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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale

23rd March 1917

Walter: Got some awful news. The worst news. Worse even than losing lads out here, somehow. My little sis passed away this morning. From the Infantile Paralysis made worse by what turned out to be pneumonia. Her lungs just couldn’t take it. I’m heartbroken. Even writing it, I can’t believe it yet. Rose got home just in time, tried everything she could but she said in the end all they could do was make her as comfortable as possible and let the vicar read her the last rites. She never regained consciousness, so Rose says Annie wouldn’t have known if I was there or not but it tears me to pieces that I wasn’t. They’re letting me have compassionate leave now, anyway. Very lucky as that doesn’t happen often. Just a few days for the funeral. At least that means I can take care of Ma and Pa.

Ed: I got Rose’s message. I’m just so bloody angry! I don’t know what Him Upstairs is playing at. Take the Kaiser, why don’t you? Not our Annie. Of all people, not Annie! And I can’t get home at all. Not even for her funeral. Especially now I’ve been put on jankers for smashing the window of our billet when I heard. Feel like tearing the whole place up. What would it matter?

Fred: Oh mate. I’m so sorry. Poor kid, I always thought she’d pull through. Mrs Carter, Mabel and I will come and see you if I can get out of the hospital.

Walter: Thanks Fred, I’m on my way home now.

Bert: I’m so sorry to hear it, Walt. Thoughts with you and your family. Let me know if you need a hand with anything, I’m only round the corner from your folks. Walter likes

John: That’s awful news. So sorry mate. I lost a cousin of mine to Infantile Paralysis after a bout of polio. It’s a rotten disease.

To read about the death of a child in the early 1900s, visit https://goo.gl/SSncdZ

21st March 1917

Fred: Saw the message about Annie. Hope she’s alright mate. Any news?

Jamie: Rosie, I got your line about setting off back home to be with your sister. Poor wee girl. How far have you got?

Rose: About to head over the Channel. We got held up due to the bad weather. It’s miserable. I haven’t heard anything more from Ma but she never would have said to come back if it wasn’t desperate. I just hope I can get back in time. I haven’t seen Annie since the Christmas before last. I wish I’d come back sooner.

Jamie: Don’t be hard on yourself. She’ll be glad to see you when you get there. Safe journey.

20th March 1917

Mary: Edward, Rose, Walter – can you get home? We’ve had the doctor out to Annie after she took a turn for the worse and I’m sorry to say but it’s not good news. The poor child hasn’t woken since yesterday and her breathing’s ever so laboured. I can’t bear it, the doctor thinks she doesn’t have long. Please say you can get home.

Walter: Annie can’t be that bad, surely Ma? I wish I could get leave but I’ve not long come back and there’s blokes here who haven’t seen their families for months. I’m sure she’ll pull through though. She always has, hasn’t she? She’ll rouse up soon, you’ll see.

Rose: I’m on my way. I was due leave anyway. Is she responding to anything?

Mary: Nothing at all. We’re going to get the vicar out. Please hurry, love.

Edward: I’ve damn near begged but they won’t let me have the leave. We’ve only just come out and, as the BSM pointed out, I don’t have a good record. I’ve half a mind to set off back to Boulogne myself but I’d only get picked up by the Military Police. I’m sorry Ma. Tell her to hang in there. Tell her she’s strong enough.

16th March 1917

Walter: Did you see this? Nicholas II, the Russian Czar, has abdicated! Something about riots in Russia, a revolution even. I have to say, we hadn’t paid it much attention here. But they’re our allies, the Russians, so who knows what it’ll mean for the war.

Mary: What a shock! I know that Rasputin fellow was killed over Christmas. Funny business, that was.

To see a short video about the abdication of Nicholas II, visit https://goo.gl/4fciWb

15th March 1917

Walter: Sorry it’s so hard, Ma, but I’m glad Leonard’s helping out. Is Annie alright?

Mary: I’m at my wits’ end with trying to get enough food into everyone. It’s not that we don’t have the money now, but there’s so little food in the shops. How am I supposed to keep Annie’s strength up when I can’t feed her properly? We’ve had a bit of help from Len, who gets a parcel from home every so often. Wonderful things he gets – tinned peaches and pineapples, Meat Extract, boiled sweets…

Mary: I can’t seem to get her to perk up. She will drink a little Bovril though, so that helps.

To read more about the history of Bovril, visit https://goo.gl/dUfZtm

13th March 1917

Walter: The Allies have taken Bagdad. It’s been back and forth in the newspapers for years now. What with the news about Gommecourt and the others, it’s tempting to think the war is finally going our way. Here’s hoping.

