News from the Front

The topic of war and its impact on Eastington has cropped up in a couple of recent articles. Most attention has been focused on the Second World War, an event still ingrained in many people’s memories. However, what follows harks back still further, to the First World War, an event so horrendous that it touched every household in the country.

With so many men away and often enduring appalling conditions at the front, it became imperative that ways were found to keep up morale, not just in the trenches but also at home. In that pre-digital age, letters and postcards were the main way for soldiers to keep in touch with loved ones and to remind themselves that the world they had left behind was still there. Letters and cards also came from the other direction in great numbers. They became the main means for staying in contact and were of huge importance to individuals facing extreme hardship and danger on a daily basis. To handle postal deliveries to serving troops, the Army set up a whole new system that included large sorting depots in Britain and numerous ‘post offices’ in France. The numbers are staggering – between 1914 and 1918, the depot at Regent’s Park in London handled two billion letters and 114 million parcels! In 1917 alone, more than 19,000 mailbags were shipped to France each day. Remarkably, it took only two days for a letter to reach the front (Royal Mail please note!).

Understandably, cards and letters written by soldiers were censored, usually by regimental officers. This was to make sure that nothing was inadvertently mentioned that could help the enemy. Troops were forbidden to mention anything about where they were and how many other soldiers they were with. As a result, letters and postcards were frequently couched in very general terms – “I hope you are all well and that the apples are ripening”, and that sort of thing. Many men were doubtless glad that their families were being kept in the dark over their situation, but cards and letters were a means to at least let them know that they were still in one piece. In truth, censorship was mainly a means for the Army to prevent bad news from reaching the home front.

So what’s the relevance of all of this to Eastington? I’ve mentioned before that sooner or later, everything crops up on the Internet, and this is yet another example of this. Recently, a number of First World War postcards sent from soldiers at the front were offered for sale by a dealer. What caught my eye was that they were all addressed to someone that will be very familiar, especially to older residents in the village.

The cards were all addressed to Master Raymond H Tudor of Churchend. Many of us remember Ray and his productive market garden situated behind the village school. The various cards were clearly from Ray’s Dad and were dated 1917, 1918 and 1919. The latter one meant that he was still in France after the end of war – the postmark indicates that the card came via the 11th Division Railhead in the area of Wallers, a commune in the Nord Department in the northern part of the country.

All of the cards were marked as ‘On Active Service’ and stamped to confirm that they had gone through the Army censorship process, so not surprisingly, they don’t really say a great deal – most thank Ray for his previous letter and hope he is well, but there are also other snippets. Not surprisingly, the topic of the weather often crops up – Ray’s Dad often mentions that it’s cold or raining. In one card he says “it’s been raining here all day. Am in the workshops today so luckily in the dry”. But clearly, the weather sometimes got thebetter of him for in one card he mentions that “my cold still very bad. Yes, send something for it in the shape of a tonic”. Occasionally, he meets friends from home: “Cliff Jennings was with me today – found me out this afternoon. He was about 8 miles from here”. Another time he mentions that Charlie Smith had been in this district but he had not seen him himself. Invariably, the cards were always signed “with all love from DADDY”.

The cards were all of French manufacture and sometimes showed scenes featuring local landmarks such as an equestrian statue in Mons in Belgium. More often, as was the taste of the time, it featured sentimental scenes of young children at play. These postcards offer a tantalising glimpse into a period of history that affected everyone in some way, even in the remotest rural corners of the country.

Even though the messages to Ray were invariably light-hearted, like countless thousands of other soldiers, it’s hard to imagine just what his Dad was actually going through at the time.

Steve Mills