‘And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised’: Christmas on an Ambulance Train

With thanks to Tim Luard

We all hope to spend Christmas having an enjoyable time with family and friends but, of course, that is not always to be.

100 years ago, millions of people were away from home, swept up in the First World War. Perhaps the best-known Christmas story of the Western Front is the Christmas Truce of 1914, when peace briefly invaded some parts of the battlefields of the Western Front. Any let up was, however, only very temporary, as is shown through the letters sent home over Christmas 1914 by Sister Kate Luard.

Kate served as a nurse throughout the First World War, and was at this time working on Ambulance Trains in Northern France. These special trains were kitted out with bunk beds to transport sick and wounded troops from the front to base hospitals, or to ports from which they would be evacuated back to England.

The letters below are all included in Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, which was published anonymously during the war. A copy is available in the ERO library.

Wednesday 23rd December, 1914

We loaded up at Lillers late on Monday night with one of the worst loads we’ve ever taken, all wounded, half Indians and half British.

You will see by Tuesday’s French communiqués that some of our trenches had been lost, and these had been retaken by the H.L.I. [Highlight Light Infantry], Manchesters, and 7th D.G.’s [Dragoon Guards].

It was a dark wet night, and the loading people were half-way up to their knees in black mud, and we didn’t finish loading till 2 a.m., and were hard at it trying to stop hæmorrhage, &c., till we got them off the train at 11 yesterday morning; the J.J.’s [lice] were swarming, but a large khaki pinny tying over my collar, and with elastic wristbands, saved me this time. One little Gurkha with his arm just amputated, and a wounded leg, could only be pacified by having acid drops put into his mouth and being allowed to hug the tin.

Interior of Ambulance Train at Boulogne. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205249852

Another was sent on as a sitting-up case. Half-way through the night I found him gasping with double pneumonia; it was no joke nursing him with seven others in the compartment. He only just lived to go off the train.

Another one I found dead about 5.30 a.m. We were to have been sent on to Rouen, but the O.C. Train reported too many serious cases, and so they were taken off at B. It was a particularly bad engine-driver too.

I got some bath water from a friendly engine, and went to bed at 12 next day.

We were off again the same evening, and got to B. this morning, train full, but not such bad cases, and are on our way back again now: expect to be sent on to Rouen. Now we are three instead of four Sisters, it makes the night work heavier, but we can manage all right in the day. In the last journey some of the worst cases got put into the top bunks, in the darkness and rush, and one only had candles to do the dressings by. One of the C.S.’s was on leave, but has come back now. All the trains just then had bad loads: the Clearing Hospitals were overflowing.

The Xmas Cards have come, and I’m going to risk keeping them till Friday, in case we have patients on the train. If not, I shall take them to a Sister I know at one of the B. hospitals.

We have got some H.A.C. [Honourable Artillery Company] on this time, who try to stand up when you come in, as if you were coming into their drawing-room. The Tommies in the same carriage are quite embarrassed. One boy said just now, “We ‘ad a ‘appy Xmas last year.”

“Where?” I said.

“At ‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,” he said, beaming.

 

Christmas Eve, 1914

And no fire and no chauffage, and cotton frocks; funny life, isn’t it? And the men are crouching in a foot of water in the trenches and thinking of “‘ome, ‘long o’ Mother,”—British, Germans, French, and Russians. We are just up at Chocques going to load up with Indians again. Had more journeys this week than for a long time; you just get time to get what sleep the engine-driver and the cold will allow you on the way up.

8 p.m.—Just nearing Boulogne with another bad load, half Indian, half British; had it in daylight for the most part, thank goodness! Railhead to-day was one station further back than last time, as the —— Headquarters had to be evacuated after the Germans got through on Sunday. The two regiments, Coldstream Guards and Camerons, who drove them back, lost heavily and tell a tragic story. There are two men (only one is a boy) on the train who got wounded on Monday night (both compound fracture of the thigh) and were only taken out of the trench this morning, Thursday, to a Dressing Station and then straight on to our train. (We heard the guns this morning.) Why they are alive I don’t know, but I’m afraid they won’t live long: they are sunken and grey-faced and just strong enough to say, “Anyway, I’m out of the trench now.” They had drinks of water now and then in the field but no dressings, and lay in the slush. Stretcher-bearers are shot down immediately, with or without the wounded, by the German snipers.

Etaples Hospital Siding : a VAD convoy unloading an ambulance train at night (Art.IWM ART 3089) © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19897

And this is Christmas, and the world is supposed to be civilised. They came in from the trenches to-day with blue faces and chattering teeth, and it was all one could do to get them warm and fed. By this evening they were most of them revived enough to enjoy Xmas cards; there were such a nice lot that they were able to choose them to send to Mother and My Young Lady and the Missis and the Children, and have one for themselves.

The Indians each had one, and salaamed and said, “God save you,” and “I will pray to God for you,” and “God win your enemies,” and “God kill many Germans,” and “The Indian men too cold, kill more Germans if not too cold.” One with a S.A. [South Africa] ribbon spotted mine and said, “Africa same like you.” [Kate also served as a military nurse in South Africa during the Boer War.]

Midnight.—Just unloaded, going to turn in; we are to go off again at 5 a.m. to-morrow, so there’ll be no going to church. Mail in, but not parcels; there’s a big block of parcels down at the base, and we may get them by Easter.

With superhuman self-control I have not opened my mail to-night so as to have it to-morrow morning.

 

Christmas Day, 1914

11 a.m.—On way up again to Béthune, where we have not been before (about ten miles beyond where we were yesterday), a place I’ve always hoped to see. Sharp white frost, fog becoming denser as we get nearer Belgium. A howling mob of reinforcements stormed the train for smokes. We threw out every cigarette, pipe, pair of socks, mits, hankies, pencils we had left; it was like feeding chickens, but of course we hadn’t nearly enough.

Every one on the train has had a card from the King and Queen in a special envelope with the Royal Arms in red on it. And this is the message (in writing hand)—

With our best wishes for Christmas, 1914.

May God protect you and bring you home safe.

Mary R. George R.I.”

That is something to keep, isn’t it?

A Princess Mary Gift Fund Box. These tins containing small gifts were distributed to all troops as a Christmas present from the royal family. Image from the Imperial War Museum.

An officer has just told us that those men haven’t had a cigarette since they left S’hampton, hard luck. I wish we’d had enough for them. It is the smokes and the rum ration that has helped the British Army to stick it more than anything, after the conviction that they’ve each one got that the Germans have got to be “done in” in the end. A Sergt. of the C.G. [Coldstream Guards] told me a cheering thing yesterday. He said he had a draft of young soldiers of only four months’ service in this week’s business. “Talk of old soldiers,” he said, “you’d have thought these had had years of it. When they were ordered to advance there was no stopping them.”

