13-19 June 1916: Coping with a husband in the Forces

The Batstone family, as mentioned in this post, kept the majority of their letters and many diaries, which give a great insight into how one family dealt with the war. They had two young children when Walter was called up, and in this week in June 1916 he was away training whilst Maree tried to handle things at home.

Maree Batstone only wrote one diary entry this week, which started with her receiving two letters from her husband Walter in the morning and afternoon posts. Walter was training in Edinburgh, based in Bruntsfield School, and in his letter explained that he had “been re-drafted + Am now in the 9th draft (when last I sw you I was in the 7th).  Dye & I & abot 12 men are on the board tonight as drafted with the 9th draft, isn’t it amusing.  I am afraid I have this job at any rate tomorrow – I shall be glad when it is over”.

According to Maree’s diary, the “job” was that of Orderly Corporal – meaning long days, Walter even includes a schedule of his day for her, starting at 4.45am. At 5.30am he had to do the rounds to ask is anyone was going sick and take details, at 6am they had to attend at Gillespie School with a list of defaulters (this is James Gillespie’s School, which is 5- 10 minutes walk away).  By 7am he was making out sick reports in triplicate and breakfast was at 7.45am.  Lights out were at 10.15pm, after a day of sorting mail and other duties – “you are always on duty and liable to provide men for any emergency – today, two men to fetch beer for the sergeants mess”.

His second latter was dealing more with family business and answering questions she had sent him, including whether or not he required his birth certificate. There was also a complicated answer to a question about the family account with the piano tuner, where it was not clear if the account had been paid – something that became more complex due to all discussions having to be done by post.  Maree appeared to be struggling slightly with their daughter Molly, who was a toddler, Walter’s response was hopefully lighthearted: “Am so very sorry you are having such a beast of a time with Molly – she is a naughty little swab-hound and ought to be spanked, can you pack her off (as a boarder) to Em’s School?”

The rest of Maree’s day revolved around cycling into town to get Devonshire cream for her Aunt Emily’s birthday, shopping for her mother, and trying to put the children to bed early – slightly disturbed by a visitor coming after they had been bathed.

Letters from Walter Batstone to Maree, ref: D211/2/1/16

Maree Batstone’s diary, ref: D211/18/2/14

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29 February-6 March 1916: Sir Walter St John’s School Magazine – News from Old Boys

The March issue of the Sir Walter St John’s School Magazine was a Special War Number. This stemmed from the boys in the school attempting to get in touch with all the old doys on active service so that they could send them a Christmas greeting and some cigarettes, resulting in a selection of the letters home in response being selected for publication.

The cigarettes were gratefully received, one old boy writing that they “arrived at an opportune moment. I was in the trenches and had run out of tobacco – a greater calamity than an attack”.  Several of the old boys had come across each other in neighbouring battalions, although some had more unusual meetings:

One night, on sentry duty, outside a war-demolished mansion, I discovered a garden filled with choicest fruit. Against the rules, I ventured in and by the light of a match filled by pockets, when I was surprised by a slight rustle.  A German! I thought at once; or perhaps a rat.  To be astonishment, however, it turned out to be one of my old Sir Walter St John’s School friends…

Several described life in the trenches, including the phrase “We sit in mud, sleep in mud, and eat mud”, whilst others were currently billeted behind the lines, or elsewhere round the world:

As I pencil this note I am smoking one of the cigarettes in my billet, within sound of the guns…

 

We have just come out of the trenches for a fortnight’s rest in a small village not more than three miles from the line. Unlike most villages round here it has not suffered in any way from bombardment, but jogs its way along seemly oblivious of the ruins all around.  The women here especially are very active, nearly all the farm work being in their hands… The slightest noise from the lines can be heard distinctly.  We heard a bugle band recently that was playing three or four miles behind the Huns’ lines…

 

Your kind packet was forwarded me from Fort William, where we were stationed for 13 months. I cannot say how long we shall be at Lucknow, but expect before very long to go to the Gulf, where things are pretty lively.

The magazine also contains as full a list as the school could manage of old boys and staff who were on active service. It lists their rank and regiment, and carries an update to the school’s Roll of Honour, listing 4 old boys killed and giving details of what happened to them as far as possible.  Harvey Haysom only has “killed in France”, whilst Herbert Bonnell, G E Kosmann and Harold Wilsher all have more detailed accounts.

SWSJ Roll of Honour SWSJ Roll of Honour - the dead

Elsewhere in the magazine, news of everyday school life continued. Meetings of the Debating Society were reported, as were football, fives and cricket scores.  The Speech Day prize list was published, as were the names of the four best boys in each form following the Christmas exams.  The Christmas collection subscription list and where the funds went was listed, as well as the cigarette purchase, money was donated to Queen Mary’s Hospital or Soldiers and Sailors who have lost limbs and the Wandsworth Schools Motor Ambulance, in addition to other local, non-war-related causes.

