Author Archives: Family Letters

The Berrymans after WW1

It’s now time to leave them, but what happened to them all?

Gertrude continued to live at Delaford in Guildford and remained the centre of the family until the late 1930s, looking after her grand-children while their parents were in India and the South China seas. Gertrude died in in the late 1930s.

Richard took up his post as a doctor in Assam and got married there. He was 40 and his bride, Beryl Gladys French, was 19 or 20. The marriage lasted a year or so and his wife remarried in the late 1920s. There is a suggestion that she had a career as a Casting Director for the Paramount Film Company. She died in Chester in England in 1981.

Gertrude was so stubbornly traditional, that it’s hard to see her being happy about her darling’s unsuitable marriage and divorce. It is not known if she ever met Richard’s bride, but it seems unlikely.

Richard died in 1936 at Barts Hospital where he had trained as a doctor over thirty years before. He was 56 and probably died of cancer. Richard was the first of the adult Berryman children to die but of all of them, he probably had the most fun.

Jim and Sheina did not have any children. I am not sure if they divorced or if Sheina died. Jim remarried, and he and his second wife Jean ran a seaside shop on the Isle of Wight in the 1950s and 60s. Jean must have been quite a bit younger than Jim because I met her in the very early 1980s. She clearly adored him and referred to him as “my darling Jim” but they too were childless.

Ted and Nell went out to India where Ted was eventually colonel of the regiment. Their two children were sent home when they were 7 or 8 and raised partly by Gertrude and partly by Nell’s parents. Ted retired in the 1930s and was in England for his children’s teenage years. Their son Martin joined the regiment and was killed in Malaya in 1943. Their daughter married one of Martin’s fellow-officers and became custodian of these letters. Ted died in the early 1960s and Nell died in the 1970s.

Ben’s fiance, Ivan Bennett, was killed on the Somme and before the war ended she married James Tucker who was a family friend. She and James had no children, though we do not know if there was additional heartache for Ben in this. James prospered through his legal career eventually becoming the judge who tried Lord Haw Haw for treason after the Second World War. Ben died in the 1970s.

Dreda was the second of the adult children to die, passing away in the late 1930s, presumably dying of cancer. From the remaining letters it emerges that her last months were marred by a feud between her husband, who tried to keep things quiet and calm around her, and Gertrude who insisted on a mother’s visiting rights, and accused him of causing her daughter’s illness in the first place. They had no children.

Paul made the navy his career. He was divorced twice and married three times; like Richard he was charming but difficult to live with. Paul’s royal friend Prince Albert quietly lost touch with many of his naval friends after marrying Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the rest were replaced by courtiers when he became King George VI. Paul’s daughters, Joan and Paddy (Patricia) both married and his grandchildren and great grandchildren are in Northumberland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and Canada. He died in the early 1970s.

Jane went with Murray Gordon to Canada. They had no children though this picture shows her holding one so I find myself wondering if the stoical Berrymans simply never spoke about lost babies.

Jane in Canada in the 1920s holding an unknown baby

Rosamund married shortly after the war and had three sons. The death of her eldest son, Tom, left two small daughters to be raised by cousins when he “disappeared in the Bermuda triangle”. Rosamund’s middle son, Peter, visited Topher in Kenya after the second world war, and it is a lasting regret that I never asked Peter about this time. Rosamund lived near Tunbridge Wells with her husband and wrote angry letters to newspapers in green ink. They too died in the 1970s.

Topher left the army after the war. He married in his late 50s and he and his wife had no children. He spent most of his life in Kenya where he is recorded as “a farmer”. He constantly struggled with minor ventures: Paul and he shared a patent for a non-slip lamp for use at sea, and at one point he was breeding “barkless dogs” for people to keep in flats but Basenji are high-energy hunting dogs and the venture was not successful. He remained in Africa until he died in the mid 1960s.

Ruth married Nell’s brother Jack after the War. Jack’s first love turned him down and his marriage to Ruth was difficult. She suffered from depression, whether inborn or as a result of circumstances no one now will know. They may have had the pain that goes with difficulty in having children. Their daughter is the custodian of much material from both sides of the family.

Paul, Rosamund, Ted
Jane, Jim, Ben
Ruth, Topher
Even in 1956, they don’t all look at the camera!

Working with these letters for almost eight years has shifted my views of my family, my parents and myself, and has changed my perspective on the past and our current complex times.

