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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale

31st December 1914

Lily: This time last year you’d never have believed it, would you, if someone had told you everything what would happen? Here’s hoping 1915 brings the end of this rotten war… of all wars, in fact. No nice New Year celebrations for any Germans or Austrians living on the British coast – even anyone with parents from them countries – they’re all getting kicked out of their homes and moved to special areas 30 miles inland. They’ve only been given a week to move! I reckon it’s because of the shellings on the east coast – everyone’s starting to think anyone who’s even a little bit German is a spy...

To find out more about the internment of ‘aliens’ during the war, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/bloodlines/migration.shtml?entry=alien_registration_act&theme=migration

29th December 1914

Walter: Thought I’d share this from the paper – tells you what to do if the Zeppelins make it to London… Make sure you read it Lily, and you Ma and Pa.

27th December 1914

Rose: We’ve heard the most wonderful story here today, you won’t believe it – a fellow who came in from the trenches said there was a sort of truce on Christmas Day…! And what’s more, the Germans started it! We thought he’d gone daft but he was very fixed on it and told us the whole story – more and more people was gathering around his bed to hear it as he went on…

He said he was on sentry duty on Christmas night and suddenly he heard a German fellow call out in perfect English, “Good morning and a Merry Christmas!” He said he nearly fell over with the shock of it. But they’re only 40 yards away, and can always hear each other talking anyway, so why not? Anyway, his mates were sitting round a fire in the trench trying to keep warm, but they started peeking over the parapet to see what was going on – he said you could’ve blown them down with a feather when they saw the Germans putting Christmas trees and lights up along their trenches! He said some of our lot was saying they should shoot the lights out but no one did and Fritz got braver, keeping his head above the top of the trench and our boys did the same, hoping they wasn’t going to get shot. Then one of the Germans started singing! And our soldier said they ended up singing songs all night, Germans and British both – one fellow playing along with a mouth organ on our side and a chap with a cornet on theirs.  It were a beautiful night too – all starlit and frosty – he nearly choked up remembering it.

Then at dawn Fritz called over, “Happy Christmas Tommy! No work today! No shooting!” and our lot didn’t know what to make of it. But, and this is the best bit, a couple of brave chaps decided to take them at their word and got out of the trench! You wouldn’t believe it, but that’s what this fellow said. And then they all met up, in the middle of No Man’s Land, like friends, and swapped tins of bully beef and jam for cigars and chocolate. Someone told him there was even a football match further up the line!

They had to be careful though – it was Saxon Germans that they had the truce with and this soldier said the Prussian Guard in the next set of trenches weren’t too happy about it. But the most incredible thing is he showed us this scrap of paper where he’d had one of the German fellows write down his name and address so they could try to meet up after the war! Can you believe that? And his new friend told him how fed up they all are with the fighting, but that they know London has been captured and Russia has surrendered and the war will be over in three weeks. Poor fellow – our chap had to put him straight by showing him a Daily Mail… It seems they get told all sorts of lies over there.

Well in the end the peace only lasted that one day, then they all gave each other fair warning and started firing again, and that’s when our fellow got his wound. He says he can’t help wondering if it was his new mate who fired the shot, and who knows, maybe he aimed for his hand specially? Anyway, I been helping him write a letter about it to his ma (because his right hand’s gone) and I just had to show you this bit: “I thought at the time if only Kaiser Bill and other big chiefs could only agree the same as Tommy Atkins and the German soldiers we could soon have peace all the world over. Just one more little incident.” Makes you think, don’t it?

To hear a first-hand account of the Christmas Day truce and to read some of the letters home, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/clips/zs7msbk and http://www.christmastruce.co.uk/letters.html

Walter: What a story, Rose! You don’t reckon he was pulling your leg?

Ed: I reckon that’s true. Human spirit, ain’t it. Good on them.

Mary: Well it’s a nice thought love, but your father’s calling it a disgrace – it’s put him in a right temper thinking about anyone giving anything to a fellow who might’ve had something to do with Charlie.

