LADY ALDA HOARE’S DIARY OF DESPAIR

I had read the wartime story of Stourhead House in Wiltshire some time ago, and came across it again recently while reading through The Country House at War, a National Trust book written by Simon Greaves.

Alda Weston, Lady Hoare, of Stourhead kept a diary throughout the years of the First World War, during this time also helping to care for recuperating soldiers at the nearby Mere Hospital, opening up her house to entertain them, boost morale and aid their recovery with piano recitals, picnicking and boating at Stourhead itself.

Lady Hoare’s only child, Harry, had been seriously injured leading an attack at Mughar Ridge in Palestine on 13th November, 1917. Despite the severity of his wounds, Sir Henry and Lady Alda had, at the beginning of December, heard that Harry was “out of danger and doing well”. A second report from the War Office then arrived explaining that Harry was, in fact, “dangerously ill”.

Lady Hoare’s diary from the days that follow is a heartbreaking, desperate account of alternating hope and despair, played out over the days directly before Christmas. It’s a powerful reminder of how the immense suffering of the war didn’t discriminate against class.

 

Thursday December 13

Harry is never out of our thoughts & we talk & talk of him. But I keep ‘going’.

Friday December 14

I not out. Ever awaiting, longing & dreading news Harry… I do not leave house; wait ever telegram of Harry. But at 3 I walked twice the length South Lawn for air…

Sunday December 16

Very cold grey dreary day. Snowing hard till 12. Henry advised me not go Church… We’d earnestly hoped by 10a.m. to have had wire from Harry’s Doctor, which should have been here at, & any time after, 7p.m. on Sunday. But none has come. We read the Service together in ‘South-Room’ & together prayed for him.

Thursday December 20

Fine. Snow all around. Still no telegrams. I got out on ‘South Lawn Walk’. 2.45 to 3. Shall we never hear? In his letter of Nov 23rd he said he’d ‘sent us a wire’, that we never got.

Friday December 21

At 9.50, in ‘South-Room’, at last come 2 wires, both dated Dec 18th, one from our own son’s Doctor saying ‘Wired you fifteenth condition improved – since, still improving’. The 2nd wire is from Freddy Wingfield-Digby: ‘Saw Harry yesterday – Progressing satisfactorily.’ Together we knelt & humbly thanked God for his unspeakable mercy… In afternoon I gave away at school my prizes to all my children. Henry went into Mere Hospital… Snow thick lies all round. Very cold.

Saturday December 22

In ‘South-Room’ I wrote my Xmas-letters – told to all the good news of Harry. At 2p.m. in ‘South-Room’ they bring another wire, from Doctor ‘Alexandria, Wed.y 19th, 1.30pm. Serious relapse. Very dangerous.’ I wire back imploring earliest news… I pray up in bedroom, by his bedside… Henry returned at 7.15p.m. – I told him. We are prepared for the worst. God give us strength to hear it.

Sunday December 23

A sad sad day. We went to morning-church… I wept today hidden by our old pew. We spent rest of day together in South-Room as sun sank in a red glory. ‘Oh Henry perhaps it means better news’ I dare to hope a moment. He shook his head.

Monday Xmas-Eve

At 11.55 in ‘South Room’ where both had put in a hard morning’s business, to keep from the awful dread, came, just as we finished, the realisation. ‘He died of wounds on 20th December’.

Tuesday Xmas-Day

Henry & I spent all today in the ‘South-Room’… We have read the Xmas Service to ourselves & sat at our lonely Xmas dinner, with his empty chair.

 

Sir Henry and Lady Alda with their only child, Harry (middle) – and pet retriever.

Sir Henry and Lady Alda later learned that Harry had died on 19th December.  He was 29. They never recovered from his death.

Lady Hoare with staff and patients of the Mere Hospital, Wiltshire. June, 1918.

More excerpts from Lady Hoare’s diary can be found here.

 

This blog post was written by Lora Jones and first appeared on andwewereyoung.org.

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KIT AND KIN: ROLAND LEIGHTON

If you’ve read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (or indeed seen the recent film adaptation) you’ll no doubt remember the part in which Vera’s fiancé Roland Leighton’s belongings are returned to his family following his death at the front.

Roland had been serving in France for almost a year when he was struck on 23rd December 1915 by a sniper’s “expanding” bullet, whilst inspecting the barbed wire at the front of his unit’s trenches. He was 20 years old. His returned kit arrived at his family home in Sussex on 13th January 1916.

Roland’s returned possessions included:

  • A “black manuscript notebook” of his poems, including Hédauville
  • A “tunic torn back and front”
  • A “khaki vest dark and stiff with blood”
  • A “pair of blood-stained breeches slit open at the top by someone obviously in a violent hurry”
  • A “cap, bent in and shapeless out of recognition”
  • A box of cigarettes, collar and braces (a present from Vera’s brother Edward)
  • Underclothing and accessories
  • A number of toiletries, including scented soap and solidified “Eau de Cologne”
  • Photographs of Vera
  • Leather cigarette case and cigarettes
  • Small photographs of family and friends
  • A haversack “crammed full” of letters
  • Two unpaid bills

It seems impossibly callous for raw and grieving families to be sent items of clothing in which their nearest and dearest had died or received fatal injuries, but soldiers’ uniforms were considered their legal property and as such were sent back to their next of kin along with the rest of their effects.

