“This front is not so quiet as the papers would have you believe”

A member of Broad Street Brotherhood wrote home from service in a bleak part of the Balkans.

Somewhere in Macedonia
5th March 1918

I am taking the first opportunity of writing to thank you and the friends at Broad St for the nice Xmas parcel which arrived safely last week. It is indeed most kind of you all to think of me in this distant land, and I can assure you your kindness is keenly appreciated.

I must heartily congratulate whoever was responsible for the selection of the contents. They were just what I was in need of – especially the writing pad, toilet soap and cigarettes. These things are very difficult to obtain in our part of the line, which is in a most deserted and desolate area, far removed from any YMCA tent or EF canteen, and 50 or 60 miles from Salonica…

Of course I cannot give you any details of our doings out here, but I can assure, you, this front is not so quiet as the papers would have you believe. Praying that the Almighty’s richest blessing may crown all your efforts to brighten matters in “dear old Blighty”.

W J Dance (OS) [on active service]

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, April 1918 (D/N11/12/1/14)


“For twelve hours on end we were serving men who had just come out alive, though not unscarred, from one of the most terrible battles of this most terrible of all wars”

An account of life at one of the YMCA Huts close to the front lines.

“Four Months in Trinity Hut.”

My second period of service with the Y.M.C.A. at the front is now a thing of the past, and I can never say enough to express my gratitude to the friends who made it possible for me to answer the clearest call that ever yet came to me. Looking back on those four months there is no doubt in my mind that they held what was in many ways the greatest experience and supreme opportunity of my life up to now.

It is of course out of the question for me to convey here an adequate idea or connected account of those experiences. Apart from the limited space, very strict regulations forbid me to print anything of a military or even semi-military character. But in my two lectures at Park [Congregational Church, Reading] on January 9th and 16th, and on Sunday afternoons at the Institute I was able to say something about the ordinary workaday life and work at Trinity Hut, and also about sundry adventures that befell me out there.

Speaking quite generally, this visit was from my point of view far and away more satisfactory than was even my last. There was much less in proportion of the mere manual drudgery, such as could be done as well or better by orderlies. As leader of our own hut, one had of course far more initiative, and fuller opportunities for the kind of service that one was most anxious to render. The chief of these were those afforded by our Sunday evening services which will remain with me as priceless memory so long as I live, those and the many chances of quiet personal talks with the men who are bearing the brunt of the present conflict.

It was a very great delight to see and welcome quite a number of our Trinity boys. In this respect my one great disappointment was quickly merged into something far deeper – the sense of irreparable loss and personal sorrow on Learning that the meeting with Wilfred Drake, to which we had looked forward so eagerly, was not to be. He was taken from us on the very day of my arrival at Trinity Hut, not more than three miles or so from its doors; and there are many of us for whom Trinity will never be quite the same, without his bright smile and cheery voice and loyal comradeship in all good things.

Where every day was packed with work and events of the most absorbing interest, it is not easy to make a selection for special reference; but perhaps the most outstanding feature of all was our work among the wounded. During the September fighting we opened a large marquee half-a-mile or so from the hut, at a dressing station in the village. There many hundreds of walking wounded passed through our hands on their way back to the Hospitals behind the lines, in the base towns, or (the lucky ones) in “dear old Blighty.” I shall never forget those days, still less those nights, when sometimes for twelve hours on end we were serving men who had just come out alive, though not unscarred, from one of the most terrible battles of this most terrible of all wars.

I am glad to be able to reproduce on the adjoining page some sketches and outlines drawn by Mr. Cecil Dunford – the first leader of our Hut – which will convey a better of its general shape and proportions than any mere verbal description. The original will, I hope, be framed and hung up in due course somewhere on Church premises.

And now glad as I am to have that priceless experience, I am no less glad to be home again, and back at work which lies so near my heart and among the friends to whose loyalty and patience I owe so much. May God help us all be brave and faithful in these great, stern, tragic, faithful times. To Him let us commit ourselves and our sacred cause, putting all our trust in him, and praying for fulfilment in us of the ancient promise, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”

Trinity Congregational Magazine, February 1918 (D/EX1237/1)

A uniform bombed to cinders

Air raids were apparently more damaging and extensive than the general public was aware of.

