Walter: I’m going to have to be careful what I say now. There’s all sorts of comings and goings up and down the line, preparing for the offensive. We’re in the line, I’d better not say where, but our battalion’s not part of the ‘Push’, we’re just holding the trench while the men who are going over get some rest. I seem to be getting on alright with Mr Haskell, the new platoon commander. Posh, of course, but he’s got the sort of confidence you need out here, even though it’s his first time in the line. I’ve been filling him in on what’s what and who’s who in the platoon – who you can trust to take care of themselves and who you have to watch. The main thing the men are going on about at the moment is that they all wish they were part of this new offensive. Word is it’s how you get one of the new Military Medals…
Rose: Glad to hear the Military Medal can now be given to women. Only in ‘exceptional circumstances’, mind. They introduced the medal in March but I suppose they only just realised that women have a place in war now… Not to mention I noticed in the paper the other day that a few nurses were ‘Mentioned in Despatches’. Still, they were all ‘Lady’ this and ‘Duchess’ that, so I don’t suppose us ordinary nurses will get a look in!
To read more about the Military Medal, visit: https://goo.gl/RB7A80
Walter: Thanks for sharing this, Lil. I’d take it with a pinch of salt, I’m afraid. Did you notice it just says ‘officers’? I’ll bet they’re being treated alright but I wouldn’t like to think what’s happening to sepoys like Sidh.
Lily: Saw this today, Walter, and thought of your friend Sidh. Sounds like good news! I hope it’s true for him.
To read about the death march following the siege of Kut, and the treatment of soldiers by both their enemies and superiors, visit: http://goo.gl/u5E3bR
Walter: Woke up about half past two this morning to what felt like a small earthquake. Thought it might have been a mine so I took a looksee outside but by then nothing was stirring. Must have been over near Givenchy. Hope not too many got caught by it. Anyway, then what do I notice but 2/Lt. Haskell poking his nose out too. He’s our new platoon commander. Met him last night. Seems to have a bit more to him than Mr. Bennett, so here’s hoping. Anyway, he shot me over a look, said, “Mine, was it?” and disappeared back in before I could say, “No, theirs…”
Terence: You must be the only soldier I know who’s ever woken up for a mine blast that wasn’t right underneath him! I, on the other hand, got the best sleep of my life. We’ve been ordered to get ‘as much rest as possible’ so we’re ready for the offensive. Not long now till we’re able to finish of the Huns once and for all.
To read about what became known as the Red Dragon Crater, visit: http://goo.gl/AAe5JO
Walter: Relieved at last and marched back to Bouvigny Woods again. Exhausted. Anyway, the Sergeant Major just came to tell me to expect a new platoon commander this evening… so I suppose that means 2/Lt. Bennett is getting moved on. I haven’t been able to find him to ask him. Who wants to bet he’s been pinched for one of those concert troupes after his ‘O Sole Mio’ performance?! Wouldn’t that just take the biscuit? To be honest though, with the ‘Big Push’ on its way, he’s probably been transferred to a platoon that’s lost their commander. I just hope he’s learnt enough the past few weeks to be of some use to them…
To read about military structures and ranks in WWI, visit: http://goo.gl/ZEqXrI
Walter: Finally heard from John after the naval battle up near Jutland three weeks ago. Glad to hear he’s alright. And what a story about that boy, Cornwell –
John: Sorry for the lack of news. I’m in a hospital in Grimsby. Splinters of metal stuck all over me. I was lucky to get away alive – the nurse said one splinter in my neck was three inches long and right next to my artery but just missed it! Someone must have been looking down on me. She said everyone’s been talking about our ship too, mostly because of the Boy Cornwell. I didn’t know he’d died, poor lad. The Chester got hit hard by Five-Nines while we were screening the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron but Jack (that’s Cornwell), who was manning one of our guns, stuck to his post even after all his mates had copped it. He’d been hit too but he still stuck it. And he was only 16 years old. I knew he was young but I never knew how much. He ought to get more recognition really – at least a medal. Only just finding out now about the other mates of mine who didn’t make it. Some of the best chaps you could know. Makes you feel bad for surviving it, somehow.
