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.
 



Sunday, 24 April 2016

A month full of Zeppelin raids, torpedo-testing, and sleepy Anzacs

Madge Sneyd Kynnersley
A pocket diary may seem far too small to record fully the momentous events of history, but it's amazing how capacious some can be when you open them up. Take Madge Sneyd Kinnersley's, for example. Her pocket diaries from the Great War years cover every significant event you can think of, despite there being only a few lines per day to write on. She also wrote some wonderfully succinct descriptions about ordinary life in the early 1900s.

Madge was living in Weymouth with her widowed mother and three sisters when war broke out. She kept a diary every day, and her notes proved invaluable when I was writing my WW1 books. In Letters from the Trenches Madge's ascerbic comments on life as a Red Cross nurse were particularly amusing, and in Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War her diary forms a colourful thread which runs through the book, illustrating the social history of the time.

The extracts below show what a lively writer Madge was. She talks about 'the Range' where she worked as a clerk - this was the Royal Navy's torpedo testing range on the edge of Portland Harbour. She mentions friends and family, including her sisters Kitty and Sylvy. She also refers to the wounded Anzac soldiers who were sent to convalesce in Weymouth; the devastating raids by German Zeppelin airships; and to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Where necessary, explanations are given in italics.

APRIL 1916

 

1 April, Saturday - Range till 1.45pm. Glorious day, sat in garden and went to tea at Pav [Weymouth Pavilion] with V Bragge and Miss Anderson ... Zep raid last night on eastern counties and zeps shot down and crew taken by us, off Thames.

Weymouth Pavilion often crops up in Madge's diary as a recreational venue. The Edwardian original, pictured left, was built to enhance the town's reputation as a first-class holiday resort and opened in 1908. Sadly, however, it burnt down during refurbishment in 1954 thanks to an accident involving a blow-torch. Work began on a replacement theatre and ballroom four years later.

4 April, Tuesday - Zep raids 3 nights running!

6 April, Thursday - Theatre to see 'Fanny's First Play' with mother at 6pm. By Bernard Shaw - good. Baked beans for lunch and meringues for tea

This popular play premiered in 1911, when George Bernard Shaw was 56. The playwright courted unpopularity during the First World War by denouncing both sides.

Madge's sister Rosie
8 April, Saturday - Kitty had wire from Devonshire House [Red Cross HQ in London ] asking her to go to Military Hospital at Cardiff but she has just signed on at Exeter for 6 months.

Madge and her three other sisters - including Rosie, pictured left - all worked as Red Cross nurses at some time during the war.

11 April, Tuesday - Sylvy and I went to vulgar but funny revue at Pavilion 'Fine Feathers'. Sleepy Anzac behind me collapsing on my shoulder.

16 April, Sunday - Spencer [the serving naval officer whom Madge was courting] has got a brand new destroyer, the Munster!!

18 April, Tuesday - Range. Code came from Gosport and we stayed till  6.45pm trying to decode it and at last I was the one to find the clue. Sylvy wired for by army pay for next week.

Madge's sister Sylvy had applied to work at the army pay office in Exeter.

21 April, Good Friday - Lovely day. Lay on beach all morning. Attended last half of 3-hrs [church] service at Westham. Long walk over Lodmore with Sylvy in evening.

22 April, Saturday - Holiday. Town and shopped.

23 April, Easter Sunday - Trinity [Church] at 11am in green and tweed as dark blue at cleaners!

24 April, Easter Monday - Sylvy went to Exeter to try army pay for a bit.

26 April, Wednesday - Range, we torpedoed WD motor boat Vulture, hole right thought her!!

27 April, Thursday - Range, no work. Sat on balcony and walked on beach at lunch. Very sore throat. Sinn Fein rebellion in Ireland. Rebels take GPO and many parts of Dublin, also other parts of Ireland. Sir Roger Casement taken prisoner and sent to Tower trying to land ammunition in Ireland.

Sir Roger Casement was later hanged by the British for his part in working with Germany and the Irish nationalists in planning the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916.

30 April, Sunday - Fall of Kut. General Townsend after being besieged since December had to surrender to Turks, all attempts at relief having failed and relief ship gone aground. Lovely day.

The humiliating British surrender at Kut-al-Amara, a town on the Tigris in Mesopotamia, came after a five-month siege by the Turks.

You can read more from Madge's marvellous diaries in my books Letters from the Trenches and Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War .

Saturday, 16 April 2016

'With God on our side, we'll fight the good fight!'

Author John Broom
The work rate of my fellow Pen & Sword author John Broom never ceases to amaze me. A busy man at the best of times (PhD candidate, specialist autism teacher, runner - and that's just for starters!) he's also just had his second book published in the space of six months.

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War follows on neatly from his first, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War which came out at the end of last year (you can read my review here) and is another thoroughly enjoyable read which provides the reader with much food for thought...

It's not often that you see God or faith mentioned in accounts about the 20th century world wars. Such matters are largely overlooked as we examine things from our own, modern perspective. As a result, writes John Broom, religion is often reduced to "an incidental footnote amongst the bombs, tanks, prison camps, ships, aircraft, rationing, evacuation..."

So in Fight the Good fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, Broom seeks to redress the balance by allowing those who experienced the conflict "to explain their war as they perceived it".