26th December 1914

Walter: Of all the rotten cheek…! Late last night we had an order to mobilise. Had to head off with full equipment, all the way back to St Albans. We wasn’t very fit for marching, having just had our Christmas dinner at the Plait Hall on Waller Street and not being what you’d call sober… but we set off and didn’t do too bad. We marched ten miles, then got on a train that didn’t move nowhere. People was saying things like the Germans was going to shell Essex and we was going to defend it – THEN Captain Wright turns up with old Bighead Bridges, who could barely stand straight for laughing, and tells us they was only pulling our leg and to get back out and march back to Luton! It was all a big joke! Not a funny one neither.

Fred: I reckon they was trying to get us to walk off that dinner. And to think they went all the way there by motor! Bleedin cheek of it. They’d better give us the rest of the day off…

Lily: Don’t be cross, Walt, but I did laugh when I read that! You poor lads…

25th December 1914

Walter: Merry Christmas everyone! Feels strange though, don’t it? There’s candles lit and some carol singers out but it’s not the same. There’s too many people missing. Last year we was all back home together – Charlie and Ed, Rose, me, Annie, Ma and Pa. Charlie was always jammy and got the silver thrupenny bit in the pudding. It don’t half feel like a long time ago. Have you got a chicken this year, Ma? One of my old ladies here, Agnes, is making a right clatter in the kitchen but I bet her stuffing don’t live up to yours. We get a meal with the Terriers as well though, so I’ll be stuffed to the gills by this evening! I wonder if they’ll get some good grub at the Front today. Hope they gets some rest at least… I don’t know if I could fight a man on Christmas Day. Oh and thanks for the writing paper, it arrived this morning – I promise I’ll use it.

Ma: A merry Christmas to you too love! We’re back from church now – it was a long sermon what with talking about the past year, but the carols brightened us all up. And now it’s very quiet here at Sabine Road. We do have a chicken, but just a little one this year. Annie’s excited though bless her heart. Her poor little legs mean she can’t rush about like the other children, but she was sat on your old bed this morning with Ed and he was helping her to go through her stocking, fetching out the orange and the raisins. It was a good sight. Ed’s becoming such a good boy since the shock with Charlie… but he still says he won’t go to war. Well, it ain’t the time for that kind of talk. Have a good day Walt, we do miss you.

Rose: Merry Christmas! And thanks for the post Ma. Shampoo powder is all a girl could want out here and everyone will be pinching it. The orderlies are drunk already though, so goodness knows how much work we’ll get done today…

Mabel: All good wishes to you and your family Walt! Say hello to Fred for me too won’t you – tell him ‘Happy Christmas’.

Fred: Well there’s a turn up… Happy Christmas yourself! That’s made my day that.

Lily: A merry Christmas all! Especially you darling Walter. Missing you…

Walter: I miss you all too. Have a happy day won’t you. I’ll see you for Christmas Dinner later Fred…

 

24th December 1914

Rose: We’re made up here – everyone’s had a Christmas card from the King and Queen and the men have had presents from Princess Mary! She sent them each a tin with treats in – there’s two choices, one for smokers and one for non-smokers and the younger boys. The tin for smokers has a pipe, tobacco, cigs, a tinder lighter and a picture of the princess in it, and the other one has sweets, a writing case, a lead pencil made to look like a bullet and the same picture. The men are over the moon – they wasn’t expecting anything so it’s been a nice surprise. She sent some sweets and spices for the Indian troops too. Bless her heart – they say she wanted to pay for it all out of her own allowance but it was too much so she set up a fund and collected all the money to do it.

http://www.collectors-club-of-great-britain.co.uk/userfiles/image/Dolls%20House/World%20War%201/Princess%20Mary%20Tin/The%20real%20tin%20%26%20contents.jpg

To find out more about the boxes and how the tradition has been continued, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20816598

23rd December 1914

Lily: We’re off to Electric Avenue in Brixton to see the Christmas lights! I wish you could come Walt… I can’t get over all them electric lights in one place. There ain’t so many this year of course, but Mabel says they’ve made a good effort. I asked your ma if I could take Annie but she said it’d be too much for her with all the people. Such a shame for her, dear little one. I’ll see if I can pick her up a little present while I’m there.

Walter: Thanks Lil. Be careful though won’t you? Stick with your family. Brixton’s full of them actor-types from the West End nowadays.

