“I wish I had time to write a decent letter, but since leaving our last resting place five days ago there has not been time really to collect one’s thoughts. We had an awful march of 16 miles over pavé – very trying to the feet. The Belgian roads are worse than the French a good deal. We are at present in a farmer’s cottage. The kitchen, where we all feed is very small and the whole thing very amusing, the place swarms with children, who howl all day long……. Please send me a complete change of underclothing – The ones you have sent have not turned up and are urgently needed! also get me another pair of boots from the Stores – The chocolate has not arrived, I think that too has gone astray – Shelling goes on pretty well all day. Yesterday we watched them potting at a German aeroplane – Awfully interesting. Our trench is a perfect brute. Over our knees everywhere in mud and in some places nearly to your thighs! Tell Dad that the waterproof trousers he gave me are simply splendid and that I should like a pair of waders if he can manage it. Please send me another bottle of Mars oil, will you?……
The Battalion moved up to the front line near St Eloi to the south of the Ypres Salient to relieve the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry, part of the 80th Brigade.
The Front in January 1915.
The description of the march to the front, as well as the description of the trenches give a good idea of the miserable conditions. As an officer George could alleviate the discomfort to an extent with comforts from home.
From the Battalion Diary of January 11th:
“Artillery fire carried on all day, particularly heavy between the hours of 2pm and 4pm. From observation our artillery fire seemed good. Artillery fire ceased at nightfall. At 6.30pm there was very heavy rifle-fire which lasted about twenty minutes: after that there was continual sniping all night. Snipers between our fore trench and Battalion Headquarters were very annoying. Great difficulty about water and rations which had to be fetched from Kruisstraartoek, a mile in rear of Headquarters. Rations were eventually man-handled to Headquarters and issued there, this took from 9pm to 3am. Platoons sent men direct to Kruisstraathoek for water”.
“…..Your letters 28th-30th have arrived and the parcel with the socks and re-fill for lamp. But I think that the groceries with the Quaker Oats & my half pound of chocolate & the change of underclothing you sent have got delayed somehow. We are still en l’air and shall be anyhow for the next day or two…. Very wet here. I expect Ion will be home soon. We are all very fit here and doing a lot of work, chiefly horticultural……”
The battalion were at this stage preparing to move to the Front Line. The comments on the weather and the “horticultural” work give an indicator of the months to come. Trench digging at this stage of the war was an entirely manual exercise.
“Just a very,very short letter, as there is no news and I have a pile of the Company’s letters to censor; drat them! I should like any news of people I know as the papers are irregular. I have received your letters of the 19th-25th and one later one. Also the first tin of groceries and a tin of baccy. Also heaps of papers and the Bystander and Punch. Thank you very much…..”
This post highlights the role of the junior officers in the censorship process. All communications home where censored by one means or other. No reference to place names was allowed and graphic detail of the unpleasantness of war was censored for fear of reducing morale back home. It is also interesting to note that letters arrived on the Front within 3-4 days. The Bystander was a tabloid magazine which ran from 1903 until 1940 (when it merged with Tatler). It carried cartoons, short stories and what would now be described as celebrity news.
“A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all at C.G.. We are still quite comfortable and dry. I wrote to Mother to-day and asked her to show you the letter. We gat a present from Princess Mary [see below]. I am sending you the card. All the men got a card from the King and Queen, but the officers did not. I am rather disappointed. Last night it froze a bit and has dried the ground a bit. The C. Company Mess is a very happy affair indeed. The Christmas dinner consisted of beef and rum; very good! So far no mails and baccy was getting a bit short. Luckily Princess Mary’s baccy turned up…….This really is a most interesting old town. There are one or two very old houses and a couple of quite nice churches. One very small one and only about the height of a two-storied house with an enormous spire.
It is getting rather late and I must go to the house of the maker of paints. Had a bath to-day – wonderful the amount of dirt that came off – the first since leaving England. Mrs Land-lodgings doesn’t understand baths. It is as much as she can do to empty the slops. Dad’s cigars were lovely; alas, they are nearly finished. We have come to the conclusion that the best way to pay for our groceries is for the others to pay me. I shall be kept in petty cash and will not have to draw on paymaster. If I get too much I can send you home some. Always have the bill sent with the goods.”
(extract from letter1 to Ashburn Place). “…..From the row there must have been a pretty big show last night. I am second-in-command of C.Company now, having given up the M.G. section. A German aeroplane came over last night, but was bagged further north of us with twoGermans inside.”
Clearly no sign of a Christmas truce in this sector. The “show” was probably the ongoing defence of Givenchy.
