A nasty accident at sea

First letter since Belfast to be written in ink. Envelope addressed to Miss M. Crawshaw, 29 etc (1st since October to Miss M) franked 23.01.15

Dated 23.01.15

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome and interesting letter which I received yesterday. Pleased to hear that you received the Gift alright. Bert told me that his brother was getting on alright when he sent parcel, but have answered his letter but have had no reply yet. Have just heard from Dolly, she mentioned that she enjoyed herself along of you. Doll as got a far better place at last, which is what she deserves, what say you?

Yes I think that it is best what you say about my clothes. I haven’t worn the socks yet but will let you know when I next write.

So you are getting on alright at Stewarts, still merry and bright and doing all the work. Tell Aunt she is a long time writing that budget, tell her to buck up.

No I have not heard from Tom yet but I expect I shall hear from him when he has time to write, I expect he is busy at sea just at present, has Aunt or Mattie had a line from him yet? How are they all at home -still merry and bright – and also old uncle I expect he still wishes he was young enough to go back to sea, give old Tango my best regards. I expect Wallie as started work by now.

Well Till I am getting on as well as can be expected still merry and bright and also in the pink. The weather out here is just about the same, raining from Monday until Saturday night and a few showers on Sunday for a change so you can guess what it is like. But still the Bhoys make the best of it.

Oh Till I have just received Aunt’s letter and was sorry to hear that Tom as met with a nasty accident while at sea but I hope that he will soon pull through. So Mattie is layed up then, let’s hope he will soon be on the old knocker again. And I have just received a parcel from Dolly, a scarf and a piece of Xmas cake, which I think is very good of her, what say you? Heard from Fred Hale yesterday, he wrote a very nice letter.

At present we are having a few days rest which we are all pleased to get, so don’t get having a fit because this is wrote in ink. Remember me to Doris when you next write.

Well Till I don’t think there is any more news at present, except that things are just about the same out here, still J Johnsons flying about and Mr Sniper just as busy as usual. Now I think this is all the news at present, trusting you are all in the best of health at home, and I hope to hear from you soon.

I remain,
Your loving Brother
Frank
xxxxx

PS. Tell Bert I have not heard from him yet, did he get my letter ask him.

23rd January 1915

This post got a bit delayed, so apologies. The Dorsets remained in billets for another day, while the COs of the 15th Brigade’s battalions got together to plan their inevitable return to the trenches.

Frank has written another letter back to Mabel. The first, Geoff notes, in pen since he left Belfast. I’d like to think that Frank got the opportunity to sit at a table in a café in Bailleul to write this. But somehow I know that’s probably fantasy. He warns Mabel at the end of the letter “don’t go having a fit”. Presumably he think she might believe him to be writing from hospital. If only he had received a “Blighty“.

The Princess Mary Christmas Fund Gift Box is mentioned once more, now abbreviated to the “The Gift“. Frank’s also received another parcel from my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam. There’s a reference to his brother. I’ve read these letters many times but today is the first time I’ve noticed this. In my records Carl Robert Debnam doesn’t have a brother. Is this a slip of the pen by Frank? If his brother is also on active service, as the “was getting on alright” implies, then is this another hidden part of the family obscured by war?

The 1911 census has a bit more information than other census records, in that it lists the number of children born to the mother, alive or dead. Carl’s mother, the luxuriously named Justina Charlotta, only has one child listed and she’s 49 by this time. Robert Debnam had married her at the age of 26. Did either of them have a previous marriage I am unaware of? It’s a mystery I will return to.

The other, as yet, unidentified relatives, Old Uncle and Auntie Tango and Tom are mentioned, along with the fact that Old Uncle used to be in the navy. Tom is now in the Navy. Did he follow his family up the gangplank? Fnarr, fnarr. I’ve been looking at the Webster side of the family tree up till now, but perhaps my attention is better turned to Caroline’s parents, Charles and Emma Davis.

Emma Davis was born in Woolwich Dock Yard in 1846, so we have a naval connection straight away. Woolwich dockyard was incredibly important to the British Navy from the sixteenth century to the late eighteenth century but was becoming increasingly irrelevant to ship building as boats got larger and the Thames silted up. The Royal Arsenal began to dominate the area from the mid-Nineteenth century onwards.

The couple had three children, as far I as I can find out at the moment: Caroline, Frederick and Rose. The dates of their birth (1878, 1879, 1883 respectively) make it difficult for them to have had a child old enough to be on active service. Caroline would have had to have been 17 or 18 to have a child at that time. Frederick and Rose are still both living at home in 1901 so it’s very unlikely that they had children. Could I have missed another older sibling perhaps? Or did Caroline have a another child we don’t know about.