To find out more about Brixton’s then-famous Christmas display, visit http://www.brixtonbuzz.com/2013/12/an-edwardian-christmas-in-brixton-electric-avenue-in-photos/

To find out more about Brixton and its population at the time, visit http://www.urban75.org/brixton/history/history.html

22nd December 1914

Walter: Well my two old ladies in Luton are set on having a Christmas tree so it’s my job to go out and drag one back from the market… I had to lift out all their dusty old decorations too – looks like they’ve kept them since Christmas trees first came over 70-odd years ago. It’s a German thing though, ain’t it, Christmas trees? Don’t know how I feel about that.

Lily: They must be flash, to have a tree! We’re making paper chains stuck together with flour and water paste… and my Ma got hold of some tinsel. We’ve put it round the fireplace – you should see it. We’ll put some socks up there too for Christmas Eve – I’ll have to darn a few so the nuts don’t fall out. I wouldn’t worry about German trees my love… decorate it with Union Jacks or something.

Walter: That’s a grand idea! There’s a lot of them in the shops. You’re a clever one, Lil.

21st December 1914

Walter: Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, has called the enemy “baby-killers”, after all them children was killed in Scarborough and Whitby and the Hartlepools. Sounds like a name that’ll stick…

Ed: They keep saying about this ‘baby-killing’ – German soldiers bayoneting children and that – but I reckon it ain’t true. I reckon they just tells us that to make you lot want to fight them.

Lily: I can’t help but think that too, Ed. But they did shell all them families on the coast…

http://lowres-picturecabinet.com.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/43/main/18/97673.jpg

To find out more about Churchill’s reaction to the attack, visit http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/a-history-of-the-first-world-war-in-100-moments-the-day-they-shelled-scarborough-9270039.html

20th December 1914

Walter: Any better today sis?

Rose: Thanks for asking, but no not much… although I see why I was out of sorts yesterday – I’ve hatched a rotten cold. Not surprising really. No time off, especially now that we’re down to three nurses per train instead of four. I managed to swap me night shift so I can get some sleep, but I have to make up for it in the day. We’re rushed off our feet. And it seems every fellow coming through is going septic – that’s where the wound gets infected and goes bad. It’s so horrible, if there’s a couple of days on the train before we can get them off to the hospital you can just watch it spreading up their leg or arm or wherever. Even the emergency amputations and trephinings (look it up if you ain’t squeamish) coming in from the Casualty Clearing Stations is septic. No wonder, with the conditions out there. I can tell by a sort of instinct now before I even examine them what their chances are – you can tell a septic from the swelling under the bandages (and the smell – I never want to smell that again as long as I live) and you can tell a gangrene because he’ll be greyish in the face. We treats that with incisions and injections of H2O2. Or amputation, if it’s a limb. Here’s hoping we gets a break over Christmas.

Walter: That don’t sound too good Rose. Sorry you’re feeling rotten – hope it eases up a bit soon.

Rose: Thanks Walt. Hope you’re alright over in Luton and good luck with your new duties. Back to work now…

To find out more about wound treatment during the war, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zs3wpv4

19th December 1914

Rose: Hold on to your hats, I’ve learnt some more language. It’s French – “chauffage” – means heating. And I only knows it because ours is broke. So now I got to work through the night in the freezing cold in this rotten hospital train. And when I’m not working I’m trying to sleep while the train rattles along and nearly shakes me out of me bunk. And you daren’t grumble because it still ain’t near as bad as the trenches… I don’t know how they sticks it out there. Rum and cigs I suppose.

Ma: I told you it weren’t going to be fun and games.

Rose I didn’t want it to be fun and games! I just think they ought to sort out the “chauffage”. For the men more than us. We been using hot bricks for warmth but it ain’t no good. And we had a whole new set of wounded in. Looks like the fighting’s getting going again, and in all this mud! Rain and rain and more rain…

To find out more about hospital trains in WW1, visit http://www.thenursingbible.com/10-snapshots-of-life-aboard-hospital-trains-in-wwi/

17th December 1914

Walter: Fuming! The enemy has shelled some towns on the coast – yesterday they bombarded Scarborough, Whitby and the Hartlepools and there‘s hundreds dead and wounded. That just ain’t right, attacking innocent civilians who ain’t got nothing to do with it. Don’t know what our Navy was playing at neither, letting them get away with it. The paper says our lot chased after them but was too late. I’ll say. We need more dreadnought battleships – they’d have finished them off.

