Knock off wood

18th November 1914

A very short diary entry in the Dorsets’ war diary today finds A and B Companies digging trenches all day. Orders were received later in the day that the Battalion was going to be relieved by the Royal Irish Fusiliers. The 11th Brigade diary records that at 10.58pm the movement of the Royal Irish Fusiliers into the woods was underway.

The Dorsets were leaving Ploegsteert wood.

They have no fear in them

### 16th November 1914

In the yesterday’s letter, Frank reports that the first snow has fallen. The weather was definitely turning. Gleichen reports that at the time “the weather had turned beastly cold—snowstorms and sleet during the day and a hard frost at night”.

Frank gives Mabel his location by referencing the London Scottish. They had achieved the dubious honour of being the first Territorial battalion to see action. They lost nearly half their strength preventing the Germans breaking through the allies’ lines on the 31st October at Messines. He also mentions the Indian Corps which would have been from his time at La Bassée and seems especially impressed by the Gurkhas, who allegedly terrified the Germans “with their knives in their hands coming after them they have no fear in them when they start”. The letter is the most expressive of all the letters so far. His description of the hopelessness of men trapped out in the open is very moving.

Frank mentions a winner of the “French Legion of Honour who was killed.” The truth of this story is quite tragic. The battalion was awarded a Médaille Militaire, a French award that could also be given to foreign nationals. Lieutenant-Colonel Bols had decided it should be awarded to the machine gun section for its work on the 26th August at Mons. It’s not clear what date this happened or why the battalion won the award. It’s a story I will return to. Private Thomas Anthony Skipsey was selected as its recipient by the rest of the machine gun section. He remarked that he “would be the first to meet trouble”. He wasn’t wrong. On the 13th October Skipsey was shot and killed. The medal isn’t listed on his Medal Card, nor in the Medal Rolls, but it is noted on his CWGC casualty details page.

The Dorsets began to withdraw from their positions, getting ready for welcome relief. D Company went first, assembling at Battalion HQ with C Company at 6am. The machine gun was withdrawn from A Company’s trench.

At 2pm tragedy struck B Company. Some high explosive shells burst in one of their their trenches and buried part of a platoon. Men from C Company were sent to support them. At 6pm A and B Companies were ordered to withdraw from their positions but that was cancelled just half and hour later.

11th Brigade had already been informed that the Dorsets were to remain in their command for another day so all this movement seems to have been rather a waste of time. The 11th Brigade’s diary also rather testily notes that snipers had infiltrated the lines behind Hill 63 and the Dorsets are ordered to catch them. Lieutenant-Colonel Butler “suggests” the Dorsets assign observation posts on the top of the hill. The lack of any mention of this in the Dorsets’ war diary suggest to me that this “suggestion” carried a bit more weight than that.

I get the impression from the 11th Brigade’s diary that they had a less than favourable impression of the Dorsets. Whether this was due to inter-divisional rivalry or that the Dorsets’ reputation was tarnished from their disastrous time at La Bassée it’s impossible to say. I might be totally imagining this but the Dorsets’ star has definitely waned since the broiling heat of September.

The Dorsets’ diary reports 5 killed with 2 wounded. CWCG lists 5 men killed too. One of these men, James Henry Budden aged 34, came from a Peabody Estate in Vauxhall. I’ve just come home from one on the Old Kent Road. That is all.

Letters Like Buses

Envelope date stamped 18 No 14 addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road, in pencil as usual – letter inside dated 15.11.14

Dear Till

Many thanks for you welcome and interesting [and interesting repeated and crossed out] (excuse the double tap, for the Bhoys and having a joke and of course I am listening to them at the same time as writing to you) letter. I was pleased to hear from you, for I look forward to your letters every day. Well I was beginning to wonder when you was going to send the parcel, for you had mentioned it so often in your letters, although I knew you would send it sooner or later.

I have wrote to Tom sent him a PC yesterday. So Wallie as got a uniform and he is alright, I bet he fancies his luck. Have heard from Jess she is getting on alright, no the suit wasen’t for that but if this hadn’t have turned out, I expect it would have been the case sooner or later. Yes I expect the Lord Mayor’s Show was different to other years it was I believe a military affair so you couldn’t black your nose and see it, hard lines on (a?) Wartie (?), never mind better luck next year.

Yes I could just go some fried spuds nearly forgot what they are like roll on a long time. No I haven’t received those Cigarettes yet from him, what’s happened to him. Glad to hear that you are all in the pink at home and that Aunt is still patching up her Tatts (Totts?), remember me to Tango, give her my best regards and also to old Uncle. Tell her to look sharp and write for tell Aunt I have been expecting to hear from her and Uncle Matt.

Well Till we are having it perishing cold out here especially at night in the trenches it snowed for a while yesterday, so you can guess what it’s like out here. We are still making good progress although they are putting over shells as fast as they can and the villages and towns are on fire so you can guess what it is like, we have been mixed up with the London Scottish so you can guess where we are, that’s if you read the paper and see where they have been. There is a lot of Indian Troops out here and the Gurkhas are the Bhoys for they get mad at them and the Germans shake when they see the darkies with their knives in their hands coming after them they have no fear in them when they start.

