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

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

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.

Tales from the Crypt

Portugal – that’s where I was a week ago. I went to the Algarve. The evenings looked like this:

 

Nearby the villa we stayed at there was a small town called Alcantarilha, and in this town is a 16th century church – the Capela dos Ossos or the Bone Chapel, as you’ll see by its original decor inside:  

 

Over 1000 bones are stored in this chapel, which was built over a graveyard. Like many bone chapels throughout Portugal, as opposed to being a gory sight, it was actually built for the honest purpose of protecting the remains of the dead. Which is why inside, Jesus watches over the bones.

Portugal isn’t the only country to have relocated various graveyard bones. From my last post about my family tree of deceased people, to this post with its church of relocated bones…to a tree with relocated graves. Do you know who this man is?

It’s Thomas Hardy, the famous writer of such stories as Jude the ObscureFar from the Madding Crowd, and Under the Greenwood Tree. St Pancras station, London, began construction in 1863, and there was a slight problem with the development: St Pancras Old Church, said to have Norman links and to be the oldest surviving church in London, had a graveyard full of aristocrats and prominent figures such as immigrants like the refugees from the French Revolution, that encroached on the development of the station and later developments. So it was decided that the graveyard should be relocated.

Around the same time as the construction of the station, Thomas Hardy was a student of architecture. He was appointed as the overseer of the exhumation – a sensitive affair considering the nature of the job, and one which he would write about much later, having spent so much of his time managing the movement. The 7,000 bodies were to be placed in a mass grave just north of the graveyard. And the gravestones?

 

This is known as the Thomas Hardy tree, an ash tree which was planted around the same time as the reinterment of the bodies, later to grow up amongst the headstones. I haven’t actually visited it yet. Maybe I’ll go on Halloween. And to Highgate cemetery.

I’ve visited many cemeteries in my life, due to the two trips I went on visiting First World War memorials and graveyards in France and Belgium. One sticks in my mind in Belgium – the Langemark cemetery, a German cemetery.


During WWI, the Germans buried their dead just as their enemies did, in makeshift graves that became permanent. Here are a couple of original German graves at the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood in Belgium:

After WWI, the defeated Germans were made to exhume the bodies of their soldiers in the graveyards in this area of Belgium, and rebury them in fewer graveyards. After WWII, the Germans had to exhume the bodies again from these cemeteries and reinter them again into fewer cemeteries, for the sake of an easy upkeep in a foreign land. Langemark, at the time known as Langemarck-North was one of just three “collecting” cemeteries. It was filled with the bodies from 18 other cemeteries. They were reburied in mass graves, multiple names listed like below. 

There are over 44,000 bodies in this one cemetery.

Everyone I know who I visited this cemetery with on both tours was especially affected by the bleakness here. Aside of the many gravestones, there are three mass graves here, one of which is known as the Comrades’ grave, containing 24,917 servicemen. Worth noting is the small monument at the entrance; inside, this building lists the names of the soldiers’s bodies that were unable to be identified but known to be buried at Langemark.

3,000 of the bodies in one area of the cemetery are those of Kriegsfreiwilliger, which means war volunteer. These soldiers were young, inexperienced German men who made up 15% of the war vounteers who died at the Battle of Langemarck during October and November 1914, as part of the First Battle of Ypres. It was at the hands of highly trained French infantry and British riflemen. It is now known as Kindermord bei Ypern in German, or the Massacre of the Innocents in English.

At one end of the cemetery stands four figures, the bronze statues of a group of mourning men, created by Professor Emil Krieger from Munich. It was taken from a famous print of a group of German soldiers from the Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 238 mourning at a graveside in 1918. Two days later the man on the second from the right was killed.

When you first enter the cemetery, it’s what you immediately see. These four silhouetted figures. And even once you’ve worked out that they aren’t in fact real people, you can’t help but let your gaze return to them, always there in the background, watching over.

Dangerous Jobs for Women

So, you’ve heard of The Dangerous Book for Boys and maybe The Worst Jobs in History series’s. But what about the dangerous jobs for women throughout the ages?

Women have been given very little airtime in historical accounts, and when they are written into anything, it’s to reinforce the age old sterotypes:

– Women did nothing during the First World War except write poetry whingeing about the lack of attention they received from their fiances on the front line, knit socks and dish out white feathers to innocent and unsuspecting young men out of uniform.

– Ancient Athens promulgated the idea of democracy where EVERYONE was involved in voting.

– Women do not and have never held a rightful place in the Christian church.

Well, to the first, if you just read the angry First World War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, then you will assume that women did very little during the war except what is named in the sentence above. In fact, many women joined up with the war effort as VAD nurses, having to care for all the injured and ill men, became part of the Land Army (yes – there was one in WWI), worked in munitions factories and much more. Are any of these women commemorated? Not obviously.

