Harrowing scenes with maddened mothers desperate to reach wounded sons abroad

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image wrote to the wife of his friend W F Smith, who was living abroad, with a report on the rush to get passports in order to attend a dying son’s hospital bed.

TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge]
Thursday 29 April 1915

My dear Mrs Smith

Here in England Passport Photographs are being turned out by the thousand – owing to the accursed War. A lady friend of mine whose son – his battalion (Rifle Brigade) will not go out till next month – has already had hers done, to enable her to start at the first moment’s notice for the French Hospital where she foresees the boy will be lying, directly after he has entered the deadly Trenches.

The Photographer at Harrods, who is being worked to death, describes to her the heart-rending interviews he has to undergo with maddened mothers imploring him to produce in a couple of hours the likeness without which the passport is unable to bring her to receive, perhaps, the dying words of the wounded son. The scenes are harrowing, he says.

The world was at peace – Germany itself (despite the wolf lurking secret under every German fleece) would have kept peace, but for these malign Prussian robber-savages.

Who, so prate our Prigs, must not be “humiliated”, or even penalized for their crime.

Leave Prussia unbroken, and let our children, half a century hence, be destroyed by a fresh and bloodier hurricane of these same villains, when maybe there are no France and Russia at their side.

How strange to you would seem Cambridge as an armed camp. We, by this time, are inured to it. Full term is on – yet the streets swarm with khaki only – massed Regiments in the Great Court two or three times a day – the streets blocked with Paddocks echoing to drill – and the River at the backs alive with canoes and punts of an afternoon.

Yesterday, for the first time since January 26, we were allowed electric light, instead of candles, to eat our dinner by: and this with only one half the regular number of burners.

No light in the Great Court (you’ve no conception of the grace and majesty of the buildings seen under the full moon).

St Mary’s Clock restarted its chimes on Easter Sunday, but by daylight only. Silent all the night. A week ago the Trinity Clock resumed striking the Hour, with both voices, but not the Quarters: and by day only.

At 1 pm for the last week a huge hooter has emitted its gigantic wailing, heard all over the Town: this is merely to teach the populace. When that hooter shall rouse us from slumber, it will imply a Zeppelin over Cambridge…

The German war book owns that there is no check save the fear of Reprisals – which they have no dread of from England, the flabby. Possibly France and Russia may be less squeamish.

The 2nd battalion of the Monmouths (how different from the first battalion!) evacuated Whewell’s Courts on the 21st – leaving such filth behind them – broken windows, smashed doors and electric fittings, scribbled walls, etc, that the Junior Bursar demanded over £100 damages before he would consent to admit another Regiment. That Regiment was only a couple of hours off, and the billeting officer was at his wits’ end to put them anywhere else – so the terms were granted.

The Regiment in question is the 4th Royal Surrey – a very different set of men. The finest and best drilled Territorials I ever saw. Their Colonel, Campion (Unionist MP for Lewes, New College, Oxon) – sat next me in Hall, and is as nice a fellow as his Regiment are “smart and snappy”….

I respect the autocratic eraser too much to give you any of the hundred thrilling rumours (or canards) hovering around us. Will he suffer me to say that we lie under a rotten ministry?

Love to both

Bild [nickname]

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don (D/EX801/1)

Military discipline improves the uncouth miner

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image wrote to the wife of a friend living abroad with comments on life in a university during the war. One change was that women’s sport took on a new importance.

TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge]
Easter Day, 4 April 1915

My dear Mrs Smith

I counted 384 Monmouths at early service (9.30) this morning, and behaving so devoutly. Military discipline, how it improves the uncouth miner – and how gloriously they sing.

Today I have, for the first time since January 26, heard St Mary’s clock chime. Our oracles are yet dumb, at Trinity and elsewhere, and streets and Courts lend no help to Zeppelins for finding their way. At Hall (but I must have told you) barely a glimmer comes from the pendant chandeliers: and the two High Tables are dimly lighted by wax candles. It is grand, at Grace time, to watch the dignified Head Waiter hold, with much state, a silver candlestick before the VM and Dean to enable them to read the Board. For the last fortnight, however, we have been dining in Combination Room, to my great comfort – but from motives of economy. Dress clothes, however, tonight, and the “foaming grape of eastern France”. We don’t anticipate total prohibition. It may be found necessary….

The males of the two Universities don’t meet in combat this year. The ladies do: and Camb has won both matches, both Hockey and Lacrosse. In each of these (see photographs [sadly not surviving]) Oxford played in decent skirts. The Camb women wore KILTS…

Ever yours Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don (D/EX801/1)

Four days in the trenches and never saw a German until they got him

Elderly Cambridge don John Maxwell Image (a friend of the Spencer family of Cookham) wrote to a friend with an insight into life in a university town almost taken over by the army. He had visited a wounded former student in London: William Cary Dobbs, a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, was no youngster, in his 40s. He had been wounded in February 1915 at the Battle of Ypres, and was later killed in action.

[17 March 1915]

Wednesday, St Patrick’s Day 1915

VDB [his friend’s nickname]

This letter, in reply to yours received just a fortnight ago, would have been written long ago, but I am only just convalescing from a brutal cold and cough… I attribute it to the bitter North wind that met me on Westminster Bridge and on every open space on my return afoot from a visit to Willie Dobbs in St Thomas’s Hospital. He had been but 4 days in the trenches when they got him. He suggested in a letter how much he would like to see me: and feeling how lonely he might be, I came up from C[ambridge], I may say on purpose. I went to him on Sat, and Sund. Ha, ha! lonely!! At the first visit (he has a room to himself and one other officer – somewhat dirty, but very snug. But to me the long corridor where the men are berthed in two rows seemed the more cheerful). Well, on Saturday I found 2 young ladies – a cousin and a pretty sister – and two or three men in attendance. On Sunday a different sister and, counting one after another, I should guess about six men – nearly all of whom professed to remember me at Trinity, and two had the audacity to improvise (which they called “quoting”) remarks made by me to them on various occasions. Such subtle flattery there was no resisting: although I could swear to having never set eyes on any one of them before. We had loads of stimulating War-gup from the London Clubs. All has perished from my memory. Had I felt equal to writing when your letter came, I could have ladled out to you some prime yarns. Willie, in a long grey dressing gown, looked utterly unchanged from what I saw last June. His wound was in the left upper arm, just above the elbow – a compound fracture, worse luck, but from a rifle bullet, not shell. He doesn’t seem troubled by it. He has to sleep on his back, somewhat tiring, and they had begun to massage the hand and fingers.

Four days only in the trenches – and he told me that he never saw a German! The way they fed him up on his journey to the sea was most hospitable – beef tea and champagne at every town. No sooner had he touched old England’s hospitable shore than every comfort had to be paid for. In France all was free.