Tuesday, 28 March 2017

'We've come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz!'

We're in it together: American and British servicemen share a
muddy moment at Yate air base in 1919 (Yate Heritage Centre
April 2017 marks  the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into the Great War, so with this in mind I decided it was time to resurrect a post I wrote two years ago which proved popular among readers. You can read more in my books Letters from the Trenches and Bristol in the Great War.

WHEN American GIs were stationed in Britain during the Second World War, their 'un-English' ways put a lot of noses out of joint. 'Overpaid, oversexed and over here!' was a complaint muttered fairly often by locals who were unaccustomed to what they considered brash behaviour.

Similar feelings may have been aroused during the First World War, too, when American servicemen began arriving in Britain on their way to the Front, for accounts written at the time reveal that the Americans announced themselves as a fairly ebullient bunch. Among them was Corporal Ned Steel of Kansas City, who spent two months at the Third Western Aero Repair Depot at Yate, north of Bristol, in 1918.

'Twas the afternoon of April 20th when we arrived there, the first American soldiers to set foot in these parts, and we created no small commotion...Wherever we went in the next two months of our visit, the hospitality was unabounded. Talk about appreciation! Those Englishmen saw in us the reserve strength of the Allies come to deliver the knockout blow to Fritz.'

The ocean liner Aquitania, which served as a troopship in WW1
Steel belonged to a squadron of airmen that had crossed the Atlantic aboard the Aquitania, formerly a Cunard ocean-liner which served as a troop-carrier and hospital ship during the conflict. Its sister ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915 with the loss of many American civilian lives. This catastrophe was one of the reasons that prompted the US to enter the war in 1917.

During their crossing, Steel and his friends had been amused at the differences between themselves and the British. They gently mocked the way everything the Brits said was littered with mild curses. Even when the Aquitania's history was being explained, wrote Steel, every other word seemed to be 'bloody': 'The ship had been in the hospital service between the bloody Dardanelles and England. This was her first bloody voyage as a bloody troop ship.' The Americans also smiled at the British penchant for keeping meals simple, with Steel mimicking: 'My Gosh! Fish for breakfast?'

But the ribbing stopped when the Americans stepped ashore, to be greeted by warm and enthusiastic crowds. Perhaps for the first time, they began to understand the high price the British had already paid for the war:

'April 11, 1918 we awoke at the wharves of Liverpool. Then began our welcome in England. Ferries plying the muddy Mersey were lined with people waving handkerchiefs at us. And when we had landed a little later and were marching to our train through the uptown district of Liverpool great crowds along the way watched us. Crowds, mostly of women, they were - and rosy-cheeked girls. Young men were conspicuous by their scarcity, in fact were almost a minus quantity. It came to us forcibly then that England was doing her utmost in manpower, and some of our prejudice vanished.'

Steel appears to have been charmed by his rail journey south to Bristol:

'With a squad to each compartment on our funny looking coaches we started across "Merry Old England". The dinky little engine quite surprised us with its speed. What a beautiful country it was...green green grass covering every inch of untilled ground...stone walls...everything clean and tidy...for once the Californians were mum.'

He noted how few level-crossings there were, with the train more often going over bridges or under roads: 'Only once in England did we see a wagon road intersect the railroad's right of way and then strong gates of iron shut out the traffic and the watchman tended them as the train went by.'

Men of the American Air Service form a 'propellor' at
Yate air base in August 1918 (Yate Heritage Centre)
Steel's description of his time in Blighty was included in a book he wrote about the history of his unit, the 822nd (Repair) Squadron, which I discovered while researching my own book Bristol in the Great War.

Steel gave an entertaining account of the girls he and his friends met in Bristol: in comparison with the ladies at home the Bristol lasses were much more forward, welcoming Steel and his friends with open arms, offering to buy them drinks, scrounging cigarettes and even asking for a goodnight kiss!

In the workplace, Steel observed the different way in which the two nationalities set about their jobs: 'The common impression among us in regard to Tommy was that he was slow but thorough. "Swinging the lead" [taking it easy] was quite universal in the [work]shops when the flight sergeants and officers weren't around. When it came to turning out first class products, however, Tommy was there'.

Meanwhile: 'Tommy was penning his impressions of us: how Sam carried himself as tho' he owned the world, was free-and-easy and took no rough talk from his non-coms [non-commissioned officers].'