29 Barton Road
30 Dec. ‘17
My very dear old man

Are you really thinking of “some sunny place on the South Coast”. Well, but gare les obus – F’s KRR brother called at his London tailor’s on the 21st, to try on a new uniform. The tunic had been bombed to cinders in the raid three days before, and the poor tailor at work on it was in hospital! Much ghastly work, which we’re never allowed to hear of in the newspapers, is done in these raids. London is so vast that the quarters untouched have grown careless and indifferent…

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“We do not want to reconstruct with a pair of scissors, or with a paste-pot and a lump of putty, but with a pick-axe!”

Reading leftwingers hoped for a big change in life after the war.

Reading Branch ILP

We have held one good meeting at Workers’ Hall on Sunday, November 25, when W N Ewer gave an interesting and useful address on “The Work of the ILP during the coming period of Reconstruction”. The speaker was careful to point out that “Reconstruction” does not mean the methods of hedging and trimming generally associated with the two political parties, but a real system of “Revolution”; or, as he put it, we do not want to reconstruct with a pair of scissors, or with a paste-pot and a lump of putty, but with a pick-axe!…

At our branch meetings we have discussed many subjects including “Fusion of the ILP and BSP”, “Militarism in the Schools”, “Food Profiteering”, “Trade Unionism at the Cross Roads”, and the “Censorship of Leaflets”.

The Reading Worker: The Official Journal of Organised Labour in Reading and District, no. 13, January 1918 (D/EX1485/10/1/1)

“The shell-holes where so many of our boys are fighting must be drying up – an unspeakable boon to them”

A Reading man providing rest facilities for soldiers behind the lines reports on his first few days.

News from France

We are sorry not to be able so far to give much information as to Mr. Harrison’s doings.

The Army regulations and censorship of correspondence is now so very strict that such news as is let through is of the scantiest. We shall, however, all be glad to read the following :-

“I arrived safely at my destination on August 15th after a good journey. The Hut is certainly A1, and everything promises well. I am in charge with one helper, a young Church of England clergyman, and we have three orderlies under us.

Herbert Longhurst has just been in to tea. I was delighted to see him, and hope soon to come across some more of “our boys,” as I am told that several enquiries have been made for me during the last few days.

We are having perfectly lovely weather here now. The roads are hot and dusty, and the shell-holes where so many of our boys are fighting must be drying up – an unspeakable boon to them. Our great difficulties are the shortage of supplies and the insufficiencies of change, but we get along, and have crowds of men in.

Yesterday I was invited to tea with the Captain and Officers in their mess hut, and had a very good time with them. I am in excellent health.”

Trinity Congregational Church magazine, September 1917 (D/EX1237/1)

“Scalps” secured by our airships

Even an idyllic seaside holiday for the Images was interrupted by the war.

Polcurrian Hotel
S. Cornwall

Monday, Aug. 6, 1917

My very dear old man

O but this is a heavenly morning! Brilliant sky, such as I never saw in England before, in August – and the bay underneath my window of such glorious dazzling blue as I think would equal – or put to shame – South Seas or Tropics – and underneath it all, the sneaking deadly submarine. One came in here ten days ago, but had to quit re infecta, without any murders.

But a couple of young ladies from this hotel actually saw, last week, at the Lizard, 6 miles away, a U-boat torpedo strike a steamer and heard the explosion. And a man, who had cycled over, described to me the passionate race of 3 English destroyers to the rescue and our own Mullion airship hovering overhead. They did not get that submarine, though: or at least will not own to it. Discipline makes them very reticent. Still, in less guarded moments, hints are dropped as to several “scalps” secured by one or other of the airships….

Letters tell us … of two raids there – raids never mentioned yet in any newspaper!

Letter from John Maxwell Image to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

A church in a hut, and quite a parish!

An army chaplain from Newbury writes on his work:

The Rev. H C Roberts writes to the Rector from the Front as follows:

“I was very pleased to get your letter and to hear some of the Newbury news. It was forwarded on to me, as I have moved on from my last station, and am now at Garrison Mess, APOS 19. It doesn’t convey much, does it? This is a very much bigger place than where I was last, and I am in charge of this part. We have a very nice church in a hut all fitted out with an altar, reading desk, etc. I believe it is about the only one of its kind out here – it holds about 170 men, and at the voluntary evening service it gets quite full. We have two early services on Sundays, 6.15 and 7.15, and an evening communion on the last Sunday of the month. More men we find are able to make their communions in the evening owing to work, so it gives them the opportunity. Here too we have a CEMS Meeting one night in the week, and last time we had about 15 present. Of course work varies very much according to district, etc. In that way this is very much better than my last place. In addition we have various parade services on Sunday too. So you see it is quite a parish!! and, as you may imagine, a pretty big one too…

We are having some very hot weeks again (this was written in July, ED) now, but for one or two nights it turned quite cold. I am sorry I can’t tell you much of the place or work, but of course we are allowed to say very little in our letters, and all mention of places, kind of work, visits, etc, is prohibited, and I can imagine quite rightly.”

