Another glimpse into the life of a wartime child and the unique record of her home-made dolls’ house and its contents.
The following comes from a series of charming wartime letters, written by a little girl, Brenda, to her dad who was away during WW2. The letters were found on the pavement outside a charity shop, alongside a dolls’ house, and its contents. Many of the letters mention items still present in the dolls’ house.
The house’s curtains are faded to light green, now, and silk, with a subtle red and white abstract pattern on them – probably a textile from Brenda’s home. They are ‘green’ as she mentions, but not ‘flowered’ so maybe there were two sets of curtains, one now lost. They were not hemmed, but a running stitch along the top, done with linen thread, attached them to some screws on the inside of the windows. Brenda seems to have been allowed to see the curtains her father made for her, whilst she was in hospital, having her adenoids and tonsils (“As and Ts”) removed, in the autumn of 1942. Brenda was 8, that year.
1930s’ and 40s’ Triang doll’s houses came with little strips of fabric, attached to the window panes, made from an equally fine silk or faux-silk, and these were probably roughly what Brenda’s father was replicating. According to my Ancestry searches, Brenda’s paternal grandfather was an upholsterer, so it’s not surprising Brenda’s father was accomplished with a needle.
I will be carefully removing the curtains, giving them a gentle clean, and returning them to the inside of the house. One of the things that fascinates me about doll’s houses are the textiles.
Brenda also mentions her doll’s “frock” and unpicking a “skarf” (so presumably that was knitted!) I will have to look through the extant dolls’ outfits and see if I can find a likely candidate – if I do, I’ll photo it.
I have preserved Brenda’s spelling and punctuation, throughout. This letter is written in pencil, so I transcribed it.
My Dearest Daddy Pet.
How are you Dear? Quite well I hope. I had three letters in one day from you, because I didn’t get the one you posted to the Hospital but they sent it here. I could see the curtans you made from my bed, did you make those flowered ones? I saw the dark green ones, like we have got on the landing. It isn’t a very nice day yet, very windy and looks like rain.
I have done one side of my dollie’s frock and unpicked the skarf. I took Teddy to the Hospital. It took quater of an hour to take my As & Ts out because the nurse told me Mummy’s going to sit in the bed-room and sew.
Grandma Leatherhead came to see me on Saturday. I hope you will like the drawing of a garden. A week to-morrow you will be home. Won’t it be just lovely, what a time we shall have to-gether. I have got a loose tooth. I am writing this letter in bed. the time is 5- twenty two and I shall soon be having dinner, I shall have fish and saygo pudding. Dr Eastern came to see me yesterday. It is very cold out to-day. Dickey doesn’t sing yet. I am writing on the paper you gave me. my throat didn’t hurt a bit only when I swallowed. we saw one of those big lorries in Leatherhead once.
You ought to read JUST JAKE in the paper he says HANG IT HOW THE DEUCE D’YOU EXPECT AN ARTIST TO DO HIS BEST WORK WHEN THE MODEL KEEPS MOVIN’ ABOUT?
He’s making a marrow out of clay. It is so funny. I thought you’d like to read it. I rote the addres of the envelope well. Must say good bey for now, I hope you are quite well and fit I am quite well thank you lots of your from you Everloving xxxx Daughter xxxxxxxxxxxx Brenda XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
On one of our regular dog walks, close to home, we pass a flock of Norfolk Horn sheep. They graze on a corner of Cawood Garth, a piece of common ground owned by the folk in the next village. It used to be where Cawood Castle stood (only the Gatehouse remains). This was where Cardinal Wolsey came to live, in 1530 but was here only a short while before Henry VIII had him arrested for high treason. He died on his way to trial in that vortex of doom that is Leicester. By all accounts he was very popular with the locals in Yorkshire and I grew up in a nearby village where every other street had the word ‘Wolsey’ in it. The Garth was rescued from developers when Greater Crested Newts and Star of Bethlehem wildflowers were found – there are also some old varieties of apple growing there.
Norfolk Horns are an ideal breed of sheep used for ‘conservation grazing’ and the fact they are on the Garth is good news for its flora. I have many happy childhood memories of Cawood, where my mother grew up and her aunties still lived. So to get some fleece from the sheep who graze there – and, of all places, on the very site where Cardinal Wolsey once lived – is a rare privilege indeed. My ancestor, Isaac Moses, left a piece of land in Cawood his will, in 1820, called ‘The Close’ which may have been nearabouts and he lived yards away at Market Square. This may or may not have been a bit of the Garth.