The present from Princess Mary was a baccy tin which remains in the family and is pictured below.
“This,be it understood, is a Christmas letter. We wish you all a Merry Christmas. D. Burges and I are, this night, at a railway goods station rather cold and dinnerless and the prospect of being up all night for no reason at all. We had a very tedious journey in the train, also rather cold, but by filling the carriage up with hay we managed to make it very comfortable in the end. We stopped for a short time at a certain place you and I know. It was the terminus of a very pleasant trip we had just before we were engaged, when your Aunt Alys was so amusing. When this row ends we will go back and have tiffin at the same cafe. Now we are in billets in another town. The men are in barracks but the officers are in the town. I am billeted on a maker of paints; my arrival was rather comic. Knowing how much French I can speak you can imagine the scene, I expect. The landlady is very small and rather plain, wife of maker of paints. We had a long discussion as to whether she could give me some space to cook or not. It was eventually decided she could not, so we proceeded upstairs to view the chamber. Quite a nice looking room in which a charming-looking maiden, in an extraordinary dress, was making the bed. The room was evidently hers’s& she was very fed up at having to turn out, and when I could not understand a remark of the land-lady she repeated it at the top of her voice. I expect she will trot back again tonight as I am on this outpost job. Funny world. I took an hour to shave this morning not having to do so since we left England. I have come to the conclusion that a diary is beyond me, because (i) in this division we are not allowed to refer to places in a private diary until the event is a week old, therefore (ii)I should get horribly out of date and become inaccurate. I think that supplementing letters is just as good in the end. Please send me a refill for my oriflux lamp on receipt of this – The lamp is most useful…..”
It is likely that the billet was in Aire. An oriflux lamp was an early electric torch/signalling lamp.
“We are all tucked away in a large shed at a certain place in the pleasant land of France and expect to move up by rail soon. We got dry by degrees on board and were quite comfortable although rough and rather cold for n hour or so. To-day is lovely. Burges and I are drinking Bock in a small brasserie. Two very amusing local soldiers are playing dominoes opposite. I think you had better pass my letters on to Mother and the people at Ashburn Place; I will write to them as often as I can but I don’t imagine we shall get very much chance until we have settled down thoroughly….”
At this stage the Battalion were billeted in Aire in Northern France just back from the Belgian border. On the 20th a number of officers moved up to visit the 1st battalion (involved in the defence of Givenchy) to get their first insight into trench warfare and it is likely that George was one of these.
Welcome to the centenary “blog” based on the letters of EGH (George) Power written home through-out the First World War to his wife Marion. The Gloucestershire Regiment in the War 1914-1918 by Everard Wyrall (www.naval-military-press.com) is also a significant source along with other histories of the Great War.
George was the eldest son of Edward John Power of Etchingham in East Sussex. He was born in Putney on 23rd July 1887. He had four brothers and a sister and was educated at Rugby School. After leaving school he went to RMA Sandhurst. Although there was a family business importing timber from Canada there was also a tradition of service in the armed forces.George was a good shot,a skilled horseman, and he enjoyed playing polo.
At Rugby he became friends with Ion Benn whose father was a successful businessman and politician (MP for Greenwich). In the summer holidays George visited the Benn’s on their yacht.
During this time George met Ion’s sister Marion. Love blossomed and George and Marion were married on April 5th 1913.
Having passed out from Sandhurst, George was commissioned into the 2nd Batallion the Gloucestershire Regiment.
In the lead up to the outbreak of war the batallion was stationed in Tientsin in China as part of a multinational force including German forces. By all accounts relationships between the two nationalities were cordial as the picture of the Kaiser’s Birthday Parade indicate.
The multinational force also included Russians and combined exercises took place.
At the outbreak of war the national forces went their separate ways. In September the Battalion along with families returned to England via India on the P&O Arcadia. As a footnote they were accompanied by the mount of Capt Vicary (who features later in George’s letters). “The Sikh”, survived the entire war and died peacefully of old age at Lt Col Vicary’s home in Devon – a true War Horse! Vicary also acquired the Battalion canine mascot “Buller”, by all accounts a powerful bull terrier, who also survived the entire war and joined Vicary and The Sikh in Devon.
The Battalion arrived in Southampton on November 8th 1914 and then moved to Winchester for kitting out and training. On December 18th the Battalion left for France and on arrival on French shores moved to Aire back from the front line. George’s first letter home is on December 20th. Each letter will be posted in “real time” with a brief background. The last letter is posted on 29th June 1919 which is when the Battalion finally arrived back in England.
The First World War seen through the letters of George Power