Within weeks of the start of the Great War, the newspapers were printing letters from "our boys" fighting at the front. The enthusiasm for the war and the apparent lack of censorship allowed the public to read some very detailed accounts of life on the front line.
This gradually changed during the course of the war as the casualty numbers increased, strict censorship was imposed and general interest waned. This is reflected in the quantity and content of the correspondence printed during the later years of the conflict.
These are transcripts of letters from Raunds men, both published in the local journals and/or sent to family members anxiously waiting at home for news of their loved-ones.
Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, 2 October 1914:
Raunds Horse Guard’s Graphic Description of the War
Trooper F K Kilborn, Royal Horse Guards, in a letter to his mother at Kingswood Place said:
“Thanks for the parcel, it’s a bit off to keep on having bully beef and biscuits, so one can appreciate a little sweet stuff. I don’t think myself that the war will last much longer, but we must wait and see.”
Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, 5 November 1914:
From a Raunds “Old Boy”
Mr J Shelmerdine JP, of Raunds, late headmaster of the Raunds C of E Schools has received a letter from one of his old boys at the front who says:
“There are several of us (boys from the Raunds School) here now, and most of us have been out since the beginning of the war. I myself have been present at all of the engagements, including the retreat from Mons, the battles of the Meuse, Marne and Aisne.
We are nearly all well which is something to be pleased about. The only one wounded that we know anything about is Percy Smith; his wound I believe, is only slight.
We have had some rather exciting times up to now, and I suppose we shall have some more before the war is over. We did a bayonet charge on the Prussian Guard last month (14th September) which I daresay you have read about in the papers and I think we did very well indeed.
The following are the names of some of the Raunds contingent at present at the front: Harold York, Arthur Cuthbert, Sam Whiteman, Cecil Burton, Fred Cuthbert, Arthur Webb, Ernest Wood and myself. (Percy Smith is now reported well and back in the fighting line).
Ed - The names in bold type are men who later were killed.
The following letter home was sent by L G H Lee, former headmaster of the Raunds Wesleyan School and member of the Town Council, from the Northamptonshire Regiment training camp in Suffolk and titled:
“With the Territorials - Getting Fit for the Great Day”
A little village of some three hundred inhabitants is our home at present. It is just the ordinary countryside village, with its green, and its pretty flint-built Parish Church so typical of Suffolk. A fine polo ground of some sixteen acres forms our parade ground. “B” Company, to which the writer adds considerable lustre, was first billeted in a barn. I must confess that my heart sank and my military ardour was considerably damped, when, on the night of September 9th, I first viewed the interior of my future home for an indefinite period. The floor was of good solid concrete, the hardness of which was still evident through a waterproof sheet which formed our only bedding.
Here eighty of us slept and ate and smoked and fought over our future battles. We were not sorry after three weeks to move to an old moated farmhouse of the sort for which Suffolk villages are famous. Here we exchanged concrete for oak floors, which, if not any softer, are certainly less cold and clammy. The recruits posted to “B” Company occupy the double garret in the roof. This garret, barely six feet high in the centre, is the dining-room, drawing-room, smoke-room and dormitory of twenty-five men, as chummy a set as ever wore khaki.
True it is somewhat monotonous to sit on one’s haunches these long November evenings in the dim, if not very religious, light of one oil lamp and a few auxiliary candles stuck in bottles, but when ten o’clock comes we turn on to our straw-filled palliasses with more zest than most people luxuriate in clean feather beds, judging by the difficulty with which we leave them when the morning light filters in through the tiny dormer windows. Sundry articles of clothing, towels, belts, bayonets, and rifles hide in the time-stained walls and impart a military air to our billet.
At six in the morning the Colour-Sergeant calls us with the salutation, “Show a leg, there,” but the legs are not generally visible until twenty-five minutes later. Then follows a lightening toilet and a rush to the polo ground to escape the righteous indignation of the Sergeant-Major which falls heavily on the late comer. An hour’s physical exercise prepares us for breakfast, followed by such sundry jobs as button polishing, rifle cleaning etc. At nine o’clock we are on parade again. Rifles are inspected and a Second-Lieutenant looks us up and down from cap to boots. Dinner is at one o’clock. The menu is hardly Savoyan in its variety. There is a shorter parade in the afternoon, and on three evenings per week night operations.