Aside from material possessions, something else arrived at the Leightons’ cottage with Roland’s things that day: an overpowering, inescapable, unmistakable smell. Vera describes it as the smell of “mud”, of “the charnel house, of “death”; “saturated with dead bodies”. The only items it hadn’t pervaded were the small things Roland carried with him every day; tucked away in his inside breast pockets: the photographs of Vera and his family, and his cigarette case. It’s the same pernicious smell as seeped noxiously into the homes of millions of other families between 1914 and 1918. A heart-stopping grief gas, persisting painfully. As Vera confirms, “It was a long time before the smell and even the taste… went away”.

In Testament of Youth, published in 1933, Vera was uncertain as to what had happened to some of the items from Roland’s returned trunk. Had the “gruesome rags” forming the remainder of his uniform been thrown onto the Leightons’ fire or buried in their garden? “What actually happened to the clothes I never knew”, Vera writes.

Roland’s sister, Clare, sheds light on the matter in her preface to Chronicle of Youth, Vera Brittain’s 1913-1917 diary, published in 1981:

It is a cold morning in January and I am in the garden of our cottage in Sussex. My father is with me. I carry two heavy kettles. They are filled with boiling water, for we are about to bury the tunic – blood-stained and bullet-riddled – in which Roland had been killed… Father watches the windows of the house, for my Mother must not see this tunic that Father has hidden from the packages of Roland’s effects returned from France. I am to thaw the frozen earth so that it may be buried out of sight.

 

This blog post was written by Lora Jones and first appeared on andwewereyoung.org.

GREAT WAR WILDLIFE: LT BROWN’S DIARY FROM GALLIPOLI

Wildlife was hugely important to men stationed in an unfamiliar part of the world, facing tragedy and the overwhelming likelihood of imminent death on an almost daily basis. Local flora and fauna allowed respite, mental escapism and peaceful observance; a removal from the overbearing physical and psychological task at hand.

It’s certain that the men (and women) at or near the fronts were very grateful to have wild animal life around them. Writes Lieutenant William Sorley Brown, stationed at Gallipoli in December 1915, “One feels thankful that, no matter how many guns may be thundering, the noise is never sufficiently loud to drive away the birds.”

Bird and insect life is most interesting here… Larks can always be seen, and their presence seems to lessen in some degree the sordidness of war…

They fly about heedless of the messengers of death, which ever and anon speed through the air. There are plenty of thrushes and crows and wagtails, while hawks, magpies, wild duck, quails, sand martins and many other kinds of birds may also be seen.

Brown is happy the birds are there. For him they help dilute the vileness of the warfare he finds himself immersed in, and he marvels at how they seem to remain unfazed by the bullets and shells perilously slicing through their usurped airspace. However, the next part of his diary shows a contrast – what some of the wild creatures were to the stationed men: pests.

Vultures too are fairly numerous and may be observed hovering high overhead. One of these vultures attacked two French soldiers the other day. It was captured and is to be seen chained up in the French lines.

The birds were Egyptian Vultures and, as Brown mentions, rather meanly “captured and…chained up” by French marines stationed at Sedd-el-Bahr. These natural scavengers had most probably been attempting to snatch food scraps from near the French, explaining the motives behind this avian “attack”. The French amused themselves by naming the birds Franz Joseph and Wilhelm, after the Austrian Emperor and German Kaiser respectively. Although the presence of wildlife on the fronts was largely cathartic, such incidents did occur of men exerting their dominion over their wild wartime bedfellows. It was, perhaps, the only control they felt they could still wield in their despairing, battle-entrenched situation.

 

This blog post was written by Lora Jones and first appeared on andwewereyoung.org.

LAST LETTERS: FRED SWANNELL

Chances are if you’ve ever Googled “last letters WW1”, you will have come across this very touching epistle written by Lance Corporal Frederick Swannell to his wife before the Battles of Arras in 1917.

Several stories of this last letter appeared in the press around the time of the 2014 centenary, but it is most definitely worth recounting here. Like so much correspondence from the front, it’s obvious that this is a letter written by a man burdened to breaking point by the conditions he is facing.

Fred Swannell was killed aged 35, during a battle which was claiming an average daily casualty rate of 4076. He left behind his beloved wife Ellen and 5 young children. When Ellen died aged 98 in 1984, his letter was discovered tucked into her handbag. She had kept this most precious document with her for over 60 years. A photocopy was taken by her daughters before the original was buried with her.