After all we are not going to Béthune but to Merville again.

This is a very slow journey up, with long indefinite stops; we all got bad headaches by lunch time from the intense cold and a short night following a heavy day. At lunch we had hot bricks for our feet, and hot food inside, which improved matters, and I think by the time we get the patients on there will be chauffage.

The orderlies are to have their Xmas dinner to-morrow, but I believe ours is to be to-night, if the patients are settled up in time.

Do not think from these details that we are at all miserable; we say “For King and Country” at intervals, and have many jokes over it all, and there is the never-failing game of going over what we’ll all do and avoid doing After the War.

7 p.m.— Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature.

This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.—Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [injured] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.

We are wondering what the chances are of getting to bed to-night.

4 a.m.—Very late getting in to B.; not unloading till morning. Just going to turn in now till breakfast time. End of Xmas Day.

Letters from the Western Front: Sister Kate Luard’s 1917

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager, with thanks to Caroline Stevens for sharing extracts from Kate’s letters relating to the Battle of Passchendaele

As 2017 draws to a close we may well reflect on what the year has brought, to ourselves, our families and friends, and the wider world.

Doubtless our ancestors did the same thing 100 years ago, as the First World War dragged on into the new year.

Sister Kate Luard, an Essex nurse who volunteered for military service, had by this time been serving as a nurse on the Western Front for three years and three months. She must have seen countless soldiers suffering from all sorts of unthinkable wounds pass through her wards, and still there was no end in sight.

1917 brought some of the biggest challenges and most dangerous situations that Kate would face during the war, and these are detailed in the letters she sent home to her family. To help put the letters into a geographical context, please see the map at the end of this post which tracks some of the locations where Kate wrote from during 1917. Many of the letters quoted here are reproduced in Unknown Warriors: The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918 – these are referenced here as UW.

Some of Kate Luard’s letters sent to her family during her First World War service

From early March until early June 1917 Kate was with No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) in Warlencourt, in between Bapaume and Beaumont-Hamel. Her early letters from there describe the business of getting the CCS ready to go, in preparation for what would become the Battle of Arras. The construction of huts and tents took place in the snow and within range of the German guns. On Sunday 4th March she wrote of her first night there:

We had a lively night last night. We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars. (Sunday 4th March 1917, UW)

In her role as sister in charge, Kate was not only responsible for organising the nursing staff and orderlies, but also for running the Mess and keeping everyone fed:

Feeding them is going to weigh heavily no my chest. It is one person’s job to run a Mess at the Back of Beyond, and I have this Hospital (700 beds) to run for night and day, with the peculiar difficulties of a new-born unfinished Camp, and emergency work. For the Mess you settle a rice putting, but there is no rice, and the cows have anthrax, so there’s no fresh milk, and the Canteen has run out of Ideal milk. Well, have a jam tart; lots of jam in the British Army, but no flour, no suet, no tinned fruits, no eggs, no beans or dried peas, not one potato each. But there is bacon, ration bread and tinned butter (when you can get it), jam, marmalade sometimes, cheese, stew, Army biscuits, tea, some sugar, and sometimes mustard, and sometimes oatmeal and cornflour. Also we have only 1½ lbs of coal per person per day, so when that is used up you have to go and look for wood, to cook your dinner and boil your water. Everyone is ravenous in this high air and outdoor life, and so long as there’s enough of it, you can eat anything. None of them I hope will grumble if we can work up the true Active Service spirit, but it is an anxiety. (Monday 12 March 1917, UW).

Once the hospital was ready to go but the fighting not yet begun, Kate and two other nurses took the opportunity to explore the surrounding areas:

Then you come to what was Gommécourt. It must have been, when it existed, full of orchards, and half in and half out of a wood. Now there is one wall of one house left. The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom. Some are dry and clean and have the beds still in them. You step over unexploded shells, bombs and grenades of every description – and we saw one aerial torpedo – an ugly brute. I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ and snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me… Here you get to see the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad? (Friday 23 March 1917, UW)

(Q 4915) Branchless trees and shattered house. Gommecourt, March 1917. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205237124

The Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. The following day Kate wrote:

The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday… all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night… All are doing 16 hours on and 8 off and some of us 18 on and 6 off… Stretchers on the floor are back-breaking work, and one’s feet give out after a certain time, but as long as one’s head and nerves hold out, nothing else matters and we are all very fit… The wards are like battlefields, with battered wrecks in every bed and on stretchers between the beds and down the middles… The Theatre teams have done 70 operations in the 24 hours. (Tuesday 10 April, UW)

By 25th July 1917 Kate and No. 32 CCS had moved on to Brandhoek, to specialise in treating severe abdominal wounds. They were stationed close behind the lines at what would become the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Kate was in charge of 40 nurses and almost 100 nursing orderlies.

This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back. We are entirely under Canvas, with huge marquees for Wards, except the Theatre which is a long hut. The Wards are both sides of a long, wide central walk of duckboards. (Friday 27 July, UW)

The Interior of a Hospital Tent (Art.IWM ART 1611) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23728

Everything has been going at full pitch – with the 12 Teams in Theatre only breaking off for hasty meals – the Dressing Hut, the Preparation Ward and Resuscitation and the four huge Acute Wards, which fill up from the Theatre; the Officers’ Ward, the Moribund and German Ward. Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he [Fritz] began putting over high explosives. Everyone had to put on tin hats and carry on. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of hot shrapnel.  …. they came over everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy. It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again. Of course, a good many die, but a great many seem to be going to do. We get them one hour after injury, which is our ‘raison d’être’ for being here. It is pouring rain, alas, and they are brought in sopping. (July 31st, 11pm)

Stretcher bearers at Passchendaele (Imperial War Museums)

It has been a pretty frightful day – 44 funerals yesterday and about as many  to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is terrific. (Wednesday, August 1st, UW)

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. [War Office] and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466. (Monday, September 3rd, UW)

On 5 September Kate was allowed a spell of leave and she returned to England for a couple of weeks, returning to France at the end of September. She spent the remainder of the year with two other Casualty Clearing Stations – No. 37 at Godeswaersvelde and then No.54 CCS at Merville before rejoining No.32 CCS at Marchelepot in early 1918. At Christmas, she wrote home to her father:

My darling father,

This is timed I hope to bring you my very dear love on Xmas Morning – I do hope you will all have a happy day…

This 4th Christmas in France looks like being a comparatively peaceful one so far, but the peacefulness is only on the surface. Both sides are stiffening up like two dogs showing their teeth…

The Division is busy giving concerts in our big theatre this week. Each Battalion has its own Troupe, and the rivalry is keen.  Some are excellent. We Three Sisters are the solitary and distinguished females in a pack of 600 men and inspire occasional witty & polite sallies from the Performers.  We sit in the front row between Colonels of the 3 DG’ s and 2nd Black Watch & others, now commanding Welsh Battalions.  Each concert party has its star “Girl” marvellously got up as in a London Music Hall.  Some sing falsetto & some roar their songs in a deep bass coming from a low neck & chiffon dress, lovely silk stockings & high heels!

