A Letter From the Dead

Two weeks ago, I received a message on my blog:

Comment

Seeing as my blog seems to be so hard to Google, let alone be found by some sort of relative, I proceeded with caution.

Email 1

Turns out this dude is the great-grandson of Thomas Tozer – my great great uncle – and his cousin has been doing a lot of research into his family. He wanted to find out if I had any more information about Thomas Tozer,  but unfortunately, the information I received was from my dad’s cousin who also has been researching the Tozer family tree – and probably got his information through this guy’s cousin. I knew that Thomas was a member of the TA, and that he died following the Battle of Passchendaele – though there seems to be a discrepancy about his death date. We never knew how he died.

He found a blog post about the time I visited Thomas Tozer’s grave with my sister and friend on a WWI trip.

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His response:

Email 2

Whaaaaat? A letter?

Thomas-T

Email 3

So it was a gas attack that killed him. Did he die by gas or just during an attack? Of all the ways to die in the First World War, to most of us in the present day, this seems the most daunting. Mustard gas, for example, caused people to die a very slow and painful death; their bodies broke down both inside and out, with the skin turning into the most painful blisters and their lungs slowly eroding, effectively causing the people to drown. But that would be the worst possible conclusion.

A family letter from the war seems to be some of the most treasured possessions a modern person can have, and I have never known of any in my family, so this was very exciting for me. I asked if he would send me a copy of the letter. It’s a photocopy of a photocopy so some of it is a little illegible. It was sent to his sister Alice from Zonnebecke, which is where his grave is. And here it is (see further down for my transcription):

Thomas Tozer Letter 1 Thomas Tozer Letter 2 Thomas Tozer Letter 3

I’ve tried to write out what it says as best I can – I’ve added punctuation to make it easier to read:

“Sun 25/11/17

Dear Alice,

I now take the pleasure to write you these few lines hoping that they will find you and Albert and children in the best of health. I am fairly well myself considering the time that I have been through. I have just come out of the line. I were only in for a few days. It was my first time [illegible] and it was quite enough I can assure you. It was not being in the trenches but to get there we had to pass through a barage of shell fire to get there and the same coming out. We had several casualties but thank God I came through all right and we were told that we were heroes [?] every one. We simply followed one another like sheep going to the fold but it was a very trying time I can tell you. I have been out here a month now and the different places that I have seen are terrible to see  nothing but ruins everywhere. It is heartbreaking to see them and the sooner this terrible carnage is over the better.

Harriet* and the children are all fairly well at present but they must be feeling absence and I hope God will spare me to return to them as soon as possible but at times I dread to think of the future. Life out here is very trying at times what with the lice and the noise and the former, well, I have to have a roll call every night or else I should be overrun. Keatings powder** they seem to like for they sit upon their hind legs and ask for more and they get quite fat. Polly sent me some different stuff so I am just giving that a trial and I hope that I shall feel a bit easier.

Polly tells me that Albert was up in London the other week and that he has got a further extension and I am glad and I hope he can keep out of it. I suppose Bert is getting quite a young man now and the baby quite a big girl. My address is Pte T Tozer 38996, 2/5 East Lancs, B Coy, 8 Platoon, B.E.F. France***.

I think that this is all I have to say dear sister so hoping to have a line from you. I will close with best wishes to you all from your

affec brother Tom”

*Harriet was his wife. She remarried in 1947 and died in 1953. She’s buried with her second husband Charles John Wing in Gunnersbury cemetery

**Keating’s flea and lice powder was the staple powder the British soldiers used to try and kill off their lice – but to little avail

***B Coy = B Company, B.E.F. stands for British Expeditionary Force

All Aboard the Centenary Bus!

It feels as though these last couple of weeks has come full circle for me. On Wednesday evening, I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Prom 36: Vaughan Williams and Alwyn.

BBC_Proms

Absolutely brilliant. I booked a ticket only a week before and only because of the recent centenary events (yes, I’m afraid this is another piece on WWI from me – as if you couldn’t get enough stuff on the subject at the moment as it is. You should by now know I’m a little obsessed. Don’t ask me why – someone once said I have a fascination with morbid things.)

WWI_books

At the moment, I feel like every time I turn on the TV or go to read The Guardian, there’s a new article or programme about the centenary waiting for me, just me, to discover it; it’s like the twelve days of Christmas.

