

One man for whom home was tremendously important was Private Tom Fake, who served in France with the Rifle Brigade. When he wrote to his wife Charlotte in Bristol, it was almost as if she were standing next to him, as shown in these snippets from letters he wrote during June 1917. Conversation often centred on their young son, Tommy, and also the garden Tom had loved so much during peace time:

4th June

Charlotte and Tommy Fake
'Thank Tommy for his nice letter and tell him my next letter will be to him. I am also glad he has had a bible as a prize from his Sunday school and I hope he will take care of it...How are those rose trees this year, did Bert Freke [a family friend] prune them for me? And how about my gladiolas are they alright, or are they gone the same way as the begonias. I should like to hear a bit about the garden when you answer this, did you pot out the echeverias?'

Tom confides in his wife about problems that he may have felt he had to keep quiet about around the other men: 'I am going on fairly well, but I still get the rheumatics, today again it nearly crippled me on the march,' he wrote on 14 June. Four days later things still hadn't improved: 'I have still got the rheumatics, the marching pulls me all to pieces, but still I can only do my best.'

Charlotte had problems of her own - namely bad teeth - and was awaiting an operation (fairly common at the time) to remove them: 'I shall be glad to hear when you have had all your teeth out and I do hope you will feel better after it,' wrote her husband comfortingly. By the end of June she had had them extracted, and Tom must have wished he could have been with her: 'I am sorry the operation you have been going under has made you so weak and hope that you will soon get strong again, well I suppose it will be finished by the time you get this, I suppose it will be some time before you get new teeth.'

Private Fake's letters also reflect how difficult life was becoming for those at home, with the war causing shortages in food and fuel: 'So they have stopped runing the buses have they? I suppose that is on account of using petrol,' he wrote on 22 June.

A funeral procession for pupils killed in the
bombing raid on London in June 1917
Fortunately for the Fakes, their home in Bristol was far enough west not to suffer enemy air attacks. However, when the Germans launched their first major heavy bombing raid over London on 13 June 1917, killing 162 people and injuring 432, Tom was full of sadness for his friends who had lost loved ones:

13 June

'They say the 13th is an unlucky number, whether that be true or not it was unlucky for some poor devils that suffered from the air raid. It has affected my two mates. One has had the front of his house wrecked and a bird killed, but no one inside was injured. The other one's sister had a child about six years old killed at school and one injured.' can read more of Tom Fake's letters in my book 'Letters from the Trenches', which is out in November, and also in 'Bristol in the Great War' which is out this August. This will my first book and I'll be telling you more about it as publication approaches. In the meantime here's a sneak preview of the cover - click here for more details or to pre-order a copy.

Thankyou to Jackie Carpenter for allowing me to use the material relating to her great-uncle Tom Fake.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

A soldier's poignant thoughts of his children at home

A token of love, sent from the Front by a father missing his children
It's another rainy bank holiday weekend here in South West England and how my spirits sank when I pulled the curtains this morning and saw rain falling from grey skies with puddles coalescing in the garden.

How much worse it must have been, though, for Hannah Luxton in 1915 who, for the first time, was facing the Whitsun break alone with her two young girls at home in South Wales. Her husband Philip had just left for the Front and his poignant letters from France reveal that he was missing them just as much as they were missing him. In the trenches he imagines them preparing for the traditional Whitsun parade, with new dresses that had been bought specially for the occasion:

16 May, 1915

Just a few lines to let you know I am alright and I hope you and the children will enjoy yourself on Whitsun for I am sure I will be thinking of them for I wish I was able to be with them. I think this will be the first Whitsun for me to be from them and I hope it will be the last. Dear Wife, I am afraid I won't be able to write quite so often as we are moving about very often but I will write as often as I can. I hope it will not stop you writing for I will be able to receive your letters alright.

Whitsun May 23, 1915

Just a few lines in answer to your letters and fags and I am glad to hear you and the children is quite well...You can tell the children I will send them a French coin as soon as I gets some but I won't be able to send them any Belgium coins for we only get French coins here. Dear wife we had a fearful night here last night I never seen thunder and lightning in my life like I seen then and it lasted for about one hour. Dear wife while I am writing this letter I am thinking of the children dressing, for it is now eleven o'clock for I expect they will want to put their new dresses on. Don't forget to have your photos taken for I should like one very much.

25 May, 1915

Hoping you and the children had a good time yesterday for just at the time the schools was parading I was thinking of the children and wishing I was there to see them and I hope they had a fine day for it is very hot out here now by day.