To find out more about the First World War in the Middle East, visit https://goo.gl/wPhBoJ

9th March 1917

Walter: I’ve heard about the Native Labour Contingent but never seen one of the camps. Ed’s been right past on his way to the line -

Ed: Every day, something new. Today we passed the South African Native Labour Contingent. The South Africans have set up camps for men who aren’t allowed to be soldiers because of their race. They do labouring instead. Corporal Retford said there’s more than 21,000 of them in France. We were all craning our necks to see through the ‘enclosure fences’ into the camp but they’re six feet high with barbed wire along the top, so not much luck. The men inside aren’t allowed out unless they’re supervised by an officer or a European NCO and they get handed over to the Military Police if they’re found in an estaminet or anything.

To find out more about the South African Native Labour Contingent, visit https://goo.gl/HomXJ2

8th March 1917

Walter: Taking a working party out today. They’ll be loading the light railway with Geoff. I remember doing this with you, Fred, when we first came out. How are you, anyway? Any better? Hope Mabel’s getting on alright too.

Fred: Not too bad, thanks mate. They’re thinking of discharging me from the hospital. I’ve tried so hard to get better, now I’ve just got to hope they don’t send me back out. And Mabel’s grand, thanks. Size of a house!

Mabel: Size of a house, indeed! He’s not far wrong though – I’m trying to keep going at the munitions factory long as I can but it’s difficult now. My pal Florrie here worked right up till three days before she gave birth. Don’t know how she did it.

To read about light railways on the Western Front, visit https://goo.gl/6ogDjS

6th March 1917

Walter: Sounds like a close shave, Ed. Have they really poisoned the canal…? Better get used to seeing the dead though, there’s plenty out here.

Ed: Left Boulogne. Travelling towards the front. When we’re not clattering along in railway trucks we’re marching. All of us – horses, guns, the lot. Riding some of the way, which helps. Nearly caused a disaster though. The horse I was on wanted to dip his head to drink from the canal we was walking along. Thought there couldn’t be any harm in it until Battery Sergeant Major Wesham shouted, ‘Get that horse away from that damned water!’ Turns out they reckon the Germans have poisoned it so we can’t use it. As soon as he’d said it I could see why they’d think so. The water’s a rum colour. Not just murky brown, like the Thames, but sort of yellow. My mate Saunders reckons he saw something human floating in it and all. That made the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Felt a bit better when we got under the cover of the trees for a break. The snow’s starting to melt so there’s plenty of safe water for the horses there. We unlimbered them and let them drink as much as they wanted.

An account of a poisoned canal can be found in the illustrated diary of Private Len Smith: https://goo.gl/1GuGdF

3rd March 1917

Walter: Never had such a hard job keeping a straight face! Especially with Sgt Chapman trying his best not to laugh as well. He confiscated this picture off a soldier he was tearing a strip off. The lad had gone back out into No Man’s Land during the raid – ignored orders and put himself and others in needless danger. He eventually admitted he’d promised a mate of his that if he got killed or injured he’d remove the ‘smutty pictures’ from his pockets! Sure enough, his pal went down so, honour-bound, this lad went back out to retrieve them. Came back with this. I have to say, having been out here a few years, it’s not the most shocking I’ve seen…

Lily: ‘Not the most shocking’?! You can nearly see what she had for breakfast!

Mrs Wiggins: No wonder the world’s in the state it is. I’ve always said it, you introduce trouser uniforms for women on war work and you end up on a slippery slope towards this sort of smut.

To see other postcards from WWI (nothing that will raise eyebrows today!), visit https://goo.gl/RkzwfE

2nd March 1917

Walter: Getting a whiff of hot, cooked rations when you’re back in the cold trenches can cheer a man up no end. They’ve done well today – we don’t usually get anything that’s still hot unless we cook it ourselves. Plenty of fresh bread to go around too. Then again, there’s not so many to share it with after the raid. Not until we get another draft. Best not to think about it. There’s some good news going about anyway. Sounds like our pals down in France have captured Gommecourt.

To see how the capture of Gommecourt, Thilloy and Puisieux-au-Mont was reported in the US news, visit https://goo.gl/F6vYdj

 

28th February 1917

Rose: Right, ladies. Here’s some good news on my birthday. You can get involved out here in the warzone without being a nurse like me or taking on unpaid work like the VADs. About time! Not fighting like the men, of course, but there’s a new service called the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). They want skilled women to take on roles to free up men who could be fighting. It’s not a bad offer either – a grant for your uniform and 20-40 shillings per week depending on what it is you’re doing. They want drivers and engineers as well as typists and cooks. Lily, I thought of you?

