I wrote, before Christmas, of my concerns that post-Armistice Day centenary commemorations, the wonderful stories that are part of the heritage given to us by the Great War, would cease to interest the media. Despite there being much to learn from 1919 onwards, and the ongoing trauma experienced by soldiers and civilians alike, it does seem I might be right. Media stories of projects ongoing are thinning out and the Brexit horrors have overtaken almost every other subject in the news. So I have been determined to continue to run stories and examine themes from the Great War.
One of the consequences of writing Shell Shocked Britain (published Pen & Sword in 2014) was that I got to know some really interesting people, with fantastic stories to tell. One such is Amiel Price, who published her own book last year, entitled From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords. 1917 Diary and Letters. She had inherited a store of letters and diaries from her grandmother, also called Amiel and she shared them with me before the book came out. I was fascinated by the stories revealed, the love of the two young people heightened by the war and the wonderful cartoons and photos that illustrated it. I was also keen to hear more of life in the army away from the Western Front, in Egypt, a part of the world many don’t realise was affected. I was thrilled when Amiel asked me to write the Foreword, and I am equally thrilled to welcome her to the blog today.
A few years ago I inherited various letters and photographs belonging to my maternal Grandmother, Amiel Robins. Many were dated from 1917. I had seen some of the photographs before, and I knew about the letters but had never read them.
Years ago my Mother had shown me a brown and black album containing photographs of Granny and her friends in fancy dress. They were a stunning collection of professional black and white photo postcards showing the girls in their various costumed sketches. She explained that Granny had been in a concert party called ‘The Allies’ that had put on many performances to entertain wounded soldiers in Birmingham. There were photos of Granny dressed as ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and as ‘England’ in a union flag costume. Indeed we still have this flag costume which I have worn myself for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and for the 2012 Olympics.
I also knew that Granny had had a fiancé called Norman Wells who had been killed during the First World War. We still have his photograph which was mounted in a silvered frame embossed with the emblem of his Herefordshire Regiment. As I understood it this large framed photograph had always stood on Grandfather’s dressing table in his memory.
In a small attaché case I found more photographs, some of them quite small and depicting a WW1 soldier in the desert. Elsewhere there were photo albums of pictures of Norman and Amiel together in her garden or the countryside. There were also two small notebooks, which turned out to be Granny’s diary for 1917 and her copied out version of Norman’s diary for October to December of the same year.
As the commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War were about to begin I realised that now was the time to sit down and read through the letters. These were all written by Norman to Amiel from December 1916 when they met, right throughout the year to Christmas 1917. He wrote almost every other day in a beautiful hand that was easy to read. He described what he was doing in camp, how he felt about Amiel and about his hopes for their future together. It was the most poignant and fascinating read. It was so evocative of that era and gave such an insight into Norman’s war.
As Amiel and Norman lived in Handsworth, Birmingham, I had assumed that there was no connection to Wales and where I lived, but no – I was surprised to find that Norman came to camp in Singleton Park in Swansea. He described the camp and the seaside and walking to Mumbles and Langland Bay, which is where, as it happens, our family came to live fifty years ago.
So – what to do with this amazing collection of letters, photographs, and even drawings, as well as the diaries and a costume? Even now I’m not sure, as I would be sorry to see it all disbanded and ending up in different places. I started by typing up the letters and diaries in order to share them with my cousins so that they would also know the story from their Grandmother’s early years.
But as I typed and looked up things I didn’t understand, I was telling my friends and colleagues little snippets about Amiel and Norman. They became intrigued and found it all so interesting that they persuaded me that other people would be interested too, and so I began my work in earnest to produce a book, the publication of which would coincide with the period of the WW1 anniversary.
The other reason I wanted to share this story is that it helps to tell some of the story away from the Western Front. So much coverage, understandably, has been given to the First Word War in France and of the major battles that we have missed or forgotten about the war in Egypt. Not only that but even less has been told of the ordinary soldier’s life in training camp or in a desert camp. The hardships, the boredom, the shortages, the dreadful weather. All topped by the longing, the desperate longing, for letters from home.
Although the story is a very personal one about a young couple’s love for each other, it is set in a time of great upset and upheaval that affected so many people at the time and so many others in the generations to follow. The story has resonance with us all.