I managed to get talking to the sheep’s farmer, and she kindly set aside some of her clip for me. I’ll be spinning some in the next month. Having so much wool to wash or scour, we borrowed a dolly tub. Scouring = a good, thorough clean with detergent and hot water. Washing = a slight opening up of the locks, and then soaking for a few days in cold water, to get the worst of the muck out. I tried a small amount of neck wool on the wool cycle of my washing machine, as I’d read Norfolk Horn was reluctant to felt. It instantly felted. Luckily, only a couple of ounces lost! For links to info about wool scouring, check out:
The wool is short-medium staple and mostly looks to be white, but one fleece has some grey and others grey bits near the margins where the sheep have markings. Fleeces were well skirted and rolled, and quality sorted. The wool looks to be a typical 54s-56s; and finer sections of the one I unrolled this morning had lovely crimp, and looked ‘lacy’ when held up to the light. The wool has a fair bit of grease, too. By another coincidence, they were stored in a barn on my Grandfather’s old farm, where my mother grew up, so it was strange going to pick them up and thinking “She once stood here and this was all where she played.” My mother would have loved to know one day her daughter would be standing there, buying wool.
We sorted the fleeces, labelled them clearly and have stored them in the little loft of our shed – formerly the kids’ playhouse)so it had a tiny ‘upstairs’. I’ve put the best fleeces towards the front and will process in quality order, ensuring the better ones, at least, are stored clean before winter. The wool on the ‘moderate’ ones looks to be very lovely, as well, though.
I’m also about to get a couple of Castlemik Moorit fleeces from a prize-winning flock. With all our efforts going towards covering the cost of shearing at the Museum of Farming, earlier in the year, it feels good to be doing something to keep the rarer breeds of sheep going, in another way. This will be a Norfolk-Horn crazed Spinzilla.
Here’s hoping for a few weeks of sunny, windy weather, to get at least some of the wool scoured and dry before autumn sets in. We bought a few metres of cheap muslin and have made some new drawstring bags to hang drying wool from the line. I’m trying to get the first fleece scoured and carded, so I can see if my old David Barnett drum carder is OK with it, or whether I’m going to need a higher TPI drum carder to process it. (Hand carding works better but I want to get a shedload carded before Spinzilla…)
I’m still dithering though, whether to enter Spinzilla – if I do, it will be as a Maverick. The year before last I was only 30 odd yards from winning the Mavericks, and as I hadn’t planned on entering the competition til the day before entries closed, I hadn’t cleared my schedule so lost a day of that week to appointments, and unavoidable things that could have been avoided with more notice!
As I card and spin this wool, in the run up to Spinzilla (or Not Spinzilla), I’ll report back how it’s looking as I know this is a breed of sheep a lot of spinners haven’t had the chance to try.
In other news, we just had to do an emergency harvest of our dye garden after it was trampled by some viking re-enactors (which, on the bright side, gives us the rare distinction of being possibly the first people to suffer financially from a raid by inconsiderate vikings, in almost 1000 years…)
Our dye garden area had an impromptu fence around it. But apparently, the vikings had to urgently work on something that involved them being our side of the fence, and walking about on what they must have assumed were worthless ‘weeds’. In fact, the madder we were hoping to leave undisturbed another year or two. The weld – greatest tragedy – was two weeks or so off coming into flower. We have just grubbed everything up, hung it up to dry in the shed, and will see what colours we salvage, when we get time to dye with them. I would have had double the madder, I guess, leaving another year. Anyway, we’re now going to have to re-locate to a place where rampaging vikings won’t do a dance on our crop. (Quite ironic as they were doing ‘living history’ at the time but clearly with more of a 21stC sensibility where anything that isn’t petunias or roses = weeds…) The dye garden was 2 years’ worth of effort put in by four people. A shame to see it go. It will rise, phoenix-like, from the Viking pillage – but in a Viking-free zone.
Talking of Viking-free zones, the other week, we were at the stunning Fountains Abbey, fettling their Great Wheel which is having some teething troubles. (Nothing major – a slight problem with the leather bearings). We’ve had the wheel fixed for them by an expert and will be returning the mother-of-all and spinning head, down the week.