Sir Walter St John’s School Magazine, ref: S17/2/6

28 September-5 October 1915: Edward Thomas at Camp

Edward Thomas often did not date his letters, other than writing the day of the week at the top of the page.  He is far from the only person to have done this, the Wandsworth archive collections are full of correspondence which is not well dated and for which other information has to be used to establish when it were written.  For two letters written to Eleanor Farjeon in late September/early October 1915, one has a postmark which dates it to this week and the other has no clue at all – the envelope has been lost and all that Edward Thomas wrote on it by way of date was “Wednesday”.

ET Oct 1915The letter with the postmark was postmarked Loughton, 9.30pm, 30 September 1915.  Thomas gives no address, but the later letter was written from Hut 23, Harehall Camp, Gidea Park. Romford South, so it seems reasonable to assume that the earlier letter was as well.  Thomas had joined the Artists’ Rifles, more information about them in Harehall Camp can be found here and here, and Havering Museum have photographs of the Camp and local area here.

Thomas’s opinion of the camp was that: “It is not so bad, but now that the rain has come it is worse.  There is no comfort after wking + it is dark.  The canteen is the only place, noisy, draughty and ugly.  Everything is badly arranged, ugly and dirty.  But one has an appetite and can satisfy it, and the country is beautiful, and for a week the weather was perfect.”

He was writing in response to a letter from Eleanor, which presumably asked after his own reading or writing:

“No.  Books are all off except a 6d one on Company Training, which I must learn by heart…I find I can learn some things yet, and I am just curious what I shall be able to do with a pen if and when I take to it again”

His other letter from this period, undated, but place in the sequence of letters as if written the following week,  also refers to writing: “We are having too easy a time, so that again I have reverted and written some verses, I am afraid they aren’t finished.  I never have any time really to myself and have continually to be putting my paper away..I will copy out the verses as they exist now + if you like them will you make a copy or two of them?”

The verses in question are a draft of the poem, There’s Nothing Like the Sun:

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies

Kind as it can be, this world being so,

To stones and men and beasts and beer and flies,

To all things that it tricks except snow

Whether on mountainside or street of town

The south wall warms me.  November has begun.

Yet never shone the sun as fair as now

While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough

With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down

Because the starling shakes it whistling what

Once swallows sang.  Yet I can forget not

That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,

Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,

Or January’s, or February’s, great days:

August, September, October and December

Have equal days, all different from November.

No day of any month but I have said –

Or if I could live long enough should say –

There’s nothing like the sun shining today –

There’s nothing like the sun till a man’s dead.

ET October 1915 2

Edward Thomas letters to Eleanor Farjeon, 123 &124, ref: D112/1/3

25-30 May 1915: Battersea Recruitment Concerns

This week’s edition of the South Western Star carries a letter from the Mayor of Battersea – T W Simmons – that plans to raise a field battery had been dropped in the light of the War Office’s request for the borough to raise an infantry battalion.  The paper had yet to make a comment on this, but a meeting of the Lavender Hill branch of the Clapham Conservative Association was reported as having met the previous week and discussed it.

One member felt that it was rather late in the day for the Mayor to be raising a battalion and that they might as well “go the whole hog and bring about conscription”.  The Chair proposed a resolution, which was not put to the vote in the end as they decided to wait for their parliamentary candidate’s opinion, that conscription should be introduced as he felt the authorities were trying to shame men into enlisting and in some cases shaming the wrong men.  Another member said that teenagers who looked older were being pestered in the streets to join up, and that one 14 year old who had been turned down as a cadet was now in the 23rd County of London Regiment.  It was suggested that there were plenty of men in Battersea who were deaf to all appeals being made to them, and that compulsory military training should be introduced.

Public pressure to enlist was also behind another story in the paper this week, reporting the inquest into the suicide of 23 year old Samuel Charles Seymour.  He was a milk roundsman, and had been coming under pressure from customers as to why he had not joined up.  His family stated at the inquest that he had been keen to make sure the family was properly settled before joining up, as he was their only son, but that the “chipping” from customers had been making him very withdrawn over the last few days.  The verdict was “Suicide During Temporary Insanity”, and in summing up the coroner:

No young man can feel comfortable in these days if he is in London, and not at the front, or preparing to go.  Many of us are hoping the time is shortly coming when all young men of military age will either be at the front, or preparing to go; making munitions of war, or wearing badges showing they have offered their services, and then if anyone looks askance at a yong man, he has only to point to his badge to show he has tried to serve his country.  Perhaps that time will come very soon.

South Western Star available on microfilm.