We’ve had a bitter North Wind & frost today & all have chilblains but not badly. Still only our 3 heroes in the Ward.

Best love to all

Your loving daughter

KEL [Kate Evelyn Luard]

(ERO ref. D/DLu 55/13/1, included in postscript of new edition of Unknown Warriors)

There were 11 more months of the war in store, and Kate remained on the Western Front to the end. You can read more of her letters in Unknown Warriors: the letters of Kate Luard RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918. 

 

 

 

 

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Locations mentioned in this blog post where Kate’s letters were sent from (click each marker for more information):

Discovering stories of the First World War

Archives are packed with people’s stories. From the everyday to the extraordinary, the records carefully looked after in our archives give us insights into the life experiences of individuals, families, and whole communities over the last several centuries.

Some of the most powerful stories in the records we look after at ERO are of people’s experiences of the First World War. From the official to the personal, First World War records are full of stories that deserve to be discovered and shared.

Both official and personal records can give us fascinating insights into people’s experiences during the First World War

One of the privileges of working at ERO has been being able to explore the First World War stories within our collections, and to share them on this blog.

Alf Webb, for example, joined up in 1914 at the age of 17, and served throughout the whole of the war. In 1992 he talked to a class of primary school students about his recollections of both the mundane details and the harsh realities of the war, from the lice which infested his uniform to the deaths of his friends. Fortunately, the teacher who organised his talk to her class made a recording of Alf’s talk, and deposited a copy with ERO. It has been said that listening to an oral history interview is the closest we can get to time travel, since we hear real people telling us about real events that they experienced.

Listen to extracts of Alf Webb’s recollections of his First World War experiences here.

Sister Kate Luard, meanwhile, was on the first boat she could get on to France after the outbreak of the war. She served on the Western Front throughout the war, working in some of the most dangerous conditions nurses faced. Somehow she found time to write home frequently, and her letters provide highly personal insights into her experiences as a nurse. One little bundle of letters she kept were written by relatives of men who she had nursed while they died. These letters often thank her for her care of sons, brothers and nephews, and ask about the men’s last days.

Read more about Kate Luard in our previous posts about her.

Richard Udney wrote to Sister Kate Luard in June 1915 to ask her about the death of his 18-year-old nephew, 2nd Lieut. George Udney. Click for a larger version.  (D/DLu 61)

Other records tell us about how those at home managed through the tough years of the war, facing a very real prospect of invasion and potentially severe food shortages, while having to cope with the departure and often loss of loved ones.

In the decades running up to the First World War, Britain had imported more and more of its food. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last just 125 days. Farmers at home were faced with the huge challenge of growing enough to feed the nation, with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

Read about some of the efforts that went into producing enough food to keep the nation from starving.

The home front also faced aerial bombardment for the first time. On the night of 23 September 1916 two Zeppelins crash landed in Essex, one in Little Wigborough, where the crew walked away largely unharmed, and one in Great Burstead, where all men on board were killed.

Read eyewitness accounts of the Zeppelin crashes here.

The Zeppelin which crashed at Little Wigborough, 23 September 1916

There is some light relief amongst the darkness of so many war stories. In February 1917 the Chelmsford Chronicle reported on a ‘Romantic Essex War Wedding’, in which Miss Clara Elizabeth Potter and Driver Charles T. Kidd had married, having never met but only communicated by letter.

Read the Chronicle’s account of Clara and Charles’s romance here.

What stories are still waiting to be discovered?

If you have an idea for a project that would highlight a forgotten or unknown piece of your local First World War history, join us on Friday 8 December 2017 for a day of inspiration and practical advice on how to make your ideas into a reality.

The day will include an introduction to Heritage Lottery funding streams for First World War projects, and showcase existing community First World War research projects taking place in Essex. There will also be a presentation by the Everyday Lives in War First World War Engagement Centre on how they can support independent researchers and community groups researching the First World War, and an insight into the resources and support available from the Essex Record Office.

Find out more about the day and book your place here.

The Forgotten Essex Man: Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood

Throughout the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. One of the aims of the project is to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO collections to preserve them for current and future generations. One such document acquired recently is a scrapbook kept during the First World War by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place, now catalogued as Acc. A14491 (you can read some more background on it here). Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, has been researching the contents of the scrapbook, to see what it can tell us about the lives of Minna and her family during the First World War.

Ask most people to name a famous or influential person from Essex and they would most likely reel off a list including Jamie Oliver, Olly Murs, Ronnie O’Sullivan, possibly Dame Maggie Smith or even Boudicca (if you’re lucky!). It is possible that no one will mention Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, veteran of Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the Zulu and Boer Wars and commander of the Egyptian Army.

Photograph of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the many cuttings about him in Minna Evangeline Bradhurst’s scrapbook

I first learned about him through the photographs, letters and newspaper cuttings about him in the scrapbook of his niece, Minna Evangeline Bradhurst, held at the Essex Record Office. It appears that Minna was incredibly proud of her Uncle, even keeping newspaper cartoons in which he was ridiculed.

Cartoon from the Westminster Gazette of 31 May 1900 regarding clothing being sent to British troops in South Africa. Christine thought she recognised her uncle Sir Evelyn Wood, a senior army figure, depicted sewing army underwear.

Sir Evelyn was a man of his time; patriotic, loyal to the British Empire, and elaborately moustachioed. He was involved in many of the key British military campaigns throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century, and more than once was recommended for the Victoria Cross. He was also known for vanity and hypochondria, and was subject to frequent illnesses and accidents.

Born in Cressing near Braintree in 1838, Evelyn was one of 12 children of Revd Sir John and Emma Caroline Page Wood. He attended Marlborough College until the age of 14 in 1852, when he left to join the navy as a midshipman. By 1854 he was serving in the Crimea, where he was badly wounded and almost lost his left arm. Undeterred from military life, he joined the army, and was sent back to the Crimea, where almost straight away he contracted typhoid and pneumonia. His mother travelled to Scutari to bring him back to England, and nursed him back to health.

A teenage Evelyn Wood in his naval uniform, published on the flyleaf of his autobiographical ‘From Midshipman to Field Marshal’, published in 1906. The original painting was by Lady Wood.

