A nasty accident at sea

First letter since Belfast to be written in ink. Envelope addressed to Miss M. Crawshaw, 29 etc (1st since October to Miss M) franked 23.01.15

Dated 23.01.15

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome and interesting letter which I received yesterday. Pleased to hear that you received the Gift alright. Bert told me that his brother was getting on alright when he sent parcel, but have answered his letter but have had no reply yet. Have just heard from Dolly, she mentioned that she enjoyed herself along of you. Doll as got a far better place at last, which is what she deserves, what say you?

Yes I think that it is best what you say about my clothes. I haven’t worn the socks yet but will let you know when I next write.

So you are getting on alright at Stewarts, still merry and bright and doing all the work. Tell Aunt she is a long time writing that budget, tell her to buck up.

No I have not heard from Tom yet but I expect I shall hear from him when he has time to write, I expect he is busy at sea just at present, has Aunt or Mattie had a line from him yet? How are they all at home -still merry and bright – and also old uncle I expect he still wishes he was young enough to go back to sea, give old Tango my best regards. I expect Wallie as started work by now.

Well Till I am getting on as well as can be expected still merry and bright and also in the pink. The weather out here is just about the same, raining from Monday until Saturday night and a few showers on Sunday for a change so you can guess what it is like. But still the Bhoys make the best of it.

Oh Till I have just received Aunt’s letter and was sorry to hear that Tom as met with a nasty accident while at sea but I hope that he will soon pull through. So Mattie is layed up then, let’s hope he will soon be on the old knocker again. And I have just received a parcel from Dolly, a scarf and a piece of Xmas cake, which I think is very good of her, what say you? Heard from Fred Hale yesterday, he wrote a very nice letter.

At present we are having a few days rest which we are all pleased to get, so don’t get having a fit because this is wrote in ink. Remember me to Doris when you next write.

Well Till I don’t think there is any more news at present, except that things are just about the same out here, still J Johnsons flying about and Mr Sniper just as busy as usual. Now I think this is all the news at present, trusting you are all in the best of health at home, and I hope to hear from you soon.

I remain,
Your loving Brother

PS. Tell Bert I have not heard from him yet, did he get my letter ask him.

23rd January 1915

This post got a bit delayed, so apologies. The Dorsets remained in billets for another day, while the COs of the 15th Brigade’s battalions got together to plan their inevitable return to the trenches.

Frank has written another letter back to Mabel. The first, Geoff notes, in pen since he left Belfast. I’d like to think that Frank got the opportunity to sit at a table in a café in Bailleul to write this. But somehow I know that’s probably fantasy. He warns Mabel at the end of the letter “don’t go having a fit”. Presumably he think she might believe him to be writing from hospital. If only he had received a “Blighty“.

The Princess Mary Christmas Fund Gift Box is mentioned once more, now abbreviated to the “The Gift“. Frank’s also received another parcel from my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam. There’s a reference to his brother. I’ve read these letters many times but today is the first time I’ve noticed this. In my records Carl Robert Debnam doesn’t have a brother. Is this a slip of the pen by Frank? If his brother is also on active service, as the “was getting on alright” implies, then is this another hidden part of the family obscured by war?

The 1911 census has a bit more information than other census records, in that it lists the number of children born to the mother, alive or dead. Carl’s mother, the luxuriously named Justina Charlotta, only has one child listed and she’s 49 by this time. Robert Debnam had married her at the age of 26. Did either of them have a previous marriage I am unaware of? It’s a mystery I will return to.

The other, as yet, unidentified relatives, Old Uncle and Auntie Tango and Tom are mentioned, along with the fact that Old Uncle used to be in the navy. Tom is now in the Navy. Did he follow his family up the gangplank? Fnarr, fnarr. I’ve been looking at the Webster side of the family tree up till now, but perhaps my attention is better turned to Caroline’s parents, Charles and Emma Davis.

Emma Davis was born in Woolwich Dock Yard in 1846, so we have a naval connection straight away. Woolwich dockyard was incredibly important to the British Navy from the sixteenth century to the late eighteenth century but was becoming increasingly irrelevant to ship building as boats got larger and the Thames silted up. The Royal Arsenal began to dominate the area from the mid-Nineteenth century onwards.

The couple had three children, as far I as I can find out at the moment: Caroline, Frederick and Rose. The dates of their birth (1878, 1879, 1883 respectively) make it difficult for them to have had a child old enough to be on active service. Caroline would have had to have been 17 or 18 to have a child at that time. Frederick and Rose are still both living at home in 1901 so it’s very unlikely that they had children. Could I have missed another older sibling perhaps? Or did Caroline have a another child we don’t know about.

