Mentioned in Dispatches By Glenn James
“Mentioned in Dispatches“
By Glenn James
You had Mail. You had mail, and you could hold it in your hand.
A sealed envelope, addressed to YOU, in clearly discernible handwriting spelled out in ink, and accompanied by the imperial authority of his Majesty King George V, whose dignified profile on the stamp had given the letter passage across all the intervening miles, resounding depths of ocean, and the war torn shifting line on the map known as “The Front”.
Receiving a longed for letters from a loved one was a really special treat. A little anchor to everything you were, and everything and everyone you loved, something which took you into a place really special amidst the realities of day to day life and raised the sender’s voice in your mind and your heart, so that in each line you could hear them as if they were speaking to you.
Words lifted the heart, humble words shaped in ink committed to a simple piece of paper, put down by someone as much with their heart as their hand or by the moving agent of a pen. The writing of a letter took a lot of care and thought. It was a precious thing to be received and would be read again and again, pored over like a holy manuscript, read to everyone else, and added to the precious little cache of accumulating envelopes received with love.
It took time to write a letter. The process did not come easily to most people, faced assembling a short series of appropriate paragraphs from all the jumbled and conflicting emotions fighting for attention in your mind, and your heart when you approached the piece of paper. And the neat handling of a dip pen or a quill was for some quite intimidating. There was the price or the accessibility of the ink to begin with, which could be either a pretty expensive luxury for an ordinary family in wartime, or quite hard to actually get hold of if you were up at the front.
Then there was the paper. And then there was the time.
Conditions in the trenches do not lend themselves easily to writing letters, or pursuing any of the gentler arts. During the long stretches of inactivity and endless waiting that endure for day after day, week after week sometimes between engagements or the next big push forward against the Bosh, there was the chance to commit some words to paper, but often as not it was how and where to do it. The mud was ever present. There was seldom anywhere to sleep or call a bed even of the most primitive type most of the time, with you having to make a bivouac where ever you could with whatever you could find. It rained all the time and the trenches were more or less a series of waterways draining the excess water off the fields, and you found yourself in permanently damp clothing trying to sleep in a shell hole, or a hole you had dug out yourself, or in a hole you had dug out of the side of the wall of the trench yourself, with the knub end of a candle for light if you were lucky and wishing to god in heaven to be close to a handy fire bucket or to have some dry fags and some Lucifer’s.
In conditions like these, writing a letter on paper with a bottle of ink and a dip pen is not easy.
You need something to lean on, and you need to be out of the rain so your paper doesn’t get wet while you are writing.
The ink has to dry periodically as you go along before you can continue, trying not to smudge the words you have committed to paper, and then you have to turn it over and complete your message on the other side. The vibration of bombardments and shell fire would not make for steady handwriting, or the stress of the circumstances. Blots of ink and splashes of mud would be hard to avoid.
Picking up a biro and dashing off a note on a piece of paper is so, so easy for us to do, so quick and disposable and easy. You never think about doing it twice.
But mobile phones and emails are almost instantaneous and make the idea of sending a letter seem prehistoric and agonising. It must have seemed like it took forever for one you sent to get there or one you were expecting to arrive.
The only phones were landlines and field telephones, closely guarded heavy equipment of strategic military value, located at specific headquarters, and reserved for military communications.
If you were incredibly lucky there might be a public telephone in a cafe or restaurant or even a private home somewhere in the vicinity. But for the most part at the front they were about as accessible as reaching for the moon, and they might as well have been located there anyway for all the use they were to the Tommie’s in the trenches.
It was not so easy to write a letter on the home front either. The women at home were working in factories or the heavy industries, building munitions and goods to keep the war effort going, and then returning home to the family homes they were running alone while their husbands and fathers were away, cooking for their children or siblings, and sorting out the domestic chores.
No washing machines.
No other electric appliances or labour saving devices.
No TV or satellite, no internet or Wi-Fi.
LOTS of elbow Grease.
At the end of a long day of working in a factory and then getting the kids off to bed after collecting them from school and cooking, many a mother sat down late at night and was pretty tired when it came to writing.
And then there was of course the content of the letter you would put together for your loved one.
How on earth to word it? A message could be as powerful as a punch or a kiss, something short and meaningful, but which needed to be heart-warming, and longer than simple texts we send all the time.
You did not want anyone to worry. That was the main thing.