The Berrymans’ instant response in 1914 was both patriotic and personal. Ted, Paul, and Richard had no doubts they were doing the right thing: they couldn’t have done anything else. It’s harder to tell if Jim and Topher had the same internal drivers or if they responded to what was expected of them; we know Topher was wretched and may have had at least some degree of shell-shock and that it took some years for Jim to settle into army life. For myself, I share few of the Berrymans’ political views which forces me to wonder what my views would have been if I had been raised by Gertrude or someone like her in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Berrymans’ stories led me to think about individual rights and public duty and about how history plays out. Ted fought in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad in events which led directly to the Iraq wars of our own times. This warns us that the events of 2016-2019, including Brexit, will have consequences for centuries. This long perspective casts an unflattering light on the short-term opportunism of our decision-makers. I look at our current crop of politicians and see whining children putting self before faction, faction before party and party before country. They are disgraceful inheritors of the legacy of those young men and women who grew up so fast and lost so much in WW1 and WW2 and who could say, as John Maxwell Edmonds put it, ‘for your tomorrow, we gave our today’.

It’s axiomatic that Britain was permanently changed by the First World War, and the letters give us glimpses of pre-WW1 attitudes, the racist structures of Empire and the embedded class structure of the society disrupted by the wars and the end of Empire. By 1945, two generations of working class men had been armed and taught to fight which must be an unsettling prospect for an hereditary governing class. In 1945 the post-war Labour government had so much confidence it gave us the NHS, launched a nationwide social housing programme and brought the Windrush generation to Britain. By the 1990s it was easy to assume that our secular, democratic and meritocratic society was here to stay. But I have spent the last five years with an eye on the present and another on the world 100 years ago, and I fear that the relative peace and egalitarianism of the second half of the 20th Century was an anomaly: we can see the rich rising and poor being pushed down while a small establishment class dismantles the structures which support opportunity and equality.

I am no historian, but finding out more about Britain’s Imperial project has shown me how shockingly ignorant most Britons are of our history and the effect Britain has had on the world, exposing the naivété behind so much modern nationalism. It was painful to work on these letters while the Windrush scandal played out, based as it was on racism, the betrayal of Black Britons and the wilful destruction of their documents. It’s been unsettling to read about how much the Berrymans looked forward to peace because we know they were about to live through the rise of fascism and WW2. It’s frightening to see so much repeated in our own time.

The project as a whole has taught me that history is a flattened version of the truth, where nuance and complexity are washed away and countless voices are lost. If the past is a foreign country, we only know a much about it as you can glean from tourist brochures, post cards and the occasional badly folded map. I now assume that anything we know about the past is a fraction of the story and probably wrong at that.

So thank you for travelling through time with me and the Berryman family; my thanks to the Imperial War Museum for storing and transcribing the letters and countless thanks to Chris Miller for preparing them for publication.

Working on this for over 8 years has been a pleasure and a joy, but I too am ready to move on.

Ted holding me a an infant, while my sister looks on


Posted by on 18 August, '19 in About


Paul Berryman

The remaining letters are from Paul in the 1920s, but before we start reading them let’s catch up with him.

Paul and Nancy had two daughters, Joan and Paddy (Patricia). When we pick up Paul’s letters in 1926 he has a command of his on in China and Nancy and the girls are in England and Nancy is trying to buy a house. When they were older, the girls were sent to school in England and lived with their grandparents during the holidays.

Paul’s letters skip through the 1920s, a few from 1926, a handful more from 1927 and three from 1928. They start out with a Naval engagement Paul was involved in in China, and then move on to his relationship with Nancy and his daughters.

Paul, escorting one of his daughters as a bride

Paul spent a lot of his naval service in the China seas, and retired in due course from the Royal Navy but my brother remembers visiting him in London and seeing his bedroom, separate from his wife’s, and little more than the size of a cupboard; the room of a man who spent most of his life in enclosed spaces on board ship.

Paul, in his naval greatcoat, on board ship. Undated.

Paul and Nancy divorced in the late 1920s and he married Amy Ida Anna Lyndrajer in 1938. They must have separated during the Second World War because he married Elizabeth Louisa Margaret Eden (“Peggy”) in 1946.

These emails from Paul’s grandson tells the story of his three marriages and post-war years better than I ever could:

I suspect you might be right that Paul was difficult to live with. Peggy seemed to be his match as ‘Number 3’. I do recall being at a family function with Paul’s 2 exes and Peggy and he spoke to them as No 1, No 2 and No 3! No names. Nancy took it in her stride. When I drove him around London, on more than one occasion, on seeing an attractive young lady he would shout, ‘Stop the car. There goes Number 4’

He was a good-looking man throughout his life.

Paul in later life.

His grandson continues:

Growing up in Rhodesia as it was, I only had the fortune to get to know my Grandfather Paul in 1968 (me being 17 years old) and then of course my Grandmother Nancy Swan.