Sir Evelyn photographed in his later years by Fred Spalding

His next major trip abroad with the army was to India, where the British army was handling the Indian Rebellion. He was awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions in this campaign. It was during his time in India that he decided to ride a giraffe for a bet, when trying to dismount he fell, the giraffe kneed him in the chest and stood on his face causing some quite severe injuries.

For the next 20 years Wood held a succession of army posts; in Ireland during the Fenian disturbances, in West Africa as part of the Ashanti Expedition, during the Zulu War he commanded troops as Brigadier-General, was mentioned 14 times in dispatches during 1878-79, and took command of operations against the Boers in South Africa in 1881. He was largely responsible for brokering the peace deal with the Boers, and was much criticised in the British press for doing so. In 1882, he led a division of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force to deal with the Arabi Revolt, and was made Sirdar of the Egyptian Army for his efforts.

He was made Deputy Lieutenant of Essex in 1897 and awarded a Knighthood in 1901. He was the author of several books on military tactics, the Battle of Waterloo and the cavalry. During the First World War, he maintained a national presence by writing regular newspaper articles praising the war effort and supporting British troops across Europe – most of which appear to be included in his niece’s scrapbook. In honour of his outstanding contribution to the cause, a road was named after him in Cressing and a public house in Chelmsford, both of which remain today.

Upon his death in 1919, his obituary appeared in newspapers around the globe (again, many of them are in the scrapbook) and he is remembered with plaques in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Brecon Cathedral in Wales, and in Marlborough College Chapel. He is buried in the Military Cemetery in Aldershot.

The Sir Evelyn Wood public house in Chelmsford. Reproduced with the kind permission of Grays & Sons.

 

Document of the Month, November 2017: Minna Bradhurst’s First World War scrapbook

Our Document of the Month for November 2017 is a scrapbook created during the First World War, which was recently purchased for the ERO by the Friends of Historic Essex. Caroline Wallace, a History MA student from the University of Essex, is currently undertaking a project to investigate its contents, and what it can tell us about life in Essex during the First World War.

Throughout the years which mark the centenary of the First World War, the Friends of Historic Essex, the charity which supports the Essex Record Office, are running the Essex Great War Archive Project. The project aims to collect First World War documents relating to Essex to add to the ERO archive so they can be preserved for current and future generations, and to conserve and highlight documents already within the collection.

The project has included purchasing relevant documents which have come up for sale, which otherwise would have remained within private collections. One such document is a scrapbook dating from 1915-1918 which was kept by Minna Evangeline Bradhurst of Rivenhall Place (now catalogued as Acc. A14491).

The book contains material from 1820 onwards, but primarily covers the First World War period from 1915 to 1918. This scrapbook is part of a set of four , the other three  all being in private hands, although the Essex Record Office does hold microfilm copies of them.

Minna was born in 1865 to an old Essex society family, the Woods. She married Augustus Maunsell Bradhurst, an American, in 1893, and the following year the couple had their only child, a daughter, Christine (sometimes known as Heaven). In later life, one of Minna’s contemporaries described her as ‘a most amusing and delightful lady, of great character, and always dressed as through for a Buckingham Palace garden party’.

The scrapbook includes much of Minna’s life which was not war-related; for example, several pages are dedicated to press cuttings about her own wedding, detailing the outfits of the bridal party, the gifts given, and the names of those who attended.

The majority of the book, however, dates from the war years. During the time that she was compiling this scrapbook, Minna witnessed the impact of the First World War on her family, society and the country. As a lady of independent means, and with time on her hands, Minna’s scrapbooks cover every aspect of her life. They hold a detailed, and personal, account of what she held to be important; the society people she took an interest in, any mention of her family in the local and national newspapers (numerous pages are dedicated to such press cuttings), photographs of loved ones and of interesting places, invitations, tickets, concert programmes, and letters that delivered both good and bad news.

Minna was the niece of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the highest  ranking, most experienced and well-known military men of the age. Minna took a great interest in her uncle’s career and achievements, and included a huge number of press cuttings about him in her scrapbook. Another cutting describes Minna winning a silver cup at a fete in Ilford for being the Essex resident with the largest number of relatives involved in the war – 64 uncles, cousins and nephews were with the armed forces in one way or another, and several female relatives were engaged in various kinds of war work.

Large amounts of the volume are dedicated to the war work of Minna’s daughter, Christine, who was in her early 20s during the war years. Christine volunteered as a general service Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) worker at Earls Colne Auxiliary Hospital and put her considerable artistic talents to use putting together fundraising concerts and events to raise money for the Essex branch of the Red Cross Society. Not only did she organise these, but she also wrote many of the plays and songs, and performed them on stage. Included in the scrapbook are many of the concert programmes from these events.

Minna’s husband, Augustus Bradhurst, volunteered as a Special Constable, and later in the war became a naturalised Briton and joined the Essex Volunteer Regiment. The scrapbook includes several pictures of him in uniform and on maneuvers in the county, along with letters about his appointments.

The material in the scrapbook has suggested several avenues for further research, some of which will be published on this blog in the coming months.

The scrapbook will be on display in the Searchroom throughout November 2017.

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If you would like to find out more about life in Essex during the First World War, join us on Saturday 25 November 2017 for the Friends of Historic Essex Autumn Lecture, which will include two talks on the Essex coast during the First World War; find out more here.

If you have a First World War project of your own that you would like to get up and running, join us for a First World War project Discovery Day on Friday 8 November 2017; full details here.

 

Document of the Month September 2017: Farming and national survival in the First World War

This month’s Document of the Month is a small part of the story of how Britain was saved from starvation during the First World War.

100 years ago our ancestors were facing a food crisis. When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, the country had enough wheat in stock to last for just 125 days. In the decades preceding the First World War Britain had increasingly relied on imports of food, and by 1914 60% of its food supply was imported. Between 1914 and 1917 these imports were increasingly under attack by German U-boats; by 1914 the Germans were sinking one in four merchant ships in the Atlantic.[1]

Farmers at home faced the huge challenge of growing enough food to feed the nation. Not only did this mean bringing more land under arable cultivation than ever before, it meant doing so with a shortage of male agricultural workers and a shortage of horses.

In an effort to make sure the nation had enough to eat, in late 1915 the Board of Agriculture called for counties to set up War Agricultural Committees. The records of the Essex War Agricultural Committee, today looked after at ERO, can give us valuable insights into the efforts that went in to producing enough food to keep the nation alive.

The War Agricultural Committees were intended to ensure greater productivity of agricultural land and to increase the amount of land under cultivation. Despite their work, by December 1916, the Board of Agriculture was extremely concerned at the decrease in acreages of particular crops, when compared with the previous decades.  A meeting that month noted that the combined acreage for the production of wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas and carrots in Essex had fallen from 428,904 in 1874 to 324,352 in 1914. Most of this decrease was due to a drop in wheat production, which was increasingly imported from the USA.

