We are off on Friday to the War

Dateline Belfast 13.8.14. Letter in pencil

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome letter which I thought was about time. Pleased to hear that you enjoyed yourself and also had lovely weather. Sorry to hear about May not being able to go with you, I hope her mother is better by now and ask her to drop me a few lines for I am still waiting dont forget to tell her. Is that what they are saying go to Ireland for a “quiet holiday”, you should come over here there is just as much excitement here as any where else. Give my love to all at home and tell Aunt I was ever so pleased to hear from her and glad to see they are alright. We are off on Friday to the War, we don’t know where we are going to the ship is ready for us and it is rumoured we are going to Belgium but I cant say exactly where we are off to. We have been working as hard as we can, getting every think ready for when we go on Friday. Now Till dont get worrying about me for I shall be alright, and I hope you will. Now Till when you send that photo and write to me which I hope will be soon (put the address 1st Dorset Reg Belfast) or elsewhere, and what will find me. Yes Till drop her a few lines for I am sure Jess would be pleased to hear from you, and she would answer your letter and only be too please to. Her address is 14 Maralin Street, Antrim Road Belfast, now dont forget to write to her soon. Now Till I think this is all the news at present hoping you are in the pink Tell Aunt I will drop her a few lines soon so will now conclude hoping to hear from you soon.

I remain
Your loving Brother

Britain enters the War

On the 4th August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium. Great Britain responded with an ultimatum, which expired, unanswered, at 11 o’clock GMT. As a result, the two nations were at war.

Immediate plans for mobilisations had been carefully planned out in the War Book: a series of documents meticulously detailing plans for mobilisation.

In Belfast the Commanding Officer (CO) of 1st Bn Dorsets, Lieutenant Colonel Louis Jean Bols, received his mobilisation orders at 5:39pm on the 4th August.

Bols was the son of a Belgian Diplomat, held dual nationality and spoke several languages. He was an experienced soldier, having fought in the Boer War, and the Dorsets benefitted from his expert leadership. We’ll hear more about the daring exploits of Bols later on.

Image of
Lieutenant Colonel Louis Jean Bols, CO 1st Bn Dorsets

In a flurry of activity deployments were recalled from around Ireland and reservists, usually experienced soldiers who had completed their active service, flooded into Victoria Barracks. Over half the strength of most British army battalions were reserve soldiers (590 for the 1st Dorsets). Officers were dispatched to Dorchester to collect more men. On the 9th-12th August the Battalion was sent on training and firing exercises, while the transport officers arranged passage to the front.

Frank wrote his letter on the day the Battalion attended a service at Belfast Cathedral. It’s hard to imagine the excitement and trepidation that Frank felt. The entire country was caught up in an outpouring of patriotic sentiment. The next day, on 14th August at 8am sharp, the Battalion loaded its transport on the the SS Antony and, at 3.25pm, she set sail in “very fine and hot” weather. The Dorsets were going to war.

SS Antony, later sunk by German U-boat UC-48 in March 1917

All aboard for Belgium

Let us turn to the newspapers to get some idea of public opinion about the forthcoming war.

Manchester’s Guardian wrote, on the morning of 5th August 1914:

Our part in the war, for the present at any rate, is intended to be purely naval, and it is greatly to be desired that it should remain so. For the present we imagine, and we should hope later also, it is unlikely that anything will be done on land by this country.

To understand this viewpoint we must look first look at the situation in France. After their humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany in 1871, France built a standing army of about 800,000 men, which was augmented by over 2 million conscripts during August’s mobilisation, and began the war by invading Germany in a bid to regain its lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. This was called Plan 17. The French military leaders were convinced that the bulk of Germany’s troops were lined up directly across the French-Germany border and that fighting would be concentrated here.

In pre-war plans, Britain was asked to stand between the French left flank and the sea to the north, defending, what their leaders assumed would be, a possible secondary attack by Germany. Britain had a small expeditionary force, initially numbering about 80,000 men, rising to around 150,000 in subsequent months. Germany’s army, after mobilisation, exceeded 3 million men.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was simply not equipped to deal with a full on assault by Germany’s superior numbers, and so was not expected to fulfil a central role in war on land.

Leaving his girl behind

Frank left behind his girlfriend, Jessica, in Belfast. In a thinly veiled attempt to join his loved ones together he asks his sister to write to her. He was never to see either of them again.

I have looked at the Irish Census records for 1911 to see if I could find out more about her, including a surname. The people living at 14 Maralin Street at that time do not match her name – the occupier is listed as Annie Patter but, of course, things can change in just 3 years. We’ll look at this street in a later post. Maralin Street is no longer in existence, although a Maralin Place still exists in the same area.

