Friday, 5 February 2016

Blackout peril: 'My car skidded almost into the shop windows!'

Road accidents rocketed during WW1 blackouts
You may think 'angry motorists' are a modern phenomenon, to be found only on our fast and overcrowded 21st century roads - but nothing could be further from the truth.

Drivers have been getting worked up behind the wheel for as long as cars have been around, although a hundred years ago it wasn't traffic queues, or roadworks, or speed cameras that were causing annoyance. Rather, it was night-time blackouts that were making conditions hazardous.

Blackouts were imposed all over the country when Zeppelin airships began dropping bombs on Britain during the Great War. Street lighting was reduced, lit windows had to be covered, and the use of headlights on cars was banned. 'Only the small lamps could be used, but dimmed so that they could just merely be seen, not bright enough to cast light on the road,' wrote Maude Boucher, a Bristol mother who kept a journal throughout the Great War.

Unsurprisingly, the number of road accidents rocketed. The Times reported 22 people killed on London streets in the first week of 1916 alone. Tellingly, that number fell to 15 during the second week, when there was a succession of moonlit nights.

According to Maude Boucher, many people developed 'a stay-at-home habit' as a result of the blackout 'because they were too nervous to travel in cars or taxi-cabs.' Those who did venture out often returned somewhat shaken, as the following indignant letter, published on 16 February, 1916 in the Bristol Evening Times and Echo, reveals:
Whilst driving my car from Kingswood to the city on Sunday night, I received one of the worst shocks to my nerves I have experienced. The night, you will remember, was wet and very dark, so dark that with the small lights we are are now permitted, it was impossible to travel at anything but a slow pace, which was fortunate for me, as on nearing Lawrence Hill Bridge I found myself, before I could see it, within a few feet of the first tram standard of a section that are placed in the centre of the road. 
I missed it by inches only, and my car skidded almost into the shop windows on the other side. This is a grave danger to all users of the road that exists in numerous parts of the city, and I suggest that whilst reduced lighting orders are necessary, and in force, whoever controls the standards should have the end ones of each section painted white, or a danger lamp hung on him.
The offending tram standards at Lawrence Hill
Signed simply 'ONE WHO JUST MISSED' the letter was one of many little gems I discovered while writing my book Bristol in the Great War and it prompted me to have a look through my old Bristol photos to try and locate the scene of the near-miss. This turn-of-the-century photo (right) shows the bridge at Lawrence Hill with solid tram standards ranged down the middle of the road. It was probably one of these that our unfortunate correspondent 'missed by inches'!

It wasn't just roads that were hazardous in the dark, open water could prove lethal too, as I discovered while researching Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War. Weymouth harbour was always busy at night, with pubs packed around Hope Square, and during the Great War the area was particularly popular with convalescing Australian servicemen who were stationed in Weymouth. The sight of tipsy Aussies toppling into harbour after one too many beers often provided amusement for locals – until tragedy struck.

One stormy night in January 1916, the body of an Australian soldier was pulled from the harbour and carried into the nearby George Inn, where for over an hour efforts were made to revive him, to no avail. The inquest into the death of Private Herbert Butterworth, 33, heard that he had not been drinking and the accident was more likely to have happened because the harbour was in darkness, due to military lighting restrictions.
Weymouth harbour at the turn of the century

During the next nine days, three more bodies were pulled from the harbour: a New Zealand soldier and two locals, a servant girl, and a seaman. Once again, poor lighting was blamed. At one of the inquests a juror exclaimed: ‘It is bad enough for townspeople but what must it be like for the thousands of military men, strangers, who come to the town?’

The coroner had some stern words too: ‘I think our harbour has been very, very dangerous lately. It is not the town. It is the military authorities who have given us instructions to put the lights out.’ As a result, the lighting around the harbour was improved.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A family tale of grief and sadness from the Somme

My great-uncle Fred Wood
Nine years ago I decided to find out more about a great-uncle of mine who died in the First World War and had been all but forgotten by my family. A working class boy from Bristol, his name was Frederick Wood and he was my maternal grandfather's younger brother. He volunteered for the army in the early days of war, served as a private in the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, and was still only 19 when he was killed in France on 1 July, 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The effect his death had on my great-grandparents can only be imagined but they probably nursed their grief quietly within their own four walls, just like thousands of other families during the Great War. My grandfather, who survived four years of fighting, certainly never spoke about his brother when he returned from the Front. In those days people suppressed their grief rather than express such feelings, and I believe this was the reason Fred grew so distant in my family's memory.