If you would like to buy a copy of From Handsworth to Hebron with the Herefords the price is £9.99. For further information and to order the book contact Amiel Price on 01792 369121 or email: email@example.com
To coincide with the commemorations held on Sunday, for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, I wrote a piece (HERE) about how we must, as we move on from the centenary events, continue to learn from the experiences of a century ago in order to prevent the trauma of any further conflict and recognise the sacrifices that are still made today. It struck a chord with many, so I thought it appropriate to make sure this blog continued to post, regularly, on the legacy of war and the many great men and women who have given so much over the years.
Today I am thrilled to have a guest post on the blog. Sarah Reay is the granddaughter of a remarkable man, Herbert Cowl, the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross Medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. Here she tells us how her grandfather served his country in two wars, finding ways to support the men in his care whilst retaining his faith in the face of dreadful events.
When war broke out in 1914, the newly ordained Rev. Cowl volunteered to become an Army Chaplain. Most Army Chaplains had no experience of working with soldiers in the field of war.
It was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates. Herbert Cowl was a good candidate because he was young (in his late 20’s), physically fit (a great sportsman), he had the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), he could ride a horse and he spoke fluent French.
Herbert was affectionately known by his family as ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’. His descriptive account of his experiences as a young Army Chaplain, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrate the value of faith during war – the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army.
When the 68th Brigade arrived in France, it was not long before the young Army Chaplain realised the pending reality of active service on the battlefront. In one of his early letters to his parents, a little innocent anxiety can be felt:
Sometimes as I cross a bit of rising ground between here and Headquarters, where the country is open, and the road only lined by an endless avenue of huge polled witch-elms, I stand in the darkness; watch the probing searchlights flicker on to the clouds and hear those grim far-off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world, and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences. God grant as we march into it all, that there may arise a man in me that is sufficient to this new occasion!
The Army Chaplains not only provided spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. Also, they gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcher-bearers.
Herbert’s service at the frontline was cut short when he was severely wounded. He later recalled in a letter:
A hundred yards away a shell threw a huge column of stone and soil into the air. I tried to answer the Doctor’s exclamation that they were getting nearer, when I was aware of an intolerable pressure on my right jaw. I would step into that open door-way, to be out of the way of falling stones. But why, having done so, was I plunged head foremost onto a stone floor thick with mud and dabbled with red? For a moment I lay there gazing through the glass-less window. The sky was a hazy blue; and white, watery clouds were heralding more rain – that meant more mud: and the cellar in which we slept would be green with mist when we turned in tonight!
Then the Doctor came and knelt at my side: and I remember the disgust with which I realised, as he asked me to lie still, that I was kicking furiously. Outside a voice called – “Bring a stretcher! The Chaplain’s hit” and another, – “Well, I reckon he’s done!”
He was operated on, almost straight away. It was a miracle he survived given the severity of his injuries. However, he survived and about ten days later he was on the hospital ship HMHS Anglia when she hit a German mine in the Channel. She was the first hospital ship to be lost in the war due to enemy action. Herbert recalled the events on the sinking ship:
Crushed thus, choking with salt water, and stunned by the new wound in the head, I was carried some 20 feet down the passage. It was then that as I like to think, the Angel of God became my deliverer. For I found myself suddenly and unaccountably standing on my feet in the midst of the water and the wreckage. A few hours before I could not walk: but now I walked along the passage: only to find myself in a bathroom from which there was no escape.
He saved many lives that fateful day. His struggle to survive and the fact that he found the strength to save others was nothing short of a second miracle.
Due to his injuries, Herbert was never allowed to return to overseas duty. However, he did return to work as an Army Chaplain in the home camps and garrisons. He once described a scene in Portsmouth, in 1917 of the men returning from the battlefront:
One evening I entered that room for some week night meeting and there covering the floor and propped up against the walls, packed from end to end, side to side were wounded men just unloaded from the Western Front. They were the heroes of the hour and very well they knew it, but for all their pathetic disfigurements and their ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.
Twenty years later, Herbert a Methodist minister with a family living in Acton, North London found himself in the centre of another battle – the Second World War. His family were evacuated but he decided that he had to stay in London to offer help through the Blitz. One night in a shelter he wrote to his son (the author’s father):
Jerry is concentrating on railways and factories at present; and as we have a network of both, we come in for a lot of attention. Most nights you can tell what he is after, when he has dropped his first stick of bombs. (As it is, I’m writing badly partly because he is now circling round overhead looking for something: the shells are bursting continuously round him: and it isn’t a nice business sitting alone in this cockle-shell building while he tries to make up his mind where to lay his eggs. When they do drop, they sound as if they are coming right on top of you, though they may be half a mile away, or more. And as he is mostly using 500 lb ones, you are sure your last moment has come, until you find you are still alive! We shall get much more used to it in time; but it isn’t easy at first.)
