The two weekly newspapers “The Argos” and “The Echo” were important sources of the information I found on the soldiers of Stanwick. Trawling through these papers I discovered a lot about what was happening during the war years in the surrounding areas.
The advertisements were very enlightening about the style of clothing and the prices of everyday objects. It is frightening to compare the prices in those far off days with modern prices. Woodbines cost 9 shillings (45p) per thousand and Players were 10 shillings and 6 pence (52.5p) per thousand.
Every week these papers would publish a summary of the progress of the war. There was also a Roll of Honour which listed the names of the dead, wounded, missing and those taken prisoner. A few issues later, in many cases, photographs would be published. Many of these photographs were accompanied by a plea from relatives asking if anyone had any information as to what had happened to their son or husband. Some photographs and pleas would appear week after week. It was noted on one occasion that it took as long as 18 months for the official notice of the fate of a soldier to be received by the bereaved parents.
It is difficult to imagine what went through the minds of those waiting at home. The uncertainty must have driven them to distraction. Whenever a letter arrived did thoughts of hope lift their hearts, or thoughts of foreboding tear through their minds? It is amazing how the people at home kept their sanity and maintained their patience.
Frequently letters from comrades to grieving parents were published in the papers and a transcript of one such letter is given below. It was written to a mother in Raunds.
This letter would have been written after the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
“Dear Mrs C,
I am sorry to say that he is still missing and we haven’t heard anything of him. To tell you the truth it is very doubtful if he is alive. I do not think they took any prisoners that day. They even shot our wounded that made the slightest movement. They are a dirty lot. I wish they were all wiped out, as it makes one’s blood boil when we know what they are doing. But we must have hope for the best news as we would all welcome the news that he is alive and well as all the lads liked him and respected him. I remain your sincere friend,
Pte A Burton No. 7543, “B” Coy, 1st Northants.”
Sadly the writer of this letter (a man from Stanwick) was himself killed two years later.
It is easy for us, with hindsight, to be critical of these dreadful delays in notification. The powers that be did not enjoy the means of communication or the information technology we have today. Amongst the carnage of that horrific war the missing men would have either been blown to bits or buried deep under the mud and slime of the battlefield and impossible to find. In the fighting in France one in four of the men who were killed were never found and in Belgium the proportion was one in three.
Bodies are still being found. In 1996, twelve men, killed in 1917, were found as builders were excavating the foundations for a supermarket. In December 1999, the body of a Lancashire Fusilier was found when a farmer finally ploughed a field that had been left untouched for fear of unexploded shells.
"LIVING IN TRENCHES"
Much has been written about life in the trenches in the Great War. From the winter of 1914 until the spring of 1918 the trench system was fixed, moving here and there a few hundred yards, moving during great battles as much as a few miles. Because so much of a soldier’s life was spent in these trenches a brief description of them would not be out of place.
There were normally three lines of trenches. The front-line trench was anywhere from fifty yards or so to a mile from its enemy counterpart. Several hundred yards behind it was the support trench line. Several hundred yards behind that was the reserve line.
There were three kinds of trenches: firing trenches; communication trenches running roughly perpendicular to the line and connecting the three lines; and “saps”, shallower ditches thrust out into No Man’s Land, providing access to forward observation posts, listening posts, grenade throwing posts and machine gun positions. The end of the sap was not usually manned all the time - night time was the favourite time for going out. The communication trench was sometimes a mile or so long, gradually getting deeper as it got closer to the front.
A firing trench was supposed to be six to eight feet deep and four to five feet wide. On the enemy side a parapet of earth or sandbags rose about two or three feet above the ground. A corresponding “parados” a foot or so high was often on top of the friendly side. Into the side of the trenches were dug one or two-man holes (“funk-holes”) and there were deeper dugouts reached by dirt stairs for use as command posts and officers quarters. On the enemy side of the trench was a fire-step two feet high on which defenders were supposed to stand, firing and throwing grenades when repelling attacks. Trenches did not run straight for any distance; that would invite enfilade fire. Every few yards a trench would zig-zag. Trenches had frequent traverses designed to contain damage within a limited space. Moving along a trench thus involved a great deal of weaving and turning. The floor of a trench was covered with wooden duckboards, beneath which were sumps, a few feet deep, to collect water. The walls, perpetually crumbling, were supported by sandbags, corrugated iron or bundles of sticks or rushes.
