Today I welcome to No Wriggling Denise Bates, whose latest book, Historical Research Using British Newspapers is published by Pen and Sword this month. I have often written on this blog of how useful I found the British Newspaper Archive in my research for Shell Shocked Britain and at all my talks I stress how important a resource old newspapers are. Denise has used my experience, and that of other writers, as case studies in her book. In this post she looks at the ways in which research into mental health can be enhanced by reference to the newspapers. Shell Shocked Britain was inspired by a cutting found when I was undertaking some family history research, so imagine what you might find in those fascinating old pages…..
Old newspapers are no longer an archive resource mainly used by seasoned researchers. An internet connection and a log-in enable anyone with an interest in the past to read old newspapers, at a time and place which is convenient to them. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the past and digitised newspapers now offer anyone who is intrigued by topics that fall outside the academic or commercial mainstream a way of pursuing their own interests. Sometimes the subject-matter of historical research has been driven by the academic or the publishing community meaning that some topics have effectively fallen ‘out of history’. Some writers have been too keen to make a point at the expense of accuracy and, for some topics, finding material to learn from has been a practical problem. Newspapers can be very helpful in all of these situations.
Mental health in the nineteenth century is a subject where newspapers contain a rich repository of material for investigation, to supplement existing knowledge about life in the asylum or the hysterias supposedly experienced by females. When I researched Pit Lasses, my book about the women and girls who worked underground in coal mines until the job was banned for them in 1842, I had hoped to discover something about their mental well-being but found scant information in the records of the time. A fortuitous breakthrough came when I traced a newspaper report about an unnamed female who had died at a Lancashire Colliery in 1844. The case was included in Frederick Engels’ political tome, The Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels was keen to show that women still laboured underground and suppressed the inconvenient fact that the teenager did not work at the colliery but had killed herself by jumping down the shaft.
No reason for Margaret Wignall’s suicide was given in the brief paragraph, but as more newspapers became available on-line I discovered a detailed report of the inquest into her death. The Mines Act of 1842 had cost Margaret her job and other work was hard to find. She had briefly been employed as a children’s nurse but was dismissed because of her rough manner of speaking in favour of a more refined girl. Presumably depressed by her inability to earn her keep, perhaps nagged by her parents on this point, she took her father’s lunch to him at the pit and then killed herself in public view. The truth about her untimely death is much more complex and shocking than Engels’ text suggested.
Margaret’s is just one case amongst many reported in nineteenth century newspapers where an individual may have suffered mental health problems. My breach of promise research found several broken engagements where one of the parties probably had schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or depression, although this was not recognised at the time. Not all individuals turned to the devastating outcome of suicide but it is clear that many struggled to cope without support or understanding from of those around them.
As these brief examples show, newspapers contain a wealth of information on many subjects, but it is not always presented a direct manner. An open-minded researcher who is prepared to commit time to locating and interpreting information drawn from newspaper reports may make discoveries that enhance our understanding of the past, or even challenge existing beliefs about it.
My sincere thanks to Denise for writing this post, and do look out for her book in all good bookshops, or find out more at the Pen and Sword website.
Historical Research Using British Newspapers by Denise Bates is published by Pen and Sword in April 2016. Her previous books, Pit Lasses and Breach of Promise to Marry are also available from Pen and Sword.
Today I am really pleased to welcome another guest blogger to No wriggling out of writing. Phil Sutcliffe has published a wonderful memoir written by his father, Sam Sutcliffe who served in the First World War and whose words offer a genuine sense of what it was like to be a serving soldier at Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras. It resonated strongly with me as one of the most fascinating aspects of research for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, was reading the real-life stories of those who experienced the warfare. ‘Nobody of Any Importance’ is the title Sam gave his own record of his war time experience, recalled in the 1970s, and as you read his words it quickly becomes clear that as one of the brave chaps who served on all Fronts between 1914 and 1918 he is far from unimportant….
We got e-chatting because Suzie’s a Keats fan and one of her @keatsbabe tweets came up just as I was working on an FB from Sam’s early chapters about his childhood in Edmonton where he described walking past the apothecary’s shop where the poet served an apprenticeship.
Well, Sam does offer a lot of vivid pictures from his experience of growing up poor in north London in the 1900s. Here’s the quack doctor who performed daily miracles in the market place:
“Doctor Brown was a fine figure of a man clad in proper morning dress: a cutaway black coat, striped trousers, patent leather shoes and a tall silk hat on his head his fair moustache waxed to two long points… and the tale he told about the pills he sold, that was part of the weekend entertainment… He gave value for money in pills, potions, and perorations and did very well indeed.”
