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

Thursday, 21 July 2016

In tribute to the Frenchmen who died for their country

My great-uncle Fred Wood
- 'Known unto God'
I've just returned from a wonderful two-week holiday in France, during which we spent a fascinating day in Picardy taking in the sights of the Somme, and strolling around the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries where the graves of British and Commonwealth soldiers are so beautifully kept.

Somewhere among those graves is one belonging to my great-uncle Fred Wood, a private in the Somerset Light Infantry who died  on the first day of the Battle of the Somme just after his 19th birthday. His body was never identified, but his remains are probably buried beneath one of the many headstones so movingly inscribed with the words of Rudyard Kipling: 'A soldier of the Great War...Known unto God'.

Like the vast majority of British and Commonwealth soldiers, Fred was buried where he fell. But this wasn't necessarily the case for French soldiers, whose bodies could more easily be returned to their homes. In just about every little town we visited there was a scattering of First World War graves in the neat, edge-of-town cemeteries that are so common in France, silently paying tribute to local sons, husbands and fathers who had died defending their country. Here are some of the photographs I took at a cemetery on the outskirts of Beaumont-le-Roger, in Normandy.

Francois Gombert, below, lost his life at the very outset of the war on 26 August 1914, aged 37.

Maurice Barbey, below, died three months later in October 1914, aged just 22. His gravestone is inscribed simply with the word 'Regrets'.

In 1916, Sergeant Paul Tirant, below, was also just 22 when he was killed...

... the image on his gravestone recalls a handsome young man.

And in July 1918,  Eugene Chardine, below, died of wounds aged 40. His gravestone suggests he was a man of some bravery, recording the fact that he was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

All four are among those listed on a memorial inside the church at Beaumont-le-Roger, below, which is dedicated to 'Nos fils morts pour la patrie 1914 - 1918'.

The church at Beaumont-le-Roger

Thursday, 9 June 2016

How this blog helped solve a 100-year-old family puzzle!

'Yours to a cinder' - Joe Coulton's message to his sweetheart in May 1916
Writing this blog and sharing my interest in the Great War with other like-minded people is rewarding in itself. But every now and again something happens to make it doubly worthwhile, like this email I received recently from Steve Coulton...

'May I thank you sincerely for your blog which has helped solve a family puzzle,' he wrote. 'I have a love lettergram from my grandfather Joe Coulton to his sweetheart Annie Miller, sent in May 1916 when Joe, an Australian, was in Egypt serving in the merchant navy.' Steve wanted to publish the lettergram on Facebook for his extended family to enjoy. 'What brought me to your site,' he continued, 'was a word I couldn't decipher until I asked a colleague to look with fresh eyes. He promptly googled what he saw and up popped your blog with the phrase "I remain yours to a cinder". This turns out to be a lovely (but unknown to me) Australian phrase.' The post Steve's friend found was one I had written about an Australian serviceman called Jim Granger (read it here) who signed cards to his sweetheart 'Yours to a cinder, Jim'.  This is also how Joe signed off:

23/5/1916 Egypt
Dear Ann
Just a line to let you know how I am getting on. I am in the best of health hoping you and all are the same. Well love I had a letter from Bill Day he told me him and Grace was up to see you and all, he said we were going to be married when I come, he said Mar said that I have to write a letter to him now. I remain yours to cinder. Remember me to all with best love Joe
I turned 20 today and I have give up smoking now Ann

'Being able to accurately transcribe the beautiful letter will be a joy and I look forward to the reaction from my very large family who have never seen this treasure,' wrote Steve. The letter has now appeared on Facebook and it has been a pleasure to be of service to Steve's family.

Pages from Joe's 'love-lettergram'

Joe's story is an interesting one, and very much one of its time. He was born in 1896 in Rockhampton, Queensland, but left home when he was about 12, apparently after a family dispute. He found work on ships, starting out as a cabin boy, and once at sea he never returned home.