Newbury St Nicholas parish magazine, September 1917 (D/P89/28A/13)

“The mud up to one’s knees everywhere is very trying”

A soldier wrote to his aunt, a farmer’s wife in north Berkshire.


My dear Aunt

I am writing to thank you for that most welcome letter I received. I am sorry I could not answer it before, but we have been busy. We are out of the trenches for a few days’ rest, so now I can write all the letters I owe. How are you all keeping through this very trying weather? I am feeling fit & quite well at present, but of course the mud up to one’s knees everywhere is very trying. It is a terrible job this war for everyone…

In regards to food considering the difficulty of transport we must not complain. Of course it is entirely different from home. It is a job when we come out everyone makes for the Canteen after a few dainties, so if you are not smart you stand a poor chance. Of course I must not tell you any news, but I hope to tell you all one day.

I hear from home very regularly & I tell you I get anxious if the wife does not write. My wife & two daughters are keeping pretty well though it is a nasty separation for them. little Winnie sends me her school work out here…

I remain
Your affect nephew
S H Dowell

Please excuse writing in pencil

Letter from S H Dowell to his aunt Maria Castle of Charlton (D/EX2547/2/4/9/10-12)

The greatest of inventions that this war has produced

Percy Spencer was instructed by sister Florence to write to her husband John Maxwell Image about a new kind of weapon – the Stokes mortar, invented by Wilfred Stokes in 1915.

Mar. 13. 1917
My dear John

I’m under orders from WF to write and tell you “all about the Stokes gun”, with a sort of threat that if I don’t I shall forfeit your affection. Do please give her some lessons on the ‘power of command’.

And now to show she needs none, I’ll tell you, not everything, but a few things about our famous little strafer.

I suppose the character of this war was bound to lead to the development of the mortar. For one thing, in a vast number of cases the distance between the opposing trenches is so short that to hit the enemy trench without damaging one’s own demands closer shooting than modern artillery has yet completely achieved. Hence, as I say, the development of the mortar which from its size and easy portability to forward positions was bound to become an important weapon for short range work. But no one who saw the primitive weapons of this kind which we possessed in 1915 had much hope that the “wonderful Stokes gun”, the existence of which was at first a carefully guarded secret from the Huns, would prove the success and surprise to the enemy that was expected by the experts.

Its advance upon old types was at once recognised, but I do not think its unique effectiveness would have been thoroughly appreciated, but for the perseverance and pluck of our men who work the guns.

Of course owing to their weight and difficulties of ammunition supply, all guns, mortars and mechanical contrivances for trench warfare diminish rapidly in value as an attach advances, but for preparing the way for an assault I believe the Stokes gun is one of our most valuable weapons, and perhaps our most valuable trench weapon. I should not be surprised if it were ultimately classed as the greatest of inventions that this war has produced, excepting, of course, the Kaiser’s utterances.

I’m told its rapidity of fire has the most terrorising effect and in one heavy battle last year, when the preliminary preparation had not been thoroughly completed, it was our Stokes strafe (creating I believe, a record for volume of fire) which not only ripened the harvest for our fellows, but actually gathered it in, for the Huns never waited for them, but ran in with their hands up.

Curiously enough, arising out of a discussion in the mess yesterday upon the reward of the great inventor, some said that the joy of personal achievement was his real reward, others that it was determined purely by the extent of his cash profit, and another that his reward was essentially the consciousness of having benefitted humanity, the latter opinion being cited as Mr Stokes’ recompense; and upon its being suggested that the last was rather a matter of point of view, like a true Christian and Britisher, he challenged the suggestion and stood to his statement.

So, altho’ I’m afraid Mr Censor will not pass any remarks as to the principle of the gun, its rate of fire, ranges and kinds, anyway you’ll be satisfied that it’s a bonnie weapon [censored].

A little while ago WF asked me if a report of “our raid” was true. It was indeed a champion affair, never do I remember such a tornado of fire, but as you will have realised, beyond the broad facts that there was a raid, and I believe the most successful one ever made by the British, the newspaper report is sheer nonsense. The gorgeous gentleman who resides in comfort somewhere behind and seems to have the newspaper glory of this Division peculiarly under his care, succeeds only in getting well outside the truth, and making us appear ridiculous in the eyes of those who do know what is and what is not possible.

