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Response to @thehistoryguy – Mythbusting WW1 with Primary Sources

The BBC published a hugely popular post recently by Dan Snow @thehistoryguy entitled “10 big myths about World War One debunked“.  Dan Snow then went on to create a few more of his own some of which seem to imply it wasn’t as bad as we think it was.

Myth 3 he says is that “Men lived in the trenches for years on end”

…  the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.

During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

I am curious to know what Dan Snow bases this on – the newspapers of the time or on letters, army records and other primary sources?

I am fortunate to have my grandfather’s letters from France in 1914 and 1915 and he wrote home during stints of 20 and 25 days at a stretch in the trenches, with the time between spent “in reserve”.  Ted Berryman was a Captain in the Indian Army and they were in their light tropical kit for the worst part of the winter of 1914, drenched to the skin and shivering in the mud and bombarded with shells.

Ted first went into the trenches on the 29th October 1914.  10 days later he says:

It is most awfully cold here my dear as you can imagine. And we are still in thin khaki drill;  … I don’t really think I’ve got enough on, but I cant get any more gear at present.

You see we came out to occupy the trenches on 29th Oct, & are still here; that makes 10 days. Not very long under some circs, but devilish long to be in cold damp trenches with only the kit you stand up in! … You see we have’nt a a thing off for the whole tirne, boots, clothes or anything, nor a wash nor anything like that. We are all filthy, black grimy hands & faces, but we are all the same so it does’nt matter.

He then writes about the sorts of newspaper stories that Dan Snow echoes in his piece:

I read a glowing account in the “Standard” a day or two ago of life in the trenches, but it was very misleading. First of all it talked about “spade hewn, straw-spread” trenches; true in a way, but all our digging has to be done at night, as it would be impossible to dig by day, as the enemy’s…. little advanced trenches, in which snipers sit & pick you off if you show a finger, are only about 150 yards; so the digging is’nt very grand, though I must say our men have done wonders, & have made the trenches quite comfy- And there is some straw, but it’s mostly trodden into the mud.

Again he says we do 3 days in the front trench, 3 days in the support, & 4 days rest. Divil a bit, this is our 10th day in the front trench, & no hope of relief yet awhile. Still it’s all part of the day’s work I suppose.

Ted and his troops finally came out of the trenches on the 17th November after 20 days. They were only out of the trenches for about 10 days and then on the 16th December his uniform turns up but he can’t get at it because the depot is too far from the front.

Ted’s second stint in December was even longer and more relentless as his first in October / November.

Since we first arrived here on 29th October we’ve had 35 days in trenches & only about 10 out, out of which were 5 in reserve and so we have only had 5 days’ so called rest, & were busy the whole of that. However it’s all part of the show.

On the 31st December he says:

We came out of those old trenches on the night of the 27th  [December], after doing 25 days & nights there, pretty long time was’nt it. We were glad to be relieved as you may imagine, the men were all absolutely doggo, as they had to work day & night to keep the trenches for from falling in, because the weather was so wet & beastly that the earthy all got sodden & soaked & had to be simply propped up, & our trenches were simply lined with boards & old doors & anything we could get hold of.

So when I read Dan Snow echoing the Standard’s assurances that troops were only in the trenches three days at a time I was furious on behalf of all those cold, wretched, verminous, sick, shot at and shell-shocked men who were in the mud in the dark for weeks on end.

Maybe things were generally better organised by 1915.  In January and February the three-part cycle of serving in the trenches themselves, in reserve and then in the rear is much more as Dan Snow described it.

Ted was on leave early in January. Late in January they were in the trenches for four days, in reserve for six, and then in February they seem to have settled into week long cycles into the trenches then back into reserve, itself no picnic.

 On the 27th February Ted tots it up saying:

We are being relieved tomorrow & go back for a short rest. We’ve done 6 weeks in reserve & trenches & have been hard at it more or less ever since I came out from leave, so I think we deserve a bit of a rest don’t you. But I don’t fancy it will be for long.

So Dan Snow is partly right and partly wrong.  I am leaving the last word with Ted though and the picture he drew  for his sister Jane on the 1st of January 1915:

We are out of the trenches now after 25 days on end, & the whole corps is now resting… I’ve got my uniform now & have had a bath – in an old dustbin – but still it was a bath, & I feel so clean & smart, you would’nt know me. Of course I grew a beard in the trenches, & did’nt shave for just a month, but it was’nt exactly a success, & it looked exactly as if I was’nt shaving & not as if I was trying to grow a beard!