Records show that during the First World War Joe was employed by the Liverpool-based Fred Leyland shipping line. He sailed on the SS Devonian between July and October 1915. This was followed by a spell on the SS Nubian during October and November 1915, when the crew list shows his rank as 'lamp and sailor'. When the conflict was over Joe was awarded not only the British War Medal for his services during the war, but also the Mercantile Marine Medal, presented by Britain's Board of Trade to mariners of the Merchant Navy who had made voyages through war or danger zones.

He met Annie, his crew mate's sister, on a visit to Liverpool and the couple were married in May 1919. Joe and Annie lost their first two sons, Joseph Henry and Thomas Francis, as infants, and sadly their daughter Joan Emily died, aged five, of pneumonia and whooping cough in 1941. But seven children survived: James, Henry, Mary (Elsie), Thomas, Edith, Kathleen and Joseph. They all married and provided Joe and Annie with 40 grandchildren!

After war, Joe was employed as the Dock Master at Liverpool's Albert Dock. He and Annie lived in the Dock Master's house (now demolished) on the quayside at 42 Canning, Pier Head. This is where Steve's 85-year-old father, Tom, was born. In 1941 the threat of bombs forced the family to leave their home and they re-settled in Kirkdale.

Memories of Joe in 'Working the Tides'
'Australian Joe' was a well-known character on the docks and was remembered, right, in a book about the gate men, 'Working the Tides, Gatemen and Masters on the River Mersey' by Alan Johnson. Stories told to Steve by his father reveal that Joe was a man who lived life to the full...

'In the 1930s Joe, an accomplished sailor, skippered racing yachts for owner Judge Jardine and took part in the annual Isle of Man Midnight Race from Liverpool to Douglas, aboard the Cymro,' wrote Steve. 'On one occasion a film producer on another yacht saw Joe swimming when becalmed and, due to his ability, physique and large tattoo of a three-masted sailing ship across his chest, offered him a part in a film. Annie put her foot down as she "hardly saw him" as it was!

Back at the docks, Joe carried out repair work as a diver, clearing obstructions from the dock gates. He witnessed tragedy on 1 June 1939 when the submarine HMS Thetis sank in Liverpool Bay during sea trials with the loss of 99 lives; Joe was aboard the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board salvage vessel Vigilant which attended the scene. And in full dress uniform, Joe formed part of the 'welcoming party' for captured German U-boat commander 'Silent' Otto Kretschmer when he disembarked HMS Walker at Liverpool's Princes Landing Stage in 1941.

In his spare time, Joe ran a football team at The Peacock pub in Kirkdale, with matches held at Orrell Pleasure Playing Fields in Bootle. Towards the end of the Second World War, the changing rooms were used to house interned German nationals and Joe arranged football matches with them. He also used to cut the Germans' hair - another of his many skills!

The life of Joe Coulton warrants a book of its own. But until it's written, why not enjoy the letters of his fellow Aussie Jim Granger - and many others who lived through the Great War - in my own book Letters from the Trenches

Joe and Annie in later life, at their
daughter Elsie's wedding

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

No News of Fred: sad tale of a soldier on the Somme

No News of Fred at Bristol Cathedral
Quite what my Great-Uncle Fred would have thought I don't know, but 100 years after he was killed at the Battle of  Somme aged 19, his story is being told in an exhibition at Bristol Cathedral.

And the story-teller is me, the great-niece he never knew.

After countless hours poring over old family letters, postcards, a diary and newspaper cuttings, along with accounts written by men from his battalion who survived the fighting, I've managed to piece together the story of Fred's final weeks in France before he met his end on 1st July 1916 - the first day of the Somme.
'We imagine his tense wait in the assembly trenches at dawn, waiting for the whistle to blow ... clambering over parapets to face the enemy on No Man’s Land ... the wholesale slaughter of lines of men, mown down by machine guns and shells ... and Fred’s probable fate, as revealed in the diary of his older brother Edwin, who was also serving in the trenches ... 'No news of Fred' - Bristol Cathedral
On that day alone, a staggering 19,240 British men were killed – the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Among them was Fred.

Frederick Wood grew up in the Easton district of Bristol and was my grandfather's younger brother. Fred was one of the thousands of volunteers who answered Lord Kitchener's call to enlist, and he served as a private in the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry. On 1st July he was one of the first to go ‘over the top’, and also one of the first to die after being mortally wounded while advancing towards German lines. His body was never found.