My centenary adventure begins: I went to the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I tried to rouse the troops – “It’s had a £4 million refurb, don’t you know?… It really is the best museum… Of course – there’s LOADS of good-looking men there, mostly dead ones in old photos, but you get what you can where you can find it…”.

I also was honest. I said, “I’ll probably look at EVERYTHING.” Thought that would sort the women from the children, and they’d say, “So will we! We’ll power through with you – we’re that interested.”

But they said, “No.” Apart from two friends, and yes, I have more than two.

What can I say? The others missed out. They missed out.

Imperial_War_Museum2

The WWI gallery housed some of the most spine-tingling artistic pieces I’ve seen, and the World War 1 exhibition, which we queued for, has been modernised really well – with projections and interactive elements aplenty (screw you, Natural Boring History Museum), though I was sorry to see that the Blitz experience had disappeared. Oh well.

Jet

We powered through the various exhibits – the WWII tank known as Willie Pusher, the traumatising Holocaust exhibition, and even the toilets that glare with so much red lighting, I expected poles and dancers to rise out of the floor.

Imperial_War_Museum

What dismays me a little now, which I discovered when reading an article yesterday, is that the Chinese voluntary services who fought amongst Britain’s allies, have been literally painted out of history. And though exhibitions and various TV programmes are making their efforts to remember the often forgotten African and Indian soldiers, there’s no acknowledgement of the Chinese – not even at the Imperial War Museum. Only now are they getting their first official memorial.

Another stop on the tour de centenary was the British Library. I mooched along there to pass the time on a Friday evening and, you know, suck up some more black and white shizzle. But I was so amazed at the WWI exhibition they had. Not only did they have original posters from the day, but also actual original handwritten poems and letters – from the likes of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen. Just amazing! This was everything I’d studied at school. It said not to take pictures, so I did. Apologies for light reflections.

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Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier – original manuscript

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Letter to Rupert Brooke from a friend offering to darn his socks

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Siegfried Sassoon’s accompanying letter to his anti-war declaration…

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…Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war declaration – for which he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for hysteria

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Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, referencing his poem In the Trenches

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Poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Own – original manuscript with annotations by Siegfried Sassoon

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Vaughan Williams – original manuscript

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WWI letter of condolence

Could hardly sit still the rest of the evening.

Which brings me to my final stop on the magical WWI bus. I’d decided to watch WWI Remembered from Westminster Abbey on Monday the 4th. I thought even I might get bored, but I tell you what – I was enthralled. I guess I should have expected there’d be readings by actors and soldiers of letters, poems and books from 1914, considering the Great War fuelled so much great art and literature – much of which I studied during my A-Levels. A decent balance between men and women’s work as well, as sadly too often, women’s voices are not heard or cared for in this genre, or simply snarled at. And I loved one of the speeches, which I believe was by Hew Strachan, professor at Oxford University, in which he spoke of how we should be wary of hindsight, as it’s all too easy to patronise the past and the decisions made during the war.

But there’s one area of culture I’ve never studied, and that’s classical music – especially the pieces that were performed on this night – the likes of Elgar and Thomas Tallis. So when I heard those opening notes of the organ played by Daniel Cook, and by the violinist Jennifer Pike playing A Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, I caught my breath.

So emotionally fitting with the ideology of 1914, having been written in that year before Vaughan Williams lied about his age and joined the army.

This piece, based on the poem of the same name by George Meredith, effectively shows how the composer lost his innocence simply because his pieces following that war to end all wars were much more disturbing, and were his dedications to his lost companions, such as the composer George Butterworth.

And it turns out I’m not the only who feels this way about The Lark Ascending, as it was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music in Classic FM‘s poll – which made me feel a little bit clueless as I never really knew this piece before now. Still, I listened to this song obsessively the other week and couldn’t seem to listen to anything other than classical music. So I decided to go and see something at the Proms, and thought I wonder... And my heart skipped a beat, because I found that The Lark Ascending was playing at the Proms!

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On Wednesday night, I wrung my hands, sweating, throughout the entire 15 minutes and felt like a lark myself, like I do every time I hear it. And I could hear sniffing around me, and it was played so softly at times, that I could almost not hear it – and you can’t hear it on the Radio 3 recording for this reason, but when I was there, I could feel it – feel the waves on my goosebumps. Static and ecstatic. I’m due to hear it again in November when my friend, a professional violinist, will be playing it at a remembrance event.

I should probably invite along the two old ladies who sat next to me at the Proms; they slept through the whole, bloody thing.

