Awful at Paschendaele

The little Belgian village of Paschendaele was the focus of fighting on the Western Front between 31 July and 10 November 1917. The battle (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres) became notorious for the seas of mud encountered, and the hundreds of thousands of casualties.

12 October 1917
Another push, but checked by weather. Really awful! “Paschendaele” objective.

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

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Heroes in blue and grey and a rained-off garden party

Reading Congregational Church choir entertained wounded soldiers at a garden party in July 1917. They announced the occasion in the church magazine:

The Garden Party to wounded soldiers which the choir have arranged to give instead of their usual River Trip, will be held on Wednesday, July 4th. Mr and Mrs Tyrrell have very generously placed their beautiful garden at the disposal of the choir for this function, and to them our best thanks are due for their kindness. We earnestly hope that the day may be fine, and that the “party” may be a big success in every way.

But unfortunately, the weather turned out to be a disaster. The August issue of the magazine reported on the event’s success, regardless.

CHOIR HOSPITALITY

Wednesday, July 4th was a day that will long be remembered by many of us. It was the day that had been fixed by the choir for their “Khaki” Garden Party. In other words, it was the day upon which the choir, having foregone their usual river trip for the purpose, had decided to entertain wounded soldiers from the various “War Hospitals”, in the grounds of “Rosia”, Upper Redlands Road, which had so generously been placed at their disposal by Mr and Mrs Tyrrell.
Thus it had all been arranged. But alas for “the best laid plans of mice and men!” We had counted without the weather. When the day arrived it was very soon evident that the steady downpour of rain would upset all calculations, and that garden parties would be out of the question. It was terribly disappointing, but there was no help for it. And so our energetic choir master and Miss Green were early abroad, with a view to an in-door gathering at Broad Street. It was no easy task they had to perform, but it was successfully accomplished, and by the time the visitors arrived everything was in readiness for their reception.

Shortly before 2.30 p.m. the “heroes in blue and grey”, brought by trams specially chartered for the purpose, began to troop in, and in a short time the schoolroom was crowded. It was a thoroughly good-natured company, intent upon making the most of their opportunities; and no time was lost in setting to work. Games and competitions were immediately started, and proceeded merrily, in a cloud of smoke from the cigarettes kindly provided by Mr Tyrrell.

At 4.15 a halt was called whilst preparations were made for tea. There was an adjournment to the church, where, for half an hour, Miss Green, assisted by members of the choir, “discoursed sweet music”. On returning to the Schoolroom the guests were delighted to find that ample provision had been made for their refreshment, and they did full justice to the good things provided.

After tea there was an impromptu concert in which the honours were divided between hosts and guests, selections from “Tom Jones” and other items by the choir being interspersed with “contributions” by the men themselves. It was a thoroughly happy time, and 7 o’clock came all too quickly.

Shortly before the close of the proceedings Mr Rawlinson voiced the general regret that the weather had interfered with the arrangements originally made, but hoped the visitors had all enjoyed themselves; and Mr Harvey expressed the indebtedness of the choir to Mr and Mrs Tyrrell, Mr and Mrs Brain, and other friends for the help they had given with the undertaking. Rousing cheers were given for Mr Harvey, the choir, and all concerned, for the hospitality provided, and after partaking of light refreshments in the shape of fruit, mineral waters, etc, the visitors made their way to the trams that were waiting for them, thoroughly pleased with the good time they had enjoyed.

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, July and August 1917 (D/N11/12/1/14)

Rattled nerves and sickly faces under heavy shelling

Percy Spencer had time for a long letter to sister Florence after some near escapes.

Feb 20, 1917
Dear WF

It’s a niggly drizzly day, but I haven’t seen much of it so far as I slept peacefully on till 9 am – and of course the whole office did the same. That’s the worst of being senior, no one moves till I move.

As soon as I came back to this part of the world I started cultivating a throat again, but apparently I’ve become hardened, for just as I began to have hopes of “home-sickness” I got better again.
This is evidently a “throat” area for half the world here has some throat trouble.

Garwood is due back from leave today. I expect he went to the Curtises and left them news of me – I’m afraid you’ll find it rather more shelly that you’d like. However we’re getting grand at dodging.
A short while ago our outfit was driving to a certain place, when I noticed a shrapnel burst ahead of us. I remarked to my brother Sergeant on the box of the lorry that that it appeared to be bursting at our destination. He disagreed and I therefore drove on. Just as I ordered the driver to stop at a road corner, the beggars burst a second shell almost overhead, but luckily beyond us, so I suddenly changed my [speed?] and drove on 50 yards. Before I’d got my men clear and off in small parties towards our ultimate destination, we’d had a dozen more shells over, and for a quarter of a mile of our progress, so very much on the lines of a game of musical chairs in which the gun report was the pause in the music and the ruined skeletons of houses the chairs. There’s a certain amount of sport in this shell dodging game, but on that occasion I could not get up any of the interest of my brother sergeant in the terrific bounds of red hot lumps of metal off the frozen surface of the road a few yards away.