Walter: Back in the trenches and just time to wish you happy birthday, Rose! Good news on the WAAC – if they can free up more men to come and fill the gaps out here then I’m more than happy.

Lily: Happy birthday, Rose! Thanks for thinking of me. I’d love to do something like that… I’m getting fed up with life in London. I wonder if they’d take me, being that I only know motorbicycles, not motorcars? And I’d have to think about Mum being here by herself. I don’t know. I’ll think about it.

Mary: Happy birthday, Rosie! There’s a parcel in the post for you.

To find out more about the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, visit https://goo.gl/XxWlBV

27th February 1917

Walter: Got to pick ourselves up after the raid the other day and get ready for an inspection by General Plumer. I’m starting to think the best skill you can have as a soldier is to be able to put what you’ve seen to the back of your mind and carry on as best you can. From 525 men in the battalion we lost 26 killed, 91 wounded and 11 missing. Still, the staff’s pleased with us for bringing back so many prisoners, not to mention capturing one machine gun and destroying three others. We’ve had congratulations passed down from the Army Commander, the Commander in Chief and HRH the Prince of Wales himself! The CO read the messages out to us at a battalion parade the next day. Helps morale. Some good news in the papers about the British Army taking back Kut too. You remember where they captured my mate Sidh last year? Hope he’s alright, haven’t heard from him since.

To read more about prisoners of war, visit https://goo.gl/2csMGV

24th February 1917

Walter: We’re back and I’m alright. Hell of an affair though. Brought in as many prisoners as we could manage but I think we’ve lost just as many from our side. We started well. Went over the top after a better-than-average rum ration and generally kept good formation, like in the rehearsal. Enemy line was only 100 yards away so we got close before the machine guns got going. Our artillery had actually done a good job of cutting the wire. That’s a step up from the Somme. Didn’t stop one of the new draft getting caught up in it though. A few of the boys hesitated, just for a moment, to try and get him free, but by that time Fritz had got himself together and started strafing us. I saw at least five of my men go down. Bellowed at the ones left to leave their mate hanging on the wire. What else could I do? A few of us made it into their trench. An unmanned part, thank God, but we heard running feet coming towards us from the next bay and a shout in German. Just managed to stop one of Sgt Chapman’s boys throwing his grenades – that’s what you’d normally do if you wanted to capture a trench, but we were there for prisoners. So we had to resort to bayonets. Our Company captured about twelve in the end. Sent eight or so back to our line over No Man’s Land after they surrendered. Kept a few more with us and forced them back. We would have had more if some of them hadn’t put up a fight. They ought to have surrendered before two of our boys lost their heads and went at them with their coshes. Still. We’ve done what was asked of us. Better hope it was worth it.

Fred: Sounds like a heavy day. Glad you made it. What are the Boches like that you brought back?

Walter: Scared stiff. No wonder, most of them look about 16. B Company brought back one officer but the rest are Other Ranks. One looked so much like our Ed when he was young that I nearly lost it. Nearly sent him back. Don’t know what I was thinking.

Mary: Relieved to hear you’re alright. What a shock for one of them to look like Ed! I always thought they’d look different from us, somehow.

Walter: What was it Charlie said once? “Dead Germans is just like dead Englishmen with different hats on...”

To see the battalion’s war diary, which records the advance, visit https://goo.gl/rlUUPq

23rd February 1917

Walter: All packed into waggons and off to Murrumbridge Camp before the big raid. Done nothing but train for it for the past few weeks so just got to hope we’ve got everyone up to scratch and picked the right people for the right jobs. It’s a whole battalion raid this time and the point of it is to get prisoners, so we’ll try not to use too many grenades. We’re supposed to rely on getting them to surrender with the bayonet. Risky. I’ve told my company to take their coshes with them too. So here’s hoping we come back with a few of their boys and without losing too many of ours. If not, it’ll be partly my fault. Not nice to think about. The other thing is, I’d usually have had a letter from Lily to read beforehand… It’s miserable not having a girl to think of as you go over. When you do, it keeps you going somehow.

Lily: I wondered if you’d have found some nice French girl to think of by now… I hope you get through alright anyway. Can’t help but worry about you.

