Letters from the Front

editorial image

by Dr Jack Binns

Parents, wives and siblings were naturally proud of their menfolk who were out in Flanders fighting the Germans and greatly relieved when they read that they were safe and unwounded. Knowing that a furious battle was then taking place in the neighbourhood of a place called Ypres, waiting for news in October and November 1914 must have been particularly nerve-racking, when every week the Scarborough Mercury published the names of 
local soldiers killed in 
action.

There was no prouder father than Mr William Jennings who lived at Clinton House in New Queen Street. An attendant at the Spa, he had three sons, William, Joe and John, all serving in the Royal Field Artillery and all engaged in the front-line war. More to the point, all three sent letters home which their father sometimes passed on to the Aberdeen Walk news offices.

On October 30, at the height of what later became known as the First Battle of Ypres, Sergeant William Jennings told his father that his men had received plenty of food parcels from their families and, perhaps more welcome, gifts of socks, pipes, tobacco, “fags” and blankets. Even in October the nights were freezing cold out there.

Private Driver Joe Jennings was not allowed to reveal the location of his unit, but his letter of about the same date suggests that they were supporting the Green Howards. He had been involved in 16 days of continuous fighting. “We have mowed them down like hay”, he continued. The Germans were not so skilled with their rifles, but their artillery was fearsome. It had been “Hell on Earth”. No wonder he finished with the words, “I hope we are home by Christmas”.

On December 11 the Mercury published more letter extracts from the Jennings brothers. A month earlier, Sergeant William had written:

You say we have had some hard fighting...We are having a rest just now, but expect to be in the fighting line again any time now. The General came and saw us and told us, “All is well”. We have had 14 days of it in this battle, and it is not finished yet...There were 200,000 Germans against 30,000 English...On the 12th day of the action we lost 18 horses, but kept the same position, and on the 13th day they did not half give us beans – four killed, 16 wounded and our guns put out of action. We had a lot of wounded, but the Germans were piled heap high in dead. They are a lot of dirty cowards. They shelled a hospital and killed our wounded. They don’t like the cold steel...

Some surrendering Germans, he wrote, had “cried like babies”. Here was the voice of a veteran, seasoned soldier who already hated and despised his German enemy.

A rather different note was sounded by his brother, Driver Joe. He was still naively optimistic, but clearly beginning to feel the effects of hardship and fear. In a letter dated November 20, he wrote:

We have had snow and the frost at night is awful. I never have my feet warm. They had given us a pair of drawers, a pair of boots, and a pair of puttees, so I had a good change...We had our rest after the fierce fighting, and they called us the “Fighting Seventh” [the Seventh Division which included the Green Howards]. We were in Belgium, and now after a rest we are now in France...It is snowing now [The winter of 1914-15 was one of the most severe on record]. It won’t be long before we are in Berlin: Time will tell.

Soon afterwards came another letter from Sergeant William, thanking his father for sending him copies of the Scarborough Evening News and Pictorial. He had found them very interesting reading in the gun-pits! He sees brother John every other day. He had been made a bombardier. They do only one day out of three in the gun-pits. They had plenty of warm clothes and tons of food.

Next came the patriotic plea and the complaint of the serving British soldier throughout the ages. The sergeant wished that conscription became law. He wondered how any Englishman could walk the streets at home not wearing a uniform. After all there were still plenty of vacancies in the trenches. Finally, he asked his father to put his letter in the local newspaper “for the young men to read”.

Judging by the news in Scarborough’s press, it was clear that sacrifices were already being made locally at all levels of society. William Street was one of the longest and most populous addresses in the town: it ran all the way from Oxford Street to North Marine Road. But it was also one of the poorest. Nevertheless, by the third month of the war, it was reported that its contribution was no fewer than 45 men, three of them in the Royal Navy, the others, military. Two households there, the Davis and the Smith families, each had four men on active service.

In the same issue of the Mercury came news of the death of Major, the Honourable Hugh Dawnay, younger son of Lord Downe of Wykeham Abbey. While his father had put the family home at the disposal of the military and now had 22 wounded there, the Major had been killed in action with the 2nd Battalion of the Life Guards. Born in 1875, Hugh had been a career soldier. He had served actively at Khartoum, in South Africa during the Boer War, and in Somaliland in 1909. During the Boer War he was aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Lord Roberts and awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

No one now could have any doubt that this was a war in which all families in the land would be asked to make painful sacrifices.