Lily: I’m glad you’re alright, John! How lucky about that splinter. Sorry about your pals though. What happened with the battle in the end? I can’t make head nor tail of what they’re saying in the papers…
John: Hello, Lily. Well, it was difficult to tell. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t think of much except your own ship and the ships you’re trying to sink. By all accounts we lost some and they lost some but the end of it all was that they ran back to port with their tails between their legs. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway.
To read about Jack Cornwell, visit: http://goo.gl/bkqxfc
To read a letter about another young man’s first-hand experience of the battle, visit: http://goo.gl/CQqbbL
Walter: Marched to Angres Section today. Relieved the London Irish, so had to get all the information about this part of the line from one of their platoon sergeants. I’ve realised now that I can’t rely on 2/Lt. Bennett to make any decisions. But then, he doesn’t seem to mind me telling him what’s what. That’s how we’re getting by at the minute – me ‘holding his hand’ on everything. It allows me to use what I know, I suppose, but I could really do with a platoon commander who’s worth his salt, especially if we have to keep up these trench raids the army’s so keen on.
Mary: This 2/Lt. Bennett must be glad to have you on his side. Thank goodness someone’s looking after the men properly. Young Mrs Ashley from down the road has a husband in the 1/23rd (you might know Arthur Ashley?) and she’s ever so worried about him, especially since the news came out about them stopping grants for widows. How is she supposed to get by if Mr Ashley doesn’t make it home, with no grant?
To read about support for today’s war widows, visit: http://goo.gl/XkI9K2
Walter: You alright, Ed? Sorry we had cross words the other day. You do know how to wind me up. When do you have to start to start training? Must be soon.
Ed: I’ve got three weeks of the ‘deferment’ left, then I’m meant to report to the Royal Artillery depot at Woolwich. I’m torn about it. Evan says he’s not going to turn up to training and then they’ll have no choice but to send him to prison or a labour camp. He says it’ll be a kind of protest. I can’t see what good I’ll be able to do if I’m locked up. But then I can’t stand the thought of just towing the line and being part of this miserable war. Hobson’s choice, ain’t it?
Mary: I’ve said it to you a hundred times, Edward, you’ll likely find yourself safer in a trench than one of them prisons or camps. They won’t treat you kindly, you can be sure. And what will people think of you if you ever get out, knowing you’ve been at a conchie camp? Jobs will be hard to come by.
Edward: Ma, I’m not bothered about will keep me safest! I’m no coward, I just don’t want to be part of something I don’t agree with.
Mary: For me, Edward. For me it’s about what will keep you safe.
To read more about conscientious objectors who refused to obey the terms of their tribunal, visit: http://goo.gl/DwpbiJ
Walter: How are you getting on, Lily? Hope everything’s alright with your job. I don’t half miss you.
Lily: I miss you too, Walt. I didn’t like to say but it’s been miserable here without you. I wish the war would end and we could go back to how things were. Except I suppose then I’d have to give up the couriering, wouldn’t I? And I wouldn’t like that. It’s a grand job and it’s a lark getting to go all over town without a chaperone. Yesterday was something else – all the roads blocked with people trying to get to see Lord Kitchener’s memorial service at St Paul’s. It’s getting to be a bit of a regular thing, that. Any time someone well-known kicks the bucket you have to avoid anywhere near St Paul’s like the plague. How are you, anyway?
Walter: I’m alright, thanks, Lil. Like you, really, a bit miserable. Wish I could see you. Anyway, we’re following your lead on the time tonight – France puts the clocks forward an hour at 11pm. So maybe that makes us an hour closer to the end of the war. Let’s think about it that way, eh?
To read about the annual memorial to Lord Kitchener, held at St Paul’s, visit: http://goo.gl/ylBTmt
Walter: Arrived at Bouvigny by motor lorry yesterday, then marched to Bouvigny Woods at half past eight this morning. Bit of a home-from-home now, we’ve been back that many times. Tough going on the drive and the march, mind. The weather’s so bad the roads are impassable in places. At least it’s comfortable enough here, even if they still haven’t sorted out the lighting.