In January 1917, a new committee was formed from members of the existing Essex War Agriculture Committee. The Executive Food Production Committee, later renamed the Agricultural Executive Committee, were required to oversee improvements on an almost full time basis. In their meetings, members discussed the loans of equipment and horses; requests for petrol, the housing of prisoners of war (often in workhouses and camps) and the employment of women on the land.  In extreme cases, they could also arrange for the removal of tenants where the land was not being farmed to their approval.

It is clear from an early stage that there were tensions between the agricultural committees and local military tribunals concerning agricultural workers. The minutes often include decisions regarding applications for exemption from call up on the grounds of work of national importance, requesting a transfer to army reserves or release from military service and for temporary leave.

At one such meeting 100 years ago this month, the Agricultural Executive Committee approved a number of applications on these grounds.  An H. J. Willett was granted a voucher to remain in employment as a tractor supervisor in Chelmsford and a Private G. Cole was allowed to join the army reserves in order to continue as a wheelwright at Pitsea. This reminds us that farmers and agricultural labourers relied on other skilled workers to maintain and improve production. It would be interesting to see whether the number of applications for exemptions increased as the war progressed and the need for greater production and for more men in the armed forces intensified.

Extract from the Essex Agricultural Executive Committee in September 1917, where applications for transfer to the army reserve or for leave and for petrol licences were discussed (D/Z 47/17)

It is thanks to the efforts of all of those men and women who worked against enormous odds to keep the nation fed during the First World War that Britain never faced famine.

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[1] Figures from World War One: The Few that Fed the Many, published by the National Farmers’ Union, accessed 5 September 2017 https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/33538

Zeppelins over Essex

On the night of 23 September 1916 12 Zeppelins crossed the Channel to attack locations around the country. Two of them were to make their final resting places in the fields of Essex, much to the surprise of the locals who found these giant machines descending upon them.

One of the giant airships, the L33, made a forced landing at Little Wigborough and the crew all walked away largely unharmed. The other, the L32, crashed in flames in Great Burstead, killing all on board.

There are many records in our collections which tell the stories of both of the airships coming down, from civilians, Special Constables, Police and the military.

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The wreck of Zeppelin L33 at Little Wigborough

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The wreck of Zeppelin L33 at Little Wigborough

Why were there Zeppelins over Essex?

Zeppelins were giant airships used by the Germans to drop bombs on Britain during the First World War. They were named after the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who pioneered them from 1895. They were filled with hydrogen which is lighter than air, but explosive. They were 650ft long and carried a crew of 22 and a payload of 2 tons of bombs.

Airships flew over Essex attempting to reach London. They crossed the North Sea and flew over the Essex coast, before following the Great Eastern Railway or the River Thames to London.  Many never reached their destination because of anti-aircraft guns around the capital, and turned back, dropping their bombs indiscriminately over Essex.

 

Zeppelin L33 – Little Wigborough

On the night of 23 September 1916 Zeppelin L33 was busy dropping incendiary bombs over Upminster and Bromley-by-Bow when it was hit by an anti-aircraft shell, despite being at an altitude of 4,000m. Its gas bags were punctured by shrapnel and it started to lose height.

By following the railway line, the crew navigated to Chelmsford where they were engaged by Lieut. A de B Brandon of the Royal Flying Corps, but his machine gun fire had no effect.

The ship was losing height and the crew jettisoned everything they could; items were found strewn across the fields over the next few days, including a machine gun, two cases of machine gun cartridges, and maps.

By 1.15 a.m. the ship had reached the coast, but the crew realised they could not make it back across the Channel.  The Commander, Kapitanleutenant Bocker, turned the ship inland and brought it down near Little Wigborough, narrowly missing some cottages.

Bocker spoke good English, and he warned the residents of the nearby cottages that the airmen were going to set fire to the airship to prevent it falling into British hands. The Zeppelin was burnt and left as a broken shell, but there was still much in the wreckage that the British could learn from in building their own airships.

The crew then set off to walk to Colchester to give themselves up. They were found on the road by a Special Constable and remained in captivity for the rest of the war.

 

Eyewitnesses

Records at the Essex Record Office include several eyewitness accounts of the both Zeppelins which came down on the night of 23 September 1916. One of the most detailed accounts of the descent of the L33 is an excited letter written by 40-year-old Rose Luard who lived nearby in Birch. (We have written before about her sister Kate Luard who was a nurse on the Western Front throughout the war.)

In her 6-page description Rose describes the ‘thrilling’ night the L33 landed in Wigborough, with most of the household dashing from window to window to see the drama unfolding a few fields away. On the following day members of the family went to see the wreckage:

The Zep. is a vast monster, lying in its naked framework of girders, across 2 fields & a land between them. Parts of it look absolutely unhurt, but of course the gas bag is all burnt and the bottom machinery part is all smashed on the ground, & its back is broken & bent in several places, so that it looks like a gigantic antediluvian reptile of sorts, with its nose posed in the air, & its tail intact behind. I tried to make a very rough sketch of its shape as it looked from the stubblefield, which was the nearest we were allowed to go, about a field off.

Her writing is a little tricky to read in places, but still the letter gives us a sense of the sensation the Zeppelin created in the village and surrounding areas; you can read a transcript of her whole letter here.

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Rose Luard’s sketch of the wreck of Zeppelin L33 at Little Wigborough, 24 September 1916 (D/DLu 76)

Police reports

There are several documents written by Police and Special Constables which tell us about what happened on the night of 23 September and in the following days and weeks. This letter from Captain M Ffinch reports on how the Special Constables of Peldon helped to control the traffic and sightseers which descended on the village on day after the Zeppelin landed. It also includes a report from Special Constable Edgar Nicholas, who was the first local man to encounter the German crew.

Nicholas described being in bed and hearing an explosion at about 1.20am. He got up and set off on his bicycle towards Little Wigborough, where he could see a fire. Before he reached the site of the wreck he came across the German crew who were trying to find their way to Colchester to hand themselves in. Nicholas followed them to Peldon village, talking to those in the crew who spoke English. One of the Germans asked him what English people thought about the war, and shook Nicholas’s hand. The party soon encountered other Special Constables and the crew was handed over to PC Charles Smith at Peldon, who telephoned the army to come and fetch the crew to take them prisoner.

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Report from Capt M Ffinch on the activities of the Peldon Special Constables on the surprise arrival of L33 (J/P 12/7)

Zeppelin L32 – Great Burstead

While the L33 was making its forced landing in Little Wigborough, the L32 had bigger problems.