Sam was born on July 6 1898 (he died at 88, I was born when he was 49) and left school at 14, worked as an office boy near Liverpool Street for a couple of years… then went to war, lying about his age so that he could stick with his brother Ted, 18. After lengthy training in Malta, his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, in September, 1915, the fag end of that disastrous campaign. Their first battlefield:
“[as they approached Suvla]… on land, rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill… and here was my first experience of warfare…’
“[then, on the beach under rifle and shell fire]… We hugged the ground, of course, to let the bullets pass harmlessly above us, but one of those wretched things broke that rule. When one move forward started, young Nibs, more of a boy even than I was, didn’t get up. The Captain was told, all paused again, and the shocking news came along that he was dead, shot through the head… Our first casualty, I thought, young Nibs, the cheerful Cockney…”
Talking about the Memoir, I realise, I tend to focus on the terrible events which raise fundamental moral questions. But here’s a lighter moment, the immediate aftermath of the Suvla Bay evacuation, December, 1915:
“Soon, out of sight of the explosions, some singing started up, our first for many a day. And then we really gave vent to the joy and relief we felt. A youngster who had obliged at concerts back in Malta… sang a quickly improvised parody of that popular song, Moonlight Bay: ‘We were sailing away from Suvla Bay/We can hear the Turks a-singing/’Please don’t go away/You are breaking our hearts/So please do stay’/‘Not bloody likely, boys/Goodbye to Suvla Bay’. All joined in, inventing their own versions as we sang along…”
Still, for the last few excerpts of this blog Sam’s back on the battlefield. The Somme now, Gommecourt sector. He’d transferred to the Kensingtons by then. First, … thinking of Suzie’s work – from July 1 itself, an evident observation of shell-shock:
“Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men… I saw a Scot who, though not wounded, just sat and shook. His head nodded, his arms flailed feebly, his legs sort of throbbed, his eyes obviously saw nothing… One of our usually most happy and physically strong men was crying non-stop while violently protesting about something. He’d been buried up to his shoulders in earth and, even in that inferno, men nearby had paused in their advance to free him, yet he had this strange grievance… ”
Sam’s Battalion got two or three days semi-rest a mile or so back, before returning to the front line and spending their nights in No Man’s Land – retrieving the dead:
“While working in bright moonlight on search work, I looked down into a length of communication trench… and saw the rather large face of a very good chap I had worked with for a while in Egypt… And here he was, long dead, eyes blank, but still the features unmistakable and formerly so familiar to me…
As soon as possible, I guided two of the men doing recovery work to Charlie. I recalled then, as I do now, his special qualities. He was completely honest, stubborn about things in dispute, but usually found to be right about them in the end; Cockney in speech to an extent which, on first acquaintance led one to expect illiteracy, he soon made you realise your error…
Of the many men whose poor bodies we found and saw cared for that night, Charlie was the only one whom I had known well in life. He had been one of us, and thus special to us, during our first experience of Army life… Recollection of Charlie calls forth a mental picture of him walking away from me… large head, broad shoulders, sturdy trunk, strong, slightly bowed legs… Goodbye, Charlie.”
Following Sam’s story, you can see how military training worked all the way through to terrible reality – for example, from rifle training in Malta to three years later, 1918, at the Front near Arras. His Battalion (Essex Regiment by then) had been ordered to fight to the last bullet to cover a strategic retreat. Lines of German soldiers are crossing No Man’s Land in front of his trench:
“… intensive training… had achieved its purpose; when the situation required it, I became a rifle-firing automaton… One target I dealt with was a man running not towards me but across my line of fire, about 50 yards distant. ‘Snap-shooting at a moving target’ on the firing range; back come the instructions, ‘Maintain normal aim, moving with the target, then increase movement of rifle till daylight appears between target and rifle then “Fire”’. The soldier fell… a comrade ran several yards to help him, appeared at the tip of my rifle fore-sight after I had rapidly reloaded, and I squeezed the trigger. As he too fell, the utter automatic callousness of my action registered somewhere in my brain and doubt nagged then and forever after about there being any plausible excuse for such murderous conduct.”