Frank must have stopped the letter at some point because the tone changes half way through. He’s had a letter from Aunt Caroline telling him that Tom has “met with a nasty accident while at sea”. Without a surname to give to Tom, it is going to be nigh on impossible to find out the name of the ship or submarine he was on. All we know that he was on a ship that gave him plenty of leave to get back to London so can we assume that it was patrolling the waters around Great Britain? I fear that this slender connection to Tom, just a few mentions in letters from 100 hundred years ago, may now be lost in time.

Has this event triggered Uncle Mattie’s illness? We already know that Uncle Matt is a bit of a sick note. Let’s hope he’s on the knocker again soon.

Frank has also had a letter from someone called Fred Hale and we can assume that Fred is well known to both Frank and Mabel. If this is one of their childhood friends then the only Londoner called Frederick Hale listed in the 1911 census was born in Lambeth in 1889 and now lives in Camberwell. He’s a kitchen porter at some “refreshment rooms”. Could these “refreshment rooms” have been Stewarts?

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Asylum streakers

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc franked 20 Ja 15
Dated 17th-1-15

Dear Till,

How pleased I was with the parcel which I received alright, which I thought was very good of you. I am glad to hear that you got the P M Gift alright, and if uncle Matt wants the pipe and Tobac he can have it, but I want you to look after the box and card.

Pleased to hear that Doll enjoyed herself along of you and Aunt, yes she wrote me a very nice letter and the Chocolates were very good. Is that oh(?) What she said that she didn’t know if I would be pleased with them.

Yes Till all my things are at Belfast and if you could see your way clear to get them you would be doing me a good turn. Don’t forget to let me know when you are going to get them, I have wrote to Jess and told her that you are going to make arrangements with her for getting them to Brixton.

I have received Bert’s parcel and I have answered it surely he as got the letter by now. No I haven’t heard from Tom for some time now but hope to before long. I expect he is well away at sea now what say you. Please to hear Uncle Matt is taking it out of the knocker.

Well Till we have been having a very trying time lately and that account for me not being able to write before. I haven’t heard any more about the leave but I hope to get it anyway.

Glad to see that you sent Doris a little present. How are you going on alright still mucking in at Stewarts? You say Bert is grieved because they are not going to send him out here, you tell him from me he don’t know where he is best off.

Well Till I am getting on away well as can be expected and still in the pink although I haven’t felt myself this last few days.

Surprised to hear about Dolly staying at Tottenham yes she misses the Green. Now I think this is all the news at present except that things are just about the same here and the weather is still wet and miserable. Remember me to all at home and tell Aunt not to forget to drop a few lines before long so will conclude hoping to hear from you soon.

Your loving Brother

Bid xx

17th January 1915

Now we have confirmation that Frank sent the Princess Mary Christmas Gift Fund Box home and that Uncle Matt got the pipe and tobacco. I wonder what happened to the box? The story I’ve heard, secondhand mind you, about the discovery of these letters, is that they were found bundled up in a tin by my Great Uncle Geoff Debnam. I wonder if they were in the Princess Mary tin?

Frank’s received some chocolate sent from Dolly, his ex-girlfriend. The following section discusses getting Frank’s belongings from Jess in Belfast back to Brixton. I’ve always thought this was just for convenience as that’s where he would take his leave he so hope to get. But can we infer from the previous paragraph, that Frank’s attention is shifting elsewhere and that his ardour for Irish Jess was dampened in the Belgian weather.

Taking it out of the knocker is such a great phrase. I guess it means, seeing as Matt’s a postman, that he hammers away at people’s front doors. It appears that Frank’s mother is a postal worker too, but we haven’t heard about her since the beginning of December. Tellingly, Frank hasn’t even asked after her in his letters home. Uncle Matt appears, over the course of these letters, to be a bit of a sick note when it comes to work. Frank is constantly concerned that Matt’s continuing to work and rather surprised when he is actually in work rather than sick.

Doris Crawshaw had enjoyed her 13th birthday on the 11th January, which explains Frank’s reference to Mabel sending her a “little present”.

The only other curious part of the letter is the reference to “Dolly staying at Tottenham yes she misses the Green”. Is this referring to a different Dolly? A family member who might have moved from Frank Senior, who live on Islington Green at “Stewarts” to the grandparents in Tottenham. Or was it Frank’s ex-girlfriend. It seems a strange coincidence that she would live in both places. Or was Dolly a distant cousin too?