Going into the trenches.... coming out


These extracts are from more than 600 letters written by Ted and his brothers to their mother during WW1. Each letter will be published here at www.familyletters.co.uk 100 years after the day on which it was written.

Like Family Letters on Facebook page and follow @familyletters on Twitter for updates.

 
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Posted by on 20 January, '14 in About, WWI

 

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A few words from the typing pool

Desk

When Ben asked me to take on this project I was above all grateful for the opportunity, as it arrived just as I was setting up shop for myself as a proofreader and writing support assistant for hire – a venture which began in testing circumstances but has since proved one of my better decisions, not least for access to so many vivid and rare first-person insights into what a century ago would develop into one of the costliest conflicts in human history.

Initially I was asked to go over the output of the software Ben had been using to convert scans of the decades-ago typed transcriptions of her ancestors’ letters, which were done in something like Lucida Sans – a plain enough typeface to work with but still challenging for the software concerned, not least because most of the scans weren’t vertically very well aligned, which added an extra element of jauntiness to the outcome.

Added to that, though it seemed to be improving with more input the errors that kept recurring were possibly more to do with the print on the pages themselves – it may only take a lighter pixel or two from the program’s perspective for an m to be rendered as r n, or a slightly heavier amount of ink at the foot of an h to be a b instead. This, and considerable confusion created by numbers, punctuation and some of the original authors’ idiosyncratic writing made for an uphill struggle, with sometimes unintentionally comical consequences (“the men are hoping they’ll all be homo by Christmas.”)

So after doing my best to make sense of the initial output in text files and then Word documents, it became clear that checking these files – with the added challenge of not being able to predict where the errors would likely turn up, as you could expect in the work of a person – would take as much time, if not longer, to do to a reasonable standard than simply re-transcribing them, which is what I went on to do. To begin with I displayed the scanned .pdfs on my PC monitor and typed the .doc files up on a laptop, which sadly passed on, and since which I’ve been using the right-hand side of my thankfully wide PC screen to copy the contents of the left.

Transcribing the transcriptions has proven the better option – not simply for being an easier job, and less of a strain on the eyes and psyche. It’s meant that as I’ve gone through the letters I’ve been able to absorb more of the character of the writers, the precarity and adventure of their circumstances and how they all, through struggles difficult to imagine a century on, loved and missed their family and worked hard, week in week out for years of that abysmal conflict to assure them they were fit, chipper, stronger than ever, resolved to fight and survive and ready to win.

The question arose of how much, if any ‘editorialising’ should go on, no-one wishing to censor or misrepresent anything written. At first I thought it an error on the part of the original transcriber though that wasn’t the case but Ted, Richard and Paul apparently were all taught that the apostrophe in words like did’nt, has’nt and could’nt went, as written here, before the n. I’ve elected to keep that the case, along with idiosyncrasies like Ted’s “at anyrate”; but for ease of comprehension adding some punctuation where needed. Being originally handwritten letters in challenging environments, the flow of the text can be uneven and hard to read at times, but no less rewarding. There is even a precursor to textspeak, when they often sign off “yr loving son”.

Harrow

WWI veteran Richard Harrow, a character in the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire

Perhaps obviously the most illuminating aspect for me – I turn 40 on the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in April next year – is how different the world has become, for our concept of warfare, our expectations and our notions of duty. Reading of Captain Berryman’s excitement at his first sighting of an aeroplane (once mentioned as a ‘plane, though not otherwise shortened) his childlike wonder at the beauty of it up against a clear blue sky completely overlooked its purpose – to find out where exactly he and his comrades were, for later bombardment. I can’t imagine what he’d make of today’s warplanes, which don’t even need a pilot; in a world where we can watch the horrors he endured re-enacted for our entertainment and edification (or titillation) in our homes, on contraptions half the size of his fancy new gramophone records; and where a letter from home, far from taking weeks on end to arrive, if indeed it did, can reach his pocket in little more time than it takes to switch a light on. I have to stop complaining about the 3G around here.

This was a privileged family in Edwardian England, rooted in Empire but the rigours of The War To End All Wars took its toll on officers and Tommies alike, and the horrors that ensued are recounted in sometimes grisly detail in the Berryman brothers’ letters home. As historical documents of such a dark period they are priceless, but they speak also to the innocence of the time; a grim dramatic irony overshadowing, for instance, talk of how the treatment of prisoners and civilians in 1915 became so abominable, the Germans absolutely had to be stopped to ensure that no such cruelty would ever be repeated.

