“Our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths” : A Great War Memoir

cover resizedToday I am thrilled to host a guest post by Susan Burnett, who has worked with her grandfather’s memoirs to publish a moving description of what happened to Norman Woodcock and the men who served alongside him in the First World War. The book, titled On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind  is published by Acorn Independent Press and available from Amazon here. In this post she offers snippets of the fascinating discoveries she made, many of which resonated with me as I recalled the research undertaken for Shell Shocked Britain.

My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, left me three large files of handwritten memoirs including many stories about his time in the Signals in the First World War. He took part in the landings on Gallipoli, served in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia and was there at the capture of Jerusalem. As I researched and wrote the history to accompany my grandfather’s memoirs, I soon realised how different life was for the soldiers in the Middle East compared to the trenches on the Western Front. In the desert they had to deal with extremes of heat and cold, snakes and scorpions were common, sand got into everything including the food, skin became so dry that it cracked and caused terrible sores, and at certain times of the year sand flies bit and caused fever. On one occasion, as they dug a trench in Palestine, some Australian troops came across a Roman mosaic. The mosaic was carefully removed and packed off to be displayed in a museum in Australia. The biggest difference though, was the shortage of water.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

Norman Woodcock, on his horse Timbuc, in Egypt.

In his memoirs Norman describes the horrors of the battles he took part in, for example during one battle he describes how ‘some men were afraid, others excited, some were quite mad’. His stories also cover everyday life and in particular the thirst they constantly suffered: ‘our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths’ and on another occasion ‘death by thirst must be terrible’. He describes the problems of not being able to clean anything, including mess tins, so bully beef blended with the taste of tea and jam, and everything had the added flavour of chloride of lime, used for purification. He jokes about how he didn’t wash his shirt for three months but everyone smelled so they got used to it!

Amongst the horror and history of the war there are some great stories in the book, one of the amusing ones is of an intruder to the dugout where three of them slept near the banks of the Suez Canal:

One night we were woken up by noises outside and the sound of someone coming down the dugout steps. Wilkie called out, ‘Who is there?’ There was a sound of footsteps running up the steps. Then they came back again. As we all had our rifles ready, I said I would fire one round at the doorway – so I sighted my rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sound of feet rushing up the steps and a gurgle of liquid. Wilkie lit a candle. The gurgling continued and I thought the visitor must be bleeding to death. The light of the candle revealed that I had pierced our tank of water, our four days supply. I jumped out of my blankets and tilted it to stop the flow. Next day, we found our visitor, it was a mongoose, an animal that can kill a snake; we had some big snakes about and could have used him if we had captured him. We were short of water until the next delivery arrived, but we were always short of water and became used to the thirst.

Once, in the heat of the desert sun, my grandfather downed tools, refusing to work until the water supply arrived. His comrades joined him and he was arrested and put on a charge. The allowance at that time was 4 pints of water a day, current water rations in the desert are 3 pints an hour! Fortunately Norman was needed for signals work. He could have been shot for disobeying an order but his charge was reduced and he was banished on a one man patrol in the desert for 3 weeks.

Once Jerusalem was captured, troops were despatched to France. Norman set sail in September 1918, arriving in Marseilles:

We had heard some stories of the misery in the trenches from lads who had joined us in Egypt, and so it was with some trepidation that, after two or three days, we boarded the train for the north.

Norman Woodcock in 1985

Norman Woodcock in 1985

Fortunately the war ended soon after he arrived on the Western Front. He wasn’t demobbed until July 1919 and the book ends with him describing the sadness he felt leaving the comrades he had been with every day for five years, and the even greater sadness he felt having to leave his horse called Timbuc: ‘the black beauty that saved my life on so many occasions’.

To find out more, visit Susan’s website at www.susanburnett.me.uk

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For Remembrance & the Armistice: Some very personal messages……

labelsHave you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget’ -(Siegfried Sassoon)

At the launch of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health  on the 22nd October 2014, I offered people the opportunity to take a red luggage label, a pen and write a simple message on it, tying it to the life-sized white wooden tree installations in the event space at Foyles in Bristol. I waffled on a bit about saying something about the evening, about the book, about the nibbles etc, but I also suggested people might want to offer up the names of someone they hold in their heart, as an informal act of remembrance.

I have to say, when I looked through them after the event, I was really moved at the names and comments people had taken the time to note down. So for Remembrance Sunday, for Armistice Day and for posterity I thought I would note some of them here on my blog, and say a huge thank you to everyone who made the event such a special evening for me.

In loving memory of my dear father George who died aged 83. He was an officer in the Royal Engineers and served in the Korean War. Love you always Dad

To the past, the present and for a better future with more understanding and available help x

A cliché but Never Forget

Thinking of my Italian ancestors who fought for Italy in WWI

To Grandpa, who couldn’t bear dirt or to be dirty after the trenches…

John Cant grandfather survived died 1970. Wilfred Carr Great Uncle. Died of wounds December 1917 near Ypres.

