Out with the Auld

Field Service Postcard – franked 1 Jan 15

Message reads: “I am quite well. Letter follows at first opportunity. I have received no letter form you lately.”
Signed Frank and dated 31-12-14*

31st December 1914

As 1914 came to a close, the Dorsets remained in billets for another day.

The weather had put paid to any major campaigning in France and Belgium. For now, the fighting nations waited, licked their numerous wounds, and worked hard at keeping their enemies on constant tenterhooks.

Most of Britain’s professional army lay buried in makeshift graves, openly rotting in sodden fields, churned into the sticky Belgian mud, crushed by demolished buildings in French villages, interred in miserable camps in Germany or crippled by horrific injuries in British hospitals. The BEF was finished as a professional force but it was by no means defeated.

1915 promised to be a year for new armies, a new way of fighting war and new methods of killing on an ever larger scale. Thousands of volunteers, now known as Kitchener’s Army, were currently learning how to fight an industrial war but they were a long way from realising how victory might be achieved. Indeed, they were still a long way from being ready to fight. For now the tattered remnants of Britain’s professional army continued to do its duty.

For a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas, it looked very much like it was just getting started.

* I’ve added this postcard on the 2nd Jan – I missed as I’d been away and left my transcript behind.

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Storm in a tea cup

30th December 1914

The Dorsets remained in billets for the day.

The 5th Division’s diary writes that men were “repairing damage done by storm”. There’s no other mention of this storm in the other diaries. In the Telegraph, however, much of the paper is given over to covering the storm which affected the South East of England on Monday 28th December 1914. Much damage was done to property, including Southend Pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world, which was “breached in three places”. Winds reached almost 40 miles an hour and, in typically English aggrandisement, the storm is described as “very nearly a gale”.

I wonder if this is the same storm that had toppled over precarious sandbags and parapets in Belgium.

There’s an interesting advertisement in the Telegraph today. You could now book tickets to sail to America on January 16th from Liverpool on the RMS Lusitania.

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Mary Christmas from Frank

29th December 1914

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc franked APO 13 De 14, censor 1611 (E Rogers) – written in ink and on back “gone to Camberwell”
Letter dated 29-12-14

Dear Till

Just a few lines to let you know how I got on at Xmas and what sort of time I had, well I must say I didn’t enjoy myself at all, for what with the weather and being in the trenches it just about put paid to the bill but I am getting on alright and still in the pink. The weather out here is miserable what with the rain and mud. Did you receive my letter with the Xmas card in I except you have by now? Till I received a Xmas card from Dolly which was very good of her and I sent her a PC so you can let me know what she says, when next you hear from her. How did you spend your time Xmas don’t forget to let me know?

Now Till I expect you have read about the gift we received from Princess Mary but I am unable to send it home to you as I have not got any rent now I have told you about me leaving you 6d per day for yourself, now dear I want to know if you could send me out some money so that I could register it home, so don’t forget to let me know what you can do, and if you send it in coin not in paper, now I think this is all for now so will conclude hoping this finds you in the best of health.

Love Bid xxx

After a quiet morning the Dorsets left their trenches and at 2.30pm marched to billets in Bailleul, arriving at about 6.50pm. They left behind some men on details and C Company who were relieved a little later on at around 8pm by the West Riding Regiment. C Company arrived later that evening.

Frank probably wrote home from his new billets. I imagine the trenches were far too wet in which to do any writing other than crossing out some words on a Field Post Card. Again, the letter is censored by E. Rogers. I’ve still had no luck finding out anything more about the life of this Dorsetshire officer.

Frank’s opinion of Christmas in the trenches says it all. To top it off, he now needs money to send his Christmas gift from Princess Mary back home. According to the Imperial War Museum, a great many troops did this. His promise of giving Mabel money from his pay continues, but it appears he needs a seed fund to start the ball rolling.

The Princess Mary Gift Fund was a venture started back in October 1914. Its ambitious and commendable aim was to provide every overseas person wearing the King’s uniform with a brass box containing a variety of objects depending on the recipient: From cigarettes, pipe and tinder to smokers, to bullet pen and sweets for the non-smokers, chocolate for nurses and sweets and spices for Indian troops. A card was included wishing everyone a “Victorious New Year”.