To read more about the area surrounding Murrumbridge Camp, visit https://goo.gl/eSNscr


21st February 1917

Walter: You across the Channel yet, Ed? This new submarine policy must make it an unhealthy sort of place. Look at this from John – he reckons 134 ships have been sunk since the start of the month…

John: Not been this busy for a long while. Word is we’ve had nearly 12,000 ships going in and out of UK ports since the start of February and the Royal Navy has got into 40 different engagements with enemy submarines. It’s been in all the papers. 3 of those was off our ship. We spend all our time on submarine or mine watch. My pal Jim did a sketch of us, look. Still, there’s been 134 ships sunk just in the two weeks so some are still slipping through. We’re trying our best but it’s like needles in a haystack.

Ed: We got here safe, don’t worry. Boulogne. That’s where Rosie went, ain’t it? Rotten crossing but no submarine trouble. Ta for asking.

To read more about the U-boat campaign and anti-submarine warfare, visit https://goo.gl/qSpKJo

19th February 1917

Walter: Ed’s off… but not before he managed to get Annie outside on a makeshift wheelchair! He doesn’t change.

Ed: About to set off. Got to travel down from Woolwich with a draft of about 30 others. Leaving Annie’s the worst bit. I’m worried sick in case I don’t see her again. Well, it’s possible, ain’t it? If the war gets me or she... takes a turn for the worse. It’s not right, being forced off like this. Still, I’ve done the best I can before I have to leave. I’ve made her a wheelchair out of an old chair and a bicycle I found. Now there’s a big discussion going on over whether it would be right to bring her out into the street on it to wave me goodbye. She’s desperate to get out of the house but everyone’s fussing over whether it’s too cold and what the neighbours would say. So we’re in cahoots, me and Annie. While everyone’s talking in the kitchen, I’ve piled her up with blankets and I’m going to wheel her out the front to see the snow.

Mary: Your heart’s in the right place, son, but you are a pain sometimes. At least you wrapped her up! And it’ll be nice for her to wave you off properly. Edward, I hate the thought of you going off to war. Especially with Walter and Rose already out there… I know you wouldn’t have chosen it either. Just stay on the right side of your superiors, won’t you? I’ve heard what can happen to lads who won’t toe the line. Your father will walk you down to the station. Forgive me for not coming along but I don’t think I could bear it. Write to us as often as you can, love.

Mrs Wiggins: What a shock to see Annie in the street! In her condition! Poor little one ought to be kept indoors in this weather, and away from prying eyes. Glad to see you’ll be joining your fellow men at the front though, Edward. Common sense prevailed, I see. Incidentally, I note Mr Wilson from Holden Street has misplaced his bicycle – I don’t suppose you’d know where it might be?

16th February 1917

Mary: Typical! The moment I have extra mouths to feed, with Ed and Len the Australian turning up, the shops decide they’re going to stop selling potatoes if the suppliers don’t fix the wholesale price! Better be roast turnips then. We’re all getting sick of turnips.

Walter: At least you have turnips, Ma… remember when our ration dump got shelled?

To read more about food shortages during the war, visit https://goo.gl/Em40wf

15th February 1917

Ed: Time’s come. I’m on my way out to France. Bit of time to say cheerio at home first. Should have taken a butcher’s at the newspapers before I went through central London though. The whole thing’s chocka with people because of this War Loans rally. So by the time I got back to Sabine Road I was just about ready to conk out when what do I find but some Digger bloke with his feet under the table. Ma says he’s being seen at the 3rd General Hospital nearby in Wandsworth. When Annie woke up all she went on about was ‘Leonard this’ and ‘Leonard that’. That’s this new chap. Well, I’m going to spend as much time with her as I can before I go. Poor kid looks frailer than ever.

Walter: Don’t worry about the Australian, Ed. He won’t be around long and I’m sure he’s alright if Rose likes him. Just take care of Annie – sounds like she needs it.

To see footage from the War Loans rally, visit https://goo.gl/8tv2ij

13th February 1917

Walter: Finally back in billets. At Steenvoorde this time. Chance to get clean and fed but no rest really. We’re training for a big raid on the enemy line. Can’t say where or when just yet of course. While we’re here we’ve got practice trenches so we’re rehearsing what we’ll do when it comes to the real thing. Not a whole lot of use, if you ask me. Since the Somme, everyone knows that what you practice rarely happens once you actually get out there. It’s all very well learning your order (rifleman, bomber, bomber, rifleman) and holding formation when no one’s shooting at you… At least they’ll get to know the measurements of the enemy trenches well. We’ve set it all up based on drawings of the German line and I’ll do what I can to set the boys straight about what it will really be like on the day.

Fred: Wish we’d known that before Givenchy. Or Loos. The lads will moan but they’re lucky to have someone experienced like you as their CSM. Good job you’re an ugly mug or you might start getting full of yourself.