However I think I’d always rather be in the open when there’s any heavy shelling on, unless your roof is absolutely safe. For instance, also a short time ago, when we had to endure the heaviest shelling in the worst cover that has so far been our misfortune, we all (including myself) awaited the climax with rattled nerves and sickly faces, but once I got into the open en route to my office I thoroughly enjoyed sliding across a frozen moat, scooting across a road into a ditch t’other side, and ducking along this as the shells came over until we reached home. Tyrrell went sprawling in the ditch but nevertheless was an easy first – a big burly fellow passed me like the wind on the final stretch – I couldn’t run for laughing at the humour of the situation – once the heavies got going, man is very much in the position of the rabbit when a ferret is dropped in his warren.

Last night we had your sausages for supper. Today, just now, in fact, I’ve had lunch – quite a swagger meal, so I’ll list it:

Roast beef
Boiled potatoes
Tinned beans
Suet pudding
Boiled pudding & treacle
Cheese

Come and join us! It’s bully beef tomorrow.

I’m gradually getting a little more time to myself and last night played a rubber of bridge in our mess – it’s a cosy little shanty, timbered roof & green canvas walls – once upon a time it was our office, until one afternoon in the midst of a hefty strafe the Huns dropped a 5.9 shell just behind it, so now we’re in a somewhat safer place, and next door to an almost safe place into which we all dodge if the weather gets too thick.

Believe me, this is a shell strewn part of the world, and just when I went up the line the other afternoon during a very heavy bombardment, we turned up first a hare, then a cock pheasant and then a brace of partridges that all the noise and thunder couldn’t disturb – only man is vile.

Did I ever thank you for the splendid socks you sent me, and for a thousand and one other things – I’m afraid not.

I believe I did tell you about our follies & their pantomime. There’s some excellent stuff in it, the best scene I think being one of the opposition trenches manned by their respective defenders. A system of reliefs has been inaugurated under which firing & trench guarding is done by turns and the scene opens with a row between the Britisher & the Hun, because the latter had during the night fired his rifle out of his turn and nearly hit someone. From that you go on to the idea of morning inspection of each other’s trenches with a good deal of friendly criticism and wind up with the arrival of tourists and souvenir hunters, the “ladies”, as I told you, being quite edible.

Well my dear girl I’m now going to do a little work by way of a change,

With my dear love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/6/15-20)

“Nothing out here seems so nice as that which comes from home”

Wargrave men were deeply grateful for little remembrances from the people at home and Christmas saw another set of donations.

Gifts to the Men at the Front:

A quantity of tobacco and cigarettes for the men at the Front was brought to the Church on Christmas Day and will be carefully distributed among those who were left out at the time of the Harvest Festival.

The letters from the front show how much these little presents are appreciated. We have heard from S. Briscoe, K. F. Buckett, F. Cunnington, A. Haycock, C. M. Hodge, J. Hodge, A. J. Hollis, J. Milford, S. Piggott, J. Pithers, J. Wigmore, and others. A few extracts are printed below:

“I am writing to thank you and also the inhabitants of Wargrave for the cigarettes they kindly sent out here for me, as nothing out here seems so nice as that which comes from home.”

“I now take pleasure in writing to thank you very much indeed for the cigarettes and kind wishes, which I received quite safely. I am sure I am very grateful to all those kind friends which have helped you to do this and although I cannot thank them personally I wish you to do so.”

“Believe me it does one good to know that we out here are not altogether forgotten. I send to you and all friends in Wargrave, many thanks and best wishes for a merry Christmas and a much happier New Year.”

“I cannot express how pleased we are out here to get the news and good wishes from all at home, letters etc. being the great connecting link with the dear homeland and we all thank you most heartily for them.”

“We are out of the trenches now staying in a small village, our Division was inspected by the Duke of Conaught. I expect it was a grand sight for those who were watching us. I do not know of anyone from Wargrave in this Battalion but I have met one from Hurst. I think we are lucky to be out of the trenches now as we have had a lot of rain this last week which would make them in an awful state. Our Chaplain has recently been awarded the Military Medal. We have a service every Sunday morning.”