Britain as Idyllic Before WW1? Far From It!

From Michael Gove to Michael Morpurgo, everybody seems to be commenting on the Great War of 1914-1918, as the press begins its countdown to the first day of the centenary of this world event – 28th July 2014. Gove’s most recent claim that the media, the government, the education system and the public’s opinion of WWI as a ridiculous and futile war is an opinion that has been tirelessly shaped by left-wingers is hot news on the press at this time, with Tony Robinson aka Baldrick in Blackadder hitting back.

Blackadder_Tony Robinson

I studied First World War literature, and inevitably the war, during my A-Levels, and at 27 have already twice visited the trenches and battle sites of Belgium and France in my life. I’m guessing Gove has also studied the same literature to some degree. Whatever your opinion is of pig-headed generals, men being used as machine gun fodder, court martials etc, it can’t be denied that it’s not just post-war media, like Blackadder and Oh! What a Lovely War that has built this impression of the war, but the first-hand literature and accounts that came directly from the days of the war itself – on which these iconic titles have been based. And which Gove himself probably studied at some point during his education.

Oh What a Lovely War

Still, I’m open to alternative interpretations about the war, and aim to read some books on this subject in the future, such as Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities by Gary Sheffield, though I find it hard to see how the statistics can prove anything but futility; with 60,000 British casualties, 20,000 of whom died, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the British army obviously appreciates its soldiers more today, with what seems like every individual British death from modern wars reported in the British news.

But there’s something else I’ve noticed that seems to be cropping up in the press and that’s the apparent, idyllic ignorance of Britain before 1914.

Yes, this time 100 years ago, Britain was unaware of the atrocities that war could and would bring in the very near future, having been accustomed only to guerilla warfare in the Boer and Crimean Wars – way before the birth of Weapons of Mass Destruction during WWI. Yes. Britain was ignorant – but it definitely wasn’t idyllic. In 1913, it seems that 25% of Britons were living in poverty, which would explain why so many men initially rushed to sign up for the army when war broke out – they’d get an income, clothing and a regular meal. And it wasn’t just these men who were excited about war, nor just the rest of the country: in fact, it seemed as though the whole of Europe was ready for a war and a revolution, which may be a reason why many countries jumped on the bandwagon. Though the Suffrage Movement was put on hold until the end of the war to the dismay of many, most of Britain welcomed this apparent path to a political revolution in their country which a war would surely bring about.

Whilst the Russians got theirs in 1917, and bailed out of the war, the end of the war for Germany – 11th November 1918 – was a little less like the overhaul they’d had in mind. The impossible terms of the Treaty of Versailles signed on that day would continue to haunt Germany for the remainder of the 20th century – along with the rest of the world.

Hitler Propaganda

David Attenborough: A Fossil of Our Time

A week ago, I sat in an audience waiting for the arrival of a British icon in Chiswick Business Park. The place was packed out, the air fizzing with anticipation – for who? Sir David Attenborough.

Edited David Atteborough2

Funny how a man of 87 years could create such an excitement – the only other time I’ve witnessed such a thing was at a guitar show where people queued for an autograph from Jim Marshall, the famous guitar amp creator. It’s strange how a crowd buzzes over such an old person, something that doesn’t often occur in this Western world obsessed with the young. But let’s face it: Jim Marshall is a music legend and therefore automatically eternally cool. David Attenborough on the other hand…works with animals. Okay, maybe he’s done a little bit more than that.

As soon as he bounded in, waving at the audience and bouncing onto the stage to be interviewed, I got it: I understood why people like him rise from the crowd and do great things. It’s his positive energy, his enthusiasm. The chair was stationed so that his back was turned to the side of the audience where I sat, but like a true professional, he directed every answer to the entire audience – actively turning around to speak to us all. And though his voice – instantly recognisable from his career of voice-overs – has its iconic, husky tone, he nevertheless spoke so vibrantly, he barely needed his microphone. I felt like I was having a personal audience with him. And so enthusiastic – as enthusiastic in his mannerisms as Jack Black – gesticulating with his arms like one of the many primates he’s filmed in his life.

His interview took us on a journey back in time. He actually began his career with a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University. In 1952, he started work at the BBC after applying for a job as a radio talk producer, which he didn’t get, before his CV was noticed by Mary Adams who was head of the Talks department – basically the factual TV department. He became producer for the department, and eventually landed his first role as a presenter when Jack Lester, the then presenter for Zoo Quest an animal collecting programme – became ill and David was made to stand in at short notice. The rest is, of course, history.