Retired General Sir Peter de la Billière, who endorsed the book, quoted Field Marshal Haig adding; ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general – and this book proves it.’ The Foreword is written by BBC’s Hugh Pym, whose father was also an Army Chaplain during the Great War.
The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story – one of many stories that had never been told before.
My sincere thanks to Sarah for allowing me to share her grandfather’s story on my blog. Do take a look at the website and find out more about this unique man.
My book, Shell Shocked Britain, was published by Pen and Sword Books four years ago, but it was always about the legacy of the Great War, rather than a history of the war itself. I have been talking to groups recently, and to journalists, about how we continue to highlight how, for many, the war did not end in 1918. For thousands, it continued until their life was over. It affected their families and friends, their children and their grandchildren and is, I believe, one of the reasons why the First World War retains its emotional hold on us now. We are all, still, children of the Great War.
The trauma experienced by individuals and the country as a whole left a deep wound that has not yet healed, as in the 21st century we are reminded by the horrors of war in Syria, for example, and still struggle to ensure those affected, including those leaving the armed forces, have the support they need to leave conflict behind and live without fear, guilt and continuing psychological damage.
Despite the misgivings I have about marking this day as the end of the war, it is still a momentous occasion. It offers a focus and the proper recognition of the lives lost, and damaged, by all wars over the past century and gives us the opportunity to think about how our own lives have been affected. Parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents and on through the generations – family histories have been shaped by conflicts.
For many, poetry is a way into the horrors of the war. We cannot possibly imagine what it was like to be in a trench, on the frontline, being bombarded by shellfire or knowing snipers were ready to shoot you dead the moment your head was raised above the parapet. Neither do we have any real idea of the terrible strain of the silences, the endless waiting for action, or for death. I have written about Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ on here before, both powerfully evoking the senselessness of war. But today I want to share another poem, this time by Christopher Grogan, who writes in the 21st century of 21st-century concerns – both personal and global. In Scene After the Battle, the personal can be interpreted as global – we are in a time of chaos, of uncertainty and of a sense that humanity must be saved, or perish.
Scene after the Battle
The cavalry never came. For days that felt like months
I lay in the sodden mud of the field, scanning through bloodied eyes
the blue-grey horizon, longing to see, rising up from the ridge of the hills,
the creeping silhouettes of men and horses against the sallow canvas of winter dusk,
carrying hopes of a game-changing charge that would scatter the enemy, scythe him down.
But over the field now, only the wind blows softly, collecting for trophies the final sighs of the slain.
On this memorable 11th November, we must ensure that we do not turn our backs on those still waiting for a game-changing charge, for something to scatter the demons.
100 years on it feels as if the world is once more on the brink. We must work to ensure that humanity can once more step back from division and hostility. We must be our own cavalry.
For my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I read Testament of Youth, and Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, both of which I found deeply affecting. As we approach the commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you my own thoughts on a classic work of the Great War, and those of Pamela Davenport, who reviews Testament and expresses the value of it as a work supporting her research into the changing role of women during and after the war.
First of all, I must say that if you want to find out more about the background to Brittain’s work, you cannot do better than read the work of Mark Bostridge, who has written widely and well on the subject and who has provided commentary on her relationships, letters and life that, read alongside Testament of Youth, offer the context within which it makes sense.
Vera Brittain intrigued me long before I read the book as research. As a teenager, I watched the 1970s television adaptation, starring Cheryl Campbell as Vera, along with my parents. Both were born in the 1920s, to working class families who had endured that four years of war and suffered as a consequence. My grandfather was gassed, seriously physically injured and suffered from undiagnosed ‘shell shock’ that remained with him for the rest of his life, triggering nightmares and terror at the approach of thunderstorms. His story was one of those that inspired my own book, but it was a world away from the sheltered life Vera experienced as a child of a middle-class family, blessed with opportunities for a university education denied most women of her time. However, Cheryl Campbell’s exquisite performance drew us all in, and despite the more recent film, it is Ms Campbell rather than Alicia Vikander who is Vera for me.
