World War I - Letters from the Front

Joss Musgrove Knibb joined us for our first meeting of the Autumn season, to give a sobering presentation on life in the trenches in the First World War. Based on her recently published book, "First Lines", she explored with us, often in soldiers' own words, what it was like to serve on the front line. Setting the scene, she explained that her visits to The Staffordshire Regimental Museum at Whittington had offered a fascinating array of both artefacts and letters written home by soldiers in the trenches. Written in pencil, time has taken its toll on them, but many survive so that it is possible to paint a word picture of an individual soldier's home background, his worries, his loves and his description of the hell that was life in the trenches.

Putting the fighting into perspective, she explained that those not on the front line had a high survival rate of about 90%; conversely trench warfare could claim you within days, unless you were lucky, as indeed some were. August 1914 saw over two million men respond to Kitchener's call for volunteers, with the usual response: "It'll all be over by the New Year". Trench warfare claimed untold victims so that by 1916 conscription was introduced; with the age of eligibility rising remorselessly from 30 to 35, then 40 and finally 50 by 1918.

Sgt Sydney Norton from Tamworth volunteered for The North Staffs Regiment. Married to Fanny and with three young children, his letters contain words of concern for his family, contrasting with vivid descriptions of the front line hell of decaying bodies, stench and mud. British rations were, by all accounts, adequate; whilst our blockade of German ports was starving the Germans, both public and soldiers, to death. Your meals consisted of hard tack biscuits, jam and, if you were lucky, corned beef. All to be eaten cold since any fires, especially at night, to could alert the enemy. Stoves, rigged up on carts some way from the front line, could provide a stew of sorts; but don't inquire to closely as to its contents. Water came in uncleansed petrol cans, consequently always tasting of petrol.

Then we heard from Sgt James Stevenson of the North Staffs Regiment, a Stoke man writing home to his family; followed by words from Second Lieutenant Alfred Bull, a Dam Street resident here in Lichfield, who served in the South Staffs Regiment. Both men wrote harrowing descriptions of everyday life, resting or fighting, interspersed by thoughts of concern for loved ones back home. Letters were speedily delivered. One day was all it took to deliver one from home to the Front. Even outside battle, life had to go on in the trenches. That's were you lived, grabbing a restless sleep, cold and wet, wondering if shells would erupt around you at any moment or that the enemy would make a sudden attack across no-man's land. Your nerves were constantly stretched to breaking point. Then there was the battle to try and keep clean. Lice were a way of life and washing was almost impossible unless you were withdrawn from the Front.

Joss' book explores the detailed lives of four serving soldiers through their letters home, revealing their sacrifice and that of their families. Such was the awful death toll that few families here at home were untouched. Even today most families can still recall a distant lost relative, a great grandfather or great uncle perhaps, who didn't return. As Joss concluded: "We have all been shaped by the impact of the First World War".

Roger Hockney
September 2015