Walter: Ha! Thanks mate. Good to hear you sounding more like your rotten self.

To read a fictional account of this type of rehearsal, visit https://goo.gl/bwvIuH

10th February 1917

Walter: Just seen this from home – Rose’s Australian pal has shown up out of the blue at Sabine Road! Make sure he’s sound Ma, won’t you?

Mary: Rose, did you know your Australian friend Leonard was coming to see me? You could have warned me! He showed up on the doorstep, said he’d sent a letter ahead of himself but I didn’t get it in time. I suppose that’s the postal cutbacks for you. He’s been in London with a group of wounded Diggers from King Edwards Horse for the opening of parliament. They were in the parade. At least, I think that’s what he said. I can’t understand his accent very well. Anyway, now he’s here in the kitchen! Very tall young man. Annie’s quite taken with him. I wonder if he needs lodgings? We’ve got the spare rooms now and I could do with a hand around the place... not to mention the extra cash.

Rose: I had no idea, Ma! Sorry. Do ask him about the lodgings – he’s a decent chap and I’d be glad to know you’ve got someone else around to help out. Keep in mind he’ll likely be discharged back to Australia shortly though. Leonard, what do you think you’re up to, giving my Ma a fright?!

Leonard: Rose! Good to hear from you. I’m sorry Mrs Carter got the breeze up. I really had written a letter and was heaps embarrassed to hear it hadn’t turned up. Glad I finally got here though, after saying I would for so long. Tell your brother Walter there’s no need to get his guts in a knot, I’m no rough stuff. I’ll have a word about the spare bunk too.

Mary: I’ve no idea what he’s saying, Rose.

To find out more about Leonard’s regiment, visit https://goo.gl/UXwzqw

7th February 1917

Walter: Some retaliation from our mortar stonk yesterday. Never thought it would be this bad though. Fritz set his artillery on our battery at the rear and shelled them for two and a half hours. The news getting brought forward to us seems to get worse and worse – they shelled the ration dump. In other words, where we get our food from. That’s had a big effect on everyone’s morale. When you’re hungry you can’t deal with the bad news nearly so well. Supplies is one of Geoff Adams’ jobs as the Company Quarter Master Sergeant so he’s tearing around trying to make new arrangements. Down in France they seem to be getting on a bit better at least. Look at this -

 To read more about supplies and transport during the war, visit https://goo.gl/srBMVD

6th February 1917

Walter: Snow everywhere. Back in the front line but I hardly recognise the land I’m looking out at. It’s the same patch of ground we’ve been holding since I came out here but now the mud’s frozen and the whole lot’s covered with snow, so we’re having difficulty making out the landmarks and distances. And we’d better get it right today. We’ve had orders to fire mortars to cut the enemy wire, which is hard enough to judge at the best of times.

Fred: Good luck mate.

 

3rd February 1917

Walter: Two bits of good news. Just bumped into Geoff Adams who was looking the brightest I’ve seen him in weeks. He’s finally had a message from his family to say his sister’s alive after the Silvertown explosion! Turns out she’d been in one of the hospitals nearby but was knocked out and had nothing with her to say who she was. She’d left work, luckily, but hadn’t got too far away so she got caught when the blast flattened the neighbouring streets. No idea how well she’ll recover but he’s over the moon that she made it out. I’m really glad for him. The other bit of news is that America has told Germany to sling their hook. They’ve broken off ‘diplomatic relations’ because of the submarine announcement. With any luck, that means they’ll be on our side before long.

Mabel: Ah that’s good news for him. A few of our lot at Woolwich know people who didn’t make it out, poor things, so I’m glad your friend’s had some good news. Makes you realise how dangerous this munitions lark is.

To read a New York Times article from the day, visit https://goo.gl/JdqH2N

1st February 1917

Walter: Glad to be out of the line. It’s little more than a swamp since the Germans started pumping floodwater out of their trenches and downhill into ours. One of the many problems with being on the lower ground. Saw a copy of the Express when we got back – they reckon Germany has announced ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ again. So they’ll target any ship, whether it’s carrying passengers, invalids, food, whatever. Haven’t heard from my pal in the Royal Navy for a while but I’m sure they’ll have a plan to fight back. John mate, how are you? Any truth in this?

John: Alright Walt. Glad you’re still out there giving Fritz a run for his money. The reports are true, sadly. We’re heading out on submarine patrol. Let you know how I get on.

To read more about Germany’s announcement, visit https://goo.gl/pkTThU

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