So on August 14th Frank left Britain, I think we can assume, for the very first time. He never returned.

Next week

The BEF moves into position in northern Belgium; a mining town by the name of Mons is their destination.

Frank’s girlfriends

Datelined Belfast – 8th – 6 − 14

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome and interesting letter, sorry I was unable to answer it before, but really I haven’t had time. Well I have chucked Dolly up, well I said in the letter that I couldn’t be more than a friend and that I would always be pleased to hear from her. I wrote to her over a week ago, but have not had any reply and don’t want any. I couldn’t stick her, her ways wasn’t mine, you cant wach (Poor Jessie) although you take the mike out of her letter which she wrote I bet the pair of you wont catch John Willie again so cheap. Now Till what are you getting at, you dont want anythink on the 2nd of July, but keep saving up until Yarmouth week now I tell you what I am going to give you and no more than £1 and if that dont so well you can take it out of the knocker get me fruity. You dont half try to pull my leg on the q.t. I am not one of your Johnnies just come up had some before from you.

Yes Uncle Matt will soon be writing and so I will be getting the Old Age Pension if it wasen’t for Auntie Carrie (and not so much of the Ninkey) I wouldn’t here at all from Brixton, tell him to look sharp and write. So George is the first to get married out of all of us all and he got caught napping that’s only half his luck I expect I shall be the next (see any green). Have you heard from Dolly or Edie lately. I should like to know what she thinks of me.

Did Aunt get my letter, and what do you think of the photo, had a brave time last Monday, suppost to take Jess to the pictures and meet her at two o’clock and of course I ment to to, so I got ready and was away down the town when who should I meet but some of the bhoys and then we went into the first bar we came to, and Bid stopped there until six o’clock very near sober and then we goes and has our photos done so this is the results I am holding the seat to steady myself what do you think of it not bad eh. Comes back to barracks had a wash and brush up and off I goes again, but who should I meet, but was her and she started rearing up so I said alright and was going to have her to have some more beer, when she stopped and I finished the evening with her so it wasent a bad Monday what say you. I don’t know how it will finish up, but I have known her for about 14 months and its still going strong.

Well how are you getting on alright I hope and still merry and bright, is Ciss still at Stewarts, Remember me to them all and don’t forget to tell Mattie that its about time he dropped me a line. When are you going to have your Photo taken, have you wrote or heard from Doris lately, and is the Old man still at the Green. I am getting on alright still in the pink and still mucking in. We are having some lovely weather here just at the present and things are in the pink. Rather surprised to hear that you and May are mucking in again. Remember me to her and ask her to drop me a few lines. Now Till, I think this is all the news at present, trusting you are in the best of health and still merry and bright, hoping to hear from you soon.

I remain
Your Irish Filip
Bid xxxx

What’s goin’ on?

By the beginning of 1914 Europe was in a precarious position. Old alliances and slow burning grievances were starting to edge the main protagonists, namely Germany, Austria, Russia, France and Great Britain, further along a path to all out war.

Similarly, Frank’s new home, Ireland was in a state of near civil war. The Curragh mutiny in March 1914, when British army officers refused to march on Ulster, followed by the Larne gun-running incident in April, when the Ulster Volunteer Force smuggled thousands of rifles into Ireland, had left the British Government with their own ticking time bomb. Unionists were aghast at the proposed home rule and the Nationalists were equally enflamed by the pro-union stance of British rule. Frank’s regiment had been deployed into the very centre of this unrest in Belfast. But it must be remembered that the tensions within Ireland were not solely religious. The argument was one of self rule, which split both protestants and catholic families, and, eventually, a nation apart. Only the outbreak of world war stifled the unrest, but the uneasy peace wasn’t to last.

In the pink

Biddy seems blissfully unaware of this tension in his letter to Mabel. He simply mentions the “lovely weather” and thinks that “things are in the pink”. Bid is far more interested in beer and women than politics. He’s just like any normal 21 year old lad.

He seems to have finished with the previously mentioned Dolly. His mood runs from the indifferent, “I would always be pleased to hear from her”, to the downright dismissive, “I couldn’t stick her, her ways wasn’t mine”. We’ll just take it as read that that particular relationship had ended.

He mentions that George, whoever he might be, is getting married and then refers to his own wedding as being next. Ye gads, Bid moves quickly! He only just dumped the last poor girl a few seconds ago and suddenly we meet his current love interest in the next couple of sentences! It also appears that they have been going out for 14 months. He’s a “bhoy”, is our Frank! Jess is a local Belfast girl and I will write more about her later on.