For Herbert My grandfather who never spoke of his experiences and I was too frightened of him to ask, hoping for exciting stories no doubt. Now, when it is too late I respect his silence and regret I never got close to him

Remembering Ronald Robertson RIP

To all conscientious objectors from The Society of Friends

Remembering all those women who served abroad In memory of all the conscientious objectors

In memory of my dear and beautiful friend Susan – I will carry you in my heart to every launch, event, exhibition and special place…xx

I also had some lovely congratulatory messages, but I am so pleased that the launch and my book offered people the space simply to remember. We have so little time to think now that we are in danger of losing sight of our essential humanity and connections to each other, and to those people in our lives who have made us who we are.

 

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The best way to market a book? Shell Shocked Britain on ‘blog tour’….

marketingWe have all seen it – on our twitter timelines, our Facebook feeds and our Instagram image lists. The endless stream of book plugs can get really frustrating, as tweets or status updates from people whose lives we connect with get subsumed in links to Amazon or personal websites where a book with great reviews  can be bought at a bargain price. Evidence suggests that if you only follow other writers, and they are the only ones that follow you back; if you just collect ‘followers’ and fail to actually engage and enthuse, or just bombard them with ‘buy me’ links, your books sales will be little influenced by anything you do on social media. Twice daily links and highlights of new reviews are fine, but every hour, just in case I missed it? I think not.

Looking at my own behaviour I know that it takes me a while to get to know a writer online and that recommendations from others I admire hold greater weight. Some authors seem to develop a ‘brand’, rather than work to build a relationship with their reader based on mutual interest and that is something that brings out the cynic in me. Are you the product, or is it the book? I am not sure I want to feel manipulated by a brand; perhaps the Coca Cola of the book world.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegSo as my own book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health (Pen & Sword October 2014) came up for publication last month I wanted to ensure I did more than just say ‘look at me, I’ve got a book out so buy it PLEASE’. I hate asking people to buy a £1 raffle ticket for a good cause, so how on earth could I ask people to buy a book that might cost them nearly £20?

I have got to know some lovely writing friends via twitter and Facebook and know that I have been encouraged by their approach to grabbing my interest as a reader. I had recently hosted guest posts by both Vivienne Tuffnell (who had just written Square Peg) and Angela Buckley (author of The Real Sherlock Holmes) on this blog, as part of their own ‘blog tours’ so I thought I would give something similar a go. In doing so, I hoped, I could offer potential readers the opportunity to see the sort of issues Shell Shocked Britain deals with, and highlight the legacy of the Great War for Britain’s mental health and whet their appetite for the book. And hope they bought it, of course.

I have to say to any author considering a blog tour that it is no mean feat. I was lucky to have lovely bloggers agree to host me, but I still had to write the posts, find the images and make sure I got the copy to the bloggers in a timely fashion. I underestimated the amount of work it takes to promote a book in the early months. But I am SO glad I did it and I want to send a big ‘thank you’ to all the lovely people who hosted me. Of course, all the (hopefully) fascinating content I came up with to tempt people to find out more is on other people’s blogs, but not here on my own. So I thought I would link to them all on here and encourage you to go over to the other sitesand read not just my article, but others on each of them. All are writers and historians that I admire and I am proud that my writing now sits alongside theirs.

So mind the doors please, here we go….

Stop 1: Shell Shocked Britain – Suzie Grogan shares the crime that inspired her book on Angela Buckley’s Victorian Supersleuth

Stop 2: Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day on Vivienne Tuffnell’s Zen & the Art of Tightrope Walking

Stop 3: A Short History of Shell Shock by Suzie Grogan on the Leeds Big Bookend blog

Stop 4: Gender & the Great War – The myth of the ‘superfluous woman’ on Emma Jolly’s genealogic blog

Stop 5: Shell Shocked Civilians -Fire over Folkestone and the bombing of Tontine Street on Rachael Hale’s The History Magpie

Stop 6: Avoiding the trickcyclist and nutpicker: First World War home remedies and miracle cures on Caroline Rance’s The Quack Doctor

Stop 7: The Children of Conflict: How the First World War Shaped the Next Generation on Debra Watkins’s Writer blog

Thanks all! And to everyone who has, or will buy Shell Shocked Britain, a ‘thank you’ too. We need to get the mental health message out there and ensure that if this four years of commemoration of the First World War achieves anything it does at least get recognition of the issues current service personnel face  - remarkably similar as they are to those experienced by their shell shocked forbears 100 years ago.