Rose: Rotten weather, isn’t it? Wet and icy cold where I am. In June! It makes caring for the patients so much harder when the temperature keeps changing. It’s not been a good day for that. One of the men in the abdominals ward died rather horribly. From his fifth set of wounds, poor devil. He’d been patched up and sent back to the front four times already but this time they finally got him. Makes you want to throw your hands up at how pointless it all is. And it seems to be getting worse – today I can hear the guns and machine guns going at it harder than ever and see aeroplanes for miles, which is new. Then at night there’s the Verey lights swooping up and down. What a game. And it’s not just the soldiers who are stuck in the middle of it. A local village got badly shelled the other day so we’ve got a ward full of French women and children. It seems to have scared away even the last locals who were determined to hang onto their homes. Today they’re leaving with all they can fit onto a cart.
Ed: God. Why does everyone think this war is worthwhile? When there are stories like that? ‘Fix him up, send him back…’ it’s a machine. And where will the poor refugees go now? Don’t forget half their country is occupied.
Walter: It’s worth it BECAUSE half their country is occupied, and so will ours be if we’re not careful. Don’t you get it? We’re fighting to stop the war, just like you want.
Ed: So you’re trying to stop people killing people by killing people? Don’t kid yourself that you soldiers are the ones making a difference – there are a handful of kings and kaisers at the top who could sit down and end this right now, if they wanted to.
To read about the plight of French civilians, visit: http://goo.gl/5OI02p
Mary: Happy birthday, son. 21! I can hardly believe it. There should be a little something for you in the post. Your Pa says many happy returns too.
Lily: Many happy returns, sweetheart! Lots of love, your Lily x
Ed: Have a good birthday, Walt.
Rose: Happy birthday, little brother!
Walter: Thanks for the birthday messages, everyone. And for the parcel! It’s a corker. All the sorts of things we can’t get enough of - chocolate, cake, tobacco… wonderful. I think I’ll turn 21 every day. I’ve got to spend the day training rather than eating, though. Everyone has to be on the ball for our inspection by the Lord Mayor of London tomorrow.
Terence: Happy birthday, Walt. Sounds like you’re having a better time than us. We’re in terrible trenches – mostly destroyed by mortars and a lot of work needed to get them up to scratch. At least the enemy are quiet at present. Just two killed today. And it sounds like good news from the Eastern Front. Rumour is Brusilov’s beaten the Austrians.
To find out more about the Brusilov Offensive, visit: http://goo.gl/p9zsRc
Walter: All out on the range today, training with the new rifles. Hopefully it’ll cheer Fred up a bit. It is his birthday, after all. Reminded me that this time last year he was in hospital for his birthday, after getting stuck in that shell hole at Givenchy. I thought he’d picked up again after that but just lately he’s been down in the dumps worse than ever. Still, I’ve managed to get a couple of postcards for him that I think he’ll like – I swapped some cigs for them at the concert the other night.
Mabel: Tell him happy birthday from me! I’ve sent him a present. And I hope that postcard’s not supposed to look like me…
Walter: Ha! It’s a dead ringer, Mabel. If you’ve sent him something too he’ll be chuffed to bits. He still wears that scarf you gave him, even though it’s 70 degrees.
Walter: Just caught sight of today’s paper. Did you see about Kitchener? I can’t believe he’s copped it. They reckon he drowned within sight of the coast the day before yesterday. We’re all in shock. Millions of men are here because of him.
Lily: Just saw the same paper! What a shock. I feel bad for laughing at yesterday’s cartoon now – I had no idea he’d died.
To find out more about Horatio Herbert Kitchener, visit http://goo.gl/uK6O9m
To read about his death, visit http://goo.gl/KllniY
Walter: Anyone who’s been reading my news since the start of the war will know how my brother Charlie – God rest him – used to go on about his Lee Enfield SMLE Mk.III rifle and how fast and accurate it was. And you remember how us Territorials weren’t allowed to have them, even though we fought alongside the regulars and even though the new volunteers all got them? And how we picked up the new rifles to replace our Long Lee Enfields from New Army blokes who’d copped it at Loos but had to give them back because Terriers weren’t ‘entitled’ to the ammo to go in them? Well, finally, we’ve got it. The SMLE Mk.III and the ammo to go in it. Nearly two years into the war... Still, I can’t keep cross about it too long – this new rifle’s a beauty. Takes a bit of getting used to, mind. I have to take the platoon on a familiarisation course with an instructor from Battalion. Should only take an afternoon.