However, my grandfather squirrelled away several touching mementoes  of Fred - his final letters from France, some postcards, a couple of photos - and when I discovered them in a chest belonging to my uncle they finally brought into focus a figure that had become frustratingly elusive. Those personal effects shed light on the sort of lad Fred was - gregarious, humorous, and mad about football.

Pte FW Wood: 'Assumed Dead' 
His life was cut short when his battalion was one of the first to go over the top at the launch of the Somme offensive. When I visited Picardy I was able to discover, using the war diaries of Fred's battalion, where and how he probably died: it's likely his platoon was hit by a shell that either killed Fred instantly or left him mortally wounded. His body was never found, but his name is carved on the mighty Thiepval Memorial in Picardy.

Now, nine years after my research began, it means a lot to announce that Bristol Cathedral has invited me to stage an exhibition this summer entitled 'No News of Fred', telling the very personal story of Fred Wood and his death on the Somme. Beginning on 1 June and running until the end of August, the exhibition will mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Throughout the Centenary the cathedral is telling the stories of those who died as a result of the First World War, and the Battle of the Somme one of several WW1 anniversaries being remembered. To find out more, visit the Cathedral's website You can also read more about my grandfather's search at the Western Front to find out what had happened to his brother Fred in my book Letters from the Trenches.

By 1916 the ranks of the Regular British Army had been decimated and it was volunteer soldiers who were relied upon to fight the big offensive on the Somme. Many of our civilian forefathers played their part in the fighting, either as volunteers or conscripts. As a result the Battle of the Somme means a lot to the general public and my exhibition will be just one of many projects this summer marking the battle's 100th anniversary.

Paul Coffey's debut novel
One jump ahead, however, is Paul Coffey, a former journalist whose book 'Shadows of the Somme' has been doing well ever since it was published last year. The novel, Coffey's first, was inspired by his visits to the Western Front battlefields and tells two stories in parallel: one set in 1916 and the other in 2016.

The earlier story takes place during and after the Great War, beginning on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. There are gory descriptions a-plenty which leave the reader in no doubt as to the horror of battle, but as the book follows the fortunes of individual soldiers, so the intensity is leavened by simple yet profound questions concerning their motives and morality. The second story is connected to the earlier one through links discovered by protagonist Tom Harris, who becomes drawn into a near-obsessive search of war and genealogy records to discover more about a name on a war grave that happens to catch his eye.

The stories are well researched and told, with links neatly explained, and no hint as to where the plot is taking us until the end when this reader, at least, was taken very much by surprise!

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Another New Year without cheer in the grim Great War

Captain Warren Sandes
When the New Year dawned in 1916 there was little optimism among troops of the Great War. After 16 months, the conflict was still going strong, with large numbers of casualties and no sign of an end in sight, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the tone of soldiers' diaries and letters was resigned rather than hopeful. An example is the New Year entry from a rather unusual journal kept by Captain Warren Sandes, an officer of the Royal Engineers.

It was unusual because Sandes was not serving in the trenches of France but in the Middle East with the Mesoptamian Expeditionary Force, whose aim in 1915 had been to capture Baghdad. Their advance, however, was halted by the Turkish Army who forced them to retreat to the Arab town of Kut-al-Amara, and in early December the Turks laid siege to the town, trapping the men inside for five months. Among them was Capt Sandes and this is how he described his New Year inside Kut-al-Amara:

1st January 1916 
New Year's Day and 10 o'clock in the morning. Now about 7am in old England. Everybody will be waking up there to the usual New Year good wishes which few of us have had the heart to wish each other here for it seems ironical to wish anyone a happy day when all know that that is impossible. 
Still, every day one is thankful to be still alive when, day by day, one hears that such and such a friend is underground. The shelling of the enemy does little damage comparatively but some shells must find their billets; one for instance three days ago killed two and wounded one other of the RA [Royal Artillery] officers. In the two Sapper companies with us here, out of eight officers who came originally with them last October year, only one remains - and so on. One British regiment has, of its original officers, the Colonel, one subaltern, and the doctor. 
The siege has lasted nearly a month now but we are not yet really pinched for food or fodder. There is a lot of influenza about and I have it myself and was feverish last night but took a good dose of quinine and am better this morning - the result probably of having to live so much in shady corners after an open air life. Everyone looks forward to the stupendous mail which will be waiting when the relieving army arrives. The last letter from home was one dated, I think, about October 14th.