I, like you, had a great fondness for Paul and he embarrassed me unashamedly as his Grandson from Africa and forced vast quantities of beer down me in a very short space of time. We did our utmost to make up for missed time and I spent many nights at 59 Redcliffe Road and still recall the telephone number as Flaxman 2015. There was far too little time to really catch up but I was always very proud of my ‘Pa’ Berryman.

He and I were both keen that I should join the Royal Navy for which I applied. I was not accepted for being ‘Rhodesian’ with whom after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence Britain was seriously contemplating War, my loyalty was questionable! Paul was livid and I fear made his feelings known and felt!

I was also able to share two Christmas’s with Granny Nancy.

Sadly over a period of only 5 short years, Paul, my Aunty Ben, Nancy and my Mother Joan died.

I have memorabilia of  a few telegrams and letters from HRH Prince Albert to Paul. These letters clearly indicate a warm friendship between them. Albert was my Mother Joan’s Godfather and we have a lovely signed silver christening mug from Albert to my mother on her christening in 1919.

Prince Albert Duke of York, of course, became King George VI who was King during WW2 and was father of the present Queen.

I am grateful to my cousin for these sharp memories of Paul. I do not remember him now, but Paul died when I was 7 years old and my parents did not bother to tell me about the death of so elderly and distant a relative. I was outraged when I found out and exclaimed “My own BLOOD! And you didn’t tell me!”.


Posted by on 30 May, '19 in About


Ted and Nell

In May 1919, Ted came home and a month or so later he married Nell.

They had met on the 7th September 1915 when she was a couple of months shy of her 18th birthday and he was in his early 30s. He proposed to her at the end of October, and received his marching orders at the end of November not quite 3 months after they first met.

Gladys Fielding, Ted Berryman, Nell Fielding, Jane Berryman, Belinda Fielding
Autumn 1915

They did not meet again until May 1919, almost four years after that whirlwind three month romance. They wrote to each other constantly, and their relationship intensified over the years.

Damaged by Immersion in Sea Water
Letter from Ted to Nell – Damaged by Immersion in Sea Water

Ted couldn’t look happier at their wedding though he is painfully thin considering his robust frame in other photographs.

Ted and Nell at their wedding in 1919

Nell is excited but nervous.

After their wedding, Ted spent some time in London with his bride.

Nell on the left and Ted in the centre

On one occasion, they met Paul and a Navy friend of his in London, and poor Nell stood up greet them scattering the contents of her handbag at their feet. Which is why the future King George VI came to be on his knees looking under chairs for her lipstick and hairpins.

Telegram from the Duke of York (later George VI) to Paul

Ted took Nell to India during the 1920s where he was one of the more senior regimental officers and she was one of the youngest wives. They had two children, Martin and Félicité, who spent their first six or seven years with Ted and Nell in India and were then sent home to be raised by their grandmothers alongside their cousins, Paul’s daughters, and to go to school. Ted retired in the mid-1930s as colonel of the regiment and he and Nell built a home in Guildford.

Martin joined the Garhwalis just in time for the Second World War and was killed in Malaya. Félicité worked at Blechley and met and married one of Martin’s brother-officers after the war.

During the 1950s and 60s, Ted and Nell lived with Félicité’s family. They were devoted to each other and at last they had family living with them they could be devoted to.

Ted holding me as an infant, while my sister looks on.
Ted holding me as an infant, while my sister looks on.

Ted died in the mid 1960s and Nell died a dozen years later, both surrounded by family.

In the 1980s Félicité took the letters and published them in a book “Socks, Cigarettes and Shipwrecks” and between 2014 and 2019 I published them here online.

I have said it several times already, but the unexpected joy of this project has been getting to know Ted and see something of Nell

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Posted by on 29 April, '19 in About


Happy new year


This is the last Christmas and New Year that I will spend with my Berryman ancestors, reading their letters, adding photographs and links, selecting a couple of hundred characters to tweet.

We have about 45 letters to go as the Berrymans ease into peace: some from Ted as he tries to get home to marry Nell, a few from Topher as he waits to be demobbed, and some from Paul in the late 1920s which suggest General Swan was right to be cautious entrusting him with Nancy’s happiness.

I will miss them. It’s not given to us to know our grandparents as peers, and working with these letters has enabled me to get to know my grandparents and their siblings as young men and women.

One thing I have learned from Ted’s time in Mesopotamia (Iraq) is that the decisions made by politicians cascade down the centuries. There is a straight line, drawn by Sykes and Picot, from the end of WW1 to the terrorists we are dealing with now and the wars they have involved us in. So…. Brexit. There are many opinions on Brexit, but the perspective of these letters makes it clear that our children will be living with the consequences – whatever they are – for centuries. And that in the words of the RAF, poor planning makes for piss poor performance. We have elected politicians on all sides who play games as if they have no consequences when their actions are very consequential indeed.