The entanglements of barbed wire had to be positioned far enough out in front of the trench to keep the enemy from sneaking up to a grenade throwing distance.
However, the British trenches were wet, cold, smelly and thoroughly squalid compared with the precise and thorough German works.
The above description does not paint a true picture of what life was like living in trenches because it does not take into account the mud, which after a time became a deep mire, especially during and after rain when the sumps could not cope with the excess water.
John Masefield, the poet, described it: “To call it mud would be misleading. It was not like any mud I have seen. It was a kind of stagnant river, too thick to flow, yet too wet to stand. It had a kind of glisten or shine on it like a reddish cheese and it looked as solid as cheese, but it was not solid at all. You left no tracks on it, they all closed over and in you went in over your boots at every step and sometimes up to your calves.”
It must be remembered that these trench systems were not dug in virgin soil, they were dug in ground that had probably been fought over many times. The trenches were like charnel houses. The words of Sir Philip Gibbs more than adequately describes this:
“Bodies and bits of bodies, and clots of blood, and green metallic looking slime, made by explosive gases were floating on the surface of the water. Men lived there and died there within a few yards of the enemy, crouched below the sandbags and burrowed into the side of the trench. Lice crawled over them in legions. Human flesh, rotting and stinking, mere pulp, was pasted into the mud banks. If they dug deeper cover, their shovels went into the softness of dead bodies who had been their comrades. Scraps of flesh, booted legs, blackened hands, eyeless heads came falling over them when the enemy trench mortared their positions.”
With the macabre humour of men living in this hell there were frequent descriptions of them using protruding arms and legs as hangers for their equipment. Is it any wonder that there are many memorials listing the names of soldiers who have no known graves?
Although enemy action disrupted the movement of rations from the railheads to the trenches, food was rarely in short supply.
However, once the tins got to the front line it had to be eaten raw because cook-house smoke and camp fires attracted enemy shellfire and bombs. As always, soldiers complained of the lack of variety in their diet; too much cold bully beef; too much “Maconochie” (tinned meat) and too many “hard tack” biscuits. However, there was always tea, “dixie” tea, a hot sweet drink boiled up with milk (condensed), sugar and a handful of tea-leaves, in any receptacle that would hold enough chlorinated water to make a brew. Sometimes the water jacket of a machine gun was used, the heat being provided by firing endless belts of ammunition in the general direction of the enemy. Candles and “tommy cookers” were also used to heat the water. A regular “tot” of rum was always well received by the troops as well as a regular issue of cigarettes.
Maintaining good health was always a problem living in such conditions. Bronchitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis were very prevalent and the cause of many deaths. Constantly standing in freezing water frequently caused “trench foot” a disabling condition that could lead to gangrene.
After months of talking to relatives, trawling through four years of old newspapers and reading many books, it was inevitable that my concepts of the two World Wars would change. Obviously, my knowledge of the tactics and the strategy employed increased (as did my horror of the carnage and unnecessary slaughter) but the most heartfelt change was for the wives, parents and children as they waited daily for news from the front. The effect of this daily fearfulness would have left scars upon their hearts which never truly healed.
I have learned that war is not about great generals with their power of leadership, or about their tactics or the efficiency of supplies, war is about men and women – their stoicism or cheerfulness, their fear or their bravery, their resilience or their stubbornness.
What was it that prompted one lady of the village to send pipes and tobacco to every soldier?
What was it that prompted so many ladies to give up so much time to organise market days, fetes, concerts and many other events to raise money for presents for the soldiers?
What was it that enabled so many families to give up eggs so that they could be sent to hospital for the wounded?
What inspired the children so assiduously to collect these eggs and take them to school to be sent on?
These self same children surrendered their precious toys so that Belgian refugee children living locally would receive Christmas presents. It must be remembered that in those days (unlike today, when the shelves of every charity shop are full of unwanted toys) children had very few toys to play with.
