A Letter From the Dead

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


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.


His response:

Email 2

Whaaaaat? A letter?


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier – original manuscript


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


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


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


Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, referencing his poem In the Trenches


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


Vaughan Williams – original manuscript


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!


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.

Mega Post: Stuff You Probably Don’t Know About the RMS Titanic

“Titanic was called the ship of dreams…and it was. It really was!”

Okay, I apologise straight away for having quoted from that terribly scripted, big-budget film, where the dialogue throughout consists of little more than “Rose!”, “Jack!”, “Iceberg!” and “Surely this ship can’t sink?!”

In case you haven’t already caught on to all the commemorative programmes, articles, 3D film, and recently released underwater pictures, it’s the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic.

The fact is, RMS Titanic wasn’t meant to sink. It’s all in the name – the Titans, the Greek mythological super deities, capable of mass strength and power (who were eventually overthrown by the Olympians). Yet, on 14th April 1912, four days after it set sail on its maiden voyage, the ship was sinking.

At the time, White Star Line was running against its main competitor, Cunard, which had launched the fastest passenger ships in service, the Lusitania and Mauretania – hence, the clunk of a line delivered by Kate Winslet in Titanic,

“It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania.” Well done, James Cameron, for getting that historical reference point in there. Well done.

So, White Star Line presented its three members of the Olympic-class liners: RMS Olympic (launched in 1910), RMS Titanic (launched in 1911), and after that, HMHS Britannic (launched in 1914). RMS stands for Royal Mail Steamer, because as well as being a passenger ship, it also delivered post. HMHS means His/Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship – more on that later.

So, why did the Titanic sink – apart from the most obvious reason which is that it crashed into an iceberg?

1. Arrogance

If you say that a ship can’t sink, then you’re asking for it, especially if you don’t equip it with enough lifeboats for everyone to leave safely. It is widely suggested that J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of White Star Line, was one of the top officials to suggest this, though Thomas Andrews, the naval architect and head of Titanic’s plans, knew very well that the ship was capable of sinking. As is anything on water, if it gets a bit of a hole in it.

Andrews knew this so well, in fact, that he tried to make Titanic even more steadfast, by suggesting that the liner carry 36 more lifeboats, a double hull and water tight bulkheads that would go up to the B deck. But, probably due to money, weight and arrogance, this was not allowed. Still, even Andrews was highly confident the ship would never sink.

Another occurrence that jeopardized the lives of those onboard was the fact that the lifeboat drill, which was due to be carried out on April 14th – the day of the crash, was cancelled for one reason or another. I would hazard a guess at it being for an arrogant reason: someone thought there was no need to do a drill on an unsinkable ship.

A new novel Good as Gold has now appeared, written by Louise Patten, whose grandfather, Charles Lightoller, was the sole surviving senior officer on the ship. This book has made many claims as to the reality of the sinking, including its covered up secrets. One of Patten’s claims is that J. Bruce Ismay, who we met above and who was on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, ordered the captain to keep the liner moving onwards in his arrogant determination to get to New York on time. Instead, this made it even less likely for the ship to ever arrive at the dock – if it was going to at all, and in fact caused Titanic to sink hours before it would have done had it been stationary. Inevitably, other ships didn’t arrive in time to rescue the people onboard.

2. Technology

Of course, Titanic may have been its own lifeboat, as was suggested at the time, because of its watertight compartments…if they had worked as planned. If the watertight bulkheads had gone further up, or no more than four had been damaged then it may not have sunk. But as the water leaked into the fifth compartment, the Titanic was no longer able to stay afloat, and so began to tip forward, nose first, eventually breaking in two due to the extreme weight at the front. Hey, even lifeboats can sink.

The other technological weakness of the Titanic was the fact that the rivets that were used to secure the 1.5 inch thick steel hull were made of a weaker iron than was standard. In those times, steel was used for rivets, a much stronger material. Not only was iron a weaker option, but the iron itself was of a lower class – “class 3” – compared to the class of iron used on other vessels – “class 4”. Needless to say, this class 3 iron could not stand the amount of stress that was applied to it, that other metals would have been able to stand.