Sadly, there’s no indication that this box survived the intervening years, but below is a photograph of  a sample box with cigarettes in it.

 

Photo of a Princess Mary Christmas Fund Gift Box
Princess Mary Christmas Gift Fund Box

And if you’ve ever want to make a tiny replica of this iconic gift then knock your tiny socks off.

 

Bailleul is a town in France archly described by Gleichen as “with its rather quaint old brick fourteenth-century church, porched à la Louis Quinze, was tolerable rather than admirable”. The town was an important staging post for British troops throughout the war. There’s a far better written account of its role here than I could manage.

Image showing the Hôtel de Ville in Bailleul
A postcard written from Bailleul at around the same time as Frank was here in billets

The 15th Brigade had moved en masse into Divisional reserve. Gleichen was off to London on leave and was temporily replaced as CO by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Richard Jebb Griffith, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Bn Bedfords, whom Gleichen rates as the “trustiest of C.O.’s, who had been under heavier fire than almost any one in the Brigade, yet never touched”. You can read more about this old war horse on the Bedfords’ website.

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All quiet on the Western Front

28th December 1914

Today the Dorsets’ diary is empty of any information other than saying it’s been quiet. 5th Division’s diary records that Sector B experienced shellfire and heavy musketry in the evening, a claim which is borne out by the Bedfords’ diary entry.

A Dorsetshire man died today, according to the CWGC, but there’s no mention of this in the war diary. 38 year old William George Richbell had only arrived nine weeks previously. He was a Special Reservist with the 3rd Battalion who had been rushed into active service with the 1st Battalion as a reinforcement on the 23rd October, joining his new comrades outside Neuve Chapelle on the 27th October.

In 1911 William was a beer house keeper (having taken over from his father Thomas) who ran The Bell in Walton on the Hill. By 1914 he was listed as a general labourer in his service papers. He left behind a young wife and son, Florence and William. This former beer house is now a pub (having got its wine and spirit license in 1950) and it possibly retains a military connection today, through its alternative name of “The Rat”, perhaps so-called because it was frequented by members of the Royal Artillery in World War Two (according to the pub’s website).

Like many of the Dorsets’ rank and file, William Richbell had been recruited outside of the county. Some counties were too sparsely populated to feed a regiment’s constant need for new soldiers so they tended to recruit men from larger urban areas; London being a popular location for the Dorsets.

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Cat amongst the turkeys

27th December 1914

The Dorset patrols came back from their night time assignations and reported that everything was very quiet.

Later on that day, at 5.25pm the Dorsets submitted their daily report to the 15th Brigade HQ, saying that the situation as unchanged but they had experienced fairly heavy shellfire during the day. There were no casualties.

The 5th Division diary confirms enemy shellfire landing in Sector B and also in Neuve Église.


At home the nation’s ability to be distracted from the war was epitomised by the lead story in page 3 of the Telegraph where the photo is that of a woman dressed as a cat who is collecting money for the Belgian refugee fund. Pauline Prim is “the first lady who has ever impersonated a cat or any other animal upon the stage”. The Telegraph attributes her feline performance to her husband’s acting abilities and explains that “it was probably though watching her husband’s rehearsals that she was, in a very short time, able to represent a cat in the most lifelike manner.” Thank goodness for men says the Telegraph. Roll on votes for women I say. We also learn that posting amusing cat pictures is not just an internet phenomena.

Another phenomena we think is just a modern one, is that of shopping madness at Christmas, especially when it came to buying turkeys. Here women did rule the (poultry) roost. If they weren’t driving hard bargains in London’s street market (“where the poor buy”), they were accompanying their loved ones on leave to Smithfield, Billingsgate and Leadenhall markets, to choose a bird for the Christmas table. Turkeys were very expensive when compared to beef and pork at this time; over double the price per pound, especially French ones  – Italian ones being in “far inferior condition”. Turkeys, then as now, were being gobbled up.

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