What was it that allowed the ladies to knit countless woollens for the soldiers at the front?
It is something called “community spirit”, much akin to the “esprit de corps” in a regiment, without which a unit is useless. It is like a common stream that flows through a village or town. It is essential if a village is to survive and, if it dries up, the village dies and becomes lost in the mists of history.
During my research, as I got to know more about those who died, and found their photographs I began to feel that I knew each one. I felt that they were friends. Then I began to wonder what prompted them to enlist so eagerly.
Was it a sense of adventure, to experience a short-lived break from the dull routine of their everyday lives?
Was it to see a foreign country? – Most of them had probably never been further afield than Northampton by bus.
Was it patriotism to fight for King and Country?
Or was it to go out and protect their families from the “child-bayonetting-Boches” – as proclaimed by the propagandists?
From my father’s comments in his diary I would suggest that the last reason was the most prevalent one on their minds.
How many men who left their villages and towns, gaily smiling at the “great adventure”, would end up like the young man illustrated below after surviving Aubers Ridge, Loos, the Somme and Passchendaele, then in a final twist of fate, were killed in the final weeks of a four year war?
This happened to a number of Stanwick men.
Throughout this project I have wondered what our village would have been like had not so many died. My thoughts are perhaps best expressed in some of Thomas Gray’s immortal words:
“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed Or wak’d to extasy the living lyre. …………………….. For many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air. …………………….. Some mute inglorious Milton there may rest Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood……..”
I add one final thought. It does not matter how they died or the reasons why they enlisted, they are united by the common humanity that we all share.
“As we now are so once were they; as they now are so must we be. Let us remember them all with no bravado or bombast but with the respect their sacrifice demands.” (Richard Holmes)
SOCIAL ACTIVITIES IN STANWICK, 1914-1918 - PART 1
(Notes in italics are the writer’s comments)
30 Oct: Stanwick Primary School Log Book – I have packed up and sent large parcel of toys for the children of Belgian refugees at Raunds. These toys have been given by the children who have responded in a spontaneous manner in response to my appeal for something of their own.
23 Nov: Working Men’s Club Minutes – Resolved that Edward Morris and W Lawman become members of the club. (Both these men were killed later in the war).
7 May: Wellingborough News – 1st May was celebrated in a most pleasing manner when children went round the village singing May songs and the National Athems of the Allies. Proceeds of the collection amounting to £1.0s.3d were for the benefit of the Soldiers’ Hospital, Higham Ferrers. Mrs Warner and Mrs Hicks provided teas for the children.
21 May: Stanwick School Log Book – Empire Day was celebrated in this school. The Head Teacher gave a lesson on the Union Jack to the whole school. The National Anthem was then sung, the flag saluted and cheers given for the King. Afterwards scholars and teachers went to the Rectory gardens for games.
11 Jun: Rushden Argos – The collection in Stanwick Church was £1.9s.0d for the benefit of the “Soldiers Egg Fund” and 386 eggs which have been forwarded by Mrs Mackenzie.
A memorial service was held on Sunday (6th June 1915) in honour and to the memory of the soldiers belonging to the village who have sacrificed their lives for King and Country. The deceased heroes were Privates T Craven, W & H Felce (brothers) and J Brawn. Died from wounds and sickness, Pte F Richards and Pte S Warner. The service was conducted by the Rev H W Richards and the church was crowded. All the inhabitants of the village feel “they cannot show” their sympathy enough to those who need and their admiration to those who so nobly responded to their country’s call.
6 Jul: Stanwick School Log Book – School closed by Medical Officer of Health owing to an outbreak of measles.
22 Dec: Mrs Mackenzie entertained the children to tea in the Church Rooms after which the children gave an entertainment.
25 Feb: Rushden Echo – During the past 5 months, 1560 eggs had been collected for the wounded.
19 Mar: Rushden Echo – A Stanwick man returns exemption appeal stating that he wants to do his bit with his brother.
29 Mar: Stanwick School Log Book – Very deep snow, 14 children present (out of 79) in the morning and less in the afternoon. No school all day.