The photo Bid refers to having taken while on the town is lost to me. I had a bag stolen on a train years ago and lost my only copy of the photo. If any family member reading this has a copy I would love to get hold of it again.

An image of Frank with his "buoys"
Frank with some of his fellow Dorsets. He’s standing in the middle with his hands on the shoulders of one of his “bhoys”.

Again his letter is littered with lovely London vernacular: “taking the mickey” (interestingly used here 20 years before it apparently entered the vernacular), “Old Age Pension”; by this I assume he means getting old and fractious for not receiving any letters. “Ninkey” poses a stiffer challenge. Does anyone know what ninkey actually means? It rings a bell with me but I can’t find reference to it anywhere. He uses “see any green” again for jealousy and “q.t.” Which is surprisingly not American but British in origin. It is simply a contraction of quiet.

Frank’s generosity is marked by a present to his sister of one pound. This is about £300 in today’s money, using relative earnings as a calculation. Mabel obviously has been saving for a holiday to Yarmouth – whether that’s Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight or Great Yarmouth, it’s impossible to tell, although I suspect it’s the latter. He refers to the 2nd July and I presume that’s her birthday. The closest I got to her birthdate on Ancestry.co.uk was July.

His annoyance at no one writing to him brings us to the attention of his aunt Carrie and uncle Matt. I think that he is referring to Walter Matthew Webster, brother of his mother Ada, and his wife Caroline (née Davis). Walter’s second name is used as a first name, in a constant attempt by my relatives to outwit future generations. Bid mentions that his father, Frank, is living on the Green. In his notes Geoff mentions Camberwell Green as a possible reference but I have no evidence of his living there yet. Bid’s parents seem to be separated at this point in time and I intend to find out more about this in due course.

The frivolous, light-hearted tone of this letter is a telling counterweight to the parlous state of the outside world. 22 days after Bid wrote this letter, on the 28th June 1914, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. As a result of Austro-Hungarian aggression in the aftermath and tangled treaties between nations, Europe was dragged inexorably into war and Bid with it. I leave you this week standing in between the Old World and the New.

Next week

Swept along by a wave of patriotic fervour, Britain rather reluctantly joins France and Russia in defending Belgium’s neutrality against the might of the German army. Bid prepares to head for Belgium.

Farewell to Arms

RIP Richard Holmes

I was saddened to hear of the death of Richard Holmes, the military historian and television presenter. His books are used throughout these articles, especially Tommy, a history of the British solider during the First World War. His writing, and passion for the history of the soldier, inspired me to write these blog posts, using real information to build a picture of the common man in the First World War.

Richard Holmes worked tirelessly to remove the stigma we apply to the military of that time. It is easy today to simply blame inept generals, and go on and on about the waste and the misery, when in fact this is a very much a post war view of the time. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that disillusionment set in. Some very scathing, rather misleading histories, like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, came out in the 1950’s and 1960’s, adding to the picture we had until recently of the chinless Toff and the muddy Tommy sitting helplessly in a shell hole. Richard Holmes was one of many modern historian who sought to change our attitude to the men who fought in that terrible war. The First World War was carnage; that’s an indisputable fact. The loss of life was immense and the war changed the world forever but we mustn’t forget that men – fathers and sons, poets, bankers, soldiers and workers – fought and died for a completely different set of ideals than we have today. Richard Holmes never lets you lose touch with this edifying fact. We shall not forget.

Frank’s little secret

From L Cpl Crawshaw, 1st Dorset Regiment, Victoria Barracks, Belfast – Christmas 1913

To: Miss M Crawshaw, 389, St John St, Clerkenwell, E.C. London. Envelope date stamped Dec 22 (19)13

Follows is Geoff’s description of a Christmas card. The comments are also his.

Xmas card with small coloured picture of three long-horned cattle in stream with heather clad mountain in background left and trees shading dimly seen cottage to right. Underneath is an ivy (?) wreath round a white shield on which is a heraldic letter – might be an elaborate C. Inside the main message is:

May Health, Happiness and Prosperity attend you this Christmastide and in the coming Year is the sincere wish of L Cpl F Crawshaw.

Above it in smaller type are four lines of poetry:

“Let’s sing a song of Auld Lang Syne.

Should Auld friends be forgot?

For friendship cannot change with time

Though time may change our lot.

None of this sounds suitable for the Dorsets – although the scene may be Irish.

The card is accompanied by a short letter.

Just a card hoping you are in the pink. I have not heard from Dolly for sometime. Received letter quite safe and sound. I see you want me to meet you at Stewarts on Wed at 6 o’clock. Now Till I wont promise for what with being up at 6.30 in the morning and then catching the boat at 930 pm on Tuesday night and travelling until 12 on Wednesday, I expect I shall feel a bit tired, but look here me old peach, if I am not there I hope you come on to Brixton, but I expect I shall be there on the word fire so put on your best and keep your Glad Eye open for Bid so tat tas and roll on Tuesday night. Hoping to see you soon.