Steel concluded: 'When the history of this war is written, let it be remembered that the American Aviaition Squadrons stationed in England did their bit by strengthening the hearts and wills of their English cousins at an hour when the war looked darkest to them.'

Confident words indeed, but after a few weeks in France things would often look rather different to the fresh young men who arrived from America with bags of enthusiasm but little experience of trench warfare. Such a caution were sent home by George Swales, one of the first American soldiers to arrive in France whose his story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches. In a letter to his wife he wrote:

I hope the Yanks don’t think they are going to have a walkover for they are in for a surprise. I thought I had a pretty fair idea of what it was and I expected it to be rough but it’s worse than what Sherman [an American general] said war was. It will take some of the swank out of them before they are two weeks in the trenches.’

Saturday, 21 January 2017

"Goodbye my wife, I have loved you faithfully until the last breath"

George Taylor and his beloved wife
Ginny after the Great War

Few of us will ever be in the unthinkable position of not knowing whether we're going to live or die, but that is exactly what soldiers in the trenches had to face up to every day. At any time their lives could be brought to an abrupt end by the enemy. And not just in big attacks. During quiet periods too, snipers could pick off Tommies before they knew what was happening; and even at a distance from the front lines, artillery shells were a constant threat to life and limb.

An insight into how soldiers managed to cope is often revealed in their letters and I read plenty while researching my book Letters from the Trenches. More often than not I was impressed by just how phlegmatic most men were, philosophical you could say, having come to terms with whatever hand fate chose to deal them.

Recently, family historian John Taylor passed on just such a letter to me, written by his paternal grandfather in September 1916. Private George Taylor was serving in the trenches with the 3rd Battalion, the Grenadier Guards. "George was in the front line trenches just outside Ginchy on the Somme battlefield ready to go 'over the top' with the rest of his battalion," said John. "On the eve of his attack, he wrote what he thought would be his last letter to his wife Ginny."

Ginny was at home in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, looking after the couple's five children, with another one on the way. Poignantly, George asks Ginny to stay true to him in the event of his death; he also speaks tenderly of the couple's sixth unborn child, whom Ginny was carrying - 'my little stranger'.

George's letter to Ginny
from the trenches, 1916
My own darling,

I am writing this in case anything happens whilst I am out here and I don't  return but Heaven grant that I may be spared to return to my loved ones and I think He will now darling. I want you to promise one thing that you will look after my little kiddies, bring them up to love God and to know right from wrong. Also sweetheart as I have asked you many, many times never let your love to me go. Always remember me and never, dear one, let anybody else have your love. Don't marry again if you love me unless you find it too hard a struggle to live then darling you please yourself and I shall not know but sweet one I could not bear to think about someone else will share your love, the love that has made a man of me and the thing I hold most dear in
all the world. Oh my treasure I picture you as I write this letter the last one you will get from your ever loving hubby should anything occur. But sweet always remember that I loved you faithfully until the last breath my all in all my own darling. Oh if only I could be with you now just to show you the love I have for you. If you could only just put your arms around me if only for a minute I should be happy but as that cannot be dear I must be content with the happy memories of days gone by. God bless you my dear, dear wife my one prayer is that God will look after you serve Him faithfully darling so that someday we shall meet again never more to part. God bless you treasure I have much to thank you for dear, you have kept me up and made a man of me darling you have been a treasure of a wife the best any man can have. Always think of me dear never never forget me for a minute. Give my love to Clara, Alice and my dear mum and dad and all relations. Once more God bless you and keep you from all harm and trouble and give you happiness until we meet again to be happy evermore.

Goodbye my wife my all in all, I am your ever true husband Porge

George then sends love to his 'kiddies' (George, Frank, Ernie, Freddie and Tommy) and the baby his wife is carrying ('My little stranger, if a girl Jane Elizabeth, if a boy William'): 'God bless them, look after them and bring them to the love of God.'

Thankfully George survived - but only just. "The attack by the Guards was only a partial success, casualties were very high due to an unseen German machine gun post," said George's grandson, John. "George was terribly injured. He had already survived the effects of gas inhalation, but this time he suffered broken ribs and was buried (twice) due to shell fire. He was a broken man, shell shock left him terribly incapacitated and he was immediately taken to a field hospital and then returned to England."

Subsequent letters that George wrote to Ginny show that he was very well cared for. "Their letters give a different picture to the stories of lack of care to casualties suffering from shell shock that seem popular today," said John. "George was immediately sent back to Blighty and taken to a mental hospital – the old Wandsworth Asylum – later called Springfield Hospital. One letter from hospital reads, 'I saw the Major and he said: Well done old boy, are you feeling alright? and I said 'Yes sir' and he did a smile'."