The men fighting in France and Belgium would not want to go into depth about the things they saw in the trenches and no-man’s-land on a daily basis, or the squalor of how they were having to live at the battlefront. They could not in any case mention anything specific about where they were stationed, the directions they were moving in, or the upcoming engagements, as this could give away vital information which would give the enemy a big advantage if they got hold of the letters.
They didn’t want to worry their families who must in any case be reading the newspapers all the time, and fearing telegrams home about you having been killed.
The letters from home were packed with affectionate news about families and neighbours, the things the children were doing and local news about what was happing back in Britain.
Husbands and wives, sweethearts exchanged love letters, and that would keep you going during the separation, helping to draw you together across the miles of separation and the heartache which filled the gulf.
A young wife called Jessica wrote to her husband Anthony Rees. She sat down quietly and wrote this letter, sealing it safely, and committing it to the post, where it would be carried across the channel, out across battle torn France, and over to her beloved at the front. Before going away with his regiment he had arranged to have his photograph taken with his two sons, and he looked down towards her as she wrote from the photograph, a serious looking man with meaningful eyes and a solemn expression, his arms around his two sons, dressed in smart Edwardian black jackets and big rounded stiff oxford collars. Everyone had photographs taken like this, the men carrying pictures of their sweethearts, wives and children. The photographs of husbands and fathers were kept at home to remind everyone of their gallant warrior at the front. No-one who had such pictures taken commented on the unspoken thought that they would provide a keepsake if they were killed in action.
They had two young sons called Walter and Philip, and she was carrying a daughter who would go on to be called Jessica Lorraine. Her husband was away in Belgium with the 1st Battalion of the Welsh Regiment, fighting against the Germans.
In civilian life Antony was a Miner and the family lived in the little Welsh town of Ebbw Vale, high in the Vale of Glamorgan and a couple of miles above Cardiff, where her mother and father were still living down in the city itself.
Antony had followed in the family tradition and joined the colours. There was a huge and honourable tradition of joining the army in his family, and he had great Uncles who had received the Victoria Cross fighting against the Zulus at Rourkes Drift. He’d been in the army fighting in the Boar war in South Africa himself when they met, and now he was back in the army again, over in Belgium, with his regiment fighting in this war to end all wars.
Jessica posted her letter, and it made its way to him.
Down across the Mediterranean in Salonika a fellow Brit engaged in the fighting was Private 16248 Arthur Reed, of the Oxford and Bucks Regiment.
He was a dour Scott from Edinburgh who had settled and married in Birmingham in England, where he met his wife Beaty. They had a young family, and he too had fought in the Boar war, just like Antony, and he had picked up the nickname “Soldier” Reed along the way. A little man with a thick moustache, he looked a lot like Field Marshal Montgomery in a later war, and Arthur was to have a rough time of it during the conflict.
He picked up Malaria, a reoccurring disease that comes back infrequently during your life, and his son Ernie would have to go to the Doctors to get Quinine for his father when he was back in England to treat the condition. He was gassed, and he picked up a dose of battle fatigue.
This was not due to the guns, though, or any kind of enemy barrage. It was due to a pachuting pilot who had been shot down.
The man virtually landed in his arms when his squad were advancing across a field, and in those days when aeroplanes were still so new the shock was incredible. He saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Mediterranean theatre and never spoke of his service afterwards, like many another old soldier who had seen some pretty serious things during their tour of duty.
He wasn’t someone who gravitated to writing letters, and neither was Beatty, but they had the kind of relationship whereby they managed.
Back in England Arthurs future neighbour was a family man called Charles Smith, who hailed from Gloucestershire, and who had also settled in Birmingham with his wife and family.
Charles was well on into middle age and was not considered material to send overseas, and his young family were growing up in the atmosphere of the Empire at War. Two of his eldest sons lied about their age in order to sign up and fight for King and Country, (a common activity in the period), one in the army and one in the navy. His eldest boy Frank was on a dreadnought engaged in fighting the enemy in the North Sea when his ship took a number of direct hits from torpedoes, and sank with virtually everyone on board. His mother Sarah received one of the telegrams from the war office the following day to notify her of her son being missing presumed dead due to enemy activity, and had hardly had time to adjust to the tragic news when he cheekily walked in at that afternoon asking what was for supper. He had survived by clinging to wreckage and was picked up by a fishing boat!
Their daughter Lydia would go on to speak of how when she was a girl she had seen a German Zeppelin hovering over the city of Birmingham in the glaring beam of spotlights during an air raid, and being able to hear the guns as the soldiers tried to shoot the thing down. She also spoke of her Uncle Daniel Smith, a strapping six footer serving in the Coldstream Guards and another veteran of the Boar War; A career soldier, who would visit his brother Charles in Birmingham when he was on leave, and of the tricks he got up to when he was at home on leave from the army.