1 May: Working Men’s Club Minutes – Raised the price of stout from 3d to 4d per pint.
21 Aug: Working Men’s Club Minutes – The Steward’s wages to be increased from 18/9d to £1.0.0 per week.
23 Oct: Working Men’s Club Minutes – A vote of sympathy was passed to Mrs W Lawman on the death of her husband who had fallen in action and that a letter of condolence be sent to her. It was resolved that a collection be made on account of W Wells and that the Club grant 10/- toward same. (W Wells had been a prominent committee member for a number of years prior to joining up and died a year later of consumption. He is buried in the Churchyard.)
13 Nov: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Minutes of Special Meeting – Meeting called to consider the advisability of admitting Lady members, matter carried unanimously, the subscription to be one shilling (1/-) per year with no nomination fee.
13 Nov: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Committee Meeting – Resolved that we have photos of fallen members enlarged and hung in the Club and that any member serving with the colours could have his photo hung in the Club.
5 Jan: Rushden Argus – Employees of Stanwick factory went carol singing on Christmas Day. On 2nd January a social, dance and a farce called “Wanted – a Wife” raised £12.0.0 to send parcels to Stanwick soldier boys. A recent Market Day raised £23.9.0. Cheque for £8.3.0 sent to POW Fund; £1.1.0 to VAD Hospital, Higham Ferrers; to the boys on active service 3 fortnightly parcels of cigarettes; to the boys serving at home a postal order for 3/- for which they have returned their grateful thanks.
19 Jan: Rushden Argus – A Christmas Day (1916) collection for the Belgian children at the school raised £1.13.6.
26 Jan: Rushden Argus – Miss Lily Warner, only daughter of Mr & Mrs R Warner married Gunner Fred Gates. She was given away by her eldest brother Horace (home on sick leave). The best man was Pte A Hall (recently returned from France). (Sadly both her brother and the best man were later killed in France.)
23 Mar: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – It was proposed to send a letter of sympathy to Mr G Watford on the news of his son’s death in February.
30 Mar: Rushden Argus – 132, officers, NCOs and men from Stanwick serving in the Army and Navy. 16 have already lost their lives and nine have been discharged.
23 Apr: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – The Soldiers & Sailors Donation Box opened and it was decided to send W & S Cox 5/- each. (The latter was subsequently killed in France.)
27 Apr: Rushden Echo – A meeting was held in the village to discuss the making of a Roll of Honour Board. (Currently believed to be located in the old school buildings.)
17 May: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Special Meeting – Because of beer rationing, members to be limited to 2 pints per member per day and affiliated members would only be served with minerals.
6 Jul: Rushden Argus – 363 eggs were collected in June and sent to the National Egg Collection for the wounded together with a donation of £3.11.0. 3,000 eggs have been collected since the beginning of the war via Mrs Mackenzie of The Cottage, Stanwick.
8 Oct: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – it was resolved that “Gold Flake” cigarettes be sold at 4d a packet.
2 Nov: Rushden Echo – A Chrysanthemum Day held on 27th October 1917 to buy wool for socks for Stanwick boys on active service. A sale of fruit held on the Square and many trophies were exhibited. £7.14.8 was raised.
12 Nov: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – It was resolved that each member serving with the Colours should be sent 5/-.
26 Nov: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – It was resolved to send a letter of condolence to Mrs W Wells on the death of her husband and also to ask if she would allow the club to place an artificial wreath on his grave.
13 Feb: Stanwick School Log Book – As we have no coal I have been advised to close the school for this week.
4 Mar: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – It was resolved to increase the Steward’s wages by 2/- per week in the form of a bonus.
22 Mar: Stanwick School Log Book – Miss Betts has been forbidden to attend school as her brother has measles.
26 Apr: Rushden Echo – Stanwick W.I. knitted 132 pairs of socks and gave them to the soldiers and sailors.
11 Nov: (Armistice Day) Stanwick School Log Book – School closed until 25th November by order of the Medical Officer. (Outbreak of measles).
9 Dec: Stanwick Working Men’s Club Meeting – It was resolved that a letter of condolence be sent to Mrs J Lawman on the death of her husband who died on the 2nd December 1918 from double pneumonia following influenza.