'FW Wood' - my great-uncle's name
remembered on his school memorial
(Courtesy of Jack Williams)
Today Fred's name is remembered on the magnificent Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, and in the Golden Book of Remembrance at Wells Cathedral, Somerset. He is also one of 112 'old boys' listed on a memorial erected by his old school, the Hannah More School in St Philips, Bristol. Sadly the memorial itself is now lost, but this photo (left) still survives.

My exhibition -‘No News of Fred’ - is the culmination of several years of research to discover who my great-uncle was, and his sad tale is told in my book Letters from the Trenches - along with the poignant stories of many more families just like mine.

'No News of Fred'  will be running all summer, from 1st June until 31st August, and admission is free. Fred's story is told in five sweeping posters, beautifully designed by Paul Wilkinson of Pen and Sword Books, my publisher. In a separate display case, old photos, cards and letters are on show. On 18th August I'll be giving a lunchtime talk in the  Chapter House about Fred's short life. Tickets are £3 and can be bought from the Cathedral Shop or online.

Bristol Cathedral
'No News of Fred'  is being presented as part of Bristol Cathedral's WWI remembrance project We Have Our Lives. I dedicate the exhibition to all those young lads in the Somerset Light Infantry who, like Fred, fought and died for their country in the 1914-1918 war...
"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."


Friday, 29 April 2016

'The people hated us for bringing such misery upon them'

First World War centenaries are coming thick and fast! Looming this summer is 'the big one', the Battle of the Somme, which was the first offensive of the war during which the British relied on its volunteer soldiers rather than regular troops. Just before the Somme, at the end of May, we'll be remembering the Battle of Jutland, the only major sea battle of the conflict. And this time last year we were paying tribute those who fought and died in the fighting at Gallipoli in 1915.

British troops on the banks of the River Tigris
during the siege of Kut in early 1916
But while these 'landmarks' of the Great War are still remembered, there are plenty more that have faded from public memory, among them the surrender of British and Indian troops at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia. This humiliating capitulation by 8,000 men was the largest British surrender of WW1 and came at the end of a debilitating five-month siege by the Ottoman Army.

Having been forced to retreat while advancing towards Baghdad, the Anglo-Indian force had taken refuge in the Arab town of Kut-al-Amara, on the River Tigris, in early December 1915. There they remained, under siege, until 29 April 1916, when they were forced to by surrender by the threat of starvation and disease that had reached epidemic proportions.

Captain Warren Sandes
The terrible conditions inside Kut-al-Amara were recorded by Captain Warren Sandes, an officer of the Royal Engineers whose grim story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches. Among his most shocking revelations was the effect the dreadful episode had upon the innocent Arab townspeople of Kut, not only during the siege but afterwards at the hands of the Turks, who viewed them as enemy collaborators. This is how Captain Sandes described the dramatic entry into Kut of a Turkish colonel on horseback:

‘Nizam Bey was a tall and pompous individual, very stiff and erect and typically German in appearance except that he wore the Turkish head-dress. He demanded in an arrogant manner to be taken at once to our headquarters … Some of the Arabs met the procession as it entered the town and rushed forward to kiss the Turkish officer’s boots. He kicked them in the face.’

Sandes goes on to describe the distress of Arab townspeople who dreaded the punishment they faced for 'collaborating' with the British:

‘Confusion and fear reigned in the now crowded streets. The old Sheikh was distracted at the prospect of surrender. Torture and death awaited him and his sons ... An Arab contractor who had sold supplies to our Mess had committed suicide rather than await the arrival of the Turks. It was pitiful to have to witness such scenes of terror and despair. The Arab women wailed and wept. The men eyed each other with suspicion, never knowing who would denounce them when the Turks marched in. Kut became a nest of Arab spies and traitors. The people hated us for bringing such misery upon them and dreaded the Turks whose ways they knew only too well.'

While we pay tribute to the trials of our fellow countrymen during the Great War, we should not forget those who were dragged into the conflict through no choice or fault of their own, and paid a dreadful price as a result.