20-26 April 1915: Wandsworth Council and the Forces

Wandsworth Borough Council held their regular meeting on 21 April, which included considering a list provided by the Officers and Servants Committee on employees of the council who were serving with the Forces or who had transferred to work in the arsenals or some other war-based work.  The difference between Council “officers” and Council “servants” seems to have been largely down to the type of role they held and how senior it was.  Clerks seem to have counted as “officers” and road-sweepers as “servants”, although other references to staff make a distinction between permanent and temporary staff.  The actual list is not included with the Council minutes or the minutes of the Committee, although the Council would have had to have kept careful records of staff who had joined up as they had promised to keep their jobs for them and to pay them the difference in their salary  (for example, the salary books for Putney Library show them doing just that for William Mills) and when the Wandsworth Battalion was formed later in the year the file shows that the council produced a list of men who were eligible for military service but had not joined up.  The Committee was concerned over being able to continue the full work of the Council, given that many staff were now serving, and proposed to the rest of the Council that a list of staff who were considered essential should be created.

The Council also decided that a section of the Wandsworth Cemetery should be set aside for members of the Forces who died in the 3rd London General Hospital or any of the other hospitals in Wandsworth.  The War Office was to contribute to the cost of each interment.  Wandsworth Cemetery is officially recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as a war cemetery, there are five war plots from the First World War, with 477 graves Commonwealth War Graves across them and other parts of the cemetery.  A further 115 war graves were added during the Second World War.  There is more information and full details of all graves on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site.

Wandsworth Council minutes, ref: MBW/1/15

5-11 January 1915: News of the Christmas Truce

Although Christmas is over, news of Christmas from the trenches was still filtering back to those at home in Wandsworth. Arguably the Christmas Truce is one of the best known events of the war in 1914, and the Tooting and Balham Gazette carries a copy of a letter from Tooting solider Harold Macbeth, who was somewhere in France with the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. Macbeth was born in Tooting in 1890, the youngest of John and Annie Macbeth’s five children and in the 1911 census gave his occupation as an insurance clerk. He wrote to Annie on 29th December 1914:

My Dear Mother

I am snatching an opportunity to thank you for your last two letters, both of which I received in due time. We were again unexpectedly relieved on Boxing Day, when we were afoot by 5am. Such a Christmas Day! We were on top of the trenches in front of the barbed wire fraternising with the enemy, a Saxon regiment, quite a decent lot I should think but nothing like the Queen’s Westminster Rifles physically. Cigars and sweets were exchanged and I conversed with one in “Pidgin” French for quite a long time. He gave me quite a good cigar and I returned with compliment with a Woodbine (Ikey) and some few of the caramels you sent. They hoped with us that the war would soon be finished but, of course, we didn’t talk shop. We are boarded in a big store, and there is no room to write properly, and too much noise to concentrate attention. I am hopelessly behind with correspondence, having had no chance to acknowledge the various parcels and letters received at Christmas time. I helped Walkington from the firing line. It was a bullet wound, not shrapnel as in paper. Glad you heard from Wilson, whom I also helped. Please explain and apologise to any friends you may meet about unanswered letters. Hoping you are all well. With love, from your affectionate son,

Harold

The newspaper comment that “Tootingites were ever in the forward line when fighting – whether politically, municipally, or Imperially – was afoot”.

The same issue also reports on the first private to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal – Private Frederick William Joynt, who was 20 years old and had already been in the Army for four years. A fellow Tooting man told his parents that the last he remembered seeing of Joynt was of him running out under heavy fire to bring in a wounded lieutenant. The newspaper has actually reported Joynt’s name wrongly, his middle name was Arthur and it is possible to find his medal card showing his DCM award and that he served with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps on the Ancestry website, as well as to establish that he survived the war and was listed on the absent voters register for Bickley Street in Tooting in 1919. Sadly Harold Macbeth did not survive, he was killed in September 1916 and is buried in Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval.

Tooting and Balham Gazette available on microfilm in the Heritage searchroom

Access to www.ancestrylibrary.com is available on all library computers

Guest Post: Researching William Mills: librarian, soldier, airman

Earlier this year Putney Library ran a series of behind-the-scenes tours in response to a request from our Friends’ group. In preparation for these I visited Wandsworth Heritage Service, hoping to draw on the wealth of archive material there to add a historical dimension to the tours. It was a chance sighting in one of the archive items – the library’s salaries book for the 1910s – which set me on the trail of William John Mills.

The salaries book [1] is a handwritten week-by-week record of the payments made to each staff member, signed to confirm receipt. W.J. Mills appears in the very first entry in the book, in April 1910. Then aged fifteen, and employed as a junior assistant, he was paid 9s 6d per week. By the summer of 1914 he was earning 17s 3d, but from September onwards he is recorded as being paid 10s 3d, with the added note “whole pay less army pay while on military service.” His mother, Ada, signed on his behalf. (As noted in a previous blog post [2], the Council had resolved to make up the difference in salaries of those staff serving with the military.)