The Dorsets remained in billets for another day. Today was a Sunday in 1915. The 15th Brigade’s diary tells us that the brigade enjoyed “usual church, washing and a rest”. I wonder if they billeted in the lunatic asylum in Bailleul, which was a popular destination for officers and men during the war to strip off their lice-ridden filthy rags and enjoy the hot baths there. In fact, when I get some spare time, I will dedicate an entire post to the asylum as there are lots of references to it in soldiers’  memoirs and books.

Frank admits that “I haven’t felt myself this last few days”. Hopefully a hot bath, fresh clothes and a good sleep out the the rain put a bit of a smile back on his face.

 

 

 

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What a bastard

Envelope – to Mrs Webster, 29 Strathleven Rd, franked 12 Ja 15  – censored by A Griffith
dated 11-1-15

Dear Aunt

Just a few lines hoping this finds you in the best of health. Well Aunt I am getting on as well as can be expected and still in the pink. We are getting on as well as can be expected and still dodging Jack Johnsons. The weather out here is terrible don’t talk about rain the country is absolutely flooded so you can guess what it is like.

I expect you have got over Xmas by now I see you had a full house, I wish I had been at home. Tom is getting plenty of leave, I wish I could get away for a few days, but I believe I am getting seven days before long, but it will be some time yet, but still lets hope it will be soon, and then we will have a good time together all of us, that’s providing all goes well out here.

Aunt have you received my two PC, well I expect you only got on, for I have [heard] that one lot of mail got burst (?burnt) and I expect your PC was in it. Please to hear that Uncle Matt is still on the knocker let’s hope he as the luck to keep it. Old Till’s Johnnie seems to be a knut tell her I have just received the Chocolate from him, and he said he had a good time at Brixton, said he nearly got (succled ?) on cold tea. Well Aunt I don’t think there is any more news at present, so will conclude hoping to hear for you soon, and also Uncle Matt.

I remain

Your affectionate Nephew

Bid xxx

11th January 1915

Let’s deal with the censor first. We meet a new officer in charge of Frank’s section, and I’m pretty sure this is Lieutenant Allix James William Griffith. He’s joined as a reinforcement from the 3rd Battalion. His father was the Venerable Reverend Henry Wager Griffith, who was an army pastor out in the Punjab, India, where Allix was born. He’s only 19, a pupil of Charterhouse and a typical Public School Boy product of the British Empire. I talk about officers being posh but this chap takes the Bath Oliver. He’s as posh as his almost-namesake, Alexander Armstrong, and comes from the same lineage too. This website lists him as a direct descendant of that old Norman bastard, William the Conqueror.

Griffith, sadly, didn’t survive the war. He was transferred to the 2nd Battalion and sent to the Middle East, after being wounded in St Elois later in 1915. He went missing in Mesopotamia on the 25th March 1917 and is commemorated on the Basra War Memorial in Iraq. He was one of the 1200 Allied men who were casualties in the battle of Jebel Hamlin, as the British tried to push the Turkish out of Iraq. The battle, fought largely unsupported by artillery against a well dug in enemy (surprise, surprise), was disastrous for the newly reconstituted 2nd Battalion Dorsets who lost nearly 220 out of 500 men in the action.

Frank’s letter to his Aunt Caroline is filled with his usual abundance of positivity, but there is one line that expressed his resignation about the situation he finds himself in: “that’s providing all goes well out here”.

He’s very complimentary about my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam, of whom the beer of Brixton seems to have got the better of. A “knut”, according to the ever-excellent Edwardian Promenade’s glossary, is “an idle upper-class man-about-town”. (My grandfather, Bob, wasn’t a man who could hold his beer and I don’t have hollow legs when it comes to ale either – although we both enjoyed a pint when he was alive). He’s also finally got the chocolate promised back in November.


The Dorsets hunkered down in their soggy trenches while the artillery on both sides played out a deadly game of cat and mouse. The landscape, once liberally dotted with farms and villages in November, was slowly being reduced to piles of rubble and heaps of mud as the two sides pounded any landmark that might offer advantage to the other side.

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Loaf letters

9th January 1914

The fourth page of the 4th January letter to Mabel contained an extra letter Frank had written five days later on the 9th January. He then went onto write another letter to his Aunt. They are both included below.

On a fourth side another, more closely written letter dated 9-1-14 (he’d forgotten what year it was)

Dear Till,

I have received your last two letters and got the 2/6 alright. Now I am pleased to hear that you had no trouble getting the money, and now I want you to spend it on yourself and Aunt. I don’t want it and if I do I will let you know.