There is a long gap between this letter and the last one. As there is in the timing of this article. It would appear, due to the regular mail before and after this date, that many letters have disappeared, making the story ever more fragmented and frustrating to research. There are so many ifs and whats in my notes. Hence my pause of more than two weeks. But people’s lives are complex, organic things, including mine, and I have to keep reminding myself that I can only work with the material and spare time that I have to hand.

In the letter attached to this card, Frank has lost none of his South London bravado. He uses the phrase “keep your glad eye open” somewhat erroneously with his sister as it means to act flirtatiously. It’s easy to picture him full of swagger as they meet for the first time, we can only surmise, in probably over a year.

Mabel has apparently moved to Clerkenwell. She appears to be working in a place called Stewart’s. This is probably a shop and I found a reference to a Mrs Stewart living in a shop and residence just up the road at 407 St John Street. This could well be our “Stewart’s”, which gets several references in later letters. These buildings are now long gone and The National Cancer Research Institute stands in its place.

View Larger Map

Barracks? Oh Bummer!

Frank, along with the rest of his regiment, left Blackdown on the 9th January 1913 and arrived in Belfast 2 days later, on the 11th January. Victoria Barracks was the new home of the 1st Bn Dorsets. It stood in the area now known as New Lodge, a Catholic area to the immediate north of the city centre, up until the 1950s. All that remains today are a few houses and bits of wall.

The Dorsets were there from 1913 up until the outbreak of the war. After that they went to Londonderry in 1919 and then to Malta in 1924.

I wish I’d never clapped eyes on her

It’s hard to know what Frank has been up to as he is very scant on detail. He mentions Dolly, presumably she is a girlfriend. We’ll find out more of his relationship with her in the next letter.

I have found quite a few of Frank’s records from the National Archives in Kew. One of the most surprising records is his medical history. I won’t publish it here out of respect, but the following story will outline the malaise he was being treated for in Curragh Camp Hospital between 5th September and the 22nd September 1913.

Curragh Camp in County Kildare, about 30 miles south west of Dublin, was a large divisional army base for the British Army up until 1922. It now serves as a training centre for the Irish Army. Whenever you gather together a large group of soldiers there are bound to be problems. Excessive drinking and prostitution were rife in the British army at that time. Prostitution was especially reviled by the authorities as it spread disease throughout battle-ready troops.

Curragh Camp had a particularly repellant history of prostitution. Due to its relative remoteness, groups of women took up camp in the furze around the camp. They were a mixture of prostitutes, abandoned girlfriends and wives of the soldiers within the camp itself. They became known as the Wrens of Curragh and their ramshackle dwellings, sometimes just a hollowed-out shrub, were referred to as “nests”. James Greenwood, a journalist for the Pal Mall Gazette, wrote a series of articles on their plight. His visit incurred the wrath of a particularly violent wren called Kate.

“Her hair was streaming down her back; she had scarcely a rag of clothing on; and the fearful figure made at me with a large jug, intended to be smashed upon my skull. I declare her dreadful figure appalled me. I was so wonder-stricken, that I believe she might have knocked me on the head without resistance; but, quick as lightning, one of the women got before me, spreading her petticoat. ‘Get out of it!’ she shouted in terror ; ‘run!’ And so I did. Covered by this friendly and grateful wren, I passed out of the nest, and made my way homeward in the darkness.”

The problem with soldiers and venereal disease was so rife that the authorities were enabled by law to stop and arrest any women suspected of being a prostitute. Looking at the census for 1911 there are long lists of soldiers in the Curragh Camp Military hospital suffering from all manner of sexually transmitted diseases; the majority of the cases being diagnosed as gonorrhoea.

During the First World War 416,891 men of the British army were treated for venereal diseases. The figures are high, perhaps due to the fact that failure to declare infection would invariably lead to two years’ hard labour. Indeed venereal disease was described, in Medical Services: General History vol. 1, as causing “the greatest amount of constant inefficiency in the home commands…”. It certainly surprised me to find out that official brothels existed. One in Rouen was reportedly visited by 171,000 men in its first year.

Frank was a young soldier on an adventure of a lifetime, far away from home, and his youthful exuberance and carefree attitude seem to be little diminished by the episode.

Next week

We learn about Frank’s life in Belfast and he has a new girlfriend. I’ll be looking at the wider world for the first time, as European nations start to flex their muscles.