I’ve never fallen in love with a place on sight, so much as I have Fountains. Any excuse to get back there in the coming months, I think! I’ve been reading about its history. Only nine years after the Cardinal was captured, and marched away to die, Fountains Abbey was surrendered at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The Cistercian monks are of course, of great interest to anyone who is into woolly history. There was a woolhouse on the site, too. (I’ll explore that the next chance I get and share in a future post). On the ground, you can see how the landscape helped with the wool-growing and wool washing/processing. The abbey is sited in a sort of ravine – like so many Cistercian monasteries; put out of the way of humankind, in places we romantically perceive as ‘wild’ and ‘beautiful’ but medieval society perceived as ‘hostile’ and ‘barren’…
At the moment, I feel like I’m living the monastic life in my own personal woolhouse; constantly washing and scouring wool, and now preparing to card it for spinning, during the autumn/winter. Sick of plastic bins splitting under the strain of wool washing, I hit upon the idea of using a dolly tub. Borrowed one, but it has to go back soon so I’ll be on the lookout for my own as it’s proving to be perfect for the job!
If you fancy some ‘Have A Go’ great wheel spinning, come along and try your hand at it. Very few spinners are left who can spin on the Great Wheel – we’re hoping to change that! You can also book a half hour workshop session, on either day, for a small charge to cover materials, wool preparation, etc.
We have spent much of this week carding wool on the drum carder and will be bringing along some interesting British breeds of wool, including Whitefaced Woodland and some of our Badger-Faced Balwen for folk to try. We will also have a bit of raw wool available for sale, from the sheep at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, next door to the livestock centre – money raised contributes to paying for the sheep to be sheared. (Below: One of the Museum’s Badger-faceds, from prize-winning stock and a close up to show you the quality of the fleece).
On Sunday, we’ll be at the National Trust’s Nunnington Hall’s Traditional Skills day, with either the Great Wheel or the Chair Wheel or both if we can fit them in the car! Spinners and knitters please come along, and ask all your Great Wheel/spinning questions – and the braver amongst you; have a go on our wheel!
Recently, I was privileged to be asked to do a very short talk on the history of ganseys, as part of the Autumn/Winter season launch at Baa Ram Ewe, in Leeds. “Knit Happy. Knit Yorkshire.” the sign on the shop says – now there’s a sentiment I can get behind.
Sort of familiar territory, as a couple of years back, I sometimes rode shotgun with a very dear, departed friend, when she went to her hospital appointments in Leeds. To make the day bearable, she’d treat herself to a trip to Baa Ram Ewe when the treatment was over, and so I was introduced to the fantastic shop that was the old Baa Ram Ewe, in Headingley. I hadn’t been back since my friend died. In the meantime, the shop has moved to lovely premises on the Harrogate Road, in Chapel Allerton, and now has a lovely range of its own yarns, as well as some brilliant, Yorkshire-inspired, patterns and books.
The new season sees the introduction of Dovestone Natural Aran, which has subtle gradients of natural greys, (anyone who is a spinner knows how difficult it is to maintain a consistent quality of yarn and simultaneously shift the colour along a gradient – I did it many years ago with some Jacob’s wool, here). The Dovestone is a mixture of Bluefaced Leicester, Wensleydale and Masham – all three are longwools with strength and lustre; the Bluefaced also has a softer, sort of buttery feel to it and is probably one of the most traditional of all commercial yarns in that the Victorians liked to use an ancestor of this breed in their knitting yarn. Which would make Dovestone eminently suitable for all kinds of traditional knitting, of course.
Baa Ram Ewe have also added some new, vibrant colours to the Dovestone DK range (I’m hoping to try some out for a new gansey design, as this year I’m experimenting with using non ‘traditional’ 5 ply guernsey yarns, and as this has the lustre I love, I want to try it out).
Best of all, they have published ‘Yorkshire Shores’, by Alison Moreton and Graeme Knowles-Miller. Regular readers here know that I believe there is no real dividing line between ‘real’ ganseys and ‘inspired-bys’. ‘Traditional’ knitting has always been a broad church; ‘traditional’ knitters didn’t always only use commercial 5 ply guernsey yarn; nor did they stick to a certain size needle. The only law is – there are no laws. Also, I have started wondering about using a wider variety of yarns. I’m all about Yorkshire history and Yorkshire knitting, using Yorkshire-made yarns. So this book was always going to appeal to me.