George also received several visits from Mrs Neville, the wife of his company commander, who brought him clothes, took him out to tea, sent Ginny and her children Christmas presents, and chased up the Ministry when they were tardy paying her a pension. (The Taylors later had another son whom they named Neville.) George eventually returned home to a hero's welcome, and at last met the latest addition to his family, a little girl called Betty - the 'little stranger' in his Somme letter. When the war was over he was employed as a painter and decorator at the Derby Hippodrome, working his way up eventually to be put in charge of all front-of-house staff. But the story does not end there...

John Taylor, left, at his grandfather's grave
at Guillemont Cemetery, France
John Taylor has discovered that, by an amazing coincidence, his maternal grandfather - about whom he knows little, and who died in the Great War - served in the very same battalion as George. "My two grandfathers would have known each other, walked past each other not realising that, 20 years later, their children would meet at the Hippodrome in Derby [where they both worked] and get married."
John would dearly like to find out more about his maternal grandfather's final days, and has asked if any readers can assist in his search? His name was Lance Sergeant 11314 Joseph William Milnes, of the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards. He was killed on 17 March, 1917 and is buried at Guillemont Road Cemetery in France.
"My family is desperate to find out more about him. Where and how he was killed, also a photo would be superb. We have researched extensively but we are mere amateurs at this. If you can put out an appeal to those knowledgeable people who read your blog it would be much appreciated."
So it's over to you readers! If you can help, please get in touch with me at jacwadsworth@hotmail.com, and I'll forward your messages to John.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Whilst Tommies fought, the well-heeled Londoners shopped

Christmas in the trenches
Never let it be said that WW1 soldiers did not make an effort to enjoy Christmas. Even in the trenches they enjoyed the season with as much jolliness as they could muster but by the end of 1916, no matter how hard they tried to disguise it, war-weariness was beginning to colour their letters home. Below is one written in early 1917 by a Canadian medical officer, Harold McGill, to the woman who would become his wife. Their touching love story is told, through the letters they wrote to each other, in my book Letters from the Trenches.

France, January 8th

"Just at present we are in support trenches but it will soon come our turn for the front line again. The weather is atrocious, cold with high wind and rain nearly every day. We had a much better Christmas this season than last. Fortunately we were out of the trenches in reserve and billeted in huts. The weather was fairly well behaved although we had some rain. All the men had a good Christmas dinner including turkey, plum pudding, beer, nuts, candy, etc. We had previously ordered 500 kilos of turkey. We made a contract for them and the dealer shipped them from Normandy. I must say that the French know how to raise good turkeys. The tables were set in the YMCA hut and we hired dishes from the French civilians. We had to divide the dinner into four sections, one for each company. Two were held on Christmas day and two the day after. The band rendered musical programs during the dinners and each night put on a minstrel show which was really not at all bad. We had a good dinner in Battalion Headquarters Mess but most of our pleasure was derived from seeing the men have a good feed and enjoy themselves for once."

He then continued:

"It is very good of you to send my sister [a nurse in France] the magazines. I am afraid she sometimes becomes a little homesick and lonely. She has just returned from having leave in England. She reached her unit Christmas night after spending nearly all day on the train from Calais. She should have crossed over from England on Dec 23 but there was a terrible storm that day and the Channel boats were held up. I expect to go on leave again about the end of this month. This will likely be my last leave for a time for the dust will be flying rather lively when Spring opens. Please excuse this short letter and do try to write more often."

It goes without saying, of course, that the sort of world Harold McGill described in France couldn't have been further from civilian life at home - especially if you were a well-heeled Londoner. To show you what I mean, here is an extract from The Times on 31st December 1917 about the New Year sales, published around the same time that McGill wrote his letter...

"Today the West End sales begin, and those who have refrained from buying many necessaries will find unusual opportunities in houses with a high reputation for worth and taste. On Saturday morning many women were seen touring the shopping centres and noting things of special value in the windows already ‘marked down’ for today.

A Burberry advertisement from 1917
"Debenham and Freebody begin their 12 days’ sale to-day when their choice stock will undergo the most drastic marking-down. Stockinette suits, trimmed with fur in many design and colourings, perhaps the most becoming of the newer fabrics, are in some instances less than half their original prices. Ready-to-wear gowns semi-evening and restaurant styles, and model gowns from famous French houses are reduced to a third of their former cost.