On the domestic level, may I share a picture I found last year showing me as an infant, locking eyes with Ted as an elderly man and doting grandfather, while my sister looks on. I did not know if any picture existed showing the two of us together and as the project progressed it became more and more important for me to find one. This gives me a deep and warm delight.

Let me wish you and everyone you love the happiness and safety in 2019 that Ted and his brothers fought for 100 years ago.

Ted holding me as an infant, while my sister looks on.
Ted, holding me as an infant while my sister looks on.

Posted by on 31 December, '18 in About


11 November 1918 – Armistice

Thank you for following the Berryman brothers for the four long years of the war.

To us, with hindsight, it seems strange that we don’t have a letter dated the 11th November 1918. It was Nell’s 21st birthday and she heard the news while doing the washing up, presumably for the Red Cross, since 11:00am is a strange time to wash up at home. But they were busy men, and it was only one day.

We won’t leave the Berrymans quite yet. 11th November 1918 was a truce and peace wasn’t confirmed until the Treaty of Versailles was agreed in June 1919 so we can follow the brothers’ letters for a few months more and find out a bit about what happens next.

But for now, let us pause and think of the grief of the four years of the war and the decades that followed. Diana Cooper said the longed-for peace came with the shocking realisation that everything wasn’t “all right” because the dead would always be dead, and Harry Smith said that ten year later people “wore their grief like jagged glass”. (@Harryslaststand)

The picture below and the audio which re-creates it illustrate the pivot-point of the 20th century more simply than any artifact I know.

Reproduction of recording tape (from November 11, 1918 @ 11:00 AM) recovered from an American sound ranging apparatus showing 1 minute before and 1 minute after the cease fire ending World War I.

The caption below the image reads: This is the reproduction of a piece of recording tape as it issued from an American sound-ranging apparatus when the hour of 11 o’clock on the morning of November 11, 1918 brought the general order to cease firing, and the great war came to an end. Six seconds of sound recording are shown The broken character of the records on the left indicates great artillery activity: the lack of irregularities on the right indicates almost complete cessation of firing. 

The audio was created by Coda to Coda for the Imperial War Museum


Posted by on 11 November, '18 in About


1918 – 2018

Hello, dear friends of the Berrymans, and a happy New Year.

I am very fortunate: I get to spend every Christmas and New Year with my 100-year-old family.  I feel like a Time Lord living in multiple time-streams at once (yay for Jodie Whittaker!) as I schedule the next year’s letters and tweets and spend a few days diving deeply into the vivid details that the Berrymans bring us about the past.

The last two weeks have been a treat for me – I’d forgotten how fond I am of them all: lovely Ted, always putting a happy spin on whatever circumstances he’s in; Paul charming his bride but not entirely convincing her family that he’s a good bet; Jim, getting an office job in Singapore; Richard, fussy and bossy on paper, but clearly another Berryman charmer in real life; and poor stammering Topher, outshone by his glamorous and heroic elder brothers. Let’s face it, who could compete with them?

We know that 11th November 1918 was Armistice day but of course the Berrymans didn’t, so the year ahead will bring us their excitement as the tide started to turn in Europe and the Middle East.  You may remember that the highlight of the 1914 letters was Ted writing home about the Christmas Truce, Nell’s brother stole the show in 1915 when he crashed his car, it was good to hear Paul’s voice in 1916 telling Ted about Jutland, and Ted’s account of the battle of Ramadi in 1917 reminds us that what they did then still echoes for us now, though I am also fascinated by his trips to the dentist. You will be pleased to know that the accounts of the Armistice are brought to us with typical Berryman vigour and wit.

The letters continue for a few months after 11th November and we can stay in their company until the summer of 1919 as they ease into peacetime life. And I’ve included a set of letters from the mid 1920s which were also donated to the IWM – these will go out at the rate of two per week, so time will speed up for us in 2019 as we finally leave the Berrymans to their post-war lives.

So thank you all for your company and your patience. If you want to catch up, check the summary of the story so far, soap-opera style,  If you want to share the letters, please forward this email to your friends and encourage them to sign up themselves in the form on the site. The Berrymans themselves are @BerrymanLetters on Twitter and I am @FamilyLetters. Re-tweets and shares would be kind. I’ve also re-launched the page at so please like and share that as much as you can.

If you are curious to  know why I got so behind with the 1917 letters, then take a quick peek at our new project at and let us know if you would like to take a break there.

