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.

Plugging the gap


2nd November 1914

Ploegsteert Wood. later anglicised to Plugstreet, is a large wood between Armentières in the south and Messines in the north. It held some strategic value in enclosing Hill 63, a rare high point which offered the British a toehold in targeting the Messines ridge to the north which had just fallen to the enemy.

On the morning of the 2nd November 1914, the British 4th Division held a thin twelve miles of front including a line of three villages along the eastern edge of the woods: La Gheer, Le Péverin and St Yves. The Germans were attacking all along the line from here to Ypres in the north. Their overwhelming superiority of both numbers and firepower was destroying the cream of the British Army. There were only so many last gasp charges the BEF could make.

At 2pm the Dorsets moved into position on a road junction along from the Petit Pont. They then withdrew westwards 2 hours later to cook a meal. At 6pm A Company moved into prepared trenches, further east into the wood. B and D Companies, meanwhile, began to dig trenches along the line of the Ploegsteert – Messines Road, south of a château, which I think was probably Chateau du Mont de la Hutte. It’s now ruins. Without the 1914 map referenced by the Dorsets’ war diary, it’s impossible to know exactly where they were but I’ve marked the rough locations for now.

There’s a 1915 sketch of the château available on the Imperial War Museum reproduced below.

Chateau de la Hutte between Messines and Ploegsteert; The Forward Estaminet, Messines Road
Chateau de la Hutte between Messines and Ploegsteert; The Forward Estaminet, Messines Road© IWM (Art.IWM ART 4802)

Busman’s holiday


1st November 1914

The Dorsets awoke on a fine Sunday morning, perhaps expecting a nice leisurely breakfast and a stroll around Strazeele. However, at 7.50am they were greeted by a II Corps Staff Officer, Colonel Shoubridge, who announced that they were to be taken away by buses to the front. How dismayed they must have been. Their promised seven days rest vanished in an instant.

I think that II Corps knew it would be a tough ask so they decided to apply a bit of motivational management. Colonel Shoubridge himself was an ex-1st Dorsets man. As the men climbed wearily into the buses Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, II Corps’ commander, arrived and spoke to them, praising their fine fighting at Pont Fixe. The phrase forms the title of a self-published book I’m still trying to track down by Captain A.L. Ransome, “The fine fighting of the Dorsets”, portions of which embellish the official History of The Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919.

I have reasons to doubt his sincerity. Smith-Dorrien had actually been very critical of the 15th and 13th Brigades’ performance at Pont Fixe as I’ve explored in a previous post. He also claimed that the Dorsets and Cheshires “did not put up a resolute resistance” on the 22nd October at Violaines.

But these were desperate times and every spare unit was needed. The rumble of guns heard by the Dorsets the previous evening had been the sound of the Germans breaking the British line at Gheluvelt, east of Ypres in Belgium. Only a desperate charge by the 2nd Bn Worcestershire regiment on the 31st October had saved the situation. It remained critical time for the Allies and the British and French poured their tattered troops in to plug the gaps. The Dorsets were bound for Ploegsteert, where they were being attached to the 4th Division, who were having a very hard time of it.

And so the Dorsets grudgingly clambered aboard buses. Buses straight from the streets of London., manned by volunteers, painted red and white and still plastered with adverts for Evening News and Wright’s Soap.

London Buses in World War One
London B-Type Buses

The London B-Type Motor Omnibus could hold 24 men, so between 30 and 40 buses would have trundled over the border into Belgium. It must have been a bizarre couple of hours for Frank, as if his old London life had suddenly emerged out of the past.

The journey would have been pleasant enough for the Dorsets as they enjoyed clear blue skies, very similar to today’s weather 100 years later. This wasn’t to last. As they approached Lindenhoek they could actually see heavy shelling to the north east at Wytschaete. Messines to the east had fallen and the Germans were pushing forward into Ploegsteert wood three miles east of Neuve Eglise.

At 3pm the Dorsets went into billets at Neuve Eglise. At 5pm B Company was sent out as an outpost on the Wulverghem-Neuve Eglise Road. C and D Companies entrenched nearby. Frank and the rest of A Company remained in billets in Neuve Eglise. An hour later they were joined by the rest of the Battalion, leaving just one platoon of B Company covering the road.