Frank must have stopped the letter at some point because the tone changes half way through. He’s had a letter from Aunt Caroline telling him that Tom has “met with a nasty accident while at sea”. Without a surname to give to Tom, it is going to be nigh on impossible to find out the name of the ship or submarine he was on. All we know that he was on a ship that gave him plenty of leave to get back to London so can we assume that it was patrolling the waters around Great Britain? I fear that this slender connection to Tom, just a few mentions in letters from 100 hundred years ago, may now be lost in time.

Has this event triggered Uncle Mattie’s illness? We already know that Uncle Matt is a bit of a sick note. Let’s hope he’s on the knocker again soon.

Frank has also had a letter from someone called Fred Hale and we can assume that Fred is well known to both Frank and Mabel. If this is one of their childhood friends then the only Londoner called Frederick Hale listed in the 1911 census was born in Lambeth in 1889 and now lives in Camberwell. He’s a kitchen porter at some “refreshment rooms”. Could these “refreshment rooms” have been Stewarts?

Not feeling fab from the jab

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc – franked 11 Jan 15*

letter dated 04.01.15

Dear Till

I received your welcome letter yesterday and was glad to hear that you are getting on alright. Till I was surprised to hear that Tom was on leave, he is getting plenty of leave considering how things are at present, but I don’t blame him, I wish I could do the same.

Pleased to see that you heard from Doris she seems to know when her birthday is, what say you? You have heard from Jess then, she is getting on alright. Bert don’t half get some leave,when is he coming out here, you can tell Bert there’s not much chance of a fine time out here, well not up to yet, but lets hope so.

Pleased to see you enjoyed yourselves Xmas, I should reckon you had a gay time, I don’t blame you.

Well Till have you heard from the government yet as regards the 6d a day which I have allotted to you out of my pay, I expect you will hear soon, don’t forget to let me know directly you hear from them. I expect you will draw a month’s money and it’s for yourself.

Well me old dear I am getting on as well as can be expected but I have got a terrible cold. Bert mentioned in one of his letters that he was layed up with inoculation, well I have just been done and it gives me fab(??), I can hardly move.

We have just finished 6 days leave and we was all glad to get it. Now Till there is a chance of me getting seven days leave, that’s all the men who came out here first, but I don’t know when it will be granted, not just a present but later on I expect, that’s all according to how things go, but still lets hope I get seven days.

I received a very nice letter from Dolly, yes it was an interesting one. She said that she had heard from you and that you called and had a cup of tea along of her. She said you was just the same, all smiles, but just a wee bit thinner. I have answered her letter.

So Arthur spent his Xmas at Tottenham, I expected something like that. What say you remember me to them when you go over to see them. I was glad you never went.

Now Till I think this is all the news at present, trusting you are all in the pink and I hope to hear from you soon.

I remain,
Your loving brother,

### 4th January 1915

Frank’s letter home to Mabel asks after his sister Doris. Something about his question makes me think that Doris suffers from some kind of learning difficulty. This would certainly explain why she has been away at school. A school which became an official centre for disabled children a couple of years after she left.

Frank has heard from his girlfriend, Jess, and has also now received a letter from Dolly, his ex-girlfriend. She’s met up with Mabel, and presumably the split between Dolly and Frank meant that the two girls’ friendship had come to an end or cooled somewhat. Dolly has referred to Mabel’s warm smile, which is ever present in all the photographs I’ve ever seen of my Great Grandmother.

Frank confirms that he has allotted 6 pence out of his daily pay to Mabel. I haven’t found out anything about how a soldier might transfer some of their pay to a family member – I just haven’t had time – but soldier’s pay is a subject I will return to in the future.

The enteric fever (typhoid) inoculations from a couple of days ago are confirmed in this letter. Frank is now ill with a cold. The transcript says it gives “me fab” but I have no idea what this means and I take it it’s a typo on the part of Frank or Geoff’s transcription. Whatever it was, he’s not feeling great from the jab and I can’t blame him.

Frank also continues to complain about the amount of leave everyone else seems to be getting. I’m not surprised. It must have been maddening. He mentions that seven days leave are due to men out since the 16th August. How he must have longed for a return to his family in Brixton. (Please excuse the maps that are now missing on some pages – my old map plug in is broken and I need to fix them – another reason why I don’t use WordPress professionally.)