Wargrave parish magazine, January 1917 (D/P145/28A/31)

“There is no glory in this war except the glory of sacrifice and friendship”

An anonymous army chaplain shared his experiences seeing off troops headed for the front line with the parishioners of Windsor.

A Draft: A Sketch. By a Chaplain to the Forces at the Front.

Mud and rain and darkness! I looked out of my hut. The station was four miles off. My bicycle was heavy. I was not sure that my lamp was in order. I had already got thoroughly wet. Should I give the train a “miss”?

There were five or six hundred men going from “my” camps. Part of my task is to see men off to the Front. Some chaplains do it, and some do not. One gives out Woodbines and Prayer-card from England, one says something. I am usually reduced to saying “Good luck,” even though I do not believe in luck. (more…)

Human kites: an ambulance convoy on the move

The Revd T Guy Rogers, former vicar of St John’s Church, Reading, reports his latest adventures as as army chaplain attached to a medical contingent.

A FIELD AMBULANCE TREK (BY REV. T. GUY ROGERS).

Here we are on ‘trek’ – only half a dozen miles from our starting place – destination all unknown. It was a good thing the journey was a short one – we made it against driving wind and rain, and it was difficult either to sit on a horse or to walk. Everybody’s mackintosh was distended like a balloon – the Sergeant Major on horseback might have been mistaken for a zeppelin. If only the wind could have done a little more for us and converted us into human kites we might have enjoyed the struggle with the elements, but as it was we were merely buffeted and knocked about.

Here and there the ranks were broken as someone plunged into the ditch by the side of the road to recover his cap blown off by the wind. The lucky ones (including the Padre) found them floating peak upwards, the unlucky ones peak downwards. Every now and then we halted, blocked by transport ahead of us, and resigned ourselves to a profane silence. These halts may be said to have begun before we started (this is what one of the Irish contingent said anyhow!), for just as we moved up the narrow by-street, C.O. riding as the head, R.A.M.C. in serried ranks following, transport bringing up the rear, ready to defile upon the road of march, we found our exit blocked by troops in motion. So we sat upon our horses, or stood upon our feet, while the wind blew and the rain poured, admiring the balloon-like forms in front of us.

At length – a long length it seemed to us – the troops passed our exit and it was possible for us at last to ‘debouch’ (ah! That word has a good military sound about it!) upon the road behind them. But the halt was ill-omened, prophetic of many halts behind this column which had filched our right of way. ‘How do you pass the time during these delays?’ Punch’s historic answer gives the correct reply: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sit.’ (no ‘p’ in the last word, though Tommy Atkins is apt to insert it when he quotes the ‘bon mot’!)

At last we march in, though at first it looks as if there was nothing to march into. Motor wagons are side tracked, horses stabled, men billeted, and last, according to unwritten law, Officers find their way to the Mess, if there is one, and concentrate upon a scratch meal, to which a ravenous appetite does ample justice.

Reading St John parish magazine, March 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

We almost forget what the sun looks like

The people of Earley heard from one of its soldiers now serving in France:

Mr Septimus Hawkes writes from France –

We are still in billets, waiting for orders to march to the firing line. We have to be ready to move at two hours notice. We spent a very quiet Christmas, but thought of you all when at Holy Communion, which was held in a small schoolroom in a village nearby. It was so cheering to sing a few of the beautiful old hymns, as it is hard to realise the times out here. We spend most of our time manoeuvring across country, and so get plenty of exercise. We had some sports for the Battalion a few days ago, and they were quite a success in spite of the field in which they were held being under water. We still get plenty of rain and almost forget what the sun looks like.

Earley parish magazine, February 1916 (D/P192/28A/14)

“It’s not very pleasant out here”

The people of Wargrave continued to contribute to the war effort, but were starting to slack off a little. Perhaps the war was already seeming too long. They may have been inspired to redouble their efforts by the letters in the parish magazine from serving soldiers grateful for their gifts of cigarettes.

Surgical Dressing Emergency Society

The society has had a great many dressings and comforts sent in from the Branches and outside friends, but, the workers in Wargrave have considerably fallen off. The need for dressings is becoming more urgent every day and we do hope very much that those who can spare more time, and make a special effort to come to the workrooms more often, will do so, as the Hospital is taking away some of our best workers. Mr Butcher has become a regular worker, and has undertaken to entirely pack all the bales. This is heavy work, taking up a great deal of time, and it is an enormous help.