It had dropped its bombs in Kent before flying north over Essex. It was spotted by a BE2c flown by 2nd Lieut. Frederick Sowrey, who hit the airship with incendiary bullets which set it alight. The L32 came down in flames near Great Burstead. The entire crew of 22 men was killed.

The following day, just as at Wigborough, the wreck site became a tourist attraction. Catherine Brown, who worked at the Kynochtown munitions factory at Corringham, later recalled:

The next morning, some of the girls who lived that way went to view the wreck. They also saw some of the poor lads who had been shot down; they only looked about 16 years. We could not help but feel for their mothers in Germany.

Sgt James McDiamid was stationed nearby with the Glasgow Yeomanry, who were despatched to help guard the wreck. On Monday 25 September he wrote to his brother Hugh giving his perspective on events:

Well, yesterday morning at 7a.m. we were sitting at breakfast when the adjutant came in and told us to be ready as soon as possible full marching orders – that is horses and men with everything on. The first twenty who were ready were sent off with Lieut. Young (I was one of them) to where the wrecked Zepp was. We had ten miles to go and we travelled hard. There was a mark along the road of the sweat off the horses. We trotted every step of that ten miles. We picketed our horses, left three men to guard them, and fixed bayonets and down about 20 yds to where the heap of wreckage was lying. We had to keep the people back form it. Everybody wanted a souvenir & most of them got it too. There must have been an explosion after she landed for there were bits found a mile away.

The heap of twisted bars of alliminimum [sic] was about 40 ft high. A tremendous pile, unless you saw it you would hardly credit it. Then the work of pulling out the bodies commenced. It was a gruesome job. The R.A.M.C. and the R Flying Corps did that. They got twenty two bodies. The commander was not badly smashed but some of the others were in an awful mess.

The crewmen were buried in Great Burstead churchyard. Their bodies were later moved to Cannock Chase.

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Burial of the crew of L32 at Great Burstead (D/P 139/1/23)

 

Sightseeing and souvenirs

The following day, both sites were abuzz with sightseers. Rose Luard described the scene at Wigborough:

A dazzling day & a very happy heterogeneous crowd of country people, mixed with Colchester of course, all taking their Sunday matins in that pleasant form. A good many soldiers and officers of course from Colchester, with their womenfolk & I saw one old General & lots of red tabs prancing [?] about on the stubble with the common herd. It was Fred & I who swelled the godless crowd. I persuaded him to come with my in the morning. Daisy & Nettie have gone this afternoon, but I expect the few hundreds will have swelled to thousands this afternoon. It was such a jolly local crowd, gazing at their own Zeppelin, none of y[ou]r hoards from London.

Special Constables, Police and the military were deployed to control the crowds. Sgt McDiamid told his brother:

The crowds were immense during the day but very orderly, altho’ quite annoyed at not getting closer. During the day there were six British aeroplanes and a British airship came along to see the wreckage. One of the aeroplanes landed not twenty yards from where I was standing.

Capt. M Ffinch sent the Special Constables of Peldon out ‘to assist in the control of the enormous traffic caused by the thousands of sightseers in all kinds of conveyances’.

Many of these sightseers wanted a little piece of Zeppelin of their own as a souvenir of their unusual experience, which caused an even greater problem for those tasked with guarding the wrecks.

The wrecks were considered to be of military importance, and punishments for anyone found with anything taken from the wreck sites were severe – a fine of £100 or imprisonment with hard labour for six months.

Despite the warnings, many people still collected and kept fragments of wreckage or other items – including, it seems, police and the military themselves. Rose Luard described:

Our Policemen got near & picked up a bit of the burnt gas bag covering and gave it to George whom I met on the field & he gave a bit to me. It is very fine canvas with a silky sheen on it.

Sgt McDiamid told his brother:

I got a lot of wee bits of Zepp but we were not supposed to take them away altho’ there wasn’t a man there who hadn’t a bit. This is a piece of it I picked up near it. The cloth is a piece of the commanders [sic] clothing.

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Two fragments reputed to be from Zeppelin L33 which have been made into pendants (M55, M56)

impact-of-catastrophe-cover-1080Even though this is one of our longer blog posts there is still plenty of material in the archive which we have not had space to mention. If you would like to know more, we recommend The Impact of Catastrophe by Paul Rusiecki which is available to read or buy at ERO (£17 + P&P – call us on 033301 32500) or to borrow from Essex Libraries. If you would like to go straight to the primary sources themselves, why not have a search on Essex Archives Online to discover what other stories our archives hold.

 

 

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On Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 2016 the village of Little Wigborough is holding Zepfest  to mark the centenary of the landing of L33 in their parish. There will be a small display from ERO in St Nicholas’s church, and there are activities taking place all weekend.

Captain Charles Fryatt: 100 years since his execution

Today, 27 July 2016, marks exactly 100 years since the execution of Captain Charles Algernon Fryatt by the German army in Belgium. He was tried by a military court despite being a civilian, and his death sentence was carried out just two hours after his trial, provoking international condemnation.

Fryatt worked for the Great Eastern Railway (GER) Company, captaining steam ships which sailed between Harwich or Tilbury and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The ships carried post, food supplies and sometimes refugees fleeing the continent. The ships continued to sail during the war, despite the dangers of enemy warships and submarines, blacked out coastlines and floating mines. Here we take a look at the story of Fryatt and the crew under his command as told through the pages of the GER magazine.

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The cover of the September edition of the Great Eastern Railway company magazine focused on the execution of Capt Charles Fryatt

Fryatt lived in Harwich and had joined the GER continental service as a young man in 1892. By the outbreak of the First World War he was a captain, and between the beginning of the war and his capture he made 143 trips across the Channel. The GER ships faced dangerous journeys during the war years, and on more than one occasion were hassled by German submarines. It was a run-in with a German submarine that ultimately led to Fryatt’s capture and execution.

The GER magazine of September 1916 described an incident in which the s.s Wrexham, under Fryatt’s command, had been chased by a submarine:

On March 2nd, 1915, about noon, near the Schouwen Bank, the ‘Wrexham’, proceeding to Rotterdam, was chased for 40 miles by an enemy submarine. Deck hands assisted the firemen to get every ounce of speed, and the enemy’s signal to stop was ignored. They made sixteen knots out of a boat which could hardly be expected to do fourteen knots, and dodging shells and floating mines, as well as the submarine, Captain Fryatt got his boat safely into Dutch waters. She entered Rotterdam with funnels burnt and blistered, the crew black with coal-dust.