3. Bad Decision Making

To an extent, all of these issues could be attributed to bad decision making. But here are some specifics.

The bad decision making of various morse code telegram operators also had a part to play. In those days, ships relied on each other for warnings of icebergs in places like the Atlantic, and these messages were relayed through morse code. Due to earlier warnings, Titanic had already altered its course to avoid icebergs.

The morse code operators Harold Bride and John Jack Phillips, were actually employed by a wireless company, and not by the Titanic as “crew members”. One of the ways they made money on commission, was to send personal messages from the passengers to land. They ignored several iceberg warnings from other ships such as the Californian (and other warnings were lost in translation), because they were concentrating on delivering the commercial messages, of which there was a backlog due to the lack of signal range earlier that day. Finally, Phillips told the operator on the Californian to “Keep Out! Shut up! Shut up!”.

This standard order of “Keep Out” was intended to stop other operators from sending messages so that the airways were clear for Phillips to send his commercial messages to the coast station. However, the rude “Shut up!” meant that he missed the important iceberg warning that Cyril Evans was sending from the Californian vessel. The Californian switched off its radio and the operator went to bed.

During the late night, the crew of the Californian told their captain that a ship in the near distance – within ten miles away – appeared to be firing rockets. They assumed the ship was having a party, and when it was noticed that it had disappeared, they believed it had moved on. Later, they realised another ship – the Carpathian – was now in the spot where the previous ship had been. Although survivors of the Titanic testified that there was another ship only six miles away, there is no knowing whether this was the Californian and that it was the Titanic that had been seen firing rockets or another ship, as the Californian maintained that it had been 19 miles from the Titanic. This probably would have been known if the operator had left his radio on.

It’s also a well known fact that when the ship hit ice, other vessels did not take the Titanic’s – the unsinkable Titanic’s – messages seriously. Up until that point, CQD was the standardised distress signal, and SOS had only just been brought in. The operator on the Frankfurt, 170 miles away, did not respond to the distress call of “CQD CQD SOS” until half an hour later, and at that point treated it as pretty much a joke. Phillips was frustrated, and ordered him to “Keep Out” so that he could continue to make distress calls to other ships that would take him seriously. The only other ship to respond was the Olympic, which was 500 miles away and the Carpathia which would arrive too late. You can read the correspondence here.

The final message sent from the Titanic before the power failure was:

“SOS SOS CQD CQD. Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic.”

This was the fist time the SOS signal was used by a British vessel. By the time the Carpathia reached the Titanic’s last given coordinates, there was nothing there. Just water.

In terms of the hit itself, many aspects could have been avoided…

The look-out, Frederick Fleet (below), in the crow’s nest had no binoculars.

Second Officer David Blair sailed with the Titanic in the first leg of the voyage from Belfast to Southampton. Yet, at Southampton he was ordered to step down for the RMS Olympic’s Henry Wilde to take his position, and was greatly disappointed. When he left, he accidentally took the keys to his locker with him – the keys to the locker that held the look-out’s binoculars.

Frederick Fleet later explained that if the binoculars had been available, he would have been able to spot the iceberg sooner and it would probably have been avoided. If Fleet and his colleagues had said at the time that there were no binoculars, someone would have been able to point them in the direction of the second set of binoculars on the bridge.

On sight of the iceberg, First Officer Murdoch ordered the engines to be reversed and for the quartermaster to swing the wheel hard to starboard, causing the Titanic to glance its side off the iceberg. Some suggest that the front of the ship was designed to withstand head on collisions, and that in fact if the Titanic had slowed down and stayed on course, the damage would have been less significant. Others suggest that the ship’s front would have collapsed, causing it to sink in no time at all, as it was only designed to withstand a collision with another boat, not something with the size and stability of an iceberg.  Many also don’t understand why the order was given to reverse engines, because if the wheel had been turned and the engines had kept their pace, the ship would have turned away from the iceberg more quickly. This debate may never be resolved.

