Do the Heuvelland shuffle


24th December 1914

The Dorsets received another morning alarm call from British artillery when shells landed “dangerously near” their trenches at 8.40am.

The enemy kept up a steady stream of machine gun fire and sniping throughout the day. The Dorsets could hear German transport moving in the distance. Perhaps they were readjusting their troops, much like the British were. 3rd Division had shuffled along the Kruisstraat road and so 5th Division moved its troops to the east, which included Bedfords taking over Sector C and moving into half of Sector B’s trenches. I’ve indicated these areas on today’s map using a trench map found in the 5th Division’s war diary. An accompanying letter dates the map at 30th December 1914 but the reorganisation (dropping Sector E) happened today and things didn’t change for the rest of the year.

During the night some Germans opposite Sector D approached British working parties, presumably of the 2nd Bn West Riding Regiment, and spoke to them, halfway between the trenches. What they said is not discussed at this point in the 5th Division’s war diary. There’s been a lot of media interest in the so-called Christmas truce and much of what has been written is utter drivel. There are a number of factors why the truce happened and some of the stories are inflated truths, some are myths and others are down-right lies. But I think there’s another side to the story which isn’t really discussed and one we’ll explore with the Dorsets tomorrow.

Don’t forget to leave out a drop of Lizzie for Father Christmas and a heritage carrot for Rudolph.


Brew ha ha


14th December 1914

You may have noticed yesterday, but we finally have a name to put to one of the censors. E. Rogers is revealed to be Censor No. 1611. He’s the Second Lieutenant who drew the map of the trenches on the 2nd December. We are pretty sure he’s an officer in A Company and here he’s probably revealed as being Frank’s platoon officer. That’s an incredibly granular piece of information and if I can find some history about E.Rogers it will help fill out more of Frank’s journey. But I cannot find anything about him, other than a name on a medal roll.

How the censor numbers were organised, I can only guess at. The officers weren’t always reading the letters though. Sometimes the officer in charge of censoring letters would leave them unread. This is explored in this Spartacus Educational article. Other times the censor stamp was passed onto an NCO to take care of the duty. I don’t have the originals of Frank’s letters but I am sure Geoff would have written a note if any of them been edited by a censor.

The main thing Frank has to complain about, in his second letter from yesterday, is the price of beer. Beer had increased to 3d a pint in 1914, mainly due to the huge jump in duty imposed on a barrel of beer by the government in November of that year: up from 7s. 9d to 23s per barrel. All these facts are taken from the European Beer Guide website.

By 1920 beer was was 6d a pint. Interestingly, the average strength of beer reduced in that time by a quarter, from a strong 1051 OG in 1914 to 1038 OG in 1920 (about the average for today’s dreary lagers.)

All of this change conspired to reduce drunkenness. In fact convictions for drunkenness fell from 183,828 in 1914 to just 29,075 in 1918.

At 6am the Dorsets marched with the rest, or what the war diary rather tellingly describes as “the remainder”, of the 15th Brigade. Their destination was a field just to the west of Dranoutre.

Here they waited until it got dark before moving to Neuve Église. But they didn’t leave the field without some difficulty. Such was the state of the wet ground that over time they must have sunk into the Flanders mud and they struggled to get anywhere. It must have been a miserable day for Frank.

Why were they even moving? I think it had to do with II Corps launching an offensive alongside the French against Wytschaete, Messines and Petit Douve farm. It came to nothing but 264 deaths over the next couple of days, according to the CWGC.

Had Frank been in the trenches, the day would have been even more miserable.

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.