Recently I have missed 2 opportunities for souvenirs. One, the top of a brass candlestick discharged from a shrapnel shell at us last night – whether Fritz has grown humorous or artistic, I don’t know, but it strikes me as a rather charming idea of conveying “evening hate”. The other was very curious. In clearing the manure refuse etc from a farmyard midden a stone’s throw from here a Uhlan, intact, with lance complete, was discovered standing upright in the mire. Unfortunately he had been completely souvenired before I heard about him, otherwise you should have had a morsel. It would be interesting to know how he met his death.

Well, I think that’s all the news I have to tell you just now. Life is fairly lively, and we still have to do a good deal of shell dodging.

However it’s all towards the end of the war.

With love to you both

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

A P & O ship strikes a mine and passengers take to the lifeboats

Two Anglican Sisters from Clewer had to take to the lifeboats on a dangerous voyage home from India. The incident was hushed up, and the ship repaired.

17 December 1916

Sister Katharine Hope & Sister Georgina arrived about 1 pm having come overland from Marseilles. Their ship, the Caledonia P&O, had struck a mine when about 1 ½ hours journey from Marseilles. Though she did not sink & eventually reached Marseilles, all the passengers had to take to the boats. Our Sisters were taken off the life boat by one of HM destroyers and brought to Marseilles. The only lives lost were those of 2 of the crew.

The P&O particularly requested that this accident should not be publicly spoken of, for fear of the news reaching German ears.

Annals of the Community of St John Baptist, Clewer (D/EX1675/1/14/5)

Lovely weather for a fight

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister to Florence. He was currently stationed in a quiet area, away from the fighting, and enjoying the sunny weather.


Dear W.F.

Ain’t it ‘ot!

Lovely weather for a fight, what?

Harry Pinder has been next door to me for some days – by the merest fluke he went to one of the other two Brigades of our Division – his two friends in distress came to us. I don’t know how he likes his “instruction”, but he ought to be fairly happy as he’s in what is now a pretty quiet part of the line. It’s a tricky bit of country, however, and just over 2 months ago was the scene of a terrible bombardment, & may be again.

It’s a most perfect day and we’re very comfortably billeted in cool rooms of one of a range of schoolrooms. The schoolmaster’s daughter is perfectly charming – about 10 years old, I should guess, & every bit as pretty. This morning I helped a big farmer’s boy chase her round the playground to mount her on his grand cheval, which she was afraid of because it was trop gros [too big]. Of course we didn’t catch her – it was much too jolly a game to bring to a climax.

It’s very difficult to write these days, an awful lot of “business”, precious little time and a rigid censorship.

So these few lines and those I hope to send will be just to let you known we’re all serene and very well, including the gallant Corporal, who is becoming quite a horseman, at least he thinks he is after being made to ride the General’s charger by the General, as far as the stables.


Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/5/21)

“What scenes our Ascot fellows are witnessing! And what adventures they will have to tell us of when they happily return!”

There was exciting news from some of the Ascot men serving at sea and in Egypt.


The Ascot Sailors and Soldiers Committee report that they sent Easter cards to all the men abroad, and presents to all those who appeared likely to require them, the number sent being 27. They regret to say that no news has been received of the three Ascot men who have been reported missing for some time, though every effort has been made to trace them. They also report with much regret that three wounded men have been discharged from the Army. Four more men have gone out abroad this month, making the total on the list 101.

Signalman Tindal of H.M.S. “Undaunted” has been home on short leave and has given a graphic account of the action in the North Sea off the Danish Coast, in which his ship took a prominent part. For fear of the Censor we must not print all of what he told us, but we may say that the action took place in a high gale and that the rescue of all the “Medusa’s” crew was an exciting episode and carried out with great skill. The German destroyer rammed by the “Cleopatra” went down with all hands, and she sank so quickly that nothing could possibly be done to save them.

A very interesting letter from Trooper Skelton of the Berkshire Yeomanry has been received from Egypt by his parents. He took part in the recent round up of the “Senussi” tribe on the frontiers of Tripoli and also witnessed the release of the British prisoners in the hands of the Arabs. What scenes our Ascot fellows are witnessing! And what adventures they will have to tell us of when they happily return!