More references to tension in the family continue to pepper Frank’s letters home. Again, the source of the tension appears to be Tottenham – namely St Anne Road. Arthur could well have been Arthur Coulson Webster, Frank and Mabel’s cousin by Uncle Matt’s older brother John Webster and his wife Elizabeth. Arthur was 43. “I was glad you never went” makes it clear that Frank is not impressed by this member of the Webster clan.


The Dorsets left the comforts of Bailleul and marched to Dranoutre with the rest of the 15th Brigade. By 3pm the Norfolks, Bedfords and 1/6th Cheshires went into billets as reserve. The Dorsets and 1st Bn Cheshires drew the short straw and marched on to Wulverghem. The Dorsets relieved the East Surreys once again, taking over Sector D at 8.30pm. The Cheshires had taken over Sector C from the D.C.L.I. at 7.30pm.

The Dorsets completed the relief by 9.35pm. The Germans constantly sniped their new guests but no one was injured, which is miraculous as there was a full moon at the time. The rest of the day was spent digging out the trenches. Much work had been done shifting the line of the trenches towards the enemy as there was quite a distance on the right hand side of II Corps’ area between the British and Germans.

The trenches might have been basic but they were growing all the time. Communication lines begin to appear on the maps like little snakes worming their way back from the frontline. A system of numbering the trenches had now begun. The Dorsets occupied Sector D trenches numbered from 11 to 14. I imagine that a lot of grumbling about the East Surreys went on that night.

* Today’s letter also contains a second letter written in condensed handwriting on the fourth side of paper, according to Geoff’s notes. I will return to this extra letter in a few days’ time and this explains the later franking date.

Postcards from the edge (of a wood)

13th November 1914

13. Field Service Post Card to Miss Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road, date stamped 18 No 14 – message dated 13.11.14 Multiple choice card on which sender could delete inappropriate phrases and sign (Frank) and date.

Undeleted message reads “I am quite well. I have received your letter. Letter follows at first opportunity”.

Field Postcard
Field Service Post Card / Army Form A2042

Today’s post is something of an anomoly as we get another missive right after Frank has written a letter. This is one of those multiple choice postcards beloved of bureaucratic institutions. In times of great hurry, you simply crossed out the bits that weren’t relevant with a pencil and stuffed it on the post. It was called the Field Service Post Card or, more grandly, Army Form A2042. Here’s one filled out from a post on The Great War Forum. I did see a joke one somewhere but I can’t for the life of me remember where it was. The Wipers Times is the probable source.

The Dorsets endured more shelling throughout the day. In the evening D Company was assigned to the Royal Engineers for digging duties. Later on, at 10.55pm to be precise, B Company was ordered to move to a new position south west of Point 63 to be easy for digging at daylight. I’ll update the map tomorrow. According to the diary 2 men were killed and one wounded. The CWCG lists just one man, or should I say boy:  Harold Mead. He was just 16 years old. See the comments below for more discussion on his age.

And,so, back to yesterday’s letter

Yes I expect it is alright on that records, yes I know the song well, we did have a good reception when we arrived in France but we have had some bad times since, and lots of these fellows you can hear singing have gone since then worse luck.

The Tenor John McCormack
The great Irish tenor, John McCormack

Mabel must have asked Frank whether he knew a particular song. Was there a record of the troops singing released in Britain? Or was this just a popular song sung by the troops on the march? At the moment I am not sure. This could have been something popular like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” sung by John McCormack or an early version of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. This article explores the music that was played at The Royal Albert Hall. Land of Hope and Glory was sung there in October, sung by Clara Butt and conducted by Elgar himself in front of the King and Queen. They must have swung the crosses off of the Union Jack that evening, by Jingo.

I’m putting in a photo of a 1923 painting of an incredibly louche John McCormack because you can never have too much William Orpen in my opinion.

Wallie is working in the City I bet he fancy his luck a what. So Muff received my letter alright I have not heard from there since and I have forgot the address, don’t forget to remember me to them all, and let me have their address and also Toms I have not heard from him yet. Have answered your Bert’s letter, but have not received the cigarettes yet buck him up. How is Ciss going and did she receive my PC have not heard from her since. Glad to know that all are in the pink at home and that Uncle Matt has got plenty of work, how is Albert still doing the Tango remember me to him and tell him I will drink his health when I see him which I hope will be soon. I have just has two letters from Jess she has been ill this last two or three weeks but am glad to hear that she is getting on alright now.