His stories of TV in the old days fascinated me the most, as a worker in the industry, and with parents who also once worked at the BBC in the 60s and 70s. When Attenborough first began presenting, everything went out live. There was no technology back then to pre-record anything. The schedule itself was a very interesting concept, as back then not many people had TV sets (until the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when many people rushed to buy televisions just to watch the televised ceremony). He explained that around 6pm, BBC television broadcasting shut down for a couple of hours, for fear that housewives would be so locked into watching it they would forget to put their children to bed!

Attenborough has many titles and awards, and is the only person to have won a BAFTA in black and white, colour, HD and 3D formats (bring on 4K). He was asked what he felt was the biggest change in the industry. His response was when cameras became electronic during the 80s. Before then, cameras (especially  studio cameras) were huge – giant things that need a group of people to wheel them around. But the technological advances in cameras meant they became more stable and reliable, smaller, and easier to manage. To him, this was a major evolution in technology.

His legacy lasts because he plays a part in so many fields – the natural world and TV. What of the future? He believes that his style of nature presenting, what is known as traditional “blue-chip” programming, is on the edge of extinction. Nowadays, nature programmes have more of an adventure feel: the presenters are Indiana Jones-esque, getting into the thick of it – like Attenborough does himself, but there’s more of a hands-on and not to mention wild and dangerous value. Attenborough himself said that animals are relatively easy to read (with their emotions like aggression and calmness readable by any human’s sixth sense), and that he has always found animals to be calm. The scariest creature he has ever faced is a human being wielding a gun.

And the future of the planet?

Edited David Atteborough

 

We need to stop overpopulating. In his words,

“Either humans need to control the population, or nature will end up doing it for us.”

How does Attenborough propose we curb overpopulation? He said that people like him are part of the problem – old people are living longer these days. But more than that, the countries where overpopulation is a problem are the countries where women are not educated and have little control over their own bodies. If we educate women in these countries, it’s likely that the population levels will fall, as women in countries that encourage them to be educated and have more control over their bodies are less likely to have so many children.

His interest in nature began as a child, when he collected fossils and specimens. Just as this inspiration has carried on well into adulthood, where he is still so fascinated by breaking open a fossil, like an ancient tomb, and being the first human to set eyes on a creature that hasn’t been seen since it became fossilized millions of years ago, so we too will continue to look upon the museum of his life and career in awe. So many of us in Britain have grown up with David Attenborough. He’s so warm and friendly on television, he’s like an old family friend. No doubt that one day the country will inevitably be in mourning over him, but he will be cherished and continue to live on as a fossil of our time. Such is life.

The Eiger: a Short Mountaineering History

 

The Eiger.

North_face_Eiger_Wikipedia

A mountain in the Swiss Alps with a north face (Nordwand in German) so deadly, the Germans nicknamed it mordwand – the death wall. The death wall, where at least 64 climbers have died whilst attempting to scale it since 1935. In 1935, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer from Bavaria had attempted to climb it, but after spending many days climbing, they disappeared, and were discovered much later, frozen on what became known as Death Bivouac.

This year, however, marks the 75th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face in 1938. During the 30s, the race was on to scale this face, and different nations took part, with one of the biggest pushes from the German side, eager to prove themselves superior to all others. Even in those early days, experienced as the climbers were, their equipment was somewhat primitive. Though they used climbing gear, it was mainly hand-made and insufficient, such as hand-twisted  hemp rope, home-hammered pitons , and woolly mittens.

Back then, mountaineering, or alpinism as it’s known more specifically concerning climbing in the Alps, was highly specialised, because the stakes were so much higher. Not only was the technology not what it is today, but a lot of the paths that mountaineers take today were pinpointed by the earliest climbers.

So why is the northface of the Eiger still so gruelling and deadly?

NorthFacePoster

You only have to watch the 2008 German film North Face (Nordwand) to learn the reason: there is the danger of avalanches and falling rocks, and not only that but the weather is so changeable it still catches out people even to this day – leaving them stranded in severe snow storms. This is what happens to the main characters in the film, who are in fact not just characters, but were real men. And yes, as you watch the film, you keep thinking: This is based on a true story?!

Spoiler Alert! Do not read further if you wish to watch the film.

Meet Andreas Hinterstoisser – German mountaineer who was a highly esteemed, technical climber, famous for his pendulum manoeuvre that enabled him and his partner to traverse impassable faces.