"Liberty and Co, Regent Street, have many bargains in silks and velveteens, and the beauty of their colourings is well known. Dickins and Jones, Regent Street, are having a two-week sale. Among the excellent things offered are cravats, wraps and short capes of Victorines, as they are called, of fur and muffs to match, with several guineas removed from their original prices.

"A Burberry weatherproof is always a possession. The lasting quality of all their goods, whether tailor-mades or coats, is one of the traditions of those who have tested them, and their half-price sale is eagerly awaited. There will be an immense assortment of Burberry top-coats, gowns, and hats at the great house in the Haymarket. Walking costumes in Harris tweeds, excellent for the country or for town in the morning, are exactly half price."

Happy New Year to all my readers, and let's be thankful that we've just welcomed in 2017 and not 1917.

London store Dickins and Jones in the early 1900s,
'a house of worth & taste'

Saturday, 17 December 2016

'It seems possible, indeed, that the war will last forever'

Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley
It was a depressing end to the year for Madge Sneyd-Kynnersley as 1916 drew to a close with no end to war in sight, particularly as her spirits had been so bright when she began her diary back in January: 'May 1916 bring peace and the desires of all our hearts,' she had written. Now, as she summed things up twelve months later, there seemed little to be hopeful about.

Madge, who lived in Weymouth with her mother and sisters, listed the year's big talking points: the offensive on the Somme; a change of government, with Lloyd George taking over from Asquith as Prime Minister; the introduction of conscription; and the big sea battle off Jutland which had caused much anxiety as she waited for news of her fiancĂ©, a naval officer, who was involved in the battle. (He survived.) On the domestic front, Madge talked about the war work she and her sister had been involved in, and the trips she'd made away from home:

"In 1916 the war continued as usual. The big push and battle of the Somme, beginning on July 1st, was successful up to a point and though we did not advance very far, we took great toll of the Germans. In November or December the 'Wait and See Cabinet' resigned and Lloyd George and Bonar Law formed a new government of which much is hoped. In the autumn Roumania [sic] joined the allies but was rapidly over-run by the Germans etc who thus got possession of much-needed food supplies. At the Battle of Jutland - June 1st, the biggest naval battle in the annals of the world - we gained a victory at a great price. 
"In December Germany proposed peace but the allies weren't having any - it seems possible indeed that the war will last forever. Conscription was made law from Feb 16th. I worked in the office of HM Torpedo Range [in Weymouth], only going away 3 times in the year, twice to London, once to Exeter. Kitty nursed and became a forwarding supervisor of that, Sylvie did Army Pay at Exeter and similar work at Dorchester. Rosie nursed at the Princess Christian Hospital [in Weymouth]."

Christmas Day in 1916 was a traditional family affair for the Sneyd-Kynnersleys, as described by Madge on December 25th:
"Church twice then dinner with Courtneys [family friends], Uncle Ted home. Big feast then sat and talked. Mother gave me lovely leather gloves lined with wool, Sylvie a lunch case, Kitty a manicure set and dictionary, Rosie a photo, Aunt Hilda 10/- [10 shillings], Aunt May 10/-, Aunt Flora 2/6, cousins ginger etc. Poor Kitty at Sutton Scotney [on nursing duty]."
Then it was back to work on Boxing Day, in a bleak, empty office at the torpedo testing range in Weymouth where Madge worked:
"Only me and Mr Bateman in office. Had to stay till 7 to do wages, very difficult. Home with Mr Prior in dark."
The next day, December 27th, wasn't much better:
"Range till 7 again. Still alone. Went to Portland to check books - back in motor boat and home with Mr Prior."
Rosie Sneyd-Kynnersley,
a WW1 nurse and Madge's sister
On December 30th, a Saturday, Madge had to dig her heels in and insist on taking the time off she was due:
"Range till 1.15pm. Expected to work all afternoon though my half day off, so I explained I had seats for panto. They let me go and I lunched off curried chicken at the Trocadero with mother, then panto, 'Little Red Riding Hood', all of us and Courtneys - funny though bad and very vulgar."
 It's perhaps a good job that Madge couldn't look into the future and see that Britain still had almost two more years of war to endure. Not that she would have allowed herself to be downcast for too long. Madge was full of spirit and took a great interest in everything that went on around her. She was also full of fun and had a wicked sense of humour. All of this shines through in the diaries she kept during the Great War and you can read more of them in my books Letters from the Trenches and Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War.