With warmest regards

Family Letters

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Posted by on 6 January, '18 in About


All the same in a hundred years

Every year I spend Christmas and New Year with my family of 100 years ago, loading letters written by my grandfather and his siblings and tweets about them for the 12 months ahead. It’s a deep dive into their experiences during the Great War.

1916 had been a mixed year for the Berrymans: Ted and Richard were safely in India while Paul spent most of the year playing hockey and performing theatricals with the Fleet in Scotland. But at the end of May he “lost heaps of pals” when he fought in the Battle of Jutland. His letter about the battle led to me standing, a hundred years later, in front of the Navy’s new Aircraft carrier, wearing a high viz jacket while being interviewed by the BBC for their commemorative programme. In Orkney the commemorations focused equally on the parallel experiences of the Orcadian civilians and the British and German Navies. Meeting German sailors on a British Warship in the harbour at Kirkwall was a powerful statement that “that was then and this is now”.

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) - © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs)
© IWM (HU 113701)

The slaughter on the Somme puts 2016 into sharp perspective. Ivan Bennett, Benedicta Berryman’s fiancé, was killed there in June. The most meaningful part of working with the letters for me, has been discovering Ivan’s story piece by piece. We knew only two things about him when we started: that the Berrymans didn’t like him and they called him “Wiggs”.  In the last four years we have found out who he was, the tensions and tragedies in his own family and much more about the difficulties he and Benedicta faced when they became engaged. Finally, at the end of the year, I found this portrait photograph of him and I finally feel some closure on this story of star-crossed love.

Topher first went to France at the beginning of the year, and his unit fought on the Somme, but we don’t know if he and they went over the top on that first day. He continued to have a wretched time, outshone by his heroic elder brothers. We will see that Richard asked for Topher to be assigned as his groom early in 1917, which was a comfort for their mother. But our current understanding of dependency and power within a family makes me worry for clumsy, stammering Topher working for clever, impatient Richard.

Ted ended 1915 spending two nights in an open boat, before being rescued after a shipwreck in the Mediterranean. He was sailing to Egypt, and he spent 1916 there and in India where he was bored and frustrated. He was newly engaged, and his 1916 letters show a complex mix of grief, survivors’ guilt and envy because volunteers were getting action and promotions which he (a career soldier) was missing out on in India. One of the more amusing sub-plots concerns his dress sword – necessary for the glittering events surrounding the Viceroy’s residency in Delhi – but still a weapon and impossible to send through the post.

We hear almost nothing from Jim in 1916. He was not a natural soldier and did not adapt well to army life. So much so that Ted and Paul both show some irritation that he still hadn’t left British soil when the war was two and a half years’ old. He married Sheina Hellier in September 1916 though the arrangements for their wedding show Jim’s characteristic vagueness.

The Berrymans’ experiences in 1916 remind us that although the Great War was a global blood-bath, it was also mundane and even dull for many of those involved who were kept on the side-lines. The letters also show us the siblings’ different characters – Richard, charming, impatient, and lacking insight; Jim, unfocused and ill-adapted to army life; Ted, curious, thoughtful, dutiful, fully-engaged with the complexities of the international situation, and frustrated at not being involved; Paul, sporty, making the most of Naval life, but kind and courteous too; Topher, cold and unhappy, outshone by his heroic older brothers; Jane, energetic and social, opening a tobacconist shop in London and a firm favourite with her brothers’ friends. The other girls are harder to know, except for poor, grief-stricken Ben, her unhappy love affair coming to the unhappiest of conclusions.

In 2016 we have been disorientated by change and shocked by the deaths of many of those we admire, and I have often reminded myself that a hundred years ago the world was more frightening and far more deadly. We are blessed that those left us this year had acted in front of cameras and sung into microphones; that they, and we, had schooling and didn’t have to spend our lives digging the fields or sewing shirts; that the men did not drown at 18 in the Flanders mud and the women did not die at 22 of sepsis after child-birth; that none of them died of Spanish ‘Flu or tuberculosis. Whatever battles we have to fight, the world has given us much in the last 100 years.  

1917 will be a busier year for the Berrymans. We will see more romances, there’ll be another shipwreck, Ted will fight in Mesopotamia in places like Basra and Baghdad which are still in the news today, Richard and Topher will endure in the mud of France.

So as we start 2017, I wish all of us the good wishes the Berrymans wished each other 100 years ago.

Family Letters


Posted by on 2 January, '17 in About


13 July 1916 – Ivan Bennett, Ben’s fiancé, is killed in Trônes Wood

Benedicta Berryman, the eldest of the Berryman sisters, was engaged Ivan Bennett who was killed in Trônes Wood, on the 13th day of the Somme.