A few days later Sandes wrote to his mother, describing his New Year 'celebrations' at Kut. The letter remained part of his journal because it could not be sent:

My dearest Mother, 
On New Year's night at dinner all were fairly cheerful except myself [suffering from 'flu] till towards the end of dinner the dull distant boom of a big gun was heard. All talking stopped at once while we waited for the whistle [of a shell]. It came in a couple of seconds, rose to a roar and finished with a crash in the next house. A sergeant came running in to say that two sepoys were killed and five wounded. This was unfortunately true, and threw a gloom over the rest of the meal. People dropped away one by one and I went up to my room two houses away, and got into bed listening hard for another boom and prepared to bolt downstairs if one came. None came so I went to sleep rather feverish and depressed.

Despite several attempts, a British relieving army never managed to reach Kut. The siege lasted until April 1916 when the threat of starvation finally forced the British to surrender. Life inside Kut, and later in Turkish prison camps where the men were held, was often horrific and the story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches  using Sandes' journal, along with some extraordinary photographs he took during his time in Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

'Christmas Day in the trenches and not one shot was fired'

Illustration depicting the Christmas Truce of 1914
What does Christmas mean today? Presents, festive trees, tinsel, turkey ... and, since the WW1 Centenary began last year, a few lines describing the Christmas Truce of 1914. It's such a heartwarming story that quotes from the diaries of soldiers who were there are fast becoming one of the traditions of Christmas. And who am I to argue? In my book Weymouth, Dorchester  & Portland in the Great War  I used the wonderful diary of Portland soldier George Beck to describe the scenes he witnessed in on the Western Front in December 1914. Below is an extract - illustrated by an admitedly rather romanticised illustration of the truce! - and with it, may I wish all readers of my blog a happy and peaceful Christmas.

Diary of RSM George Beck, December 1914
24th December – Quiet day. Relieved 2nd R. Dub Fus. [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] in the trenches. in the evening. Germans shout over to us and ask us to play them at football, and also not to fire and they would do likewise. At 2am (25th) a German Band went along their trenches playing ‘Home Sweet Home’ and 'God Save the King' which sounded grand and made everyone think of home. During the night several of our fellows went over No Man’s Land to German lines and was [sic] given a drink and cigars.

25th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. Christmas Day. Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our ‘bully beef’ and jam. Majority of them knew French fluently. A few men of the Regiment  assisted in burying the dead of the Somerset Light Infantry, who were killed on 19.12.14. Fine frosty day. Very cold.
26th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. Unofficial truce kept up and our fellows intermingled still with the Germans. No rifle shots fired but our artillery fired a few rounds on the German 3rd and 4th lines and Germans retaliated with few rounds on D Coy’s trenches. 2 wounded. 
27th December –TRENCHES – St Yves. No sniping. A few whizz bangs [slang for a type of shell] on D Coy  trenches. 1 wounded.
The Christmas Truce on the Western Front fizzled out as the New Year of 1915 approached and, although small pockets of peace were reported the following year, it would never be repeated in the same way. Regimental Sergeant Major Beck, who served with the 1st Warwickshire Regiment, survived the war and returned to Portland where he settled down with his wife and worked as an inspector of the National Omnibus Company.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Joyful station scenes as soldiers return home for Christmas

Plenty has been written about Christmas in the trenches, about the famous truce of 1914, and the misery of soldiers who had to endure Christmas away from their loved ones. However, some troops were lucky enough to make it home on leave during the festive season and on 23 December 1916 a heartwarming report appeared in the Bristol Times and Mirror describing scenes of homecoming at Bristol Temple Meads Station. Today, nearly 100 years later, they are still wonderful to read about...
'All day the station was crowded with soldiers, coming, 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 of 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. Many of the soldiers wore sprigs of holly and ivy, and their genial humour and goodwill led them to hobnob with any of their fellows wearing the King's uniform and to share refreshment with them. There was no intemperance in imbibing, in language, or in acts. Chaff and banter went on all the time in the best of temper.'
Temple Meads Station, scene of joyful homecomings

Wounded at Temple Meads Station
During the rest of the year Temple Meads Station was rather more subdued as it received casualties from the battlefields. Wounded men began arriving from the Western Front from the very start of the war and it was reported that one soldier's wife could hardly believe that her husband had been to France, got wounded and returned to Bristol (as a patient at the Infirmary) in so short a space of time.
Initially, the so-called ambulance trains ran according to the rail system's timetables. But as the war progressed, so their arrival began to be scheduled later and later, sometimes not until the early hours, in order that the sight of wounded and sometimes terribly maimed men did not have a detrimental effect on public morale.
Whatever time of day or night the trains rolled in, the wounded were always assured of a warm welcome from Bristol's volunteers, as this report from 1919 shows:
'At no other centre were the wounded better cared for than at Bristol and the reception they met with at Temple Meads Station must have given them an encouraging first impression of the city. The admirably trained Red Cross and St John Ambulance men showed unremitting diligence in their efforts, and the convoys of wounded men were always got away from the station with commendable despatch. The Women's Voluntary Aid Detachment, who were always on duty at the station when the trains came in, served refreshments, which were immensely appreciated by the soldiers.'
You can read more in my book Bristol in the Great War - not just at Christmas but other times of year too!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The uncomplaining faces of the First World War