You know I mentioned to you that I went to a wedding in Belfast, well I have had a letter from her to say that he is missing and that she has not heard from him she asked me if I could tell her anythink, I have wrote and told her all I know. You see Till it is like this when a big battle starts and our fellows get wounded by bullets or a bit of shell they are sometimes unable to move unless helped, and it is impossible to get to them and so there they have to stop until it gets dark or else you would very likely get hit yourself and when they are got some are in a terrible state and others are missing very likely captured by the enemy so you see how it is. The place is full of spies and one has to be very careful what you do and say, for they even get women to go round to find out things and your positions, so you can guess what it is like. One of our fellows has been awarded the French Legion of Honour and the day it got read out he got killed worse luck.

I am getting on alright up to yet but have got a nasty cold in the kidneys but thats only half ones (mes?) luck. I have not heard from Tom yet but hope to before long, Don’t forget to tell Muff to drop a few lines and ask her about the cake what she is going to send. Now I think this is all the news  this time, for I am just going to have a bit of Tommie, trusting this letter finds you merry and bright and hope to hear from you soon

I remain

Your loving Brother



You wait all month for a letter and three turn up at once.

This is one of Frank’s chattiest letters yet. There’s a lovely burst of life in the opening paragraph where Frank is distracted by some nearby banter and writes interesting twice. The phrase “double tap”, used to denote a crossing out, is a strange one. Could it mean firing a gun twice? I can’t find out any other uses of the phrase, other than drumming and shooting.

Wallie, whom I am assuming is Frank’s cousin Walter Matthew Coulson Webster, was only 14 at this time so I am assuming he signed up for the reserves. He didn’t enter active service until his 18th birthday in 1918 when the war was nearly over. If Wallie isn’t Walter then is he connected to Tom somehow?

Mabel has asked about whether Frank’s suit is for a wedding. He responds quite philosophically about his situation and reveals that he was serious about this relationship and that marriage was the next step. I am more keen than ever to find out what happened to Jessica.

The Lord Mayor’s Show was, indeed, a military affair in 1914. You can watch the show on YouTube and I’ve embedded the first part below. I am not sure what Frank means by “couldn’t black your nose and see it”. Perhaps he thought that women weren’t allowed? Does “black your nose” mean camouflage yourself? You can clearly see men, women and children in the footage. The cryptic “Wartie” could possible be “wartime”. Again, I don’t have the original letters so it’s impossible to see if this is  a transcription error.


Those fried spuds sounded so lovely that I had some for my tea. I imagine poor old Frank’s diet has been pretty poor – he must be desperate for a decent meal. I think we can finally agree that Caroline Webster is indeed Tango. The whole paragraph is about her and Uncle Matt. Quite what she’s doing with potatoes in November is beyond me. Perhaps she’s preparing the patch for next year?

More about the letter tomorrow.

The Dorsets enjoyed a fairly quiet day engaged various activities around Hill 63. Major Fraser, the man next in line to command the Dorsets was away acting as the Brigade Transport Officer; although which brigade exactly isn’t immediately clear. I’m assuming the 11th Brigade. So Captain Harold Sutton Williams, a native New Zealander and hero of the Dorsets’ rearguard at Mons, stepped into the breach as CO for the time being. At 9.32pm 11th Brigade was informed by 4th Division HQ that the Dorsets were to be held in readiness to return to 5th Division at Bailleul.

Four Marks war memorial

9th November 1914

It was yet another day in the line, similar to the previous day, except that the intermittent shelling took the first Dorset life since the 22nd October*; Henry Lovatt from Barnes in London. He was 19. Two other Dorset men were wounded.

The 11th Brigade counterattacked late in the evening along the eastern edge of the woods with disastrous results. The Germans had deployed barbed wire in front of their trenches, a new arrival on the scene. The newly arrived 2nd Battalion Argylle and Sutherland Highlanders lost 7 officers and 123 men in the ensuing mayhem.

The Dorsets might have been having the quietest time of all the units in Ploegsteert Wood but their fluid left flank continued to cause them problems. The French were in perpetual motion and it was hard for the Dorsets to predict their whereabouts on a daily basis.

I wandered down to a Remembrance Day event in our village today. I stood in the rain, rather appropriately, while a brand new war memorial was unveiled in a ceremony ably hosted by the Assistant Bishop of Winchester, John Dennis. As far as I can tell, being a newcomer, Four Marks was never really an established community beyond a cluster of colonial small holdings in between older villages like Medstead and Ropley. As a result many of the 29 men listed on its coal black sides were included on other, more distant, memorials.

Today we remembered them.

* See comments below. This is not accurate. Firstly apologies, I missed a death from the 6th November: Frederick James Allen – and, secondly, please note that I am filtering out men who died of wounds or away from the scene we’re describing. I will return to casualties in more detail, once this part of the project ends. I’ll leave this errata in as they are more interesting rather than simply editing out my original inaccuracies. Thanks to Stephen Potter for his comments.

Mysterious mishaps in the mist

6th November 1914

Teething baby alert! Although I might have promised more letter stuff tonight I fear the alarm may go off at any minute so it will have to wait until tomorrow.

The Dorsets enjoyed, if that’s the word, a quiet morning. Fog seems to have been the main cause of the calmer day – the 11th Brigade’s diary reports that it was so thick that they couldn’t see further than 100 yards.

Later in the evening the Dorsets reported a certain amount of fire and at 9pm a machine gun was placed in Frank’s Company (A) trenches. The strange mishap with C Company yesterday is recorded as miscommunication in the 11th Brigade’s diary. It appears that they didn’t retreat but no explanation other than confusion is forthcoming. It’s not the first time that we’ve seen the Dorsets get muddled in foggy conditions.