Mary: It’s rotten Walt. When I think of all them children and mothers killed and people’s homes destroyed it breaks my heart. And just before Christmas too. I ain’t half glad we’re not near the coast, although what if they comes sailing up the Thames?

Walter: They won’t do that, Ma – they’d be sitting ducks. I’ll tell you something though, what with Charlie and then this I ain’t got no sympathy for Fritz no more. Get Lance Corporal Carter out there – he’ll show them what’s what.

Fred: Oho, do excuse me Mr Second in Command of a Rifle Section! You’re right though – we won’t let them get away with this.

To find out more about the shelling, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/clips/zbtpb9q

16th December 1914

Walter: How’s this for an early Christmas present – I’ve been put up for promotion! Lance Corporal Carter, Second in Command of a Rifle Section! How does that sound? Ha ha. I’m made up. They said it’s for ‘reliability’, ‘turnout’ and ‘weapon handling’. I get a stripe and all.

Lily: Oh sweetheart I’m so proud of you! What a thing. I’m going to tell all the girls at the shop – and Herbert – Lily Howes is courting a Lance Corporal! Well done darling.

Mary: Such wonderful news! Your Pa’s perked up for the first time since we heard about Charlie. He’s everso proud of you Walt. Oh I can’t wait to tell Mrs Wiggins next door – that’ll teach her to be so high and mighty. What does it mean though? Will your duties change?

Walter: Well, we’ll be doing the same things as normal but I’ll be supervising a few men now. Each Section has 12 men in it see, including me and the Section Corporal – he’s the one above me – though it’ll probably still be me that gets in trouble if we ain’t doing well! I do get to supervise work parties instead of being in them though, so there’s something… and if anything ever happened to the Corporal, I’d have to take over.

Mary: Well I’m blowed, that really is something. Well done love!

Walter: Thanks Ma. I’m a little nervous about it if I’m honest… just don’t tell the lads! I’ll let you know how I get on.

14th December 1914

Rose: Finally seeing soldiers with proper clothes for keeping the cold out! They been given these lovely fur coats made out of all sorts – sheep skin, goat skin – and they can’t stop talking about how warm they are. They’re walking around looking like great bears! Except some of them ain’t quite sure how to wear them and keeps the fur on the inside. No such luck for the feet – a Scotch chap told me the rain and the mud is so bad that some of them have given up on their brogues and socks and are wading through the mud in their bare feet! I told him I’d never heard nothing so daft and he said, “Ah but lassie, skin is light, portable and easy to clean.” Couldn’t argue with him...

11th December 1914

Ed: Well I overhead the driver and conductor saying they don’t think it’ll be fixed before the morning and they’re going to sleep in the tram. Reckon I’ll join them, if they’ll let me. There’s a few lady typists on board, so it ain’t all bad…

Mary: I’ve always said you can’t trust electricity! I suppose I shall have to save you your dinner Ed. I’ll put it in the meat safe – it’s cold enough outside – and you can have it when you get back. No sense wasting food.

Mabel: They’re rigging up some of the trams with lanterns here so nothing crashes into them. Good idea. My pa says all of London’s the same except for Forest Hill and Lewisham – they gets their electricity from Deptford, not Greenwich, so they’re alright.

To find out more about how people preserved their food before fridges, visit  http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-food-storage.htm

11th December 1914

Lily: Just finished me shift at Arding and Hobbs, came out and found the crossroads all jammed up! All the tramcars have stopped and their lights gone out. No one knows how to get home and it’s pouring with rain. Is it the same anywhere else?

Ed: Hi Lil, I’m on a job up Camden way and it’s the same here. Trams not moving and people just sitting on them in the dark wondering what to do. Don’t know how I’ll get back to Battersea, especially with me tool bag. The driver says there’s nothing coming through the overhead wires, so I reckon something must have happened at the generating station. Soaking rain here as well. Just when I thought I was on me way home for dinner…

Walter: Bad luck Ed – bet you wish you had a motor. Are you alright Lily? Hope you didn’t get too cold.

Lily: Oh I’m alright, I’d only be walking anyway. It’s the folks who’ve got to get back out to the suburbs that’ll have trouble – there’s no trains out to some of them places. They was all trying to pack themselves into the omnibuses but they couldn’t fit.

