Sandbags and wet rags

5th January 1915

German light guns shelled the Dorsets’ left hand trenches and claimed the life of one man: 18 year old William Richard Satchell, another territorial reinforcement from 3rd Battalion. Snipers also plagued the left hand side of Sector D throughout the day.

The 1/6 Cheshires brought up huge amounts of fascines (bundles of sticks), hurdles and sandbags and laid them into the sodden trenches in an attempt to try to keep the men dry. An incredible 4000 sandbags were placed on the 15th Brigade’s fire steps today.

William Satchell was born in 1897 in Portsmouth in Hampshire. His mother, Ada, had died of heart disease, aged just 36, in 1904 leaving the father, another William Richard, to fend for his five children. It looks like the children had been sent away by the time the 1911 census came around and I can’t find a definite lead to William Junior in the 1911 census reports.

There is a William Richard Satchell listed as an inmate of Portsmouth Infirmary, but his birth date is out by a couple of years and he’s also listed, rather cruelly, as an “imbecile by birth”. I’m not sure he would have been fit for military service in the Territorials but the term must have covered a wide range of ailments and disabilities. The infirmary seems to have have been part of the adjoining workhouse (now St Mary’s Hospital in Portsmouth). Had poverty, and therefore the workhouse, consumed the entire Satchell family? Perhaps his only escape was the army?

Time has dimmed our connection to the lives of many of these working class men who fought in the ranks of the Dorsets. It’s easy to pick out the lives of officers who are often mentioned by name and are easier to trace. But I think it’s important to remember the vast majority of the Dorsets were working class men, like Frank, who joined the army less for heroic derring-do and more likely because of economic necessity or social desperation.

Have yourself a Verey merry Christmas

22nd December 1914

Cold rain and some snow fell throughout the day, rendering the ground even more sodden than it was already. One man died today in what is described as light shelling in the Dorsets’ war diary. Alexander Sellers, aged 34, was the last Dorset man to die in Flanders before Christmas day in 1914. What a miserable Christmas for his wife, Ellen, back in Weymouth. What a miserable Christmas for countless families around the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

And what a miserable Christmas for the Dorsets; stuck in freezing, wet, filthy trenches with Verey lights instead of fairy lights, jam tin grenades (last minute Christmas present anyone?) instead of crackers and the ubiquitous bully beef instead of goose and all the trimmings.

But here’s a really long letter from Frank to warm your cockles (I’ve always liked them cold myself, with plenty of white pepper and malt vinegar), filled with positive sentiments as always. Frank and his Bhoys are determined to have as good a time as they can, despite everything.

Envelope – Miss Crawshaw, 29 etc – franked 22 Dec 14
dated 21.12.14*

My Dearest Till

At last I am able to answer your welcome and interesting letters and also parcels which I received on Sunday, and Till which I think was very good of you to send out to me, and also Aunt and Uncle, yes I was ever surprised at the parcels which you sent I never expected all that, it was a proper Xmas gift. Well Till I expect we will be in the trenches on Xmas day, but the Bhoys have made up their minds to make the best of it providing nothing happens although the Bhoys remark it will be a dry one.

So old E Jim as got the bird tell him that is only half his luck, yes he is right there are plenty more gals going. Yes Till I still hear from Jess and she sent me a parcel the other day, which was very good of her.  I have just heard from Bert he said he has a good time at Brixton, he asked if I would like some Cig and I said I would sooner have Choc, No I never had the choc from him, so you can tell him.  It’s about time Bert was out here and some more of Kitchener’s Army. I reckon they are doing a proper laugh, I don’t know what you think. I bet Tom didn’t like going back, but I expect he’s settled by now.

Well Till that was exactly what happened in that letter I wrote to Uncle, only it was very hard and we had to rough it, but we are still alive and kicking, so we can’t grumble. I am surprised at Dolly, for it shows she thinks a lot of you and worries about my safety, I should certainly find the time to go and see her, Till I would like to have her address and hope you will send it in your next letter.

Yes I was reading in the trenches about the Trams, and I wondered how you got on, I said to myself I bet old Till was late that morning, but I see you went by train and got there alright. So the Germans have been giving England a few shells, that’s just what they send over to us and the Bhoys shout out when we hear them whizzing in the air, look out Bhoys. J Johnson and we all duck and chance what happens. I hope they won’t get coming any more of their games, for I expect they will stop it next time I believe there was a very thick fog on at the time.

Well Till I hope you will receive this letter before Xmas, and I hope you will have a good time of it at home, only I know things would be brighter if Tom and I was home but still let’s hope we shall be together again soon.

I am going to change and put on the vest and pants directly I have finished your letter. I am pleased to hear that all at home are well, remember me to Tango and Uncle and I hope you have a drop of lizzie with them soon. Till I am just seeing about my pay and am making arrangements so that you can receive 6d a day out of my pay, but will let you know more about it later on, for you can do with it.

Well I am getting on alright and still in the pink, things are just about the same out here. Now I think this is all the news this time, again thanking you and Aunt for the parcel and also wishing you at home a Merry Xmas, and I hope to hear from you soon.

I remain
Your loving Brother
Frank xxx

We are each getting a Xmas present from Queen Mary. Tell Mattie not forget his sporting letter.

* Eek! I got the date wrong on this letter in my schedule so it should have been posted yesterday. Apologies for that. I am leaving it here as yesterdays’ post is a longish one already. I don’t have time to write about any of its contents today. I shall return to it tomorrow and beyond as there plenty to write about.

Trenchant views

25th October 1914

The Dorsets spent another day in billets. The weather was warm for October as they continued to help the Royal Engineers dig trenches and repair roads. At 4pm they were stood to arms along the Rue de Béthune, but by 6pm the supposed danger had passed and they returned to billets.

The British and Germans now faced each other from hazily dug trenches, separated by a handful of yards. The Germans were trying to advance by digging saps, essentially long passageways towards the enemy, and then digging forward trenches off of those saps. Snipers and artillery kept the men’s head down in their trenches. Sound familiar? The war was entering a new phase of warfare all along the front to the south. To the north, the situation was still very mobile.

Finally, an apology for not including Frank’s postcard in yesterday’s post. I saved an older version over the final draft by mistake. So please go back and re-read that one if you haven’t done already.



Men at work

24th October 1914

Postcard to Miss M Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road – dated 26-10-14 but stamped 24 Oc 14

Dear Till

Just a PC to thank you for handkerchiefs which I was glad to get. We are still having a busy time of it and also plenty of work. As Aunt got my letter which I wrote her. Glad to hear that you are getting on alright and still doing the stammering Sam. I have answered Muff’s letter , which she wrote me. Now I think this is all this time trusting this finds you all in the best of health and hope to hear from you soon.

I remain

Your loving Brother

BID xx

This is one of those postcards you might give a cursory glance at and move on from. It doesn’t contain any news, nor does Frank try to converse with Mabel. However, I think this postcard carries much more weight, once you know what Frank has just experienced over the last ten days, and the two months before that.

I think that it is the postcard equivalent of a big hug. He doesn’t describe anything about what’s been happening. I think he just wants to connect with someone he loves deeply – and writing is the only way he can do this at this time. He tries a little repeated joke at the expense of his father, “stammering Sam”, but other than that, the tone is loving and the sign off is very formal which just adds to the postcard’s poignancy.

The Dorsets spent another day in billets with the Cheshires. The Germans sent over a lot of high explosive shells that afternoon directed at Festubert. At 6:30pm they were sent into Festubert to repair the damaged roads. An hour later they were sent back to their billets and told to remain on high alert.