We have most thoroughly enjoyed the Thursday Readings by the Vicar, and we are most grateful to him for sparing us so much of his time.

Harvest Gifts

Letters continue to arrive from Sailors and Soldiers, at sea and in the trenches, expressing their thanks for the Tobacco and Cigarettes sent from the Harvest Festival. During the last month there have been letters from Fred. Brown, A. Creighton, Percy Elsley, W. A. George, J. H. Hodge, A. W. Hall, M. Hutchings, F. G. Mayne, H. Ogbourne, C. Pugh and H. Shaw. (more…)

“Water above their waists” in the trenches – even worse than last year

Maysie Wynne-Finch passed on to her brother Ralph news of the conditions in the trenches from her brother in law William (Billy) Wynne-Finch.

Dec 9/15
Cefnamwlch
Edeyrn
Carnarvonshire
My dear darling R.

Christmas alas will be a poor thing most places out of the nursery this year. I don’t know where we shall be. John’s Board is on the 21st. Even if they pass him, which I hardly think likely, though he does, he must get more teeth out & in before he can possibly go out again, & so I think he’s safe to be in England. If possible we shall be at V[oelas] & his mother will come up – otherwise we shall stay in London with her. She won’t leave London except to come to V. as at any time we think Billy will be sent home. His circulation has never recovered [from] his wound & he [is] certain to get frostbite before long I fear. From all accounts the conditions out there are too awful. The water & mud even worse than last year. Billy, who is not given to exaggerate hardship, writes an awful account [of] water above their waists & continual rain…

I saw in today’s paper at last they put in Admiral King Hall’s dispatch about the Konigsberg show. Why in the world, one wonders, need such things be delayed 5 months…

Your ever loving Maysie

Letter from Maysie Wynne-Finch to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C2/2)

‘It is this terrible “drift, drift, drift” which is so depressing’

Another fellow officer writes to Ralph Glyn to express his frustration. It may be General Frederick Stanley Maude.

11.10.15
My dear Glyn

Many thanks for your letter. I wrote to thank you for the vegetables, the which arrived all right, but possibly the letter like many of them has got lost.

You will have heard by now that the Division to go to Salonica was altered here & that, instead of our going, the 10th have gone. H[ildyard?] told me the change had been made but not the reason…
Still these little things will happen & I should be quite happy if I felt that we were going to do something here. It is this terrible “drift, drift, drift” which is so depressing, & one feels so un-English to be hung up for months here by a handful of Turks less numerous than we are. I wonder what the Peninsula warriors would think of us if they knew the situation!

A good deal of sickness which does not seem to improve morale. Personally was never fitter in my life, but Cooke & 2 ADMS have gone sick, & several others are dicky.

Gillman has become Bg RA 9th Corps & Hildyard moves up.

Weather seems to be breaking & we are getting some rain & wind, but the flies are still with us, though not so numerous….

Yrs sincerely
[F S] Maude

Letter to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C31/30)

Both sides are thoroughly weary of the war

The Newbury parish magazine reports a wearied mood regarding the war. Little did they know how much more they would have to endure.

The War still goes on, and it would be true to say that both sides are thoroughly weary of it. Still we must try to be patient, and trust in persevering prayer, not that we may attempt to make our will prevail, but in order that we may bring ourselves and our Nation to a right state of mind, and that means a state of penitence and of love for God. And let us trust Him to work His Purposes out in His own wide way. The services on August 4th were pretty well attended, there being 59 communicants at the Celebrations, but we must keep on praying and must be very regular at our devotions, both private and public.

The War Litany continues to be said at the Church on Thursdays at noon, and we should like to see more present there, and at the Celebrations during the week, which afford a special opportunity for intercession. There is also a weekly litany at St Hilda’s Mission Room on Tuesday nights at 8 pm, at which we have a small but regular congregation.

We are having just now a congregation of 300 or more men at our Church Parade Service, and the SPCK Soldiers’ Service Books, authorised for use by the Chaplain General, have been kindly lent us by Major C Abbot-Brown, Commanding ASC. It is grand to see so many men together at Church.

The Rector has had another letter from Mr Streatfeild at the Front: he is not allowed to publish these, but may say that they give interesting details of a Chaplain’s work – and they may remind us that the Clergy at the Seat of War, as well as the men whom they serve, stand in constant need of our prayers in their all-important duties. The last letter was written “under a waggon shelter waiting for the rain to stop”.