  • My thanks to Anne Holland for the letters and Lorraine Judge for the postcard. You can read more of Philip Luxton's letters in my book Letters from the Trenches which is out in November.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The touching 'joie de vivre' of a doomed young soldier

Fred Wood: a teenager when he died
Some of the most moving letters from the First World War were written by soldiers who were still little more than the boys when they joined up. Volunteers had to be18 to enlist and 19 to serve abroad, but it's well-known that many recruiting officers turned a blind eye, perhaps suggesting that young lads who had told the truth about their age 'take a turn around the block' and 'return a couple of years older'. Which they usually did.

Fred Wood of Bristol enlisted when he was 17 and served with the Somerset Light Infantry in France. He was full of life, loved football, and was never happier than when in the company of friends. This youthful 'joie de vivre' comes across in letters he wrote to his older brother Ted, who was also serving on the Western Front, and the pair loved nothing more than to chat about mutual friends and the comings-and-goings of relatives.

This letter was written in March 1916:
Dear Ted, I received your card and I am please to see you are in the pink, the same as myself. How is Jim going on as Joe Avory keeps asking how he is. I have not heard from Cardiff [where his aunt and uncle lived] since I came back from leave, but I must excuse Aunt, as she got enough to do as it is. Hope Fatty will get right down the line. How did it happen, while he was playing footer?
Mother and all at home are quite well. Ask Jack when you see him if Auntie is home yet as Uncle said she would be home for Easter. Well Dear Ted, you must excuse this short scribble for the present. Hoping you and all your mates are in the pink. I remain your loving brother. Fred.

The 'Auntie' to whom Fred referred had sent him a touching card for Christmas 1915. On the front was a popular music hall scene and on the back was a message, pictured left, that showed how fond she was of the young nephew she had loved since he was a little boy: 'To Freddie, with all Aunties love and best wishes for a happy Christmas, Auntie Pollie.'

By the following Christmas Fred was dead, killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. His body was never found.

You can read the Wood brothers' story in full in my book 'Letters from the Trenches' which is out in November.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

'Just a short note to let you know I am A1 and happy as ever'

Charles Alderton shortly before leaving for the Front
Welcome to 'Letters from the Trenches' and I hope you like the new look I've given my blog! Nearly two years after my first post went up I thought it was time to freshen things up in time for the Great War Centenary. The content hasn't changed though, my posts will still be describing life during the First World War through the eyes of those who were actually there. And in the coming months there will also be news of my two books which are being published this year, 'Letters from the Trenches' and 'Bristol in the Great War'.

This week I thought I'd complement my new look with the correspondence of Charles Alderton, a young officer of the Gordon Highlanders, who always wrote to his family in London home with energy and enthusiasm. Charles had waited months to be posted to France after volunteering, and his wish finally came true in the summer of 1917. Despite the mud and guns his letters were happy and chatty and below are two that he wrote to his sisters.

'31 August, 1917

Dear Amy,

My life here has been full of interest, we have been on the move ever since we landed, we never stayed more than 3 nights in one place so far, but I am happy and comfy with plenty of food etc. The last two nights I have been billeted in a very comfy billet with a good bed and tonight I have a new billet as well...We are fairly near the line but seldom hear any guns but at night the flashes are very plain. If you can let me have Trevor's number and address I will endeavour to look him out on my travels. Of course there are many troops here but otherwise it is not very different to England.'

'Sunday, 4 November, 1917

Dear Lucy,

Just a short note to let you know I am A1 and happy as ever. I have not received any parcels yet but am looking forward to some today as I have heard what is in them. I received Anna's letter and am replying very shortly. We had a church parade and a presentation of colours by the Colonel in honour of his birthday which was last week...I had a very interesting time at tea with the Colonel and the Brigadier was there also, you can guess I saw the funny side of everything.

We have had very fair weather lately but have been very busy hence only a few letters this week. This is the first decent writing paper I have had since I have been out and they charged me 4 francs for it - some charge.

It looks very much as if I am going to spend Christmas here, if I do I will of course write and tell you all we do. I am always thinking of you all round the fire on Sundays but still as I said once before, we have a fire also. Our Colonel is a very nice fellow but awfully energetic, he is always using our spare!! time with some kind of competition. Well never worry I am as happy as ever and will now be closing. With heaps of love to all, your loving brother Charlie.'

What sort of Christmas did Charles Alderton have? You can follow his fortunes in my book 'Letters from the Trenches'.