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) - © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) – © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan’s childhood

Ivan Provis Wentworth Bennett was younger than Ben, 25 to her 30, and working for a law firm when war broke out. Ivan’s background was similar to the Berrymans’. He was the son of a retired army officer, and the grandson of a gentleman landowner on one side and a clergyman on the other. Ivan was the fourth of five children. However, there had been a scandal; Ivan’s mother Eleanor (née Senior) initiated divorce proceedings which were finalised in 1907.

Researcher and local historian Mary Alexander says very fairly:

[Ivan’s father Frederick was] guilty of adultery, assault and cruelty to his wife. Divorce was very unusual, difficult to achieve, and shameful. Perhaps Frederick was a particularly unpleasant man, or perhaps Eleanor was unusually determined. Frederick seems to have retired early from the army, and this, with the family’s frequent moves, might suggest an inability to settle down. … [Or perhaps] Eleanor was difficult to live with, sending Frederick into the arms of Mrs McTavish, with whom he was accused of committing adultery, and provoking him to strike his wife.

Divorce did not lead to closure. Epitaphs of the Great War says about Ivan:

[Eleanor] was … widowed in 1908 when her [former] husband committed suicide in Bournemouth. Following which, Ivan, who was 17 and in the Lower Sixth at Wellington College, left school and became articled to a firm of solicitors in Guildford.

So not only did Ivan suffer the emotional and social consequences of his parents’ divorce, but his professional opportunities were also curtailed by his father’s suicide.

As a child, Ivan sometimes stayed with his extended family. Epitaphs of the Great War also says:

In the 1901 census, ten-year-old Ivan is staying with his uncle and aunt and their five-year-old daughter Dorothy Joyce Husey-Hunt in Hove, Sussex. His parents and siblings were living in Bedford.

As we shall see, this family connection remained strong even after Ivan’s death.

Romance, and war

The Berrymans all called Ivan “Wiggie” or “Wiggs”, a naval nickname of unknown origin for someone called Bennett. The obvious question is whether Paul gave him the nickname.

Ben and Ivan probably met in Guildford between 1908 and 1913. Her mother, Gertrude, disapproved of the romance. Gertrude had strong but narrow convictions and there were so many things about Ivan for her to disapprove of: his parents’ divorce and his father’s suicide, his age and relatively junior position in a law firm, and a possible connection with spiritualism which Gertrude, deeply religious as she was, would have disliked. The Church of England was not without its feuds, and Gertrude may have disapproved of the churchmanship of Ivan’s grandfather the Revd Senior. And Ben mentioned that Ivan was “against soldiering” (perhaps he associated soldiers with his father’s domestic violence). Impossible now to know what Gertrude disliked so much about Ivan. Whatever it was, in 1913 Ben went (or was sent) to India to stay with her brother Ted and meet his much more eligible fellow officers. But war broke out, Ben came home and Ivan joined up.

In September 1914, Ben wrote

Wiggs tell  me he was inlisting (sic) into Kitchener’s 2nd Army, well it obvious the right thing to do, however much against soldiering one is. I do consider the civilians are fine all the same, as it’s not their job- after all one expects a soldier or sailor to live for a chance of active service, their whole training leads up to it, but with a civilian he has all the roughest part & none of the nice.

Within six weeks of Ben’s return, they were engaged and she wrote defensively to her mother:

I don’t know whether you’ll be pleased No I don’t suppose for a moment you will be I can’t quite expect it but Wiggs and I have decided that it’s best to be engaged. The unsatisfactory way in which we were going on was NO good, it isn’t all done on the spur of the moment, much thinking has been done & I’m sure it’s best. There are to be no great shoutings about it but anyone who wants to know can, you will I fancy think we are doing right, the other situation was rotten for me but I didn’t want to sort of rush Wiggs into anything so things had to wait.

Ben’s brothers mention Ivan occasionally in their letters. Their fondness for Ben led them to  accept the situation. The one photograph we have of him shows him with her brothers and looking as if he’s about to laugh, so maybe they came to like him for himself.

When she saw this photograph, Ivan’s great-grand niece said:

I … couldn’t believe the family resemblance “Wiggs” has to my Father at the same age!

Ivan Bennett

Back L-R: Ivan Bennett, Ted Berryman, Richard Berryman
Front L-R: Topher Berryman, Jim Berryman
Spring 1915

The Wartime Memories Project provides context for Ivan’s military career:

7th Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) was raised at Guildford in September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s Second New Army and joined 55th Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. The Division initially concentrated in the Colchester area but moved to Salisbury Plain in May 1915. They proceeded to France in July and concentrated near Flesselles. In 1916 they were in action on The Somme …. including the capture of Trones Wood….