Andi hinter

The famous Hinterstoisser Traverse on the Eiger’s north face was in fact named after him. This is his climbing partner, Toni Kurz, skilled in planning and forward thinking.

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Both Germans decided to attempt the Eiger’s north face in July 1936, alongside two Austrians Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer.

Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer

Only the previous year, the two Germans, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer, had made their fatal attempt at climbing the Eiger’s north face. A year later, this latest group of climbers were very much aware of the dangers, and when they set off from camp at the base of the north face, several other climbers who had also been waiting for a weather window had already left camp for home, deciding the chances too great against them. The four Germans and Austrians began the climb, with Hinterstoisser creating his famous traverse across an icy rock face using the pendulum technique. Though this was the only way across the face, they decided to remove the rope from there, thinking they would only need to abseil back down in a different direction.

But they ran into trouble. The weather changed and became hostile, and Angerer was hit by a falling rock, leaving them unable to continue. They decided to return back down the Eiger. Yet as they lowered themselves down, they once again had to attempt the icy rock face, but with the rope gone, it was up to Hinterstoisser to attempt his pendulum manoeuvre once again.

He tried for hours to cross back again, but eventually had to admit defeat, leaving the group to descend on a trickier route. But, as they climbed down, they were suddenly struck by an avalanche and Hinterstoisser, who was apparently disconnected, fell from the mountainside and died. Following this, Angerer also fell, hitting the wall and dying. The force caused Rainer, who was securing both Angerer and Kurz, to become pulled against the wall where he died of asphyxiation.

Though the film depicts these events in a slightly different fashion, it pretty much reflects the morbid events. After this, Kurz was left alone, with two unresponsive climbers still attached to him – one above and one below.

There was, however, a train – Jungfraubahn – that passed into a tunnel into the Eiger and connected with viewing stations further up the mountain.

800px-Jungfraubahn_with_Eiger

The railwayman realised that Kurz wasn’t far from one of the tunnel’s viewing windows, and on hearing him shouting out, decided upon a rescue attempt. Yet, the worsening weather left the rescue team unable to help for another night, leaving Kurz huddled against the mountainside. He was now with one gloveless hand and had lost all feeling in it and his arm. The next day, the rescue attempt continued – Kurz having survived the night – and they urged him to cut himself free from Rainer and Angerer, who were by now unresponsive. The idea was to lower his rope for the team to attach their own rope to that would enable Kurz to lower himself down to their level. But Kurz’s rope was too short, so he had to unravel it to make it longer, using just one hand and his teeth. It took him five exhausting hours.

At this point, the rescue team realised they still didn’t have a rope long enough. Their 60m rope had slipped out from beneath one of the member’s backpacks and fallen down the mountainside, and it was too late to retrieve it. Instead, they tied two ropes together and attached it to Kurz’s. Kurz, now close to death, slowly lowered himself down. He became stuck just metres from the rescuers, hanging in the air, when the knot in the rope wouldn’t pass through his harness. The guides were so close to him, they could just touch about reach him if one stood on the other’s shoulders, but he still needed to be lowered further. Kurz attempted to pull himself up so that, with less weight, the knot would pass through the gear. But he just couldn’t do it.  Eventually he gave up, saying, “Ich kann nicht mehr,”. He died, dangling helplessly, his body to be cut down a few days later.

 toni body

For more information on this, see here.

A tragic story, considering the first mountaineers – another group of Austrian/Germans (Anderl HeckmairLudwig VörgHeinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek) – to successfully climb the north face did so just two years later. As time went on, the Eiger’s north face became more easily navigated by its climbers, from Alison Hargreaves climbing it in 1988 whilst six months pregnant (who sadly died in 1995 on K2), to 2008, when Ueli Steck climbed the face completely unaided.

Having watched North Face after returning from a break in Chamonix just two weeks ago, I am now fascinated by the world of mountaineering. To me, a mountain is like a domineering, living, moving being, that I can’t seem to stop staring at – my eyes forever travelling upwards. No wonder people want to climb them – to be part of a mountain and to conquer it, like breaking a horse. I wish I had the guts to take up mountaineering myself, but for me, hiking and cable cars are enough of an adrenalin rush for the time being! Pictures will never fully represent the experience of being somewhere like this until you go there, but I thought I’d end with some anyway. Chamonix – Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.

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Climbers

Alps

Mountaineer after Climbing Aiguille du Midi