Probably the most interesting parade of the week takes place on Friday afternoon. This is pay parade when we receive our seven shillings, which generally changes hands in the neighbouring town on the next afternoon.
The days are varied by route marches extending over a dozen miles or more. These, of course, take place in full marching order and are an excellent preventive against corpulency. Rifle, bayonet, haversack, knapsack, trenching tool, water bottle, billy can and overcoat forms the equipment to be carried. On such “marching at ease” is the order and the miles are whiled away by regimental songs, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and our own special composition:
Marching, marching, marching, always bally well marching ; From reveille to lights out it’s marching all the time. Marching, marching, marching, always bally well marching ; Roll on till my time is o’er, and I shall march no more.
Irreverently sung to the tune “Nicea”.
On Sundays we are visited by our popular chaplain, the Rev T G Clarke, MA, Rector of Corby, the services being held alternatively in the Parish Church and the YMCA tent. Here I must add my testimony to the excellent work done by the YMCA. A large marquee on the village green forms a fine rendezvous for the soldier, where huge quantities of lemonade and malted milk (fine stuff) are consumed. Notepaper, envelopes, and ink are provided gratis, and there are various games, which are much appreciated. However, for the life of me, I cannot understand why the authorities of so excellent an institution place on their tables such sickly sentimental tracts which pass for religious literature. From personal observation I can say that it does no good, but positive harm, as it makes men merely scoff when a real virile presentation of spiritual truths might sink deep into hearts which by reason of the times we live in and the seriousness of each soldier’s personal outlook might do incalculable good.
We learn many lessons over and above our military duties. Twenty-five men of different callings and professions living week after week in an attic are bound to influence one another. Corners and angles are smoothed down and irritating idiosyncrasies are rounded off until they become attractive traits. We learn the great art of accommodating ourselves to one another, which is the one essential in all communal life. To anyone who believes with Pope that the proper study for mankind is man, here is a whole field for him. Here we see life with the wrappers off – real elemental life which civilisation covers up with hosts of conventions which hide the true man beneath. There may be, and are, phases which some of us would rather not see, but there is constantly peeping out the undeniable fact of the divinity of every man. There is his willingness to share hardships and to do a chum a good turn, which illuminates a rough life with a tinge of real beauty. These are the factors which personally makes the private soldier’s life more deeply interesting and instructive than that of a commissioned officer.
Altogether, in spite of necessary hardships and discomforts, we find our life both healthy and enjoyable. From the Colonel downwards to the youngest recruit the men are imbued with the one thought of how they can do their best for their country at this most critical time in her history, and there will be keen disappointment if the battalion does not see foreign service somewhere. To me it is a huge surprise that so many young men still prefer the atmosphere of shoe factories and the monotonous tasks of modern industrialism, which clog the mind, to the invigorating drills which may tire the body, but clarify the brain and make the blood course through the veins with an exhilarating freshness.
Perhaps they will still have to join up and then their one regret will be both now and in the future, that they will be conscripts and not volunteers in this great fight against militarism.
“Still Cheerful” – Wounded Raunds Sergeant in a FrenchHospital
Sergeant Hall of the 1st Northamptons said the following in a letter to his mother from No.1 Ward, Stationary Hospital, Boulogne Base:
“I’m still going on all right. I got wounded at Ypres and I think that we left our trade mark on the Germans, for we left hundreds of the dead in the woods as we passed through, and there were not a great lot of us killed or wounded. I thought that J Dix was killed until I heard that he was a prisoner, for we left 17 men at a place called Marbaix and we only saw four of them again.
I do not think I shall be any good for the Army after I come out of hospital, for I think the leg I got hurt will be 8 and half inches shorter than the other; of course that is better than being killed outright.”