And yet, an hour or so later, this was how his “active service” came to an end and a grinding eight-months as a POW began. His Battalion had run out of ammunition. For no reason he could put into words, exhausted by the toil and the terror of it all, he climbs out on top of the trench and stands there:
“Looking forward, I saw Germans, hundreds of them. A glance to the right made me abandon all hope of surviving. A line of Germans was charging in my direction, bayonets fixed on rifles, the job assigned to them, obviously, the destruction of any remaining opposition… As the galloping line came closer I could see their faces, their features. Most of them boys like me… I just stood there and waited for it to happen – the hoped-for clean bayonet thrust and goodbye… At about two yards, I stared at two boys, one of whom would have to do the dirty work. Fresh, healthy faces which made veteran me feel quite old. Now. It must happen now. I concentrated on the nearest boy. All in a split second, he smiled, swung a little aside, his comrade did likewise, and they were all gone, bless the lovely lads.”
All the best
My sincere thanks to Phil Sutcliffe, writing on behalf of Sam, for these fascinating insights into his father’s life. For full details of how you can find out more, and buy the book (remembering that the proceeds go to the marvellous Red Cross), see below.
Nobody Of Any Importance: A Foot Soldier’s Memoir Of World War I, by Sam Sutcliffe, edited by Phil Sutcliffe – paperback and e-book available thru blog here (including audio excerpts and reader reviews) or direct from email@example.com, or thru Amazon here. Buy £1 e-book episodes from the full Memoir – Gallipoli: A Foot Soldier’s First Battle and The Somme: Through The Eyes Of A Foot Soldier Who Survived The Battlefield – direct as above or through Amazon here and here respectively. Twitter @FootSoldierSam Follow FootSoldierSam on Facebook here (all author/editor proceeds to the British Red Cross)
As many of my readers will know (because I have, frankly, gone on about it enough) I have spent much of the past three or four years immersed in the trauma that resulted from the horrors of the Great War. My book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword nearly 18 months ago now, and I am still working hard to market it, giving talks and keeping in touch with the continued commemoration of the First World War. I am also project co-ordinator of a Heritage Lottery Fund project in my local area, focusing on the children of the Great War. So I have been firmly rooted in the history of the early part of the twentieth century for some time now.
However, over the past few months I have been commissioned to edit the English version of a book, called Journey Into the Unknown: Homage to a Holocaust Survivor first published in Germanby Ruth Kaufmann. Ruth follows the life of her father Bertl Kaufmann, a survivor of the persecution which Jews were subjected to during the Nazi rule. It is now available in paperback and on Kindle and I have found it a deeply moving project to be involved with. A second book, following Adele, a young girl who didn’t survive the Holocaust, will be published later this year and I am pleased to say I will be working on that one too. Journey into the Unknown was published to mark the opening of Austria’s Holocaust Museum in Graz, focusing on the Jewish experience of the horrors.
The book is written in the form of a diary, a picture built up by Ruth during many conversations with her father, Bertl Kaufmann, who has only recently passed away. Like many of the men I researched for Shell Shocked Britain, Bertl could not speak of the horrors he witnessed for decades, and for me it reinforced the research I have read into trans-generation trauma and the point I was making in Shell Shocked Britain – that the impact these experiences can have on a family go across and down the generations.It makes supporting the mental health of today’s war veterans and civilian victims of war trauma vital, and if society neglects the issue it will cost many, many lives.
Journey into the Unknown: Homage to a Holocaust Survivor is out now in paperback and on Kindle. It is a short read, but perfect for adults and young adults who want to travel with a teenager into adulthood through one of the most shocking periods of modern history.
My mum isn’t well. She is unwell in that way we refer to those who are, officially, really old; ‘well she is 86 dear’; ‘things are just wearing out’; ‘well none of us go on forever’. Diagnosis? Why bother with one? It is ‘old age’ and if we are lucky, perhaps, it comes to us all. So let’s just watch her legs swell up, sense she can’t quite catch her breath, and listen whilst she tells us of something that worries her – over and over again so that very worry is reinforced, and dwelt upon until conspiracy theories take over from reality and there is the inexorable descent into an anxiety state that takes more of her breath, more of herself.
Perhaps she will rally, again. But she has started those sad little conversations that begin ‘don’t be upset when I go dear, I’ve had enough’, and at some point, in the natural order of things, we will lose her, my sister, brother and I.