Tell Aunt I have not forgot her for am going to write to her next. We are lucky at time to strike a small town or village and then we are able to buy things and they don’t half charge 10d for a loaf so you can guess what it is like.

We are having some hard times for the country is absolutely flooded and mud in heaps so you can guess what the trenches are like.

I have just finished scraping mud off myself, wet through to the skin. That’s where it is, if only they would send me out some of Kitchener’s Army to relieve us it would be alright.

Now Till I have been out here 5 months and have not had chance of a good rest, which I can say I am in need of, for we have been on the go ever since we left Belfast. That’s where it is fellows at home won’t enlist and enjoying themselves and us out here putting up with the hardships of it, it will be a long time before this War is over!

Now I will pack up and will write soon. Remember me to all at home and I hope you enjoy yourself along of Dolly and Edie on Sunday.

Love to all at home

Bid
xxx

We get some more first hand descriptions of the conditions facing the men in Belgium that winter. The other interesting information is about money.

Firstly, Frank now has the postage money to send back the Princess Mary Christmas Gift Fund Box to his sister. I wonder if we’ll hear about it again in a later letter?

We’ve found out already that Frank has been incredibly generous and given over some of his pay to his sister. She’s already managed to get hold of it. quite how that was done is something I will come back to in a future post. He’s insistent that she spends it on herself and their Aunt Carrie. What a decent fellow.

We find out that the soldiers are being absolutely fleeced. The UK Cost of Living index was started in July 1914 and records that a loaf of white bread cost about 1 pence (1d). So to be charged 10d was daylight robbery, even if there was a war on. It’s very common to find soldiers complaining about the price of goods in their letters and diaries throughout the war. Local trades people knew that they had a captive client base and so prices naturally soared.

Frank is beginning to complain regularly about a lack of rest and the fact that there’s no sight of new recruits on the horizon. But it took an awfully long time to build a new army. Especially an army of amateurs. He’s right to complain about men dragging their heels in volunteering, but the fact was that the British Army didn’t have the resources to process to the sheer numbers of volunteers, let alone conscripts. Conscription was some way off in the UK.

Frank mentions his ex-girlfriend Dolly and also Edie, who appears in a letter from Frank back in June. Perhaps Dolly and Edie were sisters? We found out in the last letter that Mabel was going to meet them on Sunday, which would have been the 12th January 1915.

And now we have the letter Frank promised to write to his Aunt.

PC to Mrs (could be Miss) Webster, 29 Strathleven Rd etc, franked 11 January 15 – dated 09.01.14

Dear Aunt

I expect you are thinking that Bid has forgotten you, for not writing to you before now. Well Aunt I haven’t forgotten you and never will but have not had time to write you a letter lately which I have been going to do. Glad to hear that you had a good time Xmas and also hope you get rid of your cold. I am getting on as well as can be expected and still in the pink.

Tom is getting plenty of leave, I wish I was able to. Remember me to old Tango, tell her I hope to give her the Glad Eye before long and also Old Uncle. How is E Jim, has he started yet or is he still on the retired list? Glad to hear Uncle Mattie is still on the old knocker.

Now I think this is all the news for now Aunt, hoping this finds you in the best of health and still merry and bright. The weather out here is wicked, it’s pouring in torrance.

Love to all, Bid.

This letter is similar to many letters I wrote home from school when I had nothing to say. The first paragraph describes the act of writing a letter while writing a letter.

Frank then asks after Tango, Old Uncle, E Jim and Uncle Mattie. I only know who Uncle Mattie is out of this roll call. E Jim must have been ex-forces and old enough not to have to re-enlist but other than that I am no nearer identifying him.

Frank ends the letter with a creative bit of spelling but a sentence that sums up conditions for Frank and the rest of the Dorsets.

The Dorsets spent another day in Dranoutre in billets making up sandbags and hurdles and delivering them to the trenches, according to the 15th Brigade’s diary.

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Not feeling fab from the jab

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc – franked 11 Jan 15*

letter dated 04.01.15

Dear Till

I received your welcome letter yesterday and was glad to hear that you are getting on alright. Till I was surprised to hear that Tom was on leave, he is getting plenty of leave considering how things are at present, but I don’t blame him, I wish I could do the same.

Pleased to see that you heard from Doris she seems to know when her birthday is, what say you? You have heard from Jess then, she is getting on alright. Bert don’t half get some leave,when is he coming out here, you can tell Bert there’s not much chance of a fine time out here, well not up to yet, but lets hope so.

