Nearly 100 years ago, aged just 19, my father’s eldest brother, Lionel Reid Hall – Bobby to his family and friends, Uncle Bobby to my sister, brother and me, Grandpa/Grandpop to the Jacksons, Whitlocks and Constantines – was posted to France on 25th February 1917.
Cold, wet, and at first often bored, and missing his family and many friends, he wrote regularly and reassuringly from the trenches to his loving and obviously anxious family living in Lichfield.
His father typed out each letter and bound them in a book, which the family still has. His grandson, James Jackson, has recently typed them all out again so that he can share them on his blog, Went the Day Well . Do please have a look.
They make very moving reading. It is a one-sided correspondence as he was not able to keep their letters to him. We hear about all the classic things – the mud, the wet, the cold, the rats, the camaraderie: impressions of conditions experienced by him at first hand, not imagined later by novelist or historian.
Letters, and food parcels to be shared with his colleagues, are tremendously important. His mother’s seed cake proves a real hit. He writes, ‘But I think the cake is as important as anything. Another seed cake like the last would give immense pleasure.’ On another occasion he writes that socks and cakes are the main requirement.
‘My only trouble of any importance is wet feet. We sometimes paddle in six inches of wet mud and no boots will keep that out.
Cold, wet feet is a constant refrain. Thus h writes thatit is “socks and socks” every time. ‘They are the supreme thing. Socks and cakes.’
In spite of the wretched conditions we have the enthusiasm and excitement of a young man at the same time very aware of the need to reassure his family and friends, and also the censor. At one stage he jokingly chides his parents, ‘Do you want me shot?’ in response to a question he cannot answer.
He makes light of the bombing and shelling, although he does admit to being nervous of the rats! On 15th March he describes a meal disturbed by a rat.
‘We had great excitement with a rat last night at dinner in Coy H.Q. dug-out; it was one of these lonely little souls that seek protection, it scrambled up several peoples’ legs, up Winchester’s back, and finally nearly on Ainslie’s lap; this made us thoroughly nervy; so we place a candle on the floor beneath the table and for the rest of the meal kept one furtive eye on our boots.’
The nearest we get to him admitting the awfulness of it all is in a letter of 22nd March 1917. ‘Just a line to say I’m quite safe, although I’ve been through rather a trying experience. Several of my friends have been killed in the business, which is sad. I feel so tired today that I can’t write any more. Please send socks as soon as possible.’
On April 11th, his mother’s birthday, he writes ‘Excuse these short and few letters but the World is upside down.’
‘Don’t be alarmed about pauses of several days without letters. If anything happens to me you will know soon enough from W.O.’
Sure enough, four days later and less than two months after he had arrived in France, he was seriously wounded.The telegram informing the family was handed by the telegraph boy on his bicycle to my father, Douglas Hall, Bobby’s youngest brother, then aged just eight, who was playing in the garden. How difficult it must have been for him to take it in to his parents, how very frightened they must all have been to open it.
And how relieved to receive Bobby’s telegram two days later, on April 17th, stating that he was back in England.
‘Arrived safe, comfortable and happy at American Hospital, 98 Lancaster Gate. Please send little money immediately writing. Bobbie.’
No need for the time being for socks and cake…
But his mother/my grandmother’s seed cake lives on. I developed a liking for it at the age of seven when our family came on leave to England, for the first time for my sister, brother and I. Afternoon tea with our grandparents, always with her delicious seed cake, became a very special feature. It is still one of our family favourites.
I have her recipe book, and actually reproduce here the recipe she must have used. I mean to try it, but meanwhile, as soon as I can I will post the version I usually use.