We should like to express our sincerest sympathy with Mrs S Payne of 2 Bartholomew Place, in the very severe loss of two of her sons through the war. A third son has been badly wounded, and a fourth has been given a Commission, while she has also two step-sons serving. In addition to this Mr S Payne himself has gone out to the seat of war to dig trenches. This is a remarkable record of loyalty, and well worthy of imitation.

We are glad to know that the Soldiers’ Club at St George’s continues to flourish, and is much appreciated by the men who use it, as is shown by the gratitude which they express personally, and in letters after they have left. At the Church Parade Service one Sunday a collection was made for the expenses of the Club.

Newbury parish magazine, September 1915 (D/P89/28A/13)

“The Huns do not spare a thing”

The voice of ordinary working class soldiers is often hard to find, but here is a letter from a Stratfield Mortimer man to the vicar of his church at home:

A Letter from the Front
We are glad to print the following extracts from a letter to Canon Lovett Cameron from Private C. E. White, 73rd Co. A.S.C. M.T-

I am all right, and like it out here very much. I am very glad now that I joined the Army, as it must be awful for a man walking the roads of England knowing that this is a life and death struggle and doing nothing for their country, or I may put it for their own homes. They ought to see a few towns of Belgium, then they might realise the nature of this terrible war. The Huns do not spare a thing. There is a most lovely church not far from here; as I expect, you know the churches here are splendid; this church which I have seen myself they have reduced to ruins, and have torn up the graveyard by their shell fire. It is most wicked…

We get plenty of good food, also plenty of clothing… You ought to see some of the roads here, awful to drive over, holes in places 2 ft. deep, and with all this rain very slippery. We have about 180 lorries and over 700 men in this Company. We got through the retreat from Antwerp all right, and up to now have only lost 2 men killed and 3 injured, that was at Ypres, the Germans shelled us there.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, April 1915 (D/P120/28A/14)

“These Indians are splendid fellows, and such fighters”

A wounded soldier from Ascot had words of praise for the Gurkhas and Indian soldiers he was serving with, while two Bracknell men had been killed.

Ascot

THE WAR.

Two of our Ascot lads, Eric Ferns and Sidney Sumner, are amongst the wounded, of Sidney Sumner we shall have more to say in our April Number. The following extracts from a letter of Eric Ferns will be read with interest:-

“I have been very queer for a month now after my smash up. It was on December 9th. I was taking a car full of Gurkhas on to the field, and there came a German aeroplane, and dropped a bomb, and it missed my car, and a crowd of people gathered round to see if we were hit: and the same aeroplane dropped another bomb and took the back of my car off, and pitched me yards into a ditch. I don’t remember any more until I woke up, and found myself in Hospital. That was on the following Tuesday. I got 3 in me, one in the foot, one in the leg, and the other in the wrist: but the shock was dreadful. My foot and leg are much better: but my wrist is still bad, but I have much to be thankful for, as they told me 24 were killed and 4 injured by the same bomb…

These Indians are splendid fellows, and such fighters, they think of nothing else but this war. It is all rain, and up to your knees in mud…”

Bracknell

THE ROLL OF HONOUR

At the end of January news came that two more of those who are on our list on the Church door and fallen in the war.

WILLIAM KING GEORGE was the eldest son of Mr. S. King George of the Brackens. He was serving as Captain in the 3rd Gloucesters, and was killed at La Bassée on 25th January. His Colonel wrote of him, “We feel that we have lost a most gallant comrade and a true friend.” Captain George was married and leaves two sons.

GEORGE BRANT, who fell about the same time, was called up as a Reservist at the beginning of the war. He was a Private in the Queen’s West Surrey Regiment. His parents now live in Martin’s Lane, and were formerly living at Chavey Down. Brant was a widower and leaves two children.

Winkfield District Magazine, March 1915 (D/P151/28A/7/3)

“What terrible weather for our soldiers”

William Hallam gets a pay rise thanks to inflation – and has a thought to spare for the troops:

19th February 1915
Showery again. What terrible weather for our soldiers. To-day we begin to receive 2/. extra a week on account of high prices.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/23)

They should use a vacant factory to billet troops – not a camp in Drayton

Berkshire-born William Hallam, living over the county boundary in Swindon, had some thoughts about billeting, which he confided to his diary:

2nd January 1915
After dinner washed shaved and changed and went out for a walk with wife, down Drive Road and along Plymouth St. where I had never been before. Saw that new Rope factory for the first time – finished last August and never been used yet on account of the war, no raw material being obtainable. Thought it would have been much better for the men and country to have billeted our new soldiers in places like this than in such wet sites as Draycott and other outside camps.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/23)