Pleased to see you enjoyed yourselves Xmas, I should reckon you had a gay time, I don’t blame you.

Well Till have you heard from the government yet as regards the 6d a day which I have allotted to you out of my pay, I expect you will hear soon, don’t forget to let me know directly you hear from them. I expect you will draw a month’s money and it’s for yourself.

Well me old dear I am getting on as well as can be expected but I have got a terrible cold. Bert mentioned in one of his letters that he was layed up with inoculation, well I have just been done and it gives me fab(??), I can hardly move.

We have just finished 6 days leave and we was all glad to get it. Now Till there is a chance of me getting seven days leave, that’s all the men who came out here first, but I don’t know when it will be granted, not just a present but later on I expect, that’s all according to how things go, but still lets hope I get seven days.

I received a very nice letter from Dolly, yes it was an interesting one. She said that she had heard from you and that you called and had a cup of tea along of her. She said you was just the same, all smiles, but just a wee bit thinner. I have answered her letter.

So Arthur spent his Xmas at Tottenham, I expected something like that. What say you remember me to them when you go over to see them. I was glad you never went.

Now Till I think this is all the news at present, trusting you are all in the pink and I hope to hear from you soon.

I remain,
Your loving brother,
Bid
xxx

### 4th January 1915

Frank’s letter home to Mabel asks after his sister Doris. Something about his question makes me think that Doris suffers from some kind of learning difficulty. This would certainly explain why she has been away at school. A school which became an official centre for disabled children a couple of years after she left.

Frank has heard from his girlfriend, Jess, and has also now received a letter from Dolly, his ex-girlfriend. She’s met up with Mabel, and presumably the split between Dolly and Frank meant that the two girls’ friendship had come to an end or cooled somewhat. Dolly has referred to Mabel’s warm smile, which is ever present in all the photographs I’ve ever seen of my Great Grandmother.

Frank confirms that he has allotted 6 pence out of his daily pay to Mabel. I haven’t found out anything about how a soldier might transfer some of their pay to a family member – I just haven’t had time – but soldier’s pay is a subject I will return to in the future.

The enteric fever (typhoid) inoculations from a couple of days ago are confirmed in this letter. Frank is now ill with a cold. The transcript says it gives “me fab” but I have no idea what this means and I take it it’s a typo on the part of Frank or Geoff’s transcription. Whatever it was, he’s not feeling great from the jab and I can’t blame him.

Frank also continues to complain about the amount of leave everyone else seems to be getting. I’m not surprised. It must have been maddening. He mentions that seven days leave are due to men out since the 16th August. How he must have longed for a return to his family in Brixton. (Please excuse the maps that are now missing on some pages – my old map plug in is broken and I need to fix them – another reason why I don’t use WordPress professionally.)

More references to tension in the family continue to pepper Frank’s letters home. Again, the source of the tension appears to be Tottenham – namely St Anne Road. Arthur could well have been Arthur Coulson Webster, Frank and Mabel’s cousin by Uncle Matt’s older brother John Webster and his wife Elizabeth. Arthur was 43. “I was glad you never went” makes it clear that Frank is not impressed by this member of the Webster clan.


 

The Dorsets left the comforts of Bailleul and marched to Dranoutre with the rest of the 15th Brigade. By 3pm the Norfolks, Bedfords and 1/6th Cheshires went into billets as reserve. The Dorsets and 1st Bn Cheshires drew the short straw and marched on to Wulverghem. The Dorsets relieved the East Surreys once again, taking over Sector D at 8.30pm. The Cheshires had taken over Sector C from the D.C.L.I. at 7.30pm.

The Dorsets completed the relief by 9.35pm. The Germans constantly sniped their new guests but no one was injured, which is miraculous as there was a full moon at the time. The rest of the day was spent digging out the trenches. Much work had been done shifting the line of the trenches towards the enemy as there was quite a distance on the right hand side of II Corps’ area between the British and Germans.

The trenches might have been basic but they were growing all the time. Communication lines begin to appear on the maps like little snakes worming their way back from the frontline. A system of numbering the trenches had now begun. The Dorsets occupied Sector D trenches numbered from 11 to 14. I imagine that a lot of grumbling about the East Surreys went on that night.

* Today’s letter also contains a second letter written in condensed handwriting on the fourth side of paper, according to Geoff’s notes. I will return to this extra letter in a few days’ time and this explains the later franking date.

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