At the season launch, we could see all the samples from the photo shoot – and these knits look as lovely ‘in the flesh’ (on the hoof?) as they do in Joelle Trousdale’s images – which made me want to return to Staithes ASAP!
‘Yorkshire Shores’ is sound on technique – and would be an excellent gateway drug to the stuff of absolute ‘traditional’ Yorkshire knitting. Not only the elements of design but also some of the solid techniques the designs walk you through, would stand you in good stead for any future gansey knitting. They both know their stuff.
Special mention must go to my two favourite designs from the book. With ‘The Ropes’ Graeme has actualised a design I sort of had in my head for the past couple of years – but done it better! Not just me, but the redoubtable Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth (known to many for ‘Freyalyn Fibres’, although I first envied her work years ago via ‘Spin Off’ magazine) quite rightly fell in love with Alison’s ‘Flamborough’.
On the way home, we realised the shop was about five minutes from the cottage where dad was born, on Bradley Terrace (near Roundhay Park). So we popped up there to say ‘hello’ to him, or rather, to see it for him. We had known Dad was dying for a few years, and when he got too frail to travel any more, right near the end, and now living in the Midlands, we went across to Birchwood Hill and Bradley Terrace, to take photos of his birthplace and the two houses on the adjoining road where both dad’s sets of grandparents lived. That was one of the last times I saw Bradley Terrace and I can’t think of it now, without thinking of the smile on Dad’s face when he saw it one last time, in our photos. It was a poignant day for all kinds of reasons – my first visit there since C died, without C. And also Bradley Terrace on the way home. Some of that probably accounted for the crashing migraine I had all day! But the little pilgrimage at the end of the day was something happy, not sad.
I hope to return to Baa Ram Ewe very soon, and now have even more fond associations with the folk who ‘Knit Happy. Knit Yorkshire’.
And Ay Up but I nearly forgot… For everyone born here in Yorkshire, those Yorkshire in spirit, and those who just love the history of our beautiful county… Happy Yorkshire Day, everyone!
‘The Knitter’, Issue 100, is out now and in the shops. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, this year, I’ve contributed an article about a fascinating and previously unknown piece of knitting; a pair of baby socks, made for Charlotte’s baby, which were destined never to be worn.
They were found sewn into a book of Charlotte Bronte’s correspondence with Mrs Elizabeth Smith, mother of her publisher and friend, George Smith. So far as I’m aware, ‘The Knitter’ is the first publication ever to publish a photo of these poignant items.
Charlotte was pregnant when she died in 1855 of hyperemesis gravidarum. I had that with one of my pregnancies – for 20 weeks; all day, every day. It is not the way anyone deserves to die. Charlotte was already weakened, and possibly had incipient TB. Her friends had expected her to rally – more than one, was busy making baby items. Miss Margaret Wooler, Charlotte’s old teacher, colleague and friend, made an exquisite (not knitted) baby bonnet. These are possibly amongst the most poignant items in the entire Bronte Society Collection.
I won’t reprise the piece here (buy ‘The Knitter’, gentle Reader!) But I will give you something we couldn’t fit into the article as a bonus for my brilliant blog readers – some of whom I met at Baa Ram Ewe’s season launch, last week. More of that in an upcoming post.
A caveat. This isn’t a true reverse engineered version. I am not a sock knitter – apart from the occasional recreation of a stocking for Living History. There are things going on in this sock – the toe treatment for one – that I can’t pin down. So I looked at a contemporary published sock pattern, and I looked at the notes I took from looking at the sock in person.
I ended up knitting a version of ‘Child’s Sock’ from Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s ‘First Series of The Knitter’s Companion’, available here in a very late edition. Cornelia Mee (1815 – 1875) wrote a number of successful knitting manuals from around the 1840s onwards and often reprised her recipes for children’s socks, so this appears in one form or another, across more than one of her books.
