A bad moon rising

29th January 1915

The Dorsets remained in billets. A and D Company remained in the trenches. The 15th Brigade’s diary notes that they  made good progress today working on the trenches and that more wire was laid in front of them. A bright night, lit by a gibbous moon, led to “considerable sniping”.

I’ve missed a couple of things lately and so I apologise. Time is very, very limited at the moment. Firstly I missed a footnote which give us a bit more information about the fascinating Frederick Morley. I’ve added this detail as a comment to the 26th January post. Find out about his nickname and capacity for Anglo Saxon profantities.

I also missed a death yesterday and I’ll list it here to flesh out this post. Welshman Rees Harris, a former collier from Aberdare, was killed in action. There’s no record of how he met his death in the Dorsets’ diary; not even a mention, but the Norfolk’s diary entry records one death from sniping which could have been him. The only death from the Norfolks listed by CWGC for the 28th January was interred in Thame, Oxfordshire, so he presumably died of wounds at home.

Harris was attested into the 3rd Battalion Dorsets having served for 10 years in the Cardigan Royal Garrison Artillery Militia. He’d only arrived in France on the 4th December. Intriguingly he signed up with his age as 37 years and six months. The cut off for regular army was 38 and the Special Reserve was 40. He was 36 in 1911, according to the census, which made him 40 in 1915. It appears that Harris had told a little white lie to go to war. It wasn’t uncommon, but it was uncommonly brave. His mother, Martha, signed for his effects with the mark of a cross.

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?

Mabel and her John Willie

5th November 1914

Letter to Miss M Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven – date 11 – 14 envelope franked 5 No 14 (censor no 137 still at it)

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome and interesting letter which I received on the 31st. I am pleased to hear that you are getting on alright and still mucking in. What’s the idea of asking me to write to your John Willie, for I don’t know him, you get him to send me out some chocolates, do you know Till that chocolate is as good as anything out here, and every one is after it.

You say what do I want for Xmas wait and see how things go for its a long way off yet, and goodness knows what will happen. Yes mate I could do with some Tooth Powder, for you should see them now they are proper gone, no I never got the toothbrush thats the only thing I never received, and I can account for that, one of our fellows took the Companies mail in the firing line and he got killed, and of course they got lost.

It is Sunday and its a fine day too and no cold tea roll on a long time. Glad to hear Tom is safe remember me to him, lets have his address and I will drop him a few lines, for thats what you look forward to more than anything else, is a letter.

Till I have forgot to tell you before, and that is that all my clothes are at Jessies home, two lots that basket and a box, I was going to send them home but we never had time wasn’t allowed out and we had to get rid of them at once. I had just bought another suit a navy blue a lovely one it cost 55/- and I only put it on twice, bowler shirts ties, socks collars watch Bank Book with 5/- in it, your hair brushes, overcoat, in fact every think. Yes I hear from Jess she sent me out a parcel not long ago, and her brother dropped me a few lines, as well, yes poor Jessies getting on alright, just as the War started I was getting on alright, at her home for I used to go round for dinner and Tea on Sundays, and supper in the week, only the old lady didn’t drink she hates the sight of it.

Well Till I am getting on alright and still in the pink, you say the war can’t last much longer don’t you believe it, for it will last longer than people think worse luck. I am still waiting to hear from your (Friend) and I have wrote to your impersonator, I mean your Johnnie. Glad to hear that Matties leg is better and that he is working, you still mucking in at Stewarts glad to hear that Ciss got my letter, I have dropped her a card since.

Remember me to all at home and I hope you are still mucking in, what time are you getting to bed,  now that the pubs close at 10 o’clock. Now I think this is all the news at present trusting this finds you all in the best of health and hope to hear from you soon.

P.S. Don’t forget the tooth powder Glad Eye

I remain

your loving Brother


Frank wrote this letter on the 1st November, the previous Sunday, but it didn’t get posted until the 5th November. I am not sure he is in the position to be writing letters at the moment. He most probably wrote it in the morning as I would have thought he would have mentioned the bus journey if he had written it in the evening.

Mabel has presumably asked Frank to write to her boyfriend. Frank taunts her and indignantly asks for payment in chocolate. Later on in the letter he reveals that he has already written to her “John Willie”. Frank might pull a leg or two but he’s very kind at heart.

John Willie is a phrase that later became associated with John Thomas. I don’t need to explain the meaning of that, but I don’t think he’s being that crude here. In fact, there were a few songs from the time with the name John Willie in. I stumbled upon this thread of enquiry looking through the Routledge Dictionary of Slang. There was “Fetch John Willie” from 1910 and “Have you seen my John Willie” from 1914. I cannot find the lyrics to these songs but what I did find was this song by George Formby Senior. Yes, that one’s dad. He was a popular Music Hall entertainer and he played a character called “John Willie” who was “the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad … hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through” (according to historian Jeffrey Richards).

Here is the 1908 song in sterophonic technicolor:

This “John Willie” is most probably the first mention of my Great Grandfather, Carl Robert Debnam. He was also in the army, a Gunner in the 41st Company, Royal Garrison Artillery. He had returned to the UK in July, after a tour of duty in Sierra Leone. He was yet to be posted to war. In fact he didn’t make it to France until late the following year. And, yes, he didn’t use his first name; everyone called him Robert (or Bob).

I’ll return to the letter tomorrow.

Meanwhile the Dorsets were still nervous about being next to the French, who were regularly announcing their intention to attack Messines. Further up the line they had regained a toehold in Wytschaete. In fact the 11th Brigade War Diary records that Colonel Butler reported the French were in front of the Dorsets’ trenches during the early morning of the 5th. Throughout the day different reports come in about the French preparing to attack.

Most worrying was the 8:15pm report that the Dorsets’ line had been broken, prompting Butler to send reinforcements. The Germans had attacked the Dorsets very suddenly at 7pm. The Dorsets diary reports that C Company was ordered to counter attack. After this point no indication is given of whether they regained the trench at all. It just reports that rifle fire slackened and they settled down to an eerie but quiet Guy Fawkes night shrouded in thick fog.

Elsewhere all the signs of impending trench warfare continued. The Germans were reported throwing up barricades in front of their positions opposite the Rifle Brigade who were also stationed in Ploegsteert Wood.