And now it's my turn to wrap up the year. Thankyou for reading my blog, I hope you've enjoyed reading my posts as much as I've enjoyed writing them. May I wish all my readers a happy and peaceful Christmas and I shall look forward to being with you again in the New Year.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

'If this should be my last letter you will find everything in order'

Sgt George Smith
'We are going to have a big dust up'
“Very soon now I along with many others will be going into very great danger and I am taking this opportunity of letting you know so that you will not be surprised at whatever may happen. You will understand Dad that I am not allowed to say too much so I must leave it to you to read between the lines and use your own discretion as to how you tell them at home.”

These words were written by Private Stanley Goodhead on 28 June 1916 from the trenches of France, just three days before the launch of the Battle of the Somme. All winter troops had been preparing for ‘the big push’, as it was known, and as the day drew near soldiers like Goodhead prepared their families for the worst:

 “I wish to thank you Dad for the way you have looked after me whilst out here also when at home and you have my very best wishes. If this should be my last letter you will find everything in order and it is my wish that Mother and Jinny [Goodhead’s sister] have every care and attention. Watch the papers.”

Elsewhere on the Western Front, Sergeant George Smith, of the London Scottish Battalion, was writing a similar message to his sister Maimie on two scraps of paper torn from a notebook. Headed simply ‘In the field’, he gave as much detail as the Censors would allow:

“We are going to have a big dust up so this is to tell you to look out for things & to hope for the best. I have nothing to tell you but will drop another line as soon as poss to let you know all’s well. I have very little time and so would ask you to let the rest of our little family know what I have written. Good bye just now and may God look after you all.”

For months troops had been training for the Battle of the Somme which was intended to end the stalemate on the Western Front. With fighting mired in the trenches and neither side making any significant gains, the Allied generals were planning a joint Franco-British attack on a front which straddled the River Somme in northern France. The aim was to make a decisive breakthrough and bring the war to a swift conclusion.

'We will remember them'
Tragically, however, this was not achieved. The offensive would become a byword for wasted human life, with wave after wave of soldiers marching across No Man’s Land, only to be mown down by German machine guns and shells. The battle would go down as one of the bloodiest in history, with almost 20,000 British men killed on the first day alone.

The men mentioned at the beginning of this post both survived the Great War. You can read their stories and more of their letters in my book Letters from the Trenches. The Somme was the first big offensive to rely on volunteer soldiers, rather than regulars, and as we prepare for Remembrance Sunday this year - the Centenary of the Somme - it will be a poignant time for many of us whose families lost young men who answered the call of duty and lost their lives on the Somme battlefield. 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Great War exhibition brings 'my men' back to life!

Parcels of comfort arrive at the Front
While researching my book Letters from the Trenches I got to know many of the soldiers whose correspondence I used very well, because it wasn't just their letters that were important but their stories too, as recalled by relatives. I got to know something of the men's personalities, a little about their families and, of course, what happened to them. It was therefore very moving to see these soldiers brought back to life in an exhibition called 'Parcels of Comfort' which is running at Bristol Cathedral.

The exhibition looks at the WW1 postal service and shows how important it was during the conflict: a lifeline between home and the Front which did much to raise the morale of troops. On display in scenes which recreate the era are beautifully-crafted parcels and letters, either neatly wrapped, addressed and ready to be sent to the Front, or having just arrived in the trenches.

What makes the exhibition particularly poignant is that all the items are addressed to real men who fought (and died) in the war. This was something the organisers were very keen to do, and I was very pleased when they asked if they could include the names of eleven of  'my' men from Letters from the Trenches, who are listed below. They fought in several different theatres of war: France, Gallipoli, Italy and the Middle East. Two were taken prisoner and spent the conflict in PoW camps. Eight returned home, three were killed.

An Edwardian hallway, one of the scenes
recreated in the exhibition
You'll be able to spot some of 'their' parcels in the photos on this page which show scenes from the exhibition. Their full stories are told in Letters from the Trenches.