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Shell Shocked Britain – The First World War & inter-generational trauma

keatsbabe:

I will be writing a post on the Shell Shocked Britain blog tour shortly, but I thought I would share this piece on The Terrace Psychotherapy & Complementary Therapy clinic’s blog ‘Let’s Talk!’, where it looks at links to trans or inter-generational trauma. Thanks to them for featuring the book – I am glad it is of interest to the mental health professional as well as those interested in the Great War and social history.

Originally posted on let's talk!:

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAs we approach the first Remembrance or Armistice Day commemorations of the First World War centenary  it is appropriate to be mindful of what exactly we are marking on Sunday, and on the 11th of November 2014. Yes, we are offering up our thanks to those who gave their lives in the Great War and subsequent conflicts, but we must also remember those who survived, lived, and are living with the aftermath of the war.

In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, Suzie Grogan looks at the impact of the First World War on the men, women and children who survived it. How did those four years of conflict affect the way we view the mental health of those traumatised by their experience of war, whether directly or indirectly?

Dr Peter Heinl, in Splintered Innocence and others have long studied how…

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Is Britain still “Shell-Shocked”? A question for World Mental Health Day

keatsbabe:

Today, for World Mental Health Day, my second stop on the Shell Shocked Britain blog tour is the lovely Vivienne Tuffnell’s Zen & the Art of Tightrope Walking. Viv writes wonderful, thoughtful books herself, and inspired the title of my previous book ‘Dandelions and Bad Hair Days. In this piece I wanted to reflect on how far we have, or haven’t, come in the last 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. Statistics relating to the struggles experienced by 21st century service personnel shocked me and on this day we need to recall ALL those who experience lasting trauma from their involvement in conflict around the world.

Originally posted on Zen and the art of tightrope walking:

Today I am hosting a guest post for my friend Suzie.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Suzie’s first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling Lives Affected by Depression and Anxiety was published in 2012 and she also writes for a wide variety of national magazines. Suzie also runs a popular blog, ‘No wriggling out of writing’, and presents a local radio show on literature, called ‘Talking Books’.

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In 2012 I edited a book entitled Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives lived with depression and anxiety. It is an anthology of poetry, prose and photos produced by more than twenty people good enough to contribute to a monthly guest post slot on my blog No wriggling out of writing. They were prompted by my own story ‘Mental health, motherhood and finding the…

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The Courage of Cowards – Conscientious Objectors in the First World War

9472Today I am lucky to be hosting a guest blog by writer Karyn Burnham whose book The Courage of Cowards was published by Pen & Sword Books earlier this year. I read it and learnt so much about the much vilified ‘conchie’ of the Great War, who faced bullying, ostracism and imprisonment for his beliefs. Here Karyn tells us more…

‘Your Country Needs You!’ was the message being shouted from the walls of most public buildings during the Autumn of 1914. ‘Boys! Come Along, You’re Wanted’. How could any patriotic young man resist such an enthusiastic call to arms? By the end of August, 300,000 men had willingly volunteered to take part in the great adventure. Let’s teach the Hun a lesson he won’t forget! Give him a bloody nose and be home for Christmas.

Cartoon mocking the masculinity of a COLord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, knew the war would not be over by Christmas and that the British Army was in desperate need of a lot more men if Britain were to stand any chance of winning. The recruitment campaign was stepped up, the pressure on men to enlist was increased. Words such as ‘cowards’, ‘shirkers’ and ‘slackers’ took pride of place in the British vocabulary as posters reflected the damage wreaked on civilian homes in Scarborough by the German Navy; women were told to be selfless and send their menfolk off to war with pride. White feathers were issued with anonymous malice to unsuspecting young men who were caught out on the street in civilian clothes while in the personal column of The Times appeared the missive: ‘Jack F.G. If you are not in Khaki by the 20th I shall cut you dead. Ethel M’.

Throughout the whole of 1915 this sledgehammer form of patriotism continued, but still there were not enough men enlisting to replace those being killed or wounded. For many, the decision not to enlist was a practical one; with a wife and family to support, a man would be reluctant to swap his secure, well paid job for a meagre army wage. For others though, the decision was more complex. There were those who believed that war was fundamentally wrong, for reasons both religious and political. Despite the ever growing pressure to join up, these men remained free to act according to their consciences without repercussions from the State.

This changed in January 1916 with the introduction of the Military Service Act which stated, quite baldly, that every unmarried man between the ages of 19 and 41 was ‘deemed to have enlisted for the period of the war’, though the scope was soon widened to include married men. The decision to introduce conscription had been difficult and unprecedented because, unlike other European countries, Germany included, Britain had never enforced military service on her people. However, the government accepted that for some, taking up arms and going to war was against their deepest principles and included a controversial clause for exemption to military service on grounds of a conscientious objection to war.
When called up, a man would register his claim of conscientious objection and appear before a local tribunal to justify himself. Between January and June 1916, the tribunal system creaked under the weight of around 750,000 claims for exemption (many would have been on grounds of ill health, financial hardship of dependents etc,) and the tribunals were ill disposed towards ‘conchies’. While there was some sympathy and understanding for religious objections, there was absolutely none for political objections. Of the 16,000 conscientious objectors registered by the end of the war, only 350 had been granted absolute exemption.