Pamela goes into more detail about the story itself, below, but I wanted to mention Testament of Youth more as an evocation of a time, than as a reading experience. The descriptions of a world lost forever in the mud of the trenches are terrific, and Vera makes a statement that is one of the foundations stones of Shell Shocked Britain – that the civilian population were traumatised too, and that the impact filtered down through the generations, affecting us even now:
‘I underestimated the effect upon the civilian population (and on parents) of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.’
The waiting at home, though more comfortable in many senses, chimes in a melancholy way with the traumatising silences between the barrages of shells in the trenches that affected so many men. Those anxious waits, at home and abroad.
Unable to write the novel she planned, Vera turned to autobiography instead and gave us a classic work that ranks alongside the best prose of the war, because, I think, she was a poet too. I refer to her poem The Superfluous Woman in my book, not because I think it is searing in its brutality like Owen, for example, but because it spoke for many middle class women (and this was the group disproportionately affected) who expected to marry those thousands of junior officers who were, in relative terms, more likely to be killed, as her lover and brother were, than the non-commissioned men serving under them.
The Superfluous Woman
Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.
But who will look for my coming?
Long busy days where many meet and part;
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.
But who will seek me at nightfall?
Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.
But who will give me my children?
Vera Brittain expected to remain a spinster after her lover, Roland Leighton, was killed in action, by a sniper. But ten years later she did remarry, and her daughter, Baroness (Shirley) Williams, has always written movingly that although her father loved her mother deeply, he always, as Pamela quotes, saw himself in competition with the ghost of Leighton. The poem above, seems to indicate that he was not wrong.
Testament of Youth is a wonderful autobiography, and a must read for researchers of the period. Desperately sad, it remains the bench mark for description of the death of the golden age that the Edwardian era so frequently represents in our imaginations. At a time, in the 21st century, when the world feels a dangerous place once more Brittain’s words should remind us that conflicts around the globe affect us all in a myriad different ways, never for the better. I think it should remind us that the legacy of Syria, for example, will continue long after the guns are silenced and that we need to support those directly affected with compassion. During discussions about refugees, and about Brexit, with my 87 year old mother I found that far from fitting the demographic profile suggesting a split between older voters (seeking a return to who knows what?) and young she pointed out the similarities between the migrant crisis and her experience of being evacuated. And for her there was only danger in leaving Europe. The financial position aside, she felt we had more in common with our European neighbours, and more to lose by damaging the Union.
A fascinating book about coming of age during a time when the world is in turmoil, a book which resonates with emotions. – review by Pamela Davenport
The First World War can be seen as a watershed in society, marking the great division between the 20th century and the pre-war world of Victorian and Edwardian society. The traditional view of women as defined by their relationship to their men, wife, mother, daughter or sister, had difficulty withstanding the effects of war. Mobilisation left many women for the first time in an independent position and many took advantage of their “freedom” by joining the war effort. There are many letters diaries and memories that provide some insight into life during 1914-1918 turbulent years, but for me it is one of the first accounts of the Great War written from a woman’s point of view, which has been the most influential. Vera Brittain got the idea to write Testament of Youth, in 1916. Writing to her brother Edward that, “if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book, the story of us four…” the book clearly shows a young woman coming of age during a time when the world was in total turmoil.
Born in 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire into a middle class family, Vera was expected to conform to society’s expectations of women’s role in society. This was during a time when middle class women were seen as a family’s possession, to prepare for marriage, to raise children and run a household. Not much had changed since medieval times! It was not considered suitable that a woman from Vera’s background would be in paid employment or god forbid, leave home to study at a University! Home life was oppressive for Vera and her independent spirit was apparent, “The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul”. Vera was quickly realising that being a woman was a barrier to her being recognised as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She was deeply envious of her younger brother Edward, who could leave home without getting married.
But times were changing and in 1913, after a series of lucky chances, Vera was accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford. Initially her father had rejected the idea, but so determined was Vera to study that he finally relented and gave her permission to leave home. By this time Vera had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, Edward’s school friend. All three of them were going to Oxford, and the future looked bright. But the dark clouds of war and destruction were gathering. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was a decision that is seen as the start of World War One, and Vera would be on the move again. At the end of her first year at Somerville, she decided that her duty lay in serving her country and like Edward and Roland , she left Oxford going bravely into battle. As she said later, she was “carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shinning figure of patriotism”. Vera became a nursing auxiliary and spent the remainder of the war years nursing in London, Malta and France.