Sgt GN Smith, London Scottish, BEF France
Cpl Saddr E Pollikett, 10th Royal Hussars, BEF France
Pte S Town, 9th West Yorks, 11th Div, MEF (Mediterranean Expeditionary Force)
Sgt F Woodhouse, 14 Royal Welsh Fusiliers, St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Etaples, BEF France
Cpl A Youell, 126 Siege Battery, RGA (Royal Garrison Artillery), BEF France
Pte EW Wood, 4th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, BEF Italy
Pte FW Wood 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, BEF France
Pte NW Harris ,7th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, Mesopotamian Ex-Force
Pte TW Fake, 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade, BEF France
Sgt AH Addison, ASC (MT), BEF France
Sgt Maj A Dowling, Royal Irish Rifles, Sennelager II Padeborn, Germany
Capt EWC Sandes, Royal Engineers, Afion-Kara-Hissar, Turkey

Packges for the Wood brothers,
signed, sealed and awaiting delivery
The exhibition also features hand-crafted replicas of food items (among them Kendal Mint Cake, Oxo, tea and tinned herrings)
that were popular among troops and often sent out in parcels, plus garments such as scarves and mittens - welcomed by soldiers especially during winter - which have been knitted from authentic 1914 patterns and are particularly evocative

'Parcels of Comfort' is on show until January and admission is free. If you live in or near Bristol, or you are planning to visit, I can recommend a trip to see it. You can find more details on the Cathedral website http://bristol-cathedral.co.uk/whats-on/parcels-of-comfort.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

'Undismayed by deadly fire...there were no cowards nor waverers'

Lieut-General Hunter-Weston's message
of praise for his troops at the Somme
(the notes at the end are my grandfather's)
I recently discovered in my family archives a fascinating letter that once belonged to my grandfather, who fought in the trenches during the Great War. It was an official message from Lieutenant-General Sir Alymer Hunter-Weston praising his troops for their conduct on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Dated 4 July 1916 and addressed to 'All officers, NCOs and Men of the VIII Army Corps' (which he commanded) Hunter-Weston wrote:

'It is impossible for me to come round all front line trenches and all billets to see every man as I wish to do. You must take the will for the deed, and accept this printed message in place of the spoken word. It is difficult for me to express my admiration for the splendid courage, determination and discipline displayed by every Officer, NCO and Man of the Battalions that took part in the great attack on the BEAUMONT HAMEL-SERRE  position on the 1st July. All observers agree in stating that the various waves of men issued from their trenches and moved forward at the appointed time in perfect order undismayed by the heavy artillery fire and deadly machine gun fire. There were no cowards nor waverers, and not a man fell out. It was a magnificent display of disciplined courage worthy of the best traditions of the British race.'

Lieut-General Alymer
Hunter-Weston: history
has not judged him kindly
The message casts a heroic light on an attack that was, in reality, little short of disastrous, for it was Hunter-Weston's Corps that suffered the greatest number of casualties on 1 July 1916 while failing to achieve any of its objectives. History has not judged the man kindly; Hunter-Weston is often spoken of as one of the Great War's 'donkey' generals, and he is believed to have inspired this damning poem by Siegfried Sassoon:


'Good-morning; good-morning!' the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry and Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Pte Edwin Wood -
my grandfather
It would be interesting, however, to hear my grandfather's opinion. As a volunteer soldier, Private Edwin Wood willingly enlisted to fight for King and country and was obviously proud to have in his possession Hunter-Weston's letter, otherwise he would not have kept it. Not all soldiers viewed the conflict in the same way as Sassoon and his fellow war poets. Men like my grandfather saw it as their duty to follow orders without question and accept their fate without protest. And - however heavy the price, and whether or not it was justified - this was the attitude that won the war.

However, it is possible that the General's message was not actually intended for my grandfather. Edwin Wood served with the 4th Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment which, as part of the 48th Division, came under Hunter-Weston's command. But although two battalions from the 48th Division were involved in the first day's attack, the 4th Gloucesters were not; they didn't see action until a few days later.

Perhaps Hunter-Weston's message was nevertheless distributed to all men of the 48th division. Or maybe this one was actually sent to Edwin's younger brother, Private Fred Wood, who served with the 1st Battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry. His battalion was also under Hunter-Weston's command and Fred was one of the first to go over the top on the first day of the Somme. But sadly he never returned and after initially being posted missing in action, he was eventually presumed dead.

If the General's letter was, indeed, intended for Fred, then it may have been kept by my grandfather as an epitaph to his 19-year-old brother who sacrificed his life on that terrible day... 'There were no cowards nor waverers, and not a man fell out. It was a magnificent display of disciplined courage worthy of the best traditions of the British race.'

You can read more about the experiences of ordinary soldiers like Edwin and Fred Wood in my book Letters from the Trenches.

Private Fred Wood, missing in action