Mary Alexander gives us the specifics:

He became a 2nd Lieutenant on 12 September and a Lieutenant on 27 January 1915. Ivan went to France in July 1915 and was made a Captain on 12 November 1915.

Ivan’s last Leave

In May 1916, Ivan was home for 10 days’ Leave. It seems likely that he would have visited his cousins in Hove, his mother in St Leonards on Sea, and possibly Ben who had a job using “adding machinery” in a bank (presumably in Guildford). Richard gives contradictory information when he comments on letters from Ben. On 2nd June he says:

Bad luck on Ben not being able to get away, now Wiggs is home.

But perhaps they did see each other; a fortnight later, Richard says:

[Ben] seems to have enjoyed herself when Wiggs was home

However, Ted reports:

Ben tells me his nerves were all wrong, so I’ve no doubt a few days at home did him no end of good.

100 years on, it is tempting to assume Ivan had shell shock but he could have just been exhausted and jumpy. This all hints at difficult and possibly rather fraught final encounters in a star-crossed relationship cut short by war. Poor Ivan. Poor Ben.

The Battle of Trônes Wood

Mary Alexander continues:

[Ivan] was not there for the first day of the Somme in 1916, but took part in the attack on Trônes Wood on 13 July.

The Regimental diary for July describes the action in detail in an appendix; these pages can be read here, here, here and here. The diary says:

The situation in TRONES WOOD was not clear. Enemy were known to have received orders that it was to be held at all costs.

Nobody in the battalion has reconnoitred the area from & over which the attack was to be delivered, & time would not permit of any such reconnaissance being made. All orders … had … to be made from the map, which, it was afterwards found, does not give a very accurate representation of the ground.

Bombardments took place all day, and the Battalion went into action at 7:00pm:

The remainder of the Battalion was immediately met with a heavy Machine Gun and rifle fire….. The first line suffered immediate & heavy casualties. The second line reinforced at once but also suffered heavily, & in spite of very gallant leading by CPT. I.P.W.BENNETT & 2/Lt P.R. WOOLATT was unable to get within 100 yards of TRONES WOOD.

The bombardment recommenced from 8.45 to 9.15 over ground which the men had been sheltering in, and before and after the bombardment, the remaining men withdrew, the wounded being brought in under shell fire and rifle fire by “2/Lt. J.S. WALTER and 2 men ….. working continuously and most gallantly for 3 hours”.

Ivan is not mentioned in the report again, other than being included in the list of those killed.

Wikipedia describes the terrain thus:

The wood had dense undergrowth which … made it difficult to keep direction and during the battle the trees were brought down by shell-fire, becoming entangled with barbed-wire and strewn with German and British dead.

Mary Alexander says:

During gallant leadership he was shot in the head and killed. His batman, Private Courtman, helped him until he too was wounded.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

By …14–17 July… all the trees in Trônes Wood had been toppled, with only low stumps remaining. Tree trunks, barbed wire and human remains lay everywhere, the ground open and easily observed from German positions.

Writing home in August, Ted says to his mother:

Many thanks [for] the enclosures about Wiggs; pathetic reading but how splendidly he died, and what a general favourite he must have been. Thanks most awfully for sending them; I am so vastly relieved to hear he died quickly; I knew he must have died bravely.

“Crowned with the sunshine of eternal youth”

Ivan was initially buried on the battlefield, either near to where he was killed or possibly in the cemetery shown in this photograph.

Graves in Trones Wood just after the war: Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields

Graves in Trones Wood – Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields

Despite the amount of information available about his death, his grave wasn’t marked with his name and his body was not identified until it was moved to Thiepval Anglo-French cemetery in 1931.

Epitaphs of the Great War  says:

If Ivan Bennett had not had such distinctive initials his body would probably never have been identified. … his body was not recovered from the battlefield until it was discovered in December 1931. There was no identity disc on the body, which was wearing an officer’s tunic with the buttons of The Queen’s West Surrey Regiment, but among the effects discovered with it was a whistle, a cigarette holder and a pencil case engraved with the initials I.P.W.B.

Mary Alexander says:

When he died his address was in Hove. Administration of his will was granted to his mother. He is listed on the parish memorial in Holy Trinity, Guildford, and on the Merrow war memorial, where he was living before the war.

His mother administered his will, but in January 1917 Ted says

I do hope Wiggy’s things have been settled amicably by now, it seems strange that it can’t be done somehow & poor Ben must feel it frightfully.

This suggests that Gertrude wasn’t the only one who had qualms about the relationship, but that Ivan’s mother may have disliked it too. His short life was clearly full of complexity and it is interesting that he recorded his address as Hove. Did he see home as being with his aunt, uncle and cousins rather than with his mother in St Leonards on Sea?