However, there is an emerging factor to add to all this:

In Louise Patten’s book, the biggest blunder of the White Star Line, which has been hidden until now, was the confusion between port and starboard, and ultimately the action that made the difference between life and death. Patten suggests that her grandfather was sworn to secrecy over this matter, concerning the direction that the quartermaster, Robert Hitchens, turned the ship due to the confusion between Tiller and Rudder orders.

Tiller orders were old school and referred to the tiller – a lever attached to the rudder post. Rudder orders were becoming the trend in the steam age. The crucial difference between the two is that under Tiller orders, “hard a starboard” meant turn the wheel to the left so that the tiller swung to the right which is starboard. Under Rudder orders, the same command means exactly the opposite. Strangely enough, Titanic was one of many North Atlantic vessels to still use the older Tiller orders. However, Hitchens was used to the newer Rudder orders, and when he was given the order “Hard a starboard”, he turned the wheel the new school way – to the right – through panic. This was the opposite direction to which First Officer Murdoch had intended to move. Evidently, the ship turned to the right, the opposite of which is suggested here and in most well known accounts. This could be one of the central factors as to why the Titanic sunk.


Today, the RMS Titanic continues to fascinate people – from it’s rediscovery on the seabed in 1985, to the conspiracy theory suggesting it was swapped with the Olympic in the dockyard. In the immediate aftermath, the people could only learn from the catastrophe, and safety measures, such as an increased number of lifeboats onboard vessels, were taken more seriously. Of the 2,229 passengers only 713 survived, though these statistics waver from source to source.

After the Carpathia’s rescue mission, hundreds of people stood and waited in the New York dock to see if their friends and relatives had survived.

The crew of the Mackay-Bennet had to return to the site to recover the bodies. As they couldn’t take them all back, they buried many of the steerage passengers at sea. It was up to John Henry Barnstead to think of a way to keep every body with its possessions so that it could be later identified. He did this by numbering the bodies, and their bags of possessions with the same number – a rational system that is still used today.

Today, computer technology has allowed a combined image mapped from the various wreckage parts of the Titanic as printed in the National Geographic magazine:

I recently watched a programme called Saving the Titanic, a period drama that describes the often untold battle that the firemen, electricians and engineers fought to keep the ship afloat for as long as possible – an extra 1.5 hours in fact. If you want to know what it really felt like to be there, forget Titanic 3D and the Julian Fellowes’ Titanic series and watch this. No amount of solemn violin and bagpipe music can compete with the dreaded gulps and pale faces of the characters – all based on real life people such as Joseph Bell – in this programme. None of the senior engineers, that helped it stay afloat for that additional 1.5 hours, survived.

And what of the Titanic’s sister ships?

The Olympic became a troopship during World War One and lived a long life until 1935 when it was withdrawn from service, and parts of it were auctioned off and used as fittings in various halls and homes.

The Britannic also became involved in World War One as a hospital ship.

On 21 November 1916, there was an explosion onboard which damaged some of the watertight doors. History began to repeat itself as the ship began to sink and the lifeboats were ordered to be deployed. This time, after only ten minutes, the Britannic was already at the same stage of sinking as the Titanic was an hour after it hit the iceberg. The rush was on to get everyone off the ship, into lifeboats, and two of the lifeboats and its occupants were dragged into the wrath of the propellors. Violet Jessop, a VAD nurse, was onboard at the time. She had also been a survivor of the Titanic.

Again, she survived to tell the tale. This time, the warmer temperature, the closer proximity of rescue vessels and the greater number of available lifeboats meant that only 30 men lost their lives, and 1,036 survived…

Lessons were learnt from the RMS Titanic.


Please view this great project that colourises black and white photos connected with the Titanic.