Testament of Youth became a main resource when I was writing about Women’s roles changing due to WW1. Vera’s memoir highlights the cataclysmic effect of war, not only for Vera but for men and women from her generation. This testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas, is an eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by war. But Vera still observed that life was different for women, “The war was a phase of life which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make a puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concern women…The women is still silent who by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation“.
On reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth the reader is gradually drawn into Vera’s world of destruction and suffering. The narrative plays on emotions, the disbelief as one by one, those closest to Vera are lost in battle, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their friends Geoffrey and Victor. It is a book that portrays the world through Vera’s eyes as she stands at the heart of the upheaval of pre and post-WW 1. Vera was a writer of great descriptive powers, both of place and emotions, the cold and damp, the sickening horrors of Boulogne, the field hospital at Etaples. Her writing resonates with emotions and thoughts of the “shattered, dying boys”, she nurses, her inability to readjust to the brightly lit alien post war world.
In 1919 Vera returned to Somerville, where she felt other students didn’t appreciate the war effort, to study Modern History in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict which had claimed the lives of Edward, Roland and two close friends. When she visits Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau there is a sense of overwhelming shared grief. It was at Somerville that Vera suffered from a “nervous breakdown”, which is now recognised as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
By the time the book was published, 15 years after the end of the war, Vera had rejected anything that identified war with “grey crosses and supreme sacrifices and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky”. The book is Vera’s passionate plea for peace, she clearly throws light onto the agony of war to the individual and “its destructiveness to the human race”. Testament of Youth conveys the very essence of Vera, a feminist, writer, pacifist, and the voice of the lost generation of World War 1.
Vera was a fascinating woman who achieved so much in her life, she published over 29 books and many articles. She worked tirelessly for the League of Nations and working for peace during the Second World War as a member of the Peace Pledge Union. Her work showed that she was a woman who acted on her principles as well as talking about them.
Although there is hope at the end of the book she is able to escape the pain and devastation of the past as the reader is introduced to her husband to be George “G”, the “ghosts” never left Vera, as G commented, “The hardest rival you can have is a “ghost” because your inclination is to idealise someone who died long ago”. Vera died on March 29th 1970 and was cremated, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave in Italy’s Asiago Plateau.
Testament of Youth is a beautifully written and thought provoking book, about the consequences of war, love, duty, responsibility and the power of the written word. It is a book that has stood the test of time. Tragically the message still resonates in the world today.
Whilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health(Pen and Sword Books October 2014), I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July 1st to November 2016.
They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.
Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.
The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.
It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war, leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.
So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.
So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.
Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.
As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.
To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.
By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.
Albert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.
2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.
As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.
To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.
Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.
“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”
In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.
Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road(above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.
Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.
Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.
Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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)
Whilst writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I became fascinated with the rejuvenation of the Spiritualist movement just before, during and after the Great War, on into the 1930s. People were so fascinated by the chapter in the book that dealt with the subject that I pitched an idea for another book to deal specifically with that subject, and how bereaved families turned to mediums and the spiritualist church in their thousands as a response to grief. That book has been commissioned and I am thrilled to have the chance to do more research on the subject.
Someone who has been a huge support to me as I try to find out more is Ian Stevenson, who has written on this blog twice before, most recently in response to a piece I wrote on spiritualism to highlight how people dealt with the psychological trauma of war. So, when I expressed some confusion about ‘theosophy’and its relationship to spiritualism, he offered to clarify things for me and I thought readers of my blog might be interested too… Here is a summary of his thoughts:
Theosophy means ‘The wisdom of the Gods’, and the Theosophical Society in England describes it as ‘the thread of truth in scriptures, creeds, symbols, myths and rituals. ‘ It is usually used to refer to teachings of the Theosophical Society founded in New York in 1875 by an American, Henry Olcott and a Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, usually called Madam Blavatsky, or HPB. Olcott was a Spiritualist but Blavatsky claimed to be a medium with psychic abilities and beliefs that caused disagreement with the Spiritualist Church. In her view mediums did not usually contact the real person who had died but a ‘shade’. In her view, once on the other side, the essential person began a process of life evaluation and progress to a new life. The personality of the life just left separated and became a shade. It could respond with the memory and characteristics of the deceased but it was not the real, essential person. After a while, it even lost the power to communicate and became a shell which drifted and eventually disintegrated. This did not go down well with the Spiritualists, who grappled with her controversial and often inconsistent views.
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 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.