In the run-up to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day this year I've been busy on Twitter posting pictures of some of the ordinary people who lived through the First World War and who worked stoically and without complaint to do their bit for their country.

Their faces are close-ups from larger photographs which appear in my book Bristol in the Great War ... and here they all are below, with an explanation as to who they were in the captions at the bottom. I'm afraid I can't put names to any of them, but should any look familiar, do get in touch with me via @soldiersletters or by email Had we lived 100 years ago, these people could have been you or me. Let's not forget them.

Photo 1
Photo 2
Photo 3
Photo 4
Photo 5
Photo 6
Photo 7
Photo 1: A young 'munitionette' who worked for the Easton engineering firm Brecknell Munro & Rogers manufacturing shell cases, taken from a group shot of the wartime workforce. Photo 2: Wounded soldiers enjoying themsleves in the grounds of Cleve House Hospital, Downend. Photo 3: Ladies from the Women's Royal Air Force at Yate in 1918, taken from a formal line-up. Photo 4: A 'munitionette' producing shell cases for Brecknell, Munro and Rogers in their disused Baptist chapel in Thrissell Street, Easton, which was converted for the purpose. Photo 5: Men at work in the propeller shop at the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Filton, in 1918. Photo 6: A wounded soldier enjoying a day out at Clifton Zoological Gardens - a favourite venue for the entertainment of Bristol's wounded. Photo 7: When will it ever end? A young girl lost in thought as she watches the swans in Eastville Park. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

SSSShhhhhhhh ... for the very first two minutes' silence

November 1919: It was the King’s wish that on the anniversary of the Armistice, at the exact time that it came into force on 11 November, 1918, at 11 o’clock, a complete silence for two minutes should be observed by everybody in order that the thoughts of everyone might be concentrated on reverent remembrance of “The Glorious Dead”.

Respectful crowds gather in London, 1919,
for the first Armistice Day
These words were written by Maude Boucher in 1919, a mother of four from Bristol, who drew to a close the journal she had kept throughout the Great War by reporting on plans for the very first Armistice Day.

Her journal took the form of scrapbooks (a total of 21 volumes) in which she stuck newspapers cuttings alongside notes of her own. King George V’s idea for an Armistice anniversary caused a great excitement, as this cutting made clear: ‘It will be a wonderful two minutes, in some ways the most remarkable two minutes since Creation.’

On the day itself, 11th November 1919, Maude collected reports of the two minutes' silence from all over the country ... and very moving they were:

‘The business centre of London was transformed into a great congregation of worshippers outside the Mansion House...Police directing the traffic were like sidesmen in a church, new arrivals slipping in softly as if in the aisles of a cathedral...In the solid mass of upturned faces there was a revelation of awe, and out of the silence came the eloquence of sobs.’

Solemnity in the collieries
‘The miners at the collieries in the Manchester district observed the silence with the greatest solemnity...The surface men, with their coal-begrimed faces, stood with cap in hand and bowed head. Deep down in the Earth the raucous voice of the pony lad was hushed...A hardy veteran of the mine who had given his lad for his country’s sake remained kneeling for several minutes.’

‘Two laden hay wains were coming along the turnpike. The drivers heard the bell; they saw three old men and two lads in khaki stand still on the roadside – three bared, grey heads and two hands at the salute – and they stopped their teams and stood beside them on the road. A motor-car came rushing into sight and it was stayed suddenly, its engine shut off, and a man and woman alighted and stood reverently together.’

Poppies that once flowered across the Flanders battlefields have now become a symbol of blood spilled during the First World War. 'We marched through the lands all red with red poppies,' wrote Private EG Kensit, a South African soldier, just before he was killed in 1916. You can read his moving letters, along with the journals of Maude Boucher, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

After the Second World War, Armistice Day was replaced by Remembrance Sunday to honour the fallen of both conflicts. King George' two minutes' silence was restored in 1994 and has been observed on 11 November ever since, alongside Remembrance Sunday - which this year falls on 8 November.