I have plenty of work ahead and the more I progress, the more invested I’ve become. I relish opportunities to research some of the minutiae of life that emerges; requests for things to be sent over, or mentions of friends and comrades, which can descend into a rabbit-hole of Googling (of what?) but which rarely provides only a minimum of information and can turn up all sorts of surprises along the way. But as well as being a challenge and a privilege to be involved, it’s a valuable education. I look forward to discovering how life for the Berrymans progresses over the years of the war to come with trepidation, enthusiasm and at some point I hope, a larger monitor.

Chris

 
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Posted by on 20 January, '14 in About

 

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Sidebar image for the site

I need a small image which Facebook can pick up to show when it posts links. At present Facebook shows the posts with the image loading symbol:

Facebook  Screenshot

Facebook Screenshot

I don’t want to use a photograph of one of the brothers, because what about the others? Ted did little cartoons, but only a few might be suitable, so here are the choices:

Here is a German firing a Jack Johnson – a shell – in France in 1914:

German firing shells

German firing shells

There are other small cartoons which are less bellicose, but perhaps they are less meaningful.  Two where he was drawing items for his mother or his sister to purchase for him, a lantern, which strikes me as a possible:

Lantern for the Trenches

Lantern for the Trenches

and a vanity set, which isn’t really:

Vanity Set

Vanity Set

This little bird comes from a larger illustration of the Christmas Day truce

Christmas Day Bird

Christmas Day Bird

And this shows the Indian troops shooting at the Germans on Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

And this is a very much smaller version of a cartoon of Ted going into the trenches fairly spruce and out of them three weeks later.

In and Out of the Trenches

In and Out of the Trenches

Remember, when it’s picked up by Facebook, it will be even smaller.

When I go to the Imperial War Museum later in the year, I will try to photograph one or some of the envelopes – I think that would be best. This something I need in the meantime, really.

 
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Posted by on 18 January, '14 in About

 

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Gove – ignoring the voices of the dead

Michael Gove wrote recently about WWI with an astonishing lack of self-awareness. His remarks are worth quoting:

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.

It is hard to let the phrase “an out-of-touch elite” pass without comment, but I shall. Instead I am going to make three observations.

The first is that a war where 65 million men were mobilised has many millions of meanings. The meaning of the First World War in particular changed when it was not “over by Christmas” as expected, when entire families of brothers and entire streets of men were killed in a week or a single day going over the top in France, when the 16 million killed were not dead for the duration as Diana Cooper noted in confused grief, but dead forever.

The second is that Gove cites Oh What a Lovely War as a “fictional prism”. This is immensely interesting. I discovered this week that Oh What a Lovely War was based directly on a radio documentary called The Long Long Trail made in the 1960s by Charles Chilton whose father died aged 19 at Aras. Chilton collected the folk songs of the war, the parodies, the bar-room songs, the songs the troops sang on trains and in the trenches. The words of Oh What a Lovely War may be left wing; if so it’s because the enlisted men singing

If you want the old battalion,
We know where they are,
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire

or more simply

I don’t want to die

are not singing the words written for them by song-writers or propagandists. They are singing their own words. And they speak directly to us.

My third observation is that one of WW1s shortest war poems was by the British Empire’s greatest apologist, Rudyard Kipling. It is also one of the most powerful. Kipling’s only beloved son John should and could have been exempt from from military service because he was cripplingly short-sighted, instead his father pulled strings and got him into the army and out to France where the 18 year old was killed on his second day at the front when his face was blown off. His body was never found. Kipling was stricken with grief and guilt:

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Gove should show the dead some respect. He should not try to silence the voices of the people who were there, even when they say things he doesn’t want them to say.


The Long Long Trail – Broadcast for the first time since 1961, this is Charles Chilton’s forgotten radio masterpiece telling the story of the First World War through the songs sung by soldiers.

BBC Archive on 4 – Documentary about The Long Long Trail – Roy Hudd explores Charles Chilton’s masterpiece telling the story of the First World War in a unique way – through the songs sung by soldiers. 

BBC News Magazine – The Birth of Oh What a Lovely War!

 
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Posted by on 6 January, '14 in About

 

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