A couple of weeks later, on 28 March 1915, Fryatt had a second meeting with a submarine, this time while in charge of the s.s. Brussels. A German submarine was sighted nearby, and the Brussels being unable to outrun it, Fryatt took the decision to attempt to ram it. He ordered the engineers to get all possible speed from the ship, and steered it straight at the submarine, which was forced to dive. Fryatt and others in the GER service were awarded watches for their bravery, but the Germans had different thoughts on the matter.

On the night of 22/23 June 1916, the Brussels, under Fryatt’s command, left the Hook of Holland with a cargo of food and refugees. The ship never arrived in Harwich, and two days later reports reached England that the ship had been captured by the German navy and taken into Zeebrugge in Belgium, then under German control. When the stewardesses were later released their tale was recounted in the GER magazine of November 1916:

After the tiring work of providing for the refugees on board the “Brussels” they were resting, when at 1.30a.m., June 23rd, they noticed the stopping of the engines and heard noises on deck. Chief Steward Tovill said there was trouble and told them to get their life-jackets on. The ship was the prize of five torpedo boats and the Germans were on board. The captain had been hailed in English. For the sake of the women and children he sent no wireless message: if it had not been for them there is little doubt that the Germans would not have been able to take the ship whole.

 

During the journey to Zeebrugge and then Bruges, ‘the captors on the way enjoy[ed] a most hearty meal. They called for wine but fortunately, think the stewardesses, there was none on board. The stewardesses were kept busy for some five hours serving the Germans and comforting the unfortunate weeping refugees’.

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Photographs of some of the crew of s.s. Brussels in the Great Eastern Railway magazine

According to the GER magazine, when the Germans wondered at the calmness of the stewardesses and asked if they were not afraid of being shot, ‘“We are Englishwomen” was considered sufficient reply’.

The crew of 40 men and 5 stewardesses was taken to Bruges and locked up in the town hall, before being scattered to various prison camps. Eventually, postcards from the crew reached Harwich, saying they were well enough but in need of aid packages. Fryatt sent his wife a letter from Ruhleben on 1 July; it only reached her on 29 July, just after his death.

Fryatt and his second-in-command, William Hartnell, were interrogated for three weeks, and on 27 July 1916 were tried by a military court in Bruges. Fryatt was found guilty of attempting to ram submarine U33 on 28 March 1915 and was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out just two hours later – Fryatt was tied to a post and shot, receiving 16 bullet wounds. His death left behind a widow and seven children, aged between 18 and 2.

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Mrs Fryatt with her six daughters and one son

The execution of Charles Fryatt provoked a storm of protest in Britain, and was denounced in the strongest terms in Parliament and in the press. The September edition of the GER magazine, in one of its milder statements, said ‘one does not expect a European nation to murder its prisoners of war’.

In its report of Fryatt’s death on 4 August 1916, the Chelmsford Chronicle condemned the German decision to capture and execute him:

The murder by the Germans of Captain Fryatt, who  commanded the Great Eastern Railway Co.’s steamship Brussels, brings the fact of German frightfulness home to the country in general, and Essex in particular. The gallant captain’s offence, in German eyes, was that he, in self-defence, attempted to run down and sink and enemy submarine, which by all international law, to which Germany herself subscribed, he was perfectly entitled to do. There seems little doubt, however, that the Germans had planned some time ago to capture the Brussels and her intrepid commander, and when the opportunity came they appear to have lost no time in placing Capt. Fryatt on a trial of a sort and condemning him to death, a sentence which was carried out with feverish expedition, so that the crime they had decided to commit might not be interfered with by a neutral nation…Of course the whole Empire is crying out for vengeance.

Mrs Fryatt received telegrams of sympathy and support from several high profile people and organisations, including from Buckingham Palace:

Madam,

In the sorrow which has so cruelly stricken you, the King joins with his people in offering you his heartfelt sympathy.

Since the outbreak of the war, His Majesty has followed with admiration the splendid services of the Mercantile Marine.

The action of Captain Fryatt in defending his ship against the attack of an enemy submarine was a noble instance of the resource and self-reliance so characteristic of that profession.

It is, therefore, with feelings of the deepest indignation that the King learnt of your husband’s fate, and in conveying to you the expression of his condolence I am commanded to assure you of the abhorrence with which His Majesty regards this outrage.

At the time of Fryatt’s death, the rest of the crew were still in prison camps. From their initial imprisonment in Bruges the stewardesses were put on a cattle train to Ghent, then sent to Cologne, then a camp at Holzminden near Hanover, then finally deposited at the border with neutral Holland. The GER staff magazine of November 1916 reported:

It was indeed a pleasure and a relief to see again the released stewardesses of the s.s. “Brussels.” Mrs. Elwood, Miss Elwood, Mrs. Stalker, Mis Bobby and Miss Smith have passed through a most trying experience and have done so in a manner of which G.E.R. women can be proud.

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The stewardesses of s.s. Brussels while being kept prisoner

After the war, the government decided to repatriate Fryatt’s body, along with the remains of Edith Cavell and the Unknown Soldier. (We have written previously about the papers we have in our collection from Bruges relating to the release of his remains to the British.)

In July 1919, the coffin was exhumed from its grave in Bruges in the presence of Hartnell and Fryatt’s brother William. The Chelmsford Chronicle of 11 July gives a full account of the day of processions and funeral services marking the return and reburial of Fryatt’s remains. The coffin was transported from Antwerp on HMS Orpheus, and was received at Dover with full military honours. To the strains of Chopin’s Funeral March, the coffin was carried to Dover station, and from there taken to London for a funeral service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Music was provided at the service by the orchestra of the Great Eastern Railway Musical Society, and the coffin was placed under the great dome of the cathedral. After the service, the coffin and mourners proceeded to Liverpool Street, and from thence to Dovercourt, where crowds awaited the return of their local hero. At the reburial, the Bishop of Chelmsford said that Fryatt was one of the representatives of the ‘self-sacrificing spirit of the English people’ during the great war.

Next time you pass through Liverpool Street station, see if you can spot the memorial to Captain Fryatt, which today can be found near the exit onto Liverpool Street.

Battle of the Somme film screening

On Saturday 16 July 2016 we will be screening The Battle of the Somme film here at ERO.

The Battle of the Somme is one of the most infamous engagements of the First World War. Beginning on 1 July, it raged for 141 days. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed just on the first day of the battle, and over 30,000 were wounded.

The Battle of the Somme film was shot during the opening weeks of the battle. Released in cinemas in autumn 1916, it was seen by 20 million people, almost half the population of Britain at the time. The film is looked after by Imperial War Museums, who have re-released it in 2016 to show to audiences across the world.

Following the screening, there will be a talk from Ian Hook, Keeper of the Essex Regiment Museum, on the Essex Regiment’s experiences at the Somme.

