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.

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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.)

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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.

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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

Retro Christmas Card Extravaganza

I don’t send Christmas cards. To me it seems like either a thing you do at school, or something you do when you’re a proper grown up. I am neither.

Yet it’s the festive season, and I can’t ignore this big element of Christmas – the thing that most of us take for granted, until perhaps the day we no longer get a single Christmas card. The problem I have is, where do you draw the line? Who are the people who don’t make it onto the card list? I have 165 friends on Facebook, but I know that they’re not all reeeally friends. Maybe I should send out a lovely e-card to Facebook and Twitter friends. It would save trees, though the electricity used would create a momentous amount of CO2 obviously.

A few years ago, I sent cards to prisoners held unlawfully around the world via the Amnesty International scheme.  This was probably the last time I sent cards to anybody. If you’re going to send a card, do it with meaning right? Even if you just sign it, “Thinking of you during this difficult time, from …”.

The first official Christmas card was sent as a greeting from Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, to his friends and professional peers in 1843. I say “official Christmas card” because even before this, people sent hand made greetings messages to each other. Cole asked his friend John Calcott Horsley to design the card that he would send, depicting what we now see as a very traditional Victorian Christmas scene.

And yet, following this, some of the earliest designs rarely featured such scenes, but rather images of spring signalling the coming season…which seems kind of odd to me.

Obviously, one thing that can’t be ignored is the lucrative nature of the Christmas card industry. According to Hallmark’s statistics, they sold 1.5 billion cards during the Christmas period in 2010, compared to the Valentine’s Day period which saw just (just?) 144 million cards sold. Even the first cards, made by Cole and Horsley, were for business purposes.

Queen Victoria is well known for having celebrated Christmas in the style we celebrate it in today in Britain, and was herself a fan of sending Christmas greetings since the 1840s, like the card below from 1897:

 Here are a couple of my favourite World War One Christmas cards which you can find  here:

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The Germans knew how to make ’em. Speaking of World War I, anybody seen a film called Joyeux Noel about the Christmas truce on 1914 between the French, Scottish and Germans? I only caught the end, but it seemed pretty good.

joyeux noel

Reminds me of this song – originally not released as a Christmas tune, but due to the Christmas reference, it soon became one.

Anyway, here are some more cards from throughout the ages…

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1920s

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1930s

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1940s

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1960s

1970

1970s

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1980s Soviet card

11th November Post

Today it’s Remembrance Sunday, hence the paper poppies being sold everywhere. The poppy appeal was begun in America in 1920. It began when Moina Michael began wearing a poppy in 1918 as a sign of remembrance after being inspired by the famous poem In Flanders Fields.

The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was a surgeon for the Canadian artillery. He was also in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres, and it was here that he wrote the poem, after his friend L. Alexis Helmer was killed. He wrote the poem quickly, on 3rd May 1915, and initially threw it on the floor. During that time, local papers on the home front would often publish war poems. In Flanders Fields was picked up by someone off the floor who then sent it to the Spectator who refused to print it because it wasn’t patriotic enough. So Punch published it instead.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yo a war cemurs to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And this is where he wrote it, at the Essex Farm cemetery.

This was at the time a thriving field hospital. Strange to imagine. Beside it lies a cemetery.

Cemeteries often turned up beside field hospitals, as of course, there had to be a place were the bodies were lain. So, if you ever stumble across a war cemetery in France or Belgium, it was probably also once the site of a field hospital.

One of the  most iconic headstones of the Essex Farm cemetery is that of rifleman Valentine Strudwick, who was only 15 when he signed up to war. Of course, he lied to the war office, and was able to do so because he was a well-built farm-hand.

If you go to the cemetery now, you’ll see bullet marks on some of the headstones, which is because there was extensive fighting here only 20 odd years later during the Second World War.

John McCrae himself also died at war on January 28th 1918, from pneumonia and meningitis. But his memory lives on.