To the second, the idea of democracy involves all the people, coming from the Greek word that means “rule of the people”. Of course, the Ancient Grecians’ idea of “the people” lacked two major  groups – slaves and…women! Democracy? Pah!

To the last, just watch Divine Women, a new BBC series presented by the legendary Ancient History expert Bettany Hughes (well, I think she’s a leg anyway). She proves that women were pretty much written out of Christianity (and other religions such as Islam), so much so that mosaics and writings and teachings were tampered with to make women look like men, and female names like males’, such as Theodora the Bishop changed to Theodor and much more. And why? They were written out because early men in the church believed women were unequals, shameful. This judgement was sealed in 387 AD, when Augustine of Hippo became a Christian and a Theoligan. On becoming a Christian, he also became celibate. The problem was, prior to this he had been a bit of a sex fiend. So of course, he promoted and embellished the powerful concept of Original Sin – sex breeds sin, and women like Eve are dangerous sexual deviants and temptresses. The rest is history – ignorant history.

So, here is my first example of what struck me as a really dangerous job for women: Munitionettes of the First World War.

During the First World War women did not have the vote. The Suffragette Movement was stalled mid-flow on the outbreak of war, as they thought their resources would be better spent focusing on the war/anti-war effort. Despite the obstruction to their vote, the government nonetheless relied on women in the war effort. The government relied on women more than they paid for it (women didn’t get as high a wage as their male equals). This was during what became known as the “shell scandal/crisis” of 1915, when there just wasn’t enough available ammunition for those on the front (the crisis eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal Governement in 1916). Saying that, when I went on a trip to the First World War trenches, I learnt there, at an excavated trench that still held the remnants of a shell gun station, that British shells were notorious for not exploding on impact, and so maybe a little pointless?

Anyway, it took a little while for the concept of women working for the war effort to catch on, as women were expected to stay at home, and were definitely not thought of as capable replacements for men in the industrial, farming, and generally any of the industries that involved any amount of manual labour. No doubt, the women suffered many vindictive games at the hands of the threatened men they worked with in the factories. Still, women played a large role in keeping the home fires burning. They relied on money as much as their male contemporaries, and whilst these men took advantage of becoming soldiers in return for a stable income, so these women took on the roles that were needed during the war.

I came across the job of the munitionettes in the book Voices of the Twentieth Century: Women at War:

 

Munition workers worked in the factories with raw materials – such as the explosives and gas used in shells. Rules were followed strictly, and disobedience of these were treated serverely. In this book, I found the story of Lilian Miles, who tells of her friend who accidentally dropped a match, when she took out her handkerchief at work. Although she tried to protest her friend’s innocence, her friend was given a twenty-eight day prison sentence by the court. She never got over this, dying a few months later at the age of twenty. It’s shocking, but not so much when you learn that the army sent pilots up in planes without parachutes, during this war, to “avoid cowardice”.

Aside of the fear of a fire erupting in a shell factory – you can imagine why – is what seems to me as the other most dangerous aspect of these jobs, and that was working with poisons. For example, women who worked with TNT were often nicknamed “canaries” because their skin went yellow. They suffered many long term effects even after the war, such as infertility as a result of the poisons. Even those in other fields suffered similarly; the women who workerd with the toxic dye used to make khaki uniforms, developed painful boils.

Elsie McIntyre, gives an account of working at the Barnbow National Shell Factory in Leeds, in Women at War, saying:

 “…We had a fortnight in the powder and after the fortnight we had a fortnight on the stencil side. That was the dirty side. You could only do a fortnight. And then you had to come out, owing to the poison. And it was those people that you saw going about, they had yellow hands even through the gloves. We had two half-pints of milk a day to keep out the poison from the powder.”

Milk was used to keep the skin colouring at bay, that was caused by such explosives as cordite and TNT. Despite food rationing, munitions workers were given as much milk and barley water as they needed for this reason. Yet, still this wasn’t enough as Isabella Clarke, a munitionette in the First World War, explains: she says that even the pillow cases they slept on would go pink from their hair, and that you could tell by the discolour of the white of someone’s eyes if the gas they worked with had affected them. Her and her friend were both stopped because their eyes were discoloured – her friend’s were more discoloured than her own. She says:

“I was fortunate, my friend refused this herring that was cooked for us and I was a bit greedy and I ate mine and hers. It made me sick. Being bilious after the herring it was what really saved me.”

Later she was informed that her friend had died.

 

There’ll be more to come on dangerous jobs for women in later posts.

 

Thanks to Fountain, Nigel, ed., Voices from the Twentieth Century: Women at War (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 2002).