One hundred years on since the outbreak of the First World War, The Hunts Post has explored our county archives to see what life was like for our soldiers – and civilians – during what was to become a global tragedy. LAUREN NASH previews some of the material that will form a special display at Hinchingbrooke House this weekend.
“I believe I left off last time trying to describe my impression of the trenches. I think I was wise: I can’t.”
These are the words of Roger Tebbutt, a 21-year-old soldier of the 1st Battalion, Cambridgeshire Regiment, in a letter home to his mother.
It carries the postmark of March 14, 1915. Within days of writing from France, his older brother Oswald would be dead – one of millions to be killed in a war that saw slaughter on a scale that just months earlier would not have seemed possible.
The Tebbutt family originated from Bluntisham. It is thought that their father, Louis, grew up in the village. The siblings fought for their country together, standing shoulder to shoulder in the face of the enemy.
Roger’s letters back home gave only a glimpse of the conditions the soldiers faced – situations which he, at least in part, found ludicrous.
“The chief impression is of the ludicrous two uneven lines of earth holes, or heaps of sandbags, with men crouching behind them,” he wrote.
He adds: “I believe our division’s trenches are the worst in the line as, instead as in other divisions, brigades keeping to their own trenches, ours take turns in holding one lot.
“Our company were working by [one set of trenches], which are comparatively comfortable and uneventful. The others are from 100 to 25 yards from the Germans – in one case a sap [a listening post) is seven yards away.”
This is the closest that Roger comes to recounting the harrowing conditions that he would have endured.
Soldiers were forbidden from giving away details about life on the front line, including everything from the obvious such as troop’s positions and battle plans, to complaints about their experiences that could indicate low morale. The Post Office was responsible for censoring letters from the troops and keeping up appearances that all was well on the Western Front.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances, his concerns are like those of any other young, inexperienced man, thrust into a situation for which he was wholly unprepared.
He writes: “I am sending a list of things, of which any would be very useful, but only those underlined are of any urgency. I think pants, pyjamas, and [a] rubber sponge are in the kit I left behind. Please keep an account of what you pay, so I can send you a cheque.”
He also gives an insight into his relationship with his brother, discussing a trip they took together.
“When we left the trenches, we went to a camp for a day, and then back to the rest of the battalion to our old billets, and have been doing nothing since then, except making fascines [for filling ditches] and digging practice trenches, with a good deal of spare time.
“Yesterday, March 9, 1915 Oswold and I got off early, marched or rather walked (three miles) to our divisional headquarters and drew some pay from the field cashier. We then walked four miles further to a fair sized town, where we stopped, had an excellent tea, had our hair cut, and walked back.”
In addition, he stands up for his brother, who he feels is being unfairly treated by their superiors.
“Oswold is doing nearly all the work of the company, and receives no praise or gratitude from Saint who does nothing except insist on officers standing in their dignity, and men keeping perfectly clean and shaved, when it’s quite impossible,” he wrote.
Oswold’s was soon to be over.
The news that every family back home dreaded receiving was sent on March 20, 1915.
Major Saint, Oswald’s commanding officer, wrote to his parents to tell them that he had been killed during a violent bombardment at St Eloi, France, just one month after the regiment arrived in the country.
He had continued fighting after being wounded, as Oswold was found shot through the head with his revolver emptied and in his hand. He was just 25 years old.
Like his brother, Roger went on to become a captain of the 1st Battalion. But he too was never to make it home to Cambridgeshire.
He was killed by a shell on August 24, 1918, at the age of 24. Their younger sibling Charles survived the war.
The Tebbutts’ story is all too familiar – as shown by the wider collection of letters that forms part of the Great War: Between the Lines project.
Letters from Laurie Whitney, of the 1st Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion, to his sister-in-law Alice Whitney (née Wyman) from 1916 talk of the death of his brother Charles, also known as Rab or Willie. He was killed in action in France on September 15, 1916, while with the 7th King’s Royal Rifle Corp.
“I know he must have loved you dearly,” he wrote. “As a man finds it nearly impossible to tell a woman all he thinks of her, and he cannot make a pen express his finest thoughts and Willie did not “wear his heart on his sleeve” and it was not in him to be theatrical, so I know you must have been very dear to him indeed and he revelled in the joy of possessing the wife he had.
“The part women have to play in this war is more than they can be expected to bear and the future for you seems desolate but I hope you will be able to face it with a brave heart and a smiling face.”
The collection also shows the impact of the war not only on soldiers and their families, but on schoolchildren trying to make sense of the world around them. Exercise books from 11-year-old St Ives schoolgirl Dora Peek give an insight into children’s thoughts about the conflict on the continent.
She writes that the men have “made these sacrifices willingly and gladly for their country’s sake and to keep up the freedom of old England. In many countries there has been a scarcity of food owing to the war which began in 1914. Also in this year there have been many sacrifices made, not only men who are dying for us day by day, but when Belgium flooded her beautiful land to keep back the enemy.”
Particularly haunting is the roll of honour compiled by St Ives Free Church, which features a series of pictures of the town’s war dead. Their faces stare out proudly from the pages, many of them looking barely old enough to be out of the classroom.
The collection also includes editions of The Hunts Post from the war era. Each week the newspaper printed just a small section of local war news, along with some national announcements – the majority of the paper was taken up by reports of low-level events such as fetes and council meetings.
Men who had signed up, or were wounded or killed, were also given column inches.
Sally-Ann Greensmith, Great War: Between the Lines project assistant, said: “I think it brings it alive more being able to see personal pictures and to read their letters.
“You can watch as many documentaries as you like but to come in and read their words and to know that they were there in the trenches really brings it alive that they were real people and what they went through.
“Every area played a big part but the county has got quite good connections to London and the south coast and there was a big military hospital in Cambridge.
“When you see the records, they are just people and everyone had a different experience. The school books remind you that children went through it too.
“I feel privileged to be able to read about their memories.”