The Committee hope that they may be able to hold a Concert in May for the benefit of the Fund, as it requires some replenishing.

Ascot section of Winkfield District magazine, May 1916 (D/P151/28A/5)

A ghastly pantomime

John Maxwell Image wrote to his friend W F Smith with news of a visit from a distinguished former pupil; reactions to a threatened air raid; and a book he had read by ‘Ian Hay’ (the pseudonym of a serving officer).

29 Barton Road, [Cambridge]
3 April ‘16
My most dear old man

That was a tumultuous week just passed. Tuesday’s blizzard came on in an undreamed of fury. We were delightedly entertaining an old pupil – now CE and General Commanding a Brigade of Cavalry, who passing thro’ C[ambridge] on the day previous, had learnt my marriage, and came off at once with his congratulations and the remembrances he was charged with by his brother – another pupil and now Colonel of an Infantry Battalion and DSO. It was a happy meeting. Florence apologised for having to put his teacup in a writing table in our tiny drawing room, because we had not yet set up one of those cunning nests of teatables. Next day arrived a beauty from him, begging we would accept it as a belated wedding present. A day later, and he was ordered away again: but the flying call was such a delicious whiff out of the early past.

I never saw such blinding snow before, and oh the prostrate treeboles next day – like spillikins on the grass. I counted 50 khakis labouring on their trunks in our paddocks, and at least as many in St John’s…

On Friday evening I was finishing a letter when suddenly the electric light went down, then rose, then sank – three times altogether, and left us with the faintest glimmer, just shewing enough that someone else was in the room. The official C. warning of Zepps. We packed the servants in snug armchairs by the kitchen fire: and ourselves went out into Barton Rd, where were sundry residents, chattering under the stars, – and a Trinity friend of mine in khaki, stopping all cyclists and compelling them to put out their lights. The sharp military “Halt” in the dark made at least one fellow tumble off his bike in terror! People said they heard bombs. I heard nothing, not even the drone of a Zeppelin – though one or more did pass over C – but innocuous. The Berlin news claims, I see, C among its victims.

Yesterday, at 11 pm, I was pulling off my trousers for bed, when down once more went the ghastly pantomime of the lowered lights and I had to rouse those integuments and go forth to see what was to be seen. On both nights the lights were kept down till 4 am. This morning the sudden raised flash woke me up from the sweetest slumber.

I hear from our carpenter that much damage has been done at Woolwich, where he has a couple of sons. Not a hint of this is suffered to appear in the Press….

“In Germany the devil’s forge at Essen was roaring night and day: in Great Britain Trades Union bosses were carefully adjusting the respective claims of patriotism and personal dignity before taking their coats off.

Out here we are reasonable men, and we realise that it requires some time to devise a system for supplying munitions which shall hurt the feelings of no pacifist, which shall interfere with no man’s holiday or glass of beer, which shall insult no honest toiler by compelling him to work side by side with those who are not of his industrial tabernacle, and which shall imperil no statesman’s seat in parliament.”

Read “The First Hundred Thousand” by Ian Hay (of Joh.[St John’s College]. I Hay (I forget his patronymic) is at the Front and describes the training and subsequent war experiences of a Kitchener’s Battalion so graphically that I have never seen it better done.

Letter from John Maxwell Image to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

“I hope before you get this that the relief of Kut will be history!”

A soldier friend of Ralph Glyn’s had been asked to tracks down where Ralph’s fallen cousin Ivar might be buried in Mesopotamia.

13th Div

My dear Glyn

So far I have been able to find out nothing about Ivar Campbell’s burial place but I have only been up country (Staint Saud) a few days and will do all I can to find out.

I have written to one Macrae in the Seaforth Highlanders who got a DSO on 7th Jan and he may be able to put me on the track.

I hope before you get this that the relief of Kut will be history! I may not say more as every letter is censored but where you are you probably know officially sooner than I can give you private news.

Not too hot yet but stoking up.

Yours ever
Douglas Brownrigg

Letter to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C32/20)

Sad but interesting: blinded by the war

Florence Vansittart Neale visited St Dunstann’s Hospital, where blinded soldiers were being rehabilitated.

14 March 1916

Fighting at Verdun begun again. French seem confident. Went to see Helen, stayed about 1 ½ hours. C is back from German lesson, trying for PO censorship. Evelyn [possibly Evelyn Dickinson, wife of Henry Vansittart Neale’s nephew] & I to St Dunstan’s to see blind men’s work. Very sad, but interesting.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)