We rattle through the usual gang. He’s forgotten Muff’s address and we’re still asking after the mysterious Tom. There’s my great grandfather mentioned by name this time – Frank has christened him Bert and is still teasing Maud about him. Ciss is probably his sitter Doris, or it could be Caroline, his aunt, as she’s married to the next in line, Uncle Mattie, Matthew Webster. Albert doing the tango could be another cousin, Albert Webster, son of Herbert Webster and his wife Mary. Albert is 11 so I am not sure about this. I’ve never toasted an eleven year old. But then again Frank likes a drink so he could toast anyone – or anything after a Red Biddy or two. Jess hasn’t been well but infuriatingly there’s no more information about her identity.

I’m off for a tango.

Mabel and her John Willie

5th November 1914

Letter to Miss M Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven – date 11 – 14 envelope franked 5 No 14 (censor no 137 still at it)

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome and interesting letter which I received on the 31st. I am pleased to hear that you are getting on alright and still mucking in. What’s the idea of asking me to write to your John Willie, for I don’t know him, you get him to send me out some chocolates, do you know Till that chocolate is as good as anything out here, and every one is after it.

You say what do I want for Xmas wait and see how things go for its a long way off yet, and goodness knows what will happen. Yes mate I could do with some Tooth Powder, for you should see them now they are proper gone, no I never got the toothbrush thats the only thing I never received, and I can account for that, one of our fellows took the Companies mail in the firing line and he got killed, and of course they got lost.

It is Sunday and its a fine day too and no cold tea roll on a long time. Glad to hear Tom is safe remember me to him, lets have his address and I will drop him a few lines, for thats what you look forward to more than anything else, is a letter.

Till I have forgot to tell you before, and that is that all my clothes are at Jessies home, two lots that basket and a box, I was going to send them home but we never had time wasn’t allowed out and we had to get rid of them at once. I had just bought another suit a navy blue a lovely one it cost 55/- and I only put it on twice, bowler shirts ties, socks collars watch Bank Book with 5/- in it, your hair brushes, overcoat, in fact every think. Yes I hear from Jess she sent me out a parcel not long ago, and her brother dropped me a few lines, as well, yes poor Jessies getting on alright, just as the War started I was getting on alright, at her home for I used to go round for dinner and Tea on Sundays, and supper in the week, only the old lady didn’t drink she hates the sight of it.

Well Till I am getting on alright and still in the pink, you say the war can’t last much longer don’t you believe it, for it will last longer than people think worse luck. I am still waiting to hear from your (Friend) and I have wrote to your impersonator, I mean your Johnnie. Glad to hear that Matties leg is better and that he is working, you still mucking in at Stewarts glad to hear that Ciss got my letter, I have dropped her a card since.

Remember me to all at home and I hope you are still mucking in, what time are you getting to bed,  now that the pubs close at 10 o’clock. Now I think this is all the news at present trusting this finds you all in the best of health and hope to hear from you soon.

P.S. Don’t forget the tooth powder Glad Eye

I remain

your loving Brother


Frank wrote this letter on the 1st November, the previous Sunday, but it didn’t get posted until the 5th November. I am not sure he is in the position to be writing letters at the moment. He most probably wrote it in the morning as I would have thought he would have mentioned the bus journey if he had written it in the evening.

Mabel has presumably asked Frank to write to her boyfriend. Frank taunts her and indignantly asks for payment in chocolate. Later on in the letter he reveals that he has already written to her “John Willie”. Frank might pull a leg or two but he’s very kind at heart.

John Willie is a phrase that later became associated with John Thomas. I don’t need to explain the meaning of that, but I don’t think he’s being that crude here. In fact, there were a few songs from the time with the name John Willie in. I stumbled upon this thread of enquiry looking through the Routledge Dictionary of Slang. There was “Fetch John Willie” from 1910 and “Have you seen my John Willie” from 1914. I cannot find the lyrics to these songs but what I did find was this song by George Formby Senior. Yes, that one’s dad. He was a popular Music Hall entertainer and he played a character called “John Willie” who was “the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad … hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through” (according to historian Jeffrey Richards).

Here is the 1908 song in sterophonic technicolor:

This “John Willie” is most probably the first mention of my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam. He was also in the army, a Gunner in the 41st Company, Royal Garrison Artillery. He had returned to the UK in July, after a tour of duty in Sierra Leone. He was yet to be posted to war. In fact he didn’t make it to France until late the following year. And, yes, he didn’t use his first name; everyone called him Robert (or Bob).