 

L/Cpl F Swannell
17549
13th Essex Regiment
B E F France

My Dear Darling Nell

I am writing these lines hoping to find you and all our dear little ones in the very best of health. I am very sorry to know that you have not been getting much news from me but love I write to you all I can at present the conditions we are now in we do not get much chance of writing any letters. 

Well love my foot is progressing very slowly but lately I have been very bad in health for the conditions I have had to go through out here is gradually telling upon my constitution for I reckon I have stood it well up till now but I feel as I am getting beaten. 

Oh love how I wish that this terrible anxiety and suspense was over for I do long to be with you and our dear little ones who are continually in my mind it is as you state in your letter it is a shame we should be parted for such a long time and I have done over my bit as you know but it seems no matter how long or what you have been through out here they are never done with you. 

The men we have got with us now have only been out here two months and they have done nothing or been through anything yet but they are continually grousing and fed up with it. They have been forced to join the army so you can guess what they are like. 

Well love let us put the troubles aside and hope for a peaceable time for us both and all for if I am lucky enough to get through it alright I hope to have a happy and loving life with you and our dear little ones for you know I love you and I always will and I know you do me for you have proved it with my little ones. 

Well love this is all at present with my very best love to you and my little ones. 

I am you ever loving husband Fred Swannell. 

Kisses for you love and my little ones.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Love you all

 

This letter was written in mid-April 1917. Fred was declared missing, presumably killed, in action on 28th April 1917.

 

This blog post was written by Lora Jones and first appeared on andwewereyoung.org.

PERSONAL STORIES: HARRY FELLOWS’ ACCOUNT OF A TRAGIC RESCUE

In the passage quoted below (taken from the 1985 documentary ‘Lions Led By Donkeys’Harry Fellows explains, with heart-wrenching simplicity, how his attempted rescue of a fellow soldier during the Somme campaign went dreadfully wrong.

Harry was 20 at the time of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He had grown up in acute poverty in the north-east of England, and was his family’s main breadwinner by the time he was 18 due to the death of both his parents. He later stated he joined up, “not for patriotism, but to escape poverty”.

Harry went to France on 5th September, 1915 and his profoundly traumatic experiences at Mametz Wood (a key location of the Somme in July 1916), which included burying the dead after savage fighting, tragically coloured the rest of this life.

Harry was demobbed in 1919, went back to his pre-war job, married and had a family. Only 26 of the 1200 officers, NCOs and men in Harry’s battalion in December 1914 were left alive by July 1917.

Harry made a number of visits back to the WW1 battlesites and cemeteries after the war, and published several powerful poems on his wartime experiences, before dying aged 91 in September 1987. Poignantly, his ashes were scattered in Mametz Wood.

“Two shells fell, one on the front and one on the rear and the lad was buried. Another lad and myself rushed into the traverse [? – word muffled] and all we could see of him was his legs kicking. I got hold of one leg, my mate got hold of another, and we pulled as hard as we could. We couldn’t move him, so we started scratching away with our hands. And when we eventually got to him we pulled him out and we found he was dead. He’d got the belt, or the strap, of his steel helmet was under his chin, where it should have been on the chin, and the flanges of the steel helmet had trapped his head, and in pulling his legs, we’d actually pulled his neck out. And we didn’t even know his name. The lad was eighteen and it was the first time he’d ever been in the line.”

Harry Fellows. 12th Northumberland Fusiliers.

 

This blog post was written by Lora Jones and first appeared on andwewereyoung.org.

ABOUT AND WE WERE YOUNG

I have a voracious interest in the First World War, and am currently working on my first novel, set both during the “war to end all wars” and also in the inter-war period. I started this blog as a place to share the research for my book; and the things I discover along the way that I find most interesting, moving or overlooked.

The Great War was incomparable in its gruesome achievement of wholesale slaughter; a war that spanned both increasingly outmoded Victorian, as well as newly-industrialised, means of killing and maiming on an unprecedented scale. At school I was both uncomprehendingly appalled and stupidly fascinated by the ghoulish descriptions from the trenches and battlefields. As a young adult, I became increasingly intrigued by the way in which our first “World War” irrevocably changed the face of the world forever; Britain’s increasingly unsustainable aristocracy, and women’s strengthening place in society, being just two examples. The period immediately before August 1914 is for me an infinitely and uniquely powerful point in history; a blind world on the edge of a precipice, poised on the brink of all-pervasive change. The structure of society, as well as most of that society itself, about to be obliterated. For me, the music of this period (Satie, Debussy) in particular seems to capture this soon-to-be vanished world like scent in a bottle.

My interest in the First World War is wide, but this blog and my enthusiasm for the period largely focuses primarily on the social and cultural history of these cataclysmic years.

I hope that you will enjoy reading this part of my blog just as much as I am enjoying writing and compiling it. These are all stories very much worth telling.

And lastly: the title of this section of my blog comes from the final line of the brief, but starkly powerful, A.E. Housman poem ‘Here Dead We Lie’.

 

This blog post was written by Lora Jones and first appeared on andwewereyoung.org