Faith played an influential part in the everyday lives of those who lived through the Second World War. In Britain, for example, a 1943 Gallup survey revealed that only 4 per cent did not identify with a Christian denomination, and 68 per cent claimed to be regular or occasional churchgoers. The influence of religion is powerfully reflected in the book's 20 stories of people who used their belief to cope with the war as it affected them. And each story provides not only an insight into the individual, but a fascinating glimpse at the war from a different angle.

The cast list is wonderfully varied. Included is a Dutch woman, Corrie ten Boom, who becomes part of the Resistance when her country is occupied by the Nazis, and whose selflessness and courage shine like a beacon from the book. Equally inspiring is the tale of army chaplain Eric Cordingly, whose ministry among Japanese prisoners of war in the Far East turns their brutal experience into what, at times, is almost a blessing: "No priest could wish for a happier 'parish' or sphere of work," wrote Cordingly. "Work unfettered by what are sometimes tiresome parish organisations. We seem somehow to have got back to fundamentals and simple wholesome worship, and we all feel the need for religion."

Man of letters: John Broom Snr,
Others whose stories are told include Michael Benn - brother of MP Tony - a young RAF pilot who was killed in action in 1944; and the author's own father, John Broom, who served with the 'Desert Rats' in Africa, and whose letters (170 of them, written between 1940 and 1946) sparked his interest in religion and modern warfare.

This book is not only well-written and very readable, it ensures that the part played by faith in our ancestors' wars is not forgotten.

Fight the Good fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword Books.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

'We go rocking along the trench, tired out, foot sore, bathed in sweat'

Trench life was a test for even the strongest
'There are things a thousand times worse than German shells to put up with here,' wrote Private Stanley Goodhead from the trenches of France in March 1916 ... and his fellow soldiers would have been quick to agree.

For although the enemy they faced across No Man's Land threatened life and limb, it was a collection of far more insidious 'adversaries' that made life in the trenches at times almost unbearable. Relentless hard work and insufficient sleep were 'enough to break the strongest man', confided Goodhead in a letter to his father. Lice were also an ever-present aggravation that constantly tested soldiers' patience and morale.

And so-called 'trench foot' was a painful condition that blighted the waking hours of many a soldier in the waterlogged conditions. 'My foot is rather bad again for it does not get a fair chance to heal up as we wear high jack boots and do not take them off for days and days together,' wrote Private Goodhead, a soldier with the Manchester Pals whose letters feature in my book Letters from the Trenches. 'Consequently my feet swell terribly and cause friction on the sore parts, the toe and the heel.' Warming to his theme, Goodhead continued to his father: 'I will give you all a slight idea of what a turn in the trenches means:
"We leave our billets, a bed of mud and straw and a roof covering through which the stars may be counted, at dusk, as the road to be traversed is under fire. Company after company, battalion after battalion at 200 yard intervals take the road and I should say what was once a road but is now a river of mud and slime.

"We march with full pack for three miles and then comes the order to halt and at a certain shell wrecked farm we are issued with a pair of jack boots per man and our others are slung on our backs which help to add to the already heavy pack. We only have a few minutes as time is precious and then we wade mostly in shell holes for another one and a half miles to the final line of communication trenches and then our troubles truly begin.

"By this time we are in a single file and each man has to keep the man in front always in view or earshot, as messages are continually going up the line and each man warns the other of any particularly bad part of the trenches or of any deep sump hole. In this way we go along rocking from side to side of the trench, tired out, foot sore, bathed in sweat with the weight of the pack coated with mud from the sides of the trenches and cursing the Kaiser and his men at every step. In 40 minutes from entering the trenches we arrive at the firing line in an exhausted condition and the relief is quietly carried out, as each man knows his sentry post or if he does not there is bother for him.

"Our platoon is a small one and every man is needed for sentry so there is no time for any man to go and rest in a dugout and we cool down on the fire-step. There are six men to a post, two keeping a sharp look out through the darkness, two sitting on the fire-step and their heels, and two trying to get a snatch of sleep down in the trench below with their rifles in their hands ready to help their comrades when kicked. In this manner each squad of six men work the posts at intervals changing every two hours and the only chance of sleep at all is when down in the trench, but he is a good man who can manage it and I might say there are very few who do. 

"This night sentry continues from 8pm to 5.30am the following morning when only two are left on sentry, the remaining four being allowed to see the dugout for the first time and have breakfast, very often consisting of a biscuit and small piece of cheese and a gill of almost cold tea.  After breakfast, which occupies two hours, the work starts for the day.

Soldiers snatch a rest in trench dugouts
"The working party is told off [sent] to a particularly bad part of the trench and the pumping and baling out of the slime and mud goes on till dinner (stew). One hour for dinner, and this over work, continues till dusk (evening stand-to) when cold tea is served with a biscuit. Then the night sentry posts are told off again and things go on the same as the preceding night with the same man on duty.  This continues for four or five days together so you will understand that when we are relieved we are thoroughly worn out and weak and in no mood for letter writing or anything else.

"We never take any clothing off or boots all the time in the trenches and always have to wear the skeleton equipment and the rifle never leaves our hands. Of course there are a thousand and one more things to put up with but I have given you a few inconveniences. I am trying to keep cheerful through it all and hope to come through all right. Now I shall have to close as my candle is nearly finished."
 You can read more of Private Goodhead's letters, describing life on the Western Front, in my book Letters from the Trenches.