I’ll return to the letter tomorrow.

Meanwhile the Dorsets were still nervous about being next to the French, who were regularly announcing their intention to attack Messines. Further up the line they had regained a toehold in Wytschaete. In fact the 11th Brigade War Diary records that Colonel Butler reported the French were in front of the Dorsets’ trenches during the early morning of the 5th. Throughout the day different reports come in about the French preparing to attack.

Most worrying was the 8:15pm report that the Dorsets’ line had been broken, prompting Butler to send reinforcements. The Germans had attacked the Dorsets very suddenly at 7pm. The Dorsets diary reports that C Company was ordered to counter attack. After this point no indication is given of whether they regained the trench at all. It just reports that rifle fire slackened and they settled down to an eerie but quiet Guy Fawkes night shrouded in thick fog.

Elsewhere all the signs of impending trench warfare continued. The Germans were reported throwing up barricades in front of their positions opposite the Rifle Brigade who were also stationed in Ploegsteert Wood.

I demand to have some booze


10th October 1914

After more waiting, and much to-ing and fro-ing, the buses finally arrived at about 2:30pm and took them via the town of Saint-Pol-sur-Termoise and dropped them off at their billets in La Thieuloye.

The BEF was hurtling towards the west now as fast as they could go. It was hoped they could reach Lille in time, which was about 40 miles off to the north east, but Gleichen wasn’t so sure. He had witnessed thousands of young men streaming to the west away from the possibility of being interned by the advancing Germans.

Frank was known as Biddy or Bid. Nicknames are cryptic, often born from the language a group of friends or family form through familiarity. Sometimes they came from acronyms of initials (see my theory about the origins of Auntie Muff yesterday). Biddie certainly isn’t that. His initials are AFC. So where did it come from?

Biddy is an old 16th Century name for baby chicken. The origin is suggested as perhaps imitative of the chicken, so perhaps it was used as a calling sound when feeding them. A chickabiddy is an affectionate term for a small child. I think this is the most likely origin of Frank’s nickname.

Strangely enough, Biddy came up again when I was looking up references to Frank’s mention of the word “lizzie”.

“No cold tea out here or little drops of lizzie (?), could do with a drop of cold tea now.”

I’ve previously opined that cold tea was beer. I’ve subsequently read that it referred to brandy. I must opine less. But I think it’s a pretty interchangeable phrase.  Here, Frank’s probably referring to the hard stuff. I initially thought that lizzie was some kind of Babycham. But I am pretty sure it’s a reference to Lisbon wine, which was some kind of very cheap fortified wine or at least a collective noun for any cheap wine. Empire Wine is often mentioned. Wine of such unconscionable filth that they could only sell it back in Britain. It’s fair to say that cheap wine was popular in Edwardian times. It was perfect for getting drunk really quickly, which tends to be a good property for booze. Britain in the early 1900s is no different from today when it comes to drunkenness.

The quality of Lisbon wine was debatable and its reputation for potency didn’t stop here. Not strong enough for the real diehards, it was often mixed with cheap alcohol like methylated spirits to produce a truly lethal drink called “Red Lizzie”. Yes, that’s the stuff you clean your brushes with. When produced from red wine it was know as, wait for it, “red biddy”. Was Biddy a massive booze hound and that’s how he got his nickname? Had he accidentally signed up after a weekend of  too many red biddies?

Red biddy was a drink of legend that by the Second World War had largely vanished from pubs and was made at home. It rendered the drinker blind drunk and often mad. It wasn’t surprisingly compared to absinthe that so afflicted Parisians in the 19th Century. Government laws like the 1937 Methylated Spirits Bill tried to control this dangerous substance, and this report by the Medical Officer of Health for Wandsworth in 1936 highlighted the concerns that many social organisations, such as the Salvation Army, lobbied the Government with.

The Government are still struggling today with adulterated alcohol. A 2008 Guardian article highlights the rise in theft of alcoholic sanitisers from some London hospitals. It is used as a base for “the street drinkers’ favourite ‘red biddy'”. Delicious and health conscious too!

The great Kingsley Amis recommends red biddy as part of a decent breakfast in his booze-befuddled novel Lucky Jim.

The three pints of bitter he’d drunk last night with Bill Atkinson and Beesley might, by means of some garbaged alley through the space-time continuum, have been preceded by a bottle of British sherry and followed by half a dozen breakfast-cups of red biddy.

I prefer Alpen.

Let’s leave this subject with this fine English gentleman describing the appeal of pure alcohol very eloquently.