In the 1841 Census, Cornelia, 25, was married to Charles Mee, ‘Berlin Wool Warehouseman’, and a teenaged Miss Mary Austin appears to have lived with them, working as their “shopwoman”, on Milsom St, in fashionable Bath. Like Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson; a wool shop owner, publishing her own books. Mary Austin was no doubt her co-author, “Miss Austin”. In 1851, she was mistranscribed as “Amelia” Mee, and now at 18, Daniel St, Bath. The 1851 Census is the first to give birthplaces, and so we learn Cornelia was a native of Bath, and Mary Austin, now 25, is listed as “sister in law” which means she was Cornelia’s sister so the books are co-authored by the sisters; Mary, as eldest unmarried sister, being addressed as “Miss” on the book’s title cover. Charles was still a “Berlin Wool Dealer”. The household have three servants. In 1871, Cornelia was visiting a family called the Fishers, in Liverpool and Charles and their family can be found at Brook St, in the parish of St George Hanover Square, London. Mary Austin still lives with them, and is listed as “Berlin Wool worker”.
The blue silk sock was made with YarnAddictAnni‘s Pure Silk Laceweight. And then a version of the sock, based on the original, using Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour 0397 (discontinued) – Ecru. I bought the Sublime on my way home from Haworth, the day I looked at the sock, whilst the precise shade of parchment/ecru of the sock, was still fresh in my mind; dropping in at the fabulous treasure trove that is Coldspring Mill.
Any laceweight would do for these (highly impractical) socks. But I should point out the originals are neither silk, nor merino; but cotton. They photograph with a fair bit of lustre so look to be silk in the images but they handled and looked, in reality, like cotton. It looked to be millspun, but with no loose ends it was hard to tell. Anyone who wants to Comment below on the skewing that’s going on – I’d be grateful for your opinion.
There were limitations to documenting the socks. They are sewn flat, into a book of priceless letters. So no turning inside out, and barely possible even to see the wrong side of the knitting.
The socks were probably not knitted by Charlotte Bronte herself – Charlotte was 5 when her mother died so it is feasible she was the only one of the three surviving Bronte sisters, who may have been taught to knit by her Cornish mother. But the socks came to The Bronte Society via a donation – the Seton-Gordon Collection, donated by Elizabeth Smith’s grand-daughter. Elizabeth Smith was born in Regency times – before published knitting patterns. So it’s likely this was a sock formula she had in her head. I looked at commercial patterns of the 1840s and slightly later as well, to get an insight into the heel and toe treatments but what we’re looking at here is, essentially, a Regency sock!
Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s baby socks, had a slightly smaller number of cast on stitches: 53, as opposed to the 60 or 62 on Charlotte’s baby sock. Misses Austin and Mee recommended the knitter use “the finest Shetland wool” or “No.30 Knitting Cotton” and size 17 (1.5mm) needles. To put that in perspective, most modern knitting needle conversion charts only go down to size 14 – 2mm – needles.
In fact, I couldn’t have knitted these sans tishie, somehow – it made the whole process of knitting laceweight on 1.5mm needles not quite unbearable. (You don’t want to hear what I was saying when I did the 3 needle cast off, put it that way).
I decided to work a Dutch Heel and a Flat Toe. I’m not positive these are the treatments used in the original, but they are close. In fact, the original sock’s toe has something unaccountable going on, if you look closely, with some crazy and weird decreasing.
There are a number of recipes for what we’d now call babies’ bootees, in the Victorian knitting manuals – but comparatively few straightforward socks, like these.
NB: The originals had a much more rapid (every round?) decrease for the foot, after the instep and heel flap stitches were joined back in the round, than my Ecru version has. There is also a bit more shaping on the legs of the originals (Possibly one or two more shaping rounds than I did). These are most definitely not an accurate reverse engineered version, just an approximation for fun.
So, with no further ado, here’s the pattern for the white socks. (Not tech edited, so proceed with due caution). I just wanted to have a go to see if I could. Neither sock will be getting a companion, any time soon.
Charlotte Bronte’s Baby Socks
Tension: 12 sts and 16 rounds to 2.5cm
1 ball laceweight yarn. I used Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour 0397 (discontinued) – Ecru
CO 60 sts.
Work in K2 P2 ribbing, for 12mm [60sts]
Now, to work the plain stocking stitch leg section:
* Rd 1 -14: P1, K59
Rd 15: P1, K2tog, K55, K2 tog [58sts]
Rep from * once [56 sts]
Now commence the heel.
Divide the sts so you have 27 sts for instep on waste yarn, and 29 sts still live, on which you’ll make a heel. Continue to Purl the purl centre stitch (now centre of heel). Cont to work heel on these remaining 29 sts (centred on P seam st).