Still from The Battle of the Somme, courtesy of Imperial War Museums

Still from The Battle of the Somme, courtesy of Imperial War Museums

Amongst the thousands killed at the Somme were several Essex men:

  • Cpl, William Robert Elliston, 18th (Service) Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps spent his early life in Ipswich, before moving to Chelmsford, where he worked for a printers. He joined up in November 1915. In February 1916 he married Ada Jane Barker at St John’s church in Moulsham. The couple were married just 8 months before William was killed. William’s battalion left for France in May 1916, and took part in the Battle of the Somme during the summer and autumn. William was wounded in the thigh on 15 September. He was operated on, but died on 22 September at No. 5 General Hospital in Rouen, aged 28. He is buried at St Sever Cemetary, Rouen. In spring 1917 Ada, who lived in Lady Lane in Chelmsford, was sent William’s personal effects, including a ring, wrist watch, cigarette case, pipe, and mirror. She never remarried, and lived to the age of 85, dying in 1980. (Information kindly supplied by Andy Begent of chelmsfordwarmemorial.co.uk)
  • Cpl James John Halls, DCM, 1st Battalion, Rifle Brigade was born in Saffron Walden in 1895. He was one of five children, and attended the Boys’ British School in the town. On leaving school he worked as a telegraph messenger. He was sent to France in late August 1914, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ at Ypres in May 1915. He and one other N.C.O. had spent 9 hours under heavy fire in a destroyed trench, firing on the enemy. Just before the Battle of the Somme erupted, Halls had written to his mother reassuring her he was in good health. Tragically, by the time she received it he had already been killed in the early hours of the action on 1 July, aged just 20. (Information kindly supplied by Robert Pike – read more here)
  • Children from North Primary School in Chelmsford remembering Joseph Gant at the Thiepval memorial

    Children from North Primary School in Chelmsford remembering Joseph Gant at the Thiepval memorial

    Joseph Gant lived in Brightlingsea and attended North School in Colchester. By age 15 in 1911 Joseph had a job as an errand boy for a china shop. He joined the 2nd Essex Regiment and arrived in France on 28th December 1914. On 1st July 1916 Joseph took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme and was killed, his body never recovered. He was aged just 19. His younger brother, Arthur, was also killed in France in September 1918, aged just 18. (Information kindly supplied by Claire Driver of the We Will Remember Them project)

The Battle of the Somme film screening takes place at the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT on Saturday 16 July, 1.30pm-4.00pm. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance on 033301 32500.

For more information about the First World War Centenary Partnership’s plans to commemorate the Battle of the Somme visit 1914.org

A Romantic Essex War Wedding

Hannah Salisbury, Engagement and Events Manager

Recently, I was scouring the wonderful British Newspaper Archive and, as so often happens when one has such a treasure trove of stories to explore, I got sidetracked.

Searching for Essex soldiers who were killed at the Battle of the Somme, my search results included this small piece, titled ‘Romantic Essex War Wedding’ from the Chelmsford Chronicle on 16 February 1917:

A romantic wedding has just taken place at Epping, the contracting parties being Miss Clara Elizabeth Potter, late a cashier in a Bishop Stortford house of business, whose home is at Roydon, and Driver Chas. T. Kydd, R.F.A., of Belfast. The bride-groom joined Kitchener’s Army and went to France in June, 1915. He became friendly with a Roydon soldier, and together they fought side by side at Loos, Armentieres, and on the Somme. Miss Potter, as a Roydon girl, commenced sending parcels to the Roydon soldier, which he shared with his Belfast friend. Driver Kydd wrote a letter of thanks, and a correspondence was started, with the result that, although they had never seen each other, a marriage was arranged to take place as soon as the soldier got his first home leave. This has just happened, and Miss Potter met her unseen fiancé at Liverpool Street station, and the banns having been already published, they were married two days later. The little village romance has aroused much interest in the Roydon district, where the bride and her people are well known.

I would argue that it is impossible to read something like that and not want to know more.

Nothing further was to be had from the newspapers, so I headed to Freebmd.org.uk to find the marriage, thinking it would be easy to find. On entering the names ‘Charles Kydd’ and ‘Clara Potter’ getting married in 1917, however, the site drew a blank. No results. Perhaps the story was a myth or a misunderstanding after all, and an expectant Clara never waited for Charles at Liverpool Street station, full of anxious excitement.

Knowing, however, that often records are not as straightforward as they should in theory be I was undeterred, and tried various searches until I found a potential match – a Charles T. Kydd marrying a Clara E. Benham in Epping in 1917. Everything was right except for the bride’s last name.

A bit more digging on Ancestry.com later, and I had an explanation. Clara was born in 1884, and her mother, Rosa Elizabeth Benham, was unmarried. In 1888 Rosa married Jonathan Potter, and from that point Clara appears in some records as Potter and others as Benham. Another lesson, so frequently learned in genealogy, that names are not always as straightforward as we might imagine.

In the last census before her marriage, in 1911, Clara was boarding at a house in Bishop’s Stortford, and working as a book-keeper at a butchers, which fits well with the description of her in the newspaper article.

Having untangled the essentials of Clara’s story, it was time to tackle Charles’s. By a stroke of good fortune, his army service record has survived, although it is one of the shorter ones. Charles Thomas Kydd was born in Belfast in about 1884. He joined the Royal Field Artillery in late August 1914, aged 28. His attestation papers describe him as being 5’5” tall, with a dark complexion, blue eyes, and dark brown hair. He had been working previously as a labourer. His next of kin was his brother, Sgt James Kydd, of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Longford. He was sent to France on 1 June 1915. He spent a few spells in hospital during his military service, the last of which was in April-May 1918 after being gassed. He was awarded the three First World War service medals, the 1915 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal, known as ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’.

Charles and Clara moved to London after the war. Electoral registers tell us that in 1924 they were living in Camberwell, and between 1927 and 1930 they were in Norwood, Lambeth. A potential death record for Clara would mean that she died in 1943, aged 59, but after that the trail goes cold.

It has been satisfying to uncover this much of their story so far, but I am still left with unanswered questions – the kind of questions that civil registration and census records can’t answer. What did Charles and Clara think of each other when they met for the first time, two days before their wedding? Was their marriage a happy one? What was Charles’s experience of the First World War like? Do their love letters survive somewhere?

Are there any relatives or friends out there who knew Clara and Charles who are able to fill in any of the blanks left by the official record? If so, I’d love to hear from you – do please leave a comment below or e-mail us on ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk

If you have a story of your own that you would like to trace, we have a guide on family history and one on researching First World War servicemen. You can use the British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry.com for free in the ERO Searchroom or at your local Essex library.