In 1931, it was his cousin, Mrs Dorothy Joyce Bousted (nee Husey-Hunt) who chose his epitaph “Crowned by the sunshine of eternal youth”.

Epitaphs of the Great War says:

The lines come from ‘Rupert Brooke’, a poem by Alfred Dodd published in 1918 [which] outlines Dodd’s belief in the survival of the spirit after death, not as in the Christian belief in eternal life but as in the world of Spiritualism.


Ivan is just one of the hundreds of thousands of young men who died without children or grand-children; the great-uncles whose names are forgotten. My mother did not know who the “Wiggs” in Ben’s letters was, and my thanks are due to the many people who helped me piece together his story. Chris Miller identified that “Wiggs” was Ivan Bennett. Rebecca Aubert confirmed his photograph. Mary Alexander and Charlie Eve sent me most of the biographical details here. Sarah Wearne curates the Epitaphs of the Great War website giving other biographical details and information about his epitaph. The photographs of Ivan’s grave and Thiepval come from the War Graves Photographic Project at Additional information is from Wikipedia, WW1 Battlefields, and The Wartime Memories Project.



31 May 1916 – The Battle of Jutland

Paul’s ship the HMS Malaya was stationed in Rosyth in the Firth of Forth from 22 May onwards and they saw action in the Battle of Jutland.

The Battle of Jutland

Jutland is a difficult battle to interpret as both sides claimed victory. It took place in the North Sea off Denmark over the 31st May and 1st June 1916.

The Germans inflicted more damage to more ships and were quick to publicise this. The dangerous way the British stored and handled cordite contributed to the German successes because there were dreadful explosions following hits which might not otherwise have inflicted serious damage to the structure of a ship; a bad fire broke out on the Malaya and other ships just blew up and sank.

It took time for the scale of the British strategic victory to become apparent: the British Grand Fleeet controlled the North Sea after Jutland and the German High Seas Fleet did not put to sea again during the War. However, by that time the damage to the Navy’s reputation had been done becuase the British press and public criticised the Navy in response to the news from Germany. The British wanted an outright victory like Trafalgar where Nelson had wiped out the French Navy 111 years before.

The Battle of Jutland – Gains and Losses

The Forth Bridge from the deck of HMS Malaya

The Forth Bridge from the deck of HMS Malaya


HMS Malaya at Jutland

The Malaya was badly hit during the battle and several people were dreadfully burned.


HMS Malaya after Jutland

After the battle, HMS Malaya was repaired in the sea dock in Invergordon

HMS Malaya in dock in Invergordon after Jutland

HMS Malaya in dock in Invergordon after Jutland


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Posted by on 31 May, '16 in Jutland


Email test post and thank you


This is a test post to check whether or not sending the letters by email is working. While I am here, I thought I’d let you know a bit about how the project is going.

The Twitter feed widely followed with well over 2000 followers. I left it to itself for a lot of the year, and am starting to re-engage with it again which will increase the followers as the war progresses. Facebook is expensive so I am not using it much to publicise the letters but I will use it a bit more in 2016. These emails are good, but it’s hard to gell when they stop working properly. Do please email me if you miss the letters for a while. will get to me.

Please like and share posts directly on Facebook or Twitter. This helps enormously.

In April I gave a short talk about the Indian Army in WW1 to an audience of a couple of hundred people who found it moving, most of whom had not realised the Indian Army had been involved in the fighting at all. I gave a couple of longer talks about the letters to smaller groups in Edinburgh who also enjoyed them. This is something I hope to do more of, so if you have a group like the WI or Rotarians interested in a speaker, please let me know.

I managed to track down the exact house in Guildford that Gertrude lived in; it’s now a business centre and I hope to get in touch with the people managing it to let them know the house’s history. It was odd wandering around the gardens on a Sunday trying to match the views with the photographs of the family. I also found the site of Churn railway station where Ted was sent very briefly in the summer of 1915.

It’s been thrilling to be in touch with so many people about the project including cousins I didn’t know existed. I owe great thanks to my extended family for their time and their memories. The project has also made me alert to the First World War all around us, from memorabilia in museums to war memorials in hotels and railway stations.

In other news, I am breaking my “no spoilers” rule to say that I’m very proud that the Orkney museum will be including Paul’s letter about Jutland in their display this summer and I hope to attend the Jutland commemorations in Orkney in May.

Finally – thank you so much for following the letters so far. I really appreciate it.

With kind regards

Benedicta Makin / Family Letters

Giving a talk about the Indian Army in WW1

Giving a talk about the Indian Army in WW1


Posted by on 31 December, '15 in About