Absolutist COs at Dyce Quarry

Absolutist COs at Dyce Quarry

So what happened to the rest? Many would have accepted some form of alternative service such as the Friends Ambulance Unit, the Royal Army Medical Corps or even the army’s Non Combatant Corps. For some though, supporting a war they disagreed with was out of the question. Known as the ‘absolutists’, these men would not accept alternative service if it aided the military and were automatically conscripted into the army where they refused to co-operate from the outset. Refusing to put on a uniform, to follow basic orders or even accept army pay, the men would be court martialled and imprisoned. Upon release, the process would repeat.

The army would often resort to bullying, or worse, to pressure the COs into giving up as in the case of George Beardsworth, a political objector and absolutist from Lancashire. Beardsworth was dragged around an army training ground in full view of the public in Birkenhead Park; he was kicked, punched, stamped on, thrown over railings and pushed head first into water in an ordeal that lasted most of the day. The army’s treatment of Beardsworth, and others like him, contributed to a change in how absolutists were dealt with and hard labour in a civilian prison became the norm along with Home Office Work Schemes which aimed to provide the COs with work of ‘national importance’ which did not contribute to the war. This seemed a reasonable compromise to most COs, although it was hard to see the national importance of sewing mailbags or breaking rocks for 10 hours a day.

Conscientious objectors during the First World War were popularly regarded as cowards, but it is hard to attach such a label to men who were prepared to face ostracism, beatings, imprisonment and hard labour rather than compromise their beliefs. The easy thing, the cowardly thing, would have been to give in and go to war.

karynKaryn Burnham: Karyn lives in North Yorkshire and has written The Courage of Cowards: The Untold Stories of First World War Conscientious Objectors, (April 2014) and York In The Great War, (November 2014) both published by Pen and Sword Books. She has also written for Family History Monthly, Discover Your History and BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine as well as contributing to various history websites.

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No need for endings yet: a poem for late summer by Jennifer Grotz

daisyI have been looking back over old blog posts recently. My latest posts have focused on the First World War and issues I address in Shell Shocked Britain and readers of this blog know how much I love to discover new poems and poets; a wander around the Poetry Archive website being my favourite form of procrastination. This despite rumours that Bejewelled Blitz is my distraction of choice…

It is cool in Somerset today; nothing very new in that, but it really has felt as if ‘warm days will never cease’ in recent days. Autumn is a season I enjoy as a rule, only slumping into a depression after the new year, when I find the evenings truly dark, and the mornings little better. But it still feels a little early for To Autumn by John Keats (as much as I love it) so I thought I would post a poem I have only recently discovered. I think it neatly sums up the late summer feeling that persists despite increasing evidence that autumn is truly upon us. It is by American poet and translator Jennifer Grotz.

Late Summer
Jennifer Grotz

Before the moths have even appeared
to orbit around them, the streetlamps come on,
a long row of them glowing uselessly

along the ring of garden that circles the city center,
where your steps count down the dulling of daylight.
At your feet, a bee crawls in small circles like a toy unwinding.

Summer specializes in time, slows it down almost to dream.
And the noisy day goes so quiet you can hear
the bedraggled man who visits each trash receptacle

mutter in disbelief: Everything in the world is being thrown away!
Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things
redden and ripen and burst and come down. It’s when

city workers cut down trees, demolishing
one limb at a time, spilling the crumbs
of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street.

Sunglasses! the man softly exclaims
while beside him blooms a large gray rose of pigeons
huddled around a dropped piece of bread.

Jennifer Grotz

Jennifer Grotz

The penultimate stanza, with its line ‘spilling the crumbs of twigs and leaves all over the tablecloth of street’ (though I am not sure why it isn’t  ‘the street’, and am not sure I like it – any thoughts?) conjures up the tiny remnants of dead wood that refuse to find their way into the rubbish bag however hard one sweeps, and seem a metaphor for those last days out in late summer.  Those romantic and organised enough to have proper picnics will have made their sandwiches and pies, eaten them under the branches of sleepy trees  and have spilled the crumbs into the folds of the screwed up gingham cloth (or, more likely an old rug) which, when opened in the spring of the next year, will find the same crumbs clinging, desiccated, to the fibres. And ‘sunglasses!’ – how nice it is to find we still need them on into autumn as the sun burns early mist away and casts a gentle light over the afternoon.

Is it about ending? I am not so sure. How can we call it that, with a quarter of the year yet to come?

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