Entry in the Putney Library Salaries book

Entry in the Putney Library Salaries book

This pattern continued through to 2nd June 1917, when Mills’s name is crossed through in red, and payments ceased. Fearing the worst, I asked the heritage staff if they could find any record of his death. The result was rather surprising, as the following entry was found in the Council minutes [3] over a year later, on 16 October 1918:

Death of Lieut W J Mills, Northumberland Fusiliers, attached RAF on 3rd September, former junior assistant Putney Library – shot while flying on Western Front.

I was able to locate Mills’s RAF service record [4], which had been digitised and was available for download from the National Archives. His more substantial army record [5] was not, but unlike many it had survived in hard-copy and I was able to view it at Kew. From these records we now know the following of the life and career of William Mills:

He was born on 6th October 1894, the eldest son of John and Ada Mills. In 1914 the family was living at 59 Mexfield Road, East Putney [6]. On 3rd September 1914, just a month after the outbreak of war, William enlisted as a rifleman – service no. 2648 – in the18th Battalion, London Regiment (London Irish Rifles). A territorial force, his unit was garrisoned in the UK throughout 1914 & 1915, but in April 1916 they embarked to Le Havre to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. William’s casualty record reports that in May he was hospitalised with measles. Then, on 28th June he was wounded in action: a gunshot wound to the forehead, but he recovered to return to his unit on 16th July.

On 28th October he was promoted to Lance Corporal, and just weeks later, in December 1916, he returned from France to take up place at officer cadet school (at Fermoy in Ireland), which led on 26th April 1917 to his appointment as Temporary 2nd Lieutenant with 20th Bn. Northumberland Fusiliers (1st Tyneside Scottish) [7]. As an officer, his service pay now exceeded his former council wage, hence the cancelled entry in the salaries book.

Mills spent the remainder of 1917 as an infantry officer, with his unit again garrisoned in the UK. Then, in early 1918, he was attached to the fledgling Royal Air Force. He trained as an observer and gunner before returning to France in April 1918 to join No. 10 Squadron, RAF. It was there that he was wounded on 3rd September (four years to the day after he enlisted), and he died from his wounds the following day. His death was recorded in the minutes of the Putney Library sub-committee [8]:

Putney Library Sub-Committee minute book

Putney Library Sub-Committee minute book

Death of Lieut. W.J. Mills

The Librarian reported that Mr. W.J. Mills was a junior

assistant in the Library until September 3rd 1914 when he joined His Majesty’s forces as a private in the London Irish Regiment [sic] later obtaining a commission in the Northumberland Fusiliers. On September 3rd 1918 while attached to the Royal Air Force as an observer he was shot while flying behind the German lines and died from wounds on September 4th 1918.

Resolved that the Committee received the sad information with deepest regret and that the Librarian be instructed to report the matter to the Libraries’ Committee. [8]

This in turn led to the Council minute noted earlier. Mills is buried at the British military cemetery at Esquelbecq in northern France [9].

The Mills family remained in Mexfield Road: the electoral register lists Ada at the address until 1947. William’s youngest brother Frank appears in the last register before the outbreak of war in 1939 but does not return afterwards, although Ancestry [10] records that he died in 1995 at the age of 93.

In 1923 the Library Association commissioned a roll of honour in memory of the British librarians – over 80 in all – lost during the Great War. This memorial is now located at the British Library, as are a number of photographs of those recorded on it, including William Mills [11].

Terry Day, Putney Library

References:

[1] MBW/5/6/16

[2] https://ww1wandsworth.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/6-12-october-1914-rifle-ranges-and-recruits/

[3] MBW/1

[4] National Archives AIR/76/349

[5] National Archives WO 339/82293

[6] The 1911 Census records that the Mills family then lived at an address in Stanbridge Road.

[7] Army List, December 1917, 944f.

[8] MBW/5/6/11

[9] http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/25340/MILLS,%20WILLIAM%20JOHN A photograph of the gravestone can be viewed at http://twgpp.org/information.php?id=3064762 Puzzlingly, both sites list his unit as 20 Squadron RAF although his service record clearly shows 10 Squadron.

[10] http://search.ancestrylibrary.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?new=1&gsfn=frank+brigginshaw&gsln=mills&rank=1&gss=angs-g&mswpn__ftp=&msbdy=1902&pcat=ROOT_CATEGORY&h=832229&db=ONSDeath93&indiv=1&ml_rpos=1

[11] https://m.facebook.com/britishlibrary/photos/a.10150448376867139.414095.8579062138/10150471969397139/?type=3&theater