Today I welcome another guest to No Wriggling – fellow Pen and Sword author Jacqueline Wadsworth, whose book ‘Letters From the Trenches – The First World War by Those Who Were There’ offers us the most moving personal stories from the pens of the ordinary people whose lives were so utterly transformed by the conflict. Having read it I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest not only in the Great War, but in humanity and in the triumph of the spirit in the most desolate of circumstances….
‘Had such a nice walk to some French village and had steak and onions. We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.’
You would be forgiven for thinking that this quote describes a peaceful day out in the countryside – although the word ‘march’ probably gives it away. In fact it comes from a letter written from the Western Front in May 1916, and illustrates something I learned very quickly while researching my new book ‘Letters from the Trenches’: most letters were not full of doom and gloom. Instead they were often light-hearted and humorous, written by men (and women) who tried to make the best of things despite the difficulties they faced. The quote above comes from a letter by Private Edward Kensit, a 37-year-old South African soldier who worked as a botanist during peacetime and fought with the British in France. Here’s another scene he described, while in a rest area away from the trenches – his company must have been very reassuring.
‘I was on guard at an old farm house the other day and I made myself a nice bean feed – I soaked the beans about 3 hours then the women [locals] put them on the stove for about 5 hours. I put in a 1lb of butter – cost me 3 franks (2s/6d) my chums all paid their share but it was a fine feed … We had milk too.’ He added: ‘There was a grand show of rhododendrons, oh such a grand sight. Here I first saw the forget-me-nots growing, also some rhubarb – but very abnormal.’
Even in the midst of the fighting there was ‘fun’ to be found, and young Frank Woodhouse, who worked in the mines of Nottinghamshire before enlisting, could barely contain his excitement in this letter home after a fire-fight in 1916:
‘I had my [twentieth] birthday in the trenches in rather an exciting time and you can bet I shall never forget the date. On the night of the 13that about 11.30 we were ordered to strafe the Germans who were known to be working on his parapets & barbed wire etc. All of a sudden we opened rapid fire with rifles & machine guns & rifle grenades & all kind of stuff. The noise was simply deafening. You ought to have seen our boys blazing away despite “Fritz’s” machine guns on our parapets. They carried on fully ¼ of an hour & then things quietened down a bit. I think our fire had good effect on them, since we “opened” so suddenly.’
A soldier’s life obviously suited Frank, and the same was true of an officer called Charles Alderton, from Clerkenwell in London, whose middle-class home had been less than challenging:
‘My life here has been full of interest,’ he wrote to his family from France in 1917. ‘I am now sitting in a dugout about 6ft by 6ft where 5 of us feed and 3 sleep, my bed which is a stretcher is fixed up one end on the steps and one on the table and I can tell you we are really having a fine time and quite enjoying ourselves. There is a very deep dug out lower down leading out of ours which we were going to use only on exploring we (I and another fellow) found the remains of one or two Boche in a really fine decomposed state, so we had them removed and are giving it a chance to freshen up.’
By contrast, Private Tom Fake was conscripted into the army and would certainly not have chosen to serve, but even he could be humorous in letters he sent to his wife Charlotte in Bristol, although it was sometimes at her expense! When she had her troublesome teeth taken out so that dentures could be fitted, Tom indulged some light-hearted teasing:
‘I am so glad you sent me a photo of yourself, for I think I should have had a job to recognise you, talk about shock, I think it would have been worse than shell shock, but now I know what to expect … I don’t mind seeing you without teeth. One thing, you will not be able to bite, but if you have lost your teeth, I suppose you haven’t lost anything else. Any rate I did not get mated up to you because you looked pretty, so that will not make any difference to us.’
Tom and Frank survived the war, but Edward and Charles did not. Neither did an engaging teenager called Cecil Cadmore, 18, from Herefordshire, whose letter to his cousin Gwen from army camp in England was a real breath of fresh air, gently mocking the training he received:
‘Last Tuesday we were doing wood fighting. Before we started we were told not to pick blackberries while advancing. We went thro’ one wood in fine style & across & into another wood. We surprised about 60 of the enemy & captured them, & then got cussed for leaving the first wood. Then a Major came up & said he would lead us thro’ the next wood. He pulled out a compass & said we would march by that. Then we gave ourselves up for lost (we always do get lost when marching by compass.) Well! We did get lost & I picked a lot of nuts while we were halted, which we were every minute while the Major consulted his compass. When we did get out of the wood we found the rest of the Battalion had finished the attack & the grub as well. Never mind, I ate nuts all the way home.’
Sadly, this was one of his last letters to Gwen, for Cecil was killed two months later in France. His attitude summed up that of many of the letter-writers you’ll find in my book – to quote the old WW1 marching song: ‘What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile.’
My sincere thanks to Jacqueline for taking the time to write for my blog.
Letters from the Trenches is published by Pen and Sword Books, RRP£19.99. Jacqueline Wadsworth is a freelance writer and has written two books to coincide with the WW1 Centenary: ‘Bristol in the Great War’, ‘Letters from the Trenches’, both published by Pen and Sword Books. A third, ‘Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War’ is due out in November 2015. She lives near Bristol with her family and when not at her desk she is a keen cyclist, follower of Liverpool FC, fan of American roots music, and supporter of The Donkey Sanctuary. You can find out more about Jacqueline and read further extracts on her website www.soldierletters.blogspot.co.uk