Terence: Can’t believe it’s taken so long for you Terriers to get the SMLE Mk.III. Maybe this is why, old chum!
Fred: I don’t think I like your new ‘mate’, Walt. He’d do well to remember his regulars would have lost the war if it weren’t for us.
Walter: Alright, lads. Fred’s right, Terence, that’s a rotten postcard! And besides, you’re not all regulars any more, are you? I’ll bet you’ve got nearly as many Terriers as we have now.
To find out more about the Lee Enfield rifle, visit: http://goo.gl/NiuTsz
Walter: What a night that was! Cracking concert, given by the Divisional Concert Party. We all traipsed up to a local barn where they’d set up a stage and a cloth backdrop, all painted lovely. Then this bunch of ‘ladies’ came out on the stage, in short frocks and doing the can-can or something and all the lads were going wild for them until they opened their mouths and started singing bass – turns out they were a load of blokes! There were some red faces in the crowd, I can tell you. Then they all came back out as clowns and did a tumbling routine, just like Charlie Chaplin. The best thing, though, was they kept calling for some of us to go up and do a ‘turn’. Now, you wouldn’t catch me doing anything like that, I don’t think I could string two words together if you put me on a stage, but all sorts of fellows were getting up there. Even our own Corporal Winwood! Now, I’d always known he was a bit of a comedian but you should have heard his impressions. He did a storming turn as Jack Pleasants doing ‘I’ve Never Been Married Before’ – it nearly brought the barn down. Then, would you believe it? 2/Lt. Bennett showed up at the side of the stage and we all started nudging each other but he walked into the middle, composed himself and started singing in the most moving tenor voice you ever heard. I’d never heard the song before but someone said it was called ‘O Sole Mio’. Anyway, he managed to stun a barn full of rowdy soldiers into silence and then got quietly off the stage and walked straight out the door. He’s a dark horse, that Mr Bennett.
Lily: Glad you had a good time. And what a surprise about 2/Lt. Bennett! I suppose everyone needs a way to wind down. Reminded me of this cartoon in the Daily Mirror…
Fred: Nice to spend some time away from duty with you, Walt. That song about ‘Sole Mio’ got me though, it really did.
To find out more about Divisional Concert Parties, listen to http://goo.gl/gq19Rj
To hear a 1913 recording of Jack Pleasants singing ‘I’ve Never Been Married Before’, visit https://goo.gl/2pxp5w
To listen to ‘O Sole Mio’, as sung in 1916 by Enrico Caruso, visit https://goo.gl/klYUd3
Walter: Battalion parade today, carrying our practice gas helmets. Trying not to think about rumours that the helmets didn’t work for the 16th Londons at Hulluch and that’s why they had so many losses, not because they didn’t do proper gas drills, which was the official line… Anyway, no one let the side down from our lot, so I reckon we did alright. I managed to get a quick look at a newspaper before we started and it looks like they’ve got wind of that naval battle now. They put in a list of the ships that went down and HMS Chester isn’t there, so with any luck John’s made it out alright. Let us know when you can, mate.
To find out about the current Battle of Jutland exhibition in Portsmouth, visit: http://goo.gl/Ys2Rvt
Walter: Haven’t heard anything from John since he sent that message about taking on the German fleet… hope he’s alright. There’s rumours flying about of a ‘great naval battle’ but nothing in the newspapers yet. No idea if anyone’s won or lost. Anyway, we were pleased to hear Ernest Shackleton made it back. Well, almost all of us were pleased – two of my corporals, Jack Winwood and Freddy Neale, had a bet that Shackleton would go the same way as Captain Scott, so Jack’s lost a bit of money out of it!
Lily: Tell your Corporal Winwood he’s hard-hearted! Hope you hear from John.
To see a timeline of Shackleton’s progress, visit: http://goo.gl/xkxYDt