But I have to admit I am struggling, desperately hoping she will once more be her ‘old self’, flashes of whom we still glimpse as we watch her wolf down dark chocolate, then complain of indigestion, or hear as she describes the behaviour of a friend who is ‘lovely, but…’
My mum dedicated her life to bringing up her family and caring for her husband, our dad, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinsons before any of us,his children, had left primary school. She has been a widow almost as long as she was a wife and has had to deal with what she would describe as a ‘basin full’. She has a strength of character that can be both tender and downright scary, and of her three children I am the one whose ‘buttons’ have been pressed for maximum effect, with emotional consequences for us both. But recently, as her short term memory has deteriorated and her longer term recall become more selective, we have enjoyed some great laughs, and hours of simple fun playing games on the iPad, discussing who are our favourites on Strictly Come Dancing (‘I can’t bear that Katie Derham, with that smile…’) and talking about her family history. No competition, no manipulation, just love.
I know in my heart that I am hoping she stays with us not for her sake, but for mine. I am scared – of being ‘top of the tree’, of no longer being, physically, someone’s daughter, of being cast adrift from that last link with all those memories, of feeling alone (despite having my own lovely family).
We are a lucky human being if we get to our eighties as fit as a flea. Our society desperately denies death whilst worshipping youth, and the elderly are seen as a demographic time bomb, a problem to be solved, a drain on our national finances. Why are we so keen to stay alive, when at the same time we are casting age and experience aside?
Perhaps I am affected by national as well as personal events. The world seems a scary place at the moment. Am I alone in thinking someone has taken the brakes off and our lives and events are spinning out of our control? Mum has been ever present, a safety blanket, the tap root from which much of my life has taken strength. Too much? Possibly. Perhaps I am just afraid to acknowledge myself as an adult…
At some point I have to acknowledge myself as a root from which my own children have branched out and become the lovely folk they are.
I am no longer a child, but I will always be the child of my mother.
Today I am really pleased to welcome Dick Robinson to No wriggling out of writing. Many people have asked me about how the nurses who tended the wounded soldiers, and those men suffering from’shell shock’ coped with the trauma they experienced. I was contacted by Dick after I gave a talk on Shell Shocked Britain and I was fascinated by his story. Here he uses the diary written by his great aunt Edith Appleton (published as A Nurse at the Front) to offer a vivid description of a woman at war….
12 September 1916: “I sent 17 of my shell shocks off to Havre yesterday where they are to receive special treatment. Should have liked to keep them here – treating them will be very interesting. I got very sick of hospital rules yesterday and took Matron’s dog for a walk over the cliffs. I was quite alone there and enjoyed it immensely; bathed, sat with not much on and my hair loose and read.”
Sister Edith Appleton served in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in France throughout the First World War, often close to the front line. Somehow, amongst the carnage, she wrote a daily journal which has been transcribed to produce first a website (www.anurseatthefront.org.uk) and more recently a book (A Nurse at the Front) published by Simon & Schuster in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum.
Today I am lucky enough to have another fascinating guest post on No Wriggling – this time by family historian and writer David Venner, who I met after the publication of my own book, Shell Shocked Britain. Here he writes movingly of his own family experiences in the Great War, and tells us more about his great-uncle Albert Simpkin, a despatch rider and the subject of a book David will see published by Pen & Sword in the spring.
As I write, many of the leaves on the hazel outside my window have fallen and lie scattered on the ground. In time they will decompose or get dragged below the surface by earthworms. Other leaves remain on the tree but they have changed – from the fresh green of the spring to a faded autumnal yellow: a metaphor, perhaps, for the men who fought on the First World War battlefields. Many of them fell and lay scattered on the surface or were swallowed up, unrecognisably, by the mud. The men that survived and returned from the war were changed, some in obvious, physical ways, others with mental scars that may or not have been apparent to the observer. A lot of them of course were damaged both physically and mentally. Their families and the wider community were deeply and irreversibly affected too, as Suzie conveys in her thoroughly researched and well-written book, Shell Shocked Britain.
My great uncle Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones who survived the war. Suzie’s book has started me thinking about how his experiences might have changed him. I knew him as an old man, but as he only married into my mother’s family when aged 40, his early life and character are not easily pieced together.
He was born in 1885, the eldest child of a Salford printer and his wife. When he was 12 his mother died at the birth of a fourth child, a traumatic experience for Albert and the rest of the family. His father soon re-married and Albert apparently did not take to his step-mother – a further source of emotional stress at a sensitive age. At the 1901 census there were two young half-brothers as well as the three siblings from the first marriage. It is perhaps not surprising that, on leaving school and being apprenticed to a Salford engineering firm, Albert moved out of the family home. He lived in digs with two other young men and a landlady who, according to family stories, treated him in a much more kindly way than his stepmother did.
