Stopping a Jack Johnson

5th December 1914

The Dorsets remained in billets at Dranoutre for the day.

Going back to Frank’s letter from the 3rd, the mysterious and continuously ill Jess continues to torment us.

Jess has been ill but is getting on alright now have you heard from her lately I had two letters. Tell Aunt Mrs Coats old man is still with us, yes I would sooner be filling her scuttle and out here only a dream.

Frank mentions another Brixton man: A Mr Coats by the sound of it. I’ll have a look through the records when I get a chance.

We are still on the go and doing our bit to polish the Germans off, what does Albert think of it.

Searching through the family tree I can only come up with one possible Albert. He’s Frank’s cousin by Herbert Webster and his wife Mary. Albert is only 11 so I imagine the war would seem very exciting to him – anyone like Frank in my family would have had immediate hero status in my eyes at that age (and this age of course).

Have not heard or seen them chocolates yet, had a letter from Bert and have answered it said that he stopped the blue bag. I told him that was only half his luck, better than stopping a Jack Johnson.

Here’s another mention of my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam. He’s currently back in England with the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was stationed at Fort Picklecombe in Cornwall in August 1914. I shall return to him later on. He still hasn’t sent Frank any chocolate.

His letter has a mysterious phrase in it: “stopped the blue bag”. The only explanation I can give to this (and I am probably missing some obvious military reference) is that Bert has mentioned that he got stung by a wasp or a bee. It fits Frank’s following reposte of “better than stopping a Jack Johnson”, which, as we all know now don’t we class, is a German high explosive shell. Why a wasp? Blue Bag was a make of laundry whitener which people used to treat bee and wasp stings. It’s an alkaline so would theoretically counter the acid in the sting. Bluing was a way of adding a blue tint to white laundry – a blue tint takes away any grey or yellow hue.  It was probably a throw away comment in Bert’s letter and Frank’s using it as a hook for his joke. Boom boom.

The more I read about Tom, the more I think he is connected to Aunt Carrie and Uncle Matt in some way. Whether he’s a relative or not remains to be seen. Tom has apparently been helping to make the Christmas Plum Duff “he said he was making some Duff am I right” so is he staying in the same house as Mabel? It would be easy to assume so. Tom is home on leave, so we can also assume that he’s in the Army or Navy already. We’ll come back to this at a later date.

The end of the letter mentions that the Dorsets have been spoken to by General Sir Smith-Dorrien. Is this a reference to his visit on the 22nd? Just what was said and why would it be in the newspapers?

The mysterious Brixton Bill

Envelope addressed to Miss Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road, date stamped APO 12 No 14 – letter inside dated 13.11.14

Dear Till

How pleased I was to receive you welcome and interesting letter which I received alright. Glad to know that you received my PC quite safe. 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. Her mother is knitting me a pair of socks, which she is going to send out.

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. How are you getting on still mucking in at Stewarts and still in the pink, you say Aunt is getting on alright and still sorting out her tarts (totts?). Pleased to hear Till that you are going to send me out another parcel, I shall be pleased with the Colegates and the other. What do you say that you are always wondering what I am doing, well it would be a job to tell you, but all I can say id that I am getting on alright and still in the pink, of course we have a few Jack Johnsons come over us at times and they make you get out and get under, the damage they do, is well, they make a hole in the road which you can get into easily they go in for most of their time in wrecking towns with their big shells and busting up churches and graveyards, they are a wicked lot, and we shall finish them up before we have finished, but it will take time and a long time yet, thats my opinion. Ask Uncle Matt if he ever knew the Snellings, only Bill Snelling is out here and he mentioned that he knew the Websters.

Well Till dear the weather out here is getting very cold and also we are getting some wet weather which makes things very uncomfortable, but still the Bhoys are sticking it well. So May got married at last well I didn’t expect she would have got married to him anyway they are a good pair. Remember me to Doris when you next write. Now Till I think this is all the news. Ho (No?) just a minute you ask what I would like for Xmas well Till I would like some underclothing and things like that only tell Aunt not to forget a bit of Xmas duff, only it won’t be any good posting it just before Xmas as I won’t get it so you will have to allow for that. We have seen a good deal of France and Belgium since we have been out here and there are some lovely towns out here. Now I think this is all the news this time trusting to hear from you all soon and remember me to Tango and old Uncle and all at home.

I remain

Your loving Brother

Frank xxx

12th November 1914

Todays’ letter is actually dated 13th November. I am publishing it today because I think that Frank has got the date wrong. He can’t write a letter before its posted: the envelope is stamped 12th November. We can’t blame him for a small mistake. He’s now been in the field for ten days without relief.

I will be returning to the letter over the next couple of days. I’ve done a bit of hunting this evening for Bill Snelling mentioned in the letter and it has started something of a mystery. I have found a William Joseph Snelling born in Lambeth in 1888. There’s also a William Joseph listed in the 1911 Census as living in barracks in Frimley with the Dorsetshire Regiments. Easy enough I thought. But there’s also another William Joseph Snelling, from Blandford, who signs up for the Dorsets at the outbreak of the war and I think their documents have become muddled. Brixton Bill disappears off the face of the earth. I need to untangle them a bit more before I can give anymore information about him.

In the war diary, the Dorsets were again troubled by the “light gun” which seems to have pinpointed the Battalion HQ on the lower edges of Hill 63. The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919 claims that it was 5.9 howitzers that was plaguing their trenches at this time. I wouldn’t call them exactly light. Funnily enough, Frank makes a comment in his letter about Jack Johnsons which is often used as reference to the black smoke given off by bursting high explosive shells fired by the 5.9 inch howitzers, so perhaps the “light gun” reference in the Dorsets’ war diary is a joke?