Work heel like this:
* Row 1: K1, Sl 1 rep from * to end row
**Row 2: Sl1, P1, rep from ** to end row
Or conversely, simply work in stocking stitch.
Rep these two rows – or work in stocking st – til you have made roughly 20 rows, ending with a P row.
Start Shaping Heel:
Row 1: (RS): K22, turn
Row 2: (WS): Sl 1, P to seam st, P7, turn
Row 3: Sl 1, Knit to seam st, P seam st, Knit to end
I have always been fascinated by paracosms. In their most developed forms, they’re imaginary worlds like the Brontes’ Angria and Gondal, or Hartley Coleridge’s Ejuxria. For many children, though, they were maybe playing with toy soldiers, or dolls’ houses and that whole life of the imagination.
A while ago I stumbled on a homemade 1940s’ dolls’ house. It had been found dumped in the street, outside a charity shop. It came complete with 1940s’ wallpaper, textiles (hand-stitched silk curtains) and a full compliment of handmade 1940s’ dolls’ house furniture, with a few commercially available items like some of the Britain’s Miniature Garden items, thrown in.
Intriguingly, it came with a file of documentation. The file contained wartime letters from a little girl to her father (on active duty). Many letters concerned her dolls’ house and what she was making for it. Over time, I will share with you, gentle Reader, little Brenda’s story and show you inside the dolls’ house and its items. And, when I’m done, the dolls’ house itself. Not pretty – but made with love.
The letters were carefully filed in date order and are a poignant look into the everyday world of a child in wartime. The dolls’ house seems to have been emblematic of the bond she felt with her father. On the outside of the house, Brenda had written, in pencil, “Roedean”, which when I was told about the house, before I saw it, at first I assumed must be a reference to Brenda’s school. It turned out, it was the name of her beloved home, and the dolls’ house was her Roedean in miniature.
With no further ado, I will start the story.
I may blog other stuff inbetween, but over some time, will weave in and out of the other stuff, the lovely, touching story of Brenda Reynolds. Most of her letters are addressed to her dad. But the first is to Father Christmas. The dated letters start in 1942. This could be that year, or earlier. I traced Brenda and she is no longer alive. She was unmarried and had no direct descendants I could find. Maybe the dolls’ house and letters were found in an attic before they were left on the street? Once I have shared this with you, I intend to re-home the dolls’ house with either a collector who will know how to preserve it – or a museum. I think it deserves a wider audience first, though.
I managed to trace Brenda on Ancestry and FindMyPast. FindMyPast has the 1939 Register – a snapshot of the UK on the brink of War, and I was able to use this to locate Brenda and her loved ones. The letters had her address on, which helped.
Someone slipped into the dolls’ house file, a few photos of the family of three. It seems Brenda was an only child. In wartime, toys were scarce so there were probably more dad-made dolls’ houses than usual. Until the War, Lines Brothers (trading as ‘Triang’) had probably been the best known dolls’ house makers, but the Triang factory went over to munitions, so as the dolls’ house was made after 1939, it would be very typical of a wartime dolls’ house.
As I put up the letters, I will put up the items that Brenda mentions. The first, (above) is a Britain’s garden fork. Pre-War these toys were made of lead. During the War, they weren’t manufactured and returned in plastic, re-named Britain’s Floral Garden, in the 1960s. It’ s quite startling to read of an item in the letters, then find it in the shoe-box where they currently reside.
I have an almost-16 year old son. I can’t imagine him being at the First Day of the Somme. Yet my great grandmother was in that situation, on the 1st July, 1916. In fact, it’s likely both her sons were there – her eldest, barely 18, was in The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
My grandad, Billie, was only 15 when he ran away to join the Army. His first action was the first day of the Somme. He was a bugle boy, in the West Yorkshires Regiment. I can’t imagine a 15 year old child walking into the bloodiest battle in history – over 30,000 soldiers died that day. He was there. He came out alive. His brother was to die at Passchendaele, the following year.
Not long after, he was brought home but re-enlisted the first chance he got. When he returned home to Leeds, he was the only young man of his age for streets around, according to a younger brother.
My grandfather went on to live – and fight – through two World Wars. After the War, he was a sargeant in the TA so called up on the first day of WWII.
My favourite WW1 poem is by fellow Leeds lad, Isaac Rosenberg. Another one who didn’t make it out alive.
Break Of Day In The Trenches
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.