Rex Needle: Bourne boys write home from the trenches

Rex Needle's feature on letters from the trenches EMN-140108-153058001
Rex Needle's feature on letters from the trenches EMN-140108-153058001
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The First World War that began 100 years ago touched most families in this country whose young men answered the call to arms to defend liberty and join the fight for freedom.

Reality was to be a life of unimaginable horror in the trenches of Flanders and France and the beaches of Gallipoli yet they managed to remain optimistic and even cheerful in the letters they sent home to their loved ones.

Their often heart rending correspondence also contains evidence of a deep loyalty to family and friends and the town where they lived which stirred their patriotism and allegiance to a cause that was often questioned yet they never wavered.

Many of the soldiers from Bourne who were sent to the front had been pupils at the Council or Board School in Star Lane [now the Bourne Abbey Primary Academy in Abbey Road] and before leaving for overseas they had been persuaded by their old headmaster, Joseph Davies, to keep in touch by letter and he replied to every one. In addition, he kept up a regular correspondence with his own two sons, Oliver in France and Victor serving in Gallipoli.

Thoughts of home have long produced a fruitful bounty for writers and the letters from Oliver Davies are particularly poignant. He was master at Edenham village school but volunteered for the army after his mother, Mrs Elizabeth Davies, offered to take over his teaching duties in order to free him for military service. By the late autumn of 1915, he had been promoted to lance corporal and was serving as a signaller with the 2nd Battalion, the Lincolnshire Regiment, at the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force somewhere in France.

He wrote home frequently and always poetically, and one particular letter sent on Friday 5th November compared his present surroundings with those of his home town: “If you want to imagine the kind of country we are in, take a walk down Bourne Fen as far as Twenty. Put heaps more poplar trees there, blow down nearly all the houses, grow crops of barbed wire instead of corn and, above all, don’t forget the mud, mud and more mud! There you have a fairly good idea of what the country is like. Many of the French people seem loath to leave their homes which are within shell range. If this were only a holiday, one could enjoy the country and the conversation of the people immensely. In some parts we saw truly magnificent scenery, the railways and villages while the guns are at it pretty frequently. Some fairly rattle, like gigantic carpet beaters.”

On Thursday 11th November, he was again making comparisons with home when describing a countryside in the grip of war: “The villages look like ghosts of a bygone age. Houses are without roofs, some have the rafters standing, making them appear as gaunt skeletons. Of course, the big houses and the churches suffer most from shell fire. Just picture Abbey Road and the church in that plight. Not a house with a wall or roof standing intact, a church without a roof or spire, just traces of walls showing where it once was. Some of the villages round here must have been very pretty in peace time, all studded with trees. But now there is nothing but rain and mud. The untilled fields, some of them with unreaped standing crops in them, form another very melancholy setting in the countryside.”

And again on Wednesday 17th November: “We work in one dugout and sleep in another. We are not so far back but that stray bullets don’t reach our way for they do whiz harmlessly over the trench or dugout. One must be on the alert every minute. It is a case of responsibility and plenty of it. Vigila et ora or Watch and Pray, the old school motto. Kindest regards to all friends at Bourne and Edenham and to the schoolchildren and the scouts. This place is muddier than a Lincolnshire fenland dyke. Now it is past midnight. Hark! Boom and bang again!”

Meanwhile, Victor Davies was serving as a stretcher bearer at Gallipoli but also adding his contribution to the letters home to Bourne and on 19th August 1915, he was already recognising the futility of the conflict. “We have cleared a considerable space of the prickly bushes which abound and formed a rough and ready hospital”, he wrote. “Here at first we had wounded, but it became latterly more or less reserved for cases of sickness. This was because the firing line had advanced out of reach. The boys of our division have done yeoman service, as you have doubtless read ere now. The cost, I fear, is in proportion to the achievement. These things don’t bear thinking about. They only make us realise what a hideous and monstrous thing war is and what a miserable, antiquated and senseless method it is of settling difficulties.”

Families and friends back in Bourne depended on letters and newspaper reports for news of what was going on at the front but during November and December 1916, the full horror of war was brought home to them when dramatic film taken during the Battle of the Somme was given several public showings at the Corn Exchange where additional seating was installed to cope with the crowds.

The flickering silent images on the screen were the first pictures of the war to be seen in Bourne and the mud and blood of the Somme stunned the audience into total silence and many were moved to tears. The response was the immediate formation of a fund to buy Christmas luxuries for the Bourne boys and as a result parcels containing food, sweets and tobacco were eventually dispatched to over 200 local soldiers at the 

Oliver and Victor Davies survived the war but many of their comrades did not. It has been estimated that 250 men from Bourne went to fight and the War Memorial in South Street records the names of 97 who died in action although recent research has established that 37 names were missed off when it was erected in 1956. The total from this town who made the supreme sacrifice was therefore 134 and the many letters that survive bear witness to their memory.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM.

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