Albert was almost 30 when he joined up, so was not as unworldly as many of the volunteer soldiers were. His teenage traumas, work experiences and early move to independent living probably resulted in a marked degree of resilience and maturity in his approach to life. He seems to have been a natural leader, as quite early in his army training he gained a promotion to become sergeant of his section.
We can gain some further insights into his character from a very detailed diary that Albert wrote of his war service. He was a motorcycle despatch rider with the 37th Division HQ on the Western Front and so had a wide-ranging role and view of the action. He saw some horrific sights, which he records, often with a comment on his reaction:
‘Higher up the trench I came across the body of one of our men badly mutilated, one of his arms had been blown off and half of his face was missing. The front of his tunic was shredded like wool and the ammunition in his pouches had exploded. A pretty ghastly sight but it raised no more feeling in me than one feels in a butcher’s shop. War brings one down to the level of animals.’
He endured some atrocious conditions, spending two winters in the Ypres area and another on the Somme:
‘We are having wretched weather, raining every day … After an hour’s riding we are plastered with mud from head to foot and the only way to clean oneself is to wash down with buckets of water.’
‘The snow is melting rapidly and everywhere is deep in mud. I do not know which is the greater evil, snow or mud. Snow turns to water but mud sticks closer that a brother.’
The places in which he was billeted were often far from healthy:
‘Last night we slept in a barn … The place was alive with rats which ran over our bodies and sniffed inquisitively in our faces. One of the fellows awoke with a yell, a rat had bitten his ear.’
‘I examined the bed I have been sleeping in and found every known species of vermin, bed bugs, lice and some I was unable to christen. I straightaway got leave from the OC to go and get a bath after which I changed all my underclothes.’
Yet he found leave-taking a depressing time:
‘The time hung very heavily, everyone cheerful but a trifle forced. I was glad when it was time to go back to France’.
He seems to have had a well-developed sense of morality and equality. For example, he was very critical of the preferential treatment of officers:
‘Sometimes when we have money we go to Bailleul for a feed but all the best places are reserved for officers, which greatly annoyed us until we found a place of our own. Even the ‘pip squeaks’, who a year or two ago were wiping their snotty little noses on their cuffs for want of a handkerchief, may enter, while the highest NCO may not. This childish snobbery of the old army sickens me.’
Despite this critical view of the officer class, his commanding officer gave him a glowing reference on demobilisation:
‘Sgt Simpkin has discharged the duties of NCO in charge motorcycles and despatch riders
in the Company with marked success. Energetic, keen and reliable in all his work. Exceptionally good disciplinarian and leader of men. Marked organising ability. Throughout his four years of active service he has set a splendid example of personal gallantry which has greatly influenced the personnel under his command.’
Albert returned to his old job with Crossley Brothers and was chief engineer by the mid-1920s. He married and shortly afterward was sent to Argentina to set up a branch of the company in Buenos Aires. He and his wife visited England every two or three years, staying with my family on our farm in Somerset. In between these visits he wrote to me – long, wonderfully informative letters – with descriptions of Argentine wildlife, farming, local customs and events, and he was always interested to know about our lives in England. He was like a substitute grandfather to me: both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. Having no family, Albert and his wife Lily made as much fuss of my brother and me as if we were their own grandchildren.
Albert never spoke of the war and at the time I never thought to ask him about it. In any case it is most unlikely that he would have wanted to talk about his experiences with a young boy – I was only 15 when he died. I would have loved to have heard how he won his Military Medal and what he did to earn the commendation “for bravery in the field”.
It is hard, thinking back to the visits to our farm and when re-reading his letters, to find any evidence of the effects of his war experiences. As an old man he walked with a limp which could have been the result of a war injury; in his diary he mentions being slightly wounded in the leg. Mentally, he never showed (or was very careful to conceal) any signs of depression, anxiety or sadness. On the contrary, I remember him as a jolly, generous and gregarious man, with a twinkle in his eye and a vitality which belied his age. It was as if he was determined to make the most of a life that was spared when so many of his contemporaries were not so fortunate.
An abridged version of Albert Simpkin’s diary is due to be published in April 2015 by Pen and Sword Books, under the title Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18.
After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon where he also practises rural crafts. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidvenner4, and on the diary website:
Today 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.
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.
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’.
Have 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.
We 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.
So 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 writtenSquare 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.
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.
‘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.
Lord 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.
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.
Karyn 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.