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.

cem2

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

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.