To find out more about London transport in the early 20th Century, visit http://www.1900s.org.uk/1900s-public-road-transport.htm

10th December 1914

Walter: Heard there was some German submarines at Dover. Don’t sound good. Any news, John?

John: No one’s sure really, but it sounds like they tried to sneak into the harbour in the dark this morning. Probably trying to hit the warships there. The big guns at Dover saw them off though. Don’t know how far off they went.

Mary: I don’t like how close they’re getting.

Walter: Don’t worry Ma – they couldn’t even reach the town at Great Yarmouth and now the guns have scared them off at Dover. They can mess about in the sea as much as they want, they won’t get us.

9th December 1914

Walter: Just heard about the sinking of the German cruisers off the Falkland Islands! They was trying to raid the port at Stanley but didn’t bet on a big British squadron being there too… They tried to scarper of course but our ships can do 25.5 knots and theirs can only do 22.5 knots, so it weren’t no contest really. The Nurnberg and the Dresden escaped but the Brits have set off after them too. HMS Invincible pickied up survivors from the SMS Gneisenau – they’ll be prisoners now.

John: Our ships have bigger guns too – 12 inch against 8 inch. Don’t I always tell you you ought to have joined the Naval Reserve with me?

To find out more about the battle of the Falkland Islands, visit http://www.rmg.co.uk/researchers/collections/by-type/archive-and-library/item-of-the-month/previous/the-battle-of-the-falkland-islands-1914

 

7th December 1914

Walter: How is it over there Rosie? Did you see the king in the end?

Rose: No such luck Walt! Though I’ve had plenty of other things to keep me busy… I shall be quite the clever stick by the time I gets out of here. You should hear the bits of Hindustani I’ve picked up – I got one of the fellows here to teach me some words what I might need. Only problem is when they answer with something I don’t know! They says “chai” for tea (but most of us just calls it “char” and they understands that alright) and if something’s nice it’s “khush” and if it’s broke it’s gone “phut”. Ha ha. The best thing is seeing them all out on the quay cooking chupatties when we’re stopped in Boulogne – it do smell nice. Did you hear two of them got the Victoria Cross for bravery too when King George was over?

Walter: Yes I heard about them – good lads.

To find out more about words from other languages adopted during the war, visit http://www.wakefieldfhs.org.uk/War%20Slang.htm

 

5th December 1914

Lily: Thought I’d show you sweetheart – they’re selling special wartime Christmas cards in the stationers! I know you ain’t out at the Front or nowhere yet (although you might as well be, the amount I don’t see you) but I thought I’d send you one anyway, being that you’re my soldier. Any news on when you might go, or where?

Walter: Hello Lil! And thanks, yes I should like to see one. I expect they’ve got them in Luton too but I ain’t seen them yet. Fred said he saw lots of flags strung up instead of tinsel. It will be a strange Christmas if this don’t blow over. I have to say I don’t think it will now. No news on when or where we’ll be going… Might be France, might be Mesopotamia, might even be here in Britain… Wherever it is I hope they gets a move on, we’ve had some men leaving the battalion to take commissions because they’re so fed up with waiting.

Lily: Poor you, I’m not surprised you’re fed up. Although I’m glad you ain’t out in France… especially in this cold. Here’s one of the cards anyway:

Walter: Thanks Lil. It’s nice that.

To find out more about the build-up to Christmas in 1914, visit http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/05/fateful-year-1914-mark-bostridge-review

4th December 1914

Walter: Just seen this in the paper – there’s so many foreign refugees over here now that the Express is going to translate its property adverts into French! Tres bien and all that.

To find out more about the arrival of Belgian refugees from a local perspective, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022ng0l

1st December 1914

Rose: Very exciting today – we’ve been at Wimereux, not far from Boulogne, and one of the trains that passed us had King George V himself on it! Word got out that he was in the restaurant carriage so we craned our necks but couldn’t see him. We did have a laugh though – they’ve got the bridges covered with special blue and red curtains so his highness don’t get grubby! He should see the state of me. Ha ha. They say he’s over here to visit HQ and see how we’re all getting on. Good on him – though he’ll see it all a bit quieter than it usually is.

Mary: How exciting Rose. Do make sure you’re neat, won’t you, in case he comes by.

 

To find out more about the royal family and the war, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/cousins_at_war_01.shtml

 

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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale