Cat amongst the turkeys

27th December 1914

The Dorset patrols came back from their night time assignations and reported that everything was very quiet.

Later on that day, at 5.25pm the Dorsets submitted their daily report to the 15th Brigade HQ, saying that the situation as unchanged but they had experienced fairly heavy shellfire during the day. There were no casualties.

The 5th Division diary confirms enemy shellfire landing in Sector B and also in Neuve Église.

At home the nation’s ability to be distracted from the war was epitomised by the lead story in page 3 of the Telegraph where the photo is that of a woman dressed as a cat who is collecting money for the Belgian refugee fund. Pauline Prim is “the first lady who has ever impersonated a cat or any other animal upon the stage”. The Telegraph attributes her feline performance to her husband’s acting abilities and explains that “it was probably though watching her husband’s rehearsals that she was, in a very short time, able to represent a cat in the most lifelike manner.” Thank goodness for men says the Telegraph. Roll on votes for women I say. We also learn that posting amusing cat pictures is not just an internet phenomena.

Another phenomena we think is just a modern one, is that of shopping madness at Christmas, especially when it came to buying turkeys. Here women did rule the (poultry) roost. If they weren’t driving hard bargains in London’s street market (“where the poor buy”), they were accompanying their loved ones on leave to Smithfield, Billingsgate and Leadenhall markets, to choose a bird for the Christmas table. Turkeys were very expensive when compared to beef and pork at this time; over double the price per pound, especially French ones  – Italian ones being in “far inferior condition”. Turkeys, then as now, were being gobbled up.

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.

Snow rest for the wicked


19th November 1914

At 5am the Dorsets formed up to the west of Ploegsteert wood at Petit Pont, exactly where they had stood sixteen days ago. Although their experience in the woods had been fraught and miserable with danger, cold and damp, it must have felt like a holiday compared to La Bassée.

Now the Dorsets were on the move again and into the care of 14th Brigade. They marched at 7am, this time four miles to the northwest, via Neuve Église to Dranoutre (now Dranouter*), into billets and rest. Major Fraser resumed command of the Battalion. Heavy snow fell that day, which settled and froze solid by 4pm, according to the 14th Brigade’s diary.

* I’m using the old French terms for these towns. From 1921 onwards, Belgian place names changed into Dutch. For instance Neuve Église is now Nieuwkirke and Ypres is Ieper.