Letters took a while to get to the front. They had to get across the channel which was bristling with ships engaged in fighting one another, and then makes their way through a country which was fully engaged in fighting off an overbearing foe, who almost won. The recipients had more than likely moved up or down the line, advancing or making strategic withdrawals according to their luck in battle, and the letter might make an eccentric journey up and down the trenches before it found the person who it was addressed to. And a reply had to rely on the same haphazard journey making its way back!
On the ground there were a series of muddy brown streams across the country which were laughingly described on the maps as “Roads” and through this quagmire the men and their correspondence had to make their way and try to fight a major war.
The cynical humour of the men kept them going and a determination to see the whole affair through to the finish. Any great push of the enemy towards the British line was viewed by them in the mischievous attitude of a nanny with a stroppy child, and the mindset of “Now them Frankie, cut out that kicking and screaming, it isn’t going to get you anywhere!”
The three men did not know each other in the least. Charles was from Gloucestershire, Anthony from Wales, and Arthur originally from Edinburgh, they had nothing whatsoever to do with each other except a united national determination to win the war and return to their normal lives.
But destiny was to bring a family connection to them, after all three of them had died.
Some years after both their fathers were in their graves, Anthony’s son Walter met Charles daughter Lydia, and the two of them married and started a family. By an odd charming coincidence his other son Phiilip met a younger daughter of Charles called Olive and they married as well, creating quite a warm hearted family affiliation on both sides.
The Reed family moved to live next door, following Arthur’s death, and his son Ernest went on to marry their granddaughter Alma. They never met, theses three gentlemen, but their families united.
And what of Jessica’s letter? Her handwritten letter to her husband Anthony, serving in Belgium?
It reached him safely where he was stationed at the front, this proud latest soldier in a strong tradition of Welsh soldiers fighting for their country, and he carried it in his pocket of his uniform. Whether he read the letter has never been ascertained, but the fact that it was received is well recorded.
On the day of May the 25th 1915, the Unit Anthony Rees was serving with was moving across country, marching in a column together along a road, when they came under fire from a gun which was shelling them.
At some point during this enemy action, one of the men took a direct hit from an enemy shell , which exploded on contact with him. Private 36015 Anthony Rees, who had enlisted in Newport, Gwent, was killed in action in Brussels’.
All that remained after the explosion was the letter he had been carrying in his pocket from his wife Jessica. It will be one hundred years this May since this tragic incident. The lives of these men were commemorated in a variety of ways.
Charles was working on a rooftop in North Road where his family lived (he was a sculptor and stonemason accustomed to working at great heights) and died of his injuries after trying to help another man who fell from the rooftop where they were working. His sons and grandchildren went on to serve with great distinction and courage during the Second World War. Charles and his family helped to start St. Wulstans Church in Selly Oak, winning the first bible for good attendance, and he notably worked on the highest reaches of Birmingham University Clock Tower, Old Joe.
For many years after his death Arthur Reeds Widow represented the Birmingham Royal British legion as their Standard Bearer on Remembrance Day, carrying the flag and wearing his medals with honour at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and past her Monarch at the Cenotaph on Poppy Day. Their sons fought bravely in WW2 and one of them went right through the 8th Army with General Montgomery, who looked so much like his father, escaping from Dunkirk and going on to fight Rommel in North Africa.
And what of Antony Rees? His name is recorded on the Menin gates in Ypres in Belgium, along with his fellow soldiers who were killed in the conflict. They are honoured every Poppy Day, but he has no grave.
And yet a man who was only survived by words, the loving words of his wife in the form of the letter which remained after the explosion, is commemorated by words in more than one way. It is almost 100 years now since the explosion which killed him, but the life of Anthony, and those of Arthur and Charles are now commemorated here in the writing of their great grandson, and their memories are honoured by their descendants. Their stories were kept alive and fresh by their families.
Words, which were so important to warming the heart during a time of great and universal conflict, which were written down so painstakingly with pen and ink in rough trenches gouged out of the earth, or written with tired and heartfelt affection at a kitchen table when their children were asleep, survived by word of mouth down through the years. They are remembered now almost a century later, and set down on a laptop in a different world which they helped so honourably to shape.
March 2015 Glenn James
Bio: Glenn James is a Writer, Artist, Storyteller & Performer