This week we have another post by my colleague Lucy Yates who has again drawn from the scrapbooks of Sir William Davison (Baron Broughshane) and other sources to find the story of a family at war through the letters of a soldier at the front.
‘When I left I could not quite establish whether both your boys had been killed or I should have written to you before. After an action of that sort, when Regiments or even Divisions get intermingled, it takes several days to ascertain whether men are killed, wounded or missing. In this case, however, I’m afraid there is no doubt. Both your boys were buried on the battlefield with many of their comrades’.
This is the letter Colonel Barnet-Barker wrote to Ernest Destrube on 16th March 1917 after the Battle of Miraumont. Ernest Destrube worked for a French Bank, the Comptoir National d’Escompte de Paris, on Threadneedle street and had four sons, three of whom were in the 22nd ‘Kensington’ Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers. They are pictured below: Georges, Paul and Guy (right to left):
Paul is in his early twenties in this photo and, despite the old-fashioned moustache, which plants him firmly in another era, it’s possible to see in his mischievous smile a little of the humour which spices the letters from him, which we have in our archive. On 22nd December 1916, Paul writes, ‘Your letter reached me when I was in the middle of a repast – or, well, would you call a dog biscuit and a piece of cheese a repast? Prior to the arrival of your epistle misfortune had been fast overtaking me. Three times the piece of cheese had been brushed from my hand and had fallen, half burying it in mud at the bottom of the trench, and three times it was subjected to a cleansing process on the seat of my trousers. I was able to enjoy in part the humour of the situation, but I am sure that had the catastrophe occurred once more I would have burst into tears.’
He struggles to maintain a humorous tone, which is honest but not self-pitying, amidst circumstances often far from amusing and it is this candour that makes his letters engaging. Those we have are written by him to a woman called Marian. Of Marian, nothing more is known that the brief note appended to the typed copies of the letters by his father, Ernest – ‘Marian is a young girl Paul made the acquaintance of, when he was near Burton-on-Trent. I believe she is a teacher, pretty girl, well educated. I don’t think they were yet engaged but he was courting her’.
We know a little more of Paul. He grew up in Hampstead and lived at 141 Adelaide Road for a time but he arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 12th March 1913 on the Prince Edward, having sailed from Bristol. He sailed back just over a year later arriving in London on 27th August 1914.
The ship which brought him back, the S.S Ionian, did not survive the war and would be sunk by German U-boats off Milford Haven in October 1917.
Paul Destrube enlisted at Shepherd’s Bush and after training at Tidworth Barracks was sent to the Western Front. He writes to Marian from there soon after he had arrived. ‘This trip in the trenches I have been fortunate in securing a dug-out with 6 others. Of course it is exceedingly small, measuring no more than 5ft by 4ft., but then I must bear in mind that beggars are not choosers.
… I have not been long up from my post, and I am writing this in the aforesaid dug-out, huddled up in a corner. This sand-bag abode is feebly illuminated by a candle dimly burning. My neighbour, who is yet more uncomfortably cramped up, is falling off to sleep, and his muddy, unshaven and jam smeared face is resting on my shoulder. Occasionally he grunts vigorously, making the paper I am writing upon flutter. I’ve just removed an open tin of jam from under the mud-clotted boot of the fellow opposite me. A fair sized piece of cheese in pinned to the sand bagged wall by means of a cartridge. The bread has all been devoured, but a few broken pieces of hard tack biscuits lie scattered somewhere on the ground beneath this living, semi-sleeping entanglement of men. A bayonet thrust in the wall serves as a candlestick, and the candlegrease is slowly but persistently dripping on the fellow’s forehead who is sleeping directly beneath. With one finger I could swing the bayonet slightly to one side – but I am not going to do so, because it would be a pity to destroy such a charming situation. I’m almost hypnotised as I watch the grease slowly dripping – drip, drip, drip – and still he sleeps …But my reflections have been disturbed; my neighbour is responsible for more grunts and furthermore he’s tried to stretch himself. There – I thought so – he’s kicked the fellow opposite in the stomach, and now they are both grunting. All is quiet again, the dirty, unkissable face is in its old position again – on my shoulder.’ This vivid portrait of life in the trenches is lightly handled but the claustrophic nature of the situation is still born strongly in on the reader.
Other letters document times when there was some relief from life in the trenches. It’s a common perception that WW1 soldiers spent nearly all their time in the trenches when in fact 45% of their time was spent out of the trenches, however this is not to suggest this was by any means an easy alternative. In his letter of 5th December 1915, Paul writes, ‘When out of the trenches we are billeted in various houses and farm barns, which have suffered badly from the bombardment of an earlier date. The roof of the one in which I have the pleasure of staying just at present only partially exists, besides which the doors and windows are non-existent. There are 16 who sleep in one room, about as large as your dining room, which has a stone floor. We naturally sleep in our clothes (I have not taken then off since I left England, and see no prospects of doing so in the future), having but one blanket. The mice run all over the place, and at night one can feel them dash over one’s face and head’.
This photograph, as marked in the 22nd Regimental Scrapbook, was taken after the war, however it does show relatively intact buildings so we can only hope this billet in Yvrench, near Amiens, where Paul spent his last Christmas, might have made a pleasant change for him for once.
Regimental histories and accounts of survivors also help to preserve some sense of Paul’s vivid personality. A story recounted in Mufti, the 22nd Regimental Magazine, goes as follows.
‘The Colonel one day on his rounds in the line noticed the L/Cpl and said, ‘Hello, Destrube. Splendid! I see you have a stripe,’ and knowing what one did the other did too, added, ‘Has your brother also a stripe?’
‘No, Sir,’ replied Destrube.
‘How is that?’ asked ‘BB’
Destrube said: ‘Well Sir, it was like this, a circumstance arose whereby it was essential that either my brother or I took the stripe so we tossed for it.’
‘Ah!’, exclaimed ‘BB’, ‘and you won?’
Destrube answered in a very mournful tone: ‘No sir. I lost!’
This story is also reproduced in Geoff Inglis’s brilliantly comprehensive book, The Kensington Battalion (Pen & Sword, 2010) for those who might want to know more about the Destrubes and the fate of their regiment.
The three brothers had survived unscathed since their arrival in France in November 1915 but the family’s luck took a turn for the worst in April 1916 when Georges Destrube was shot by a sniper in the right side of his chest. Paul and Guy had to go over the top to rescue him and then drag him back. Once behind the lines they carried their brother for four hours before they were able to find a safe place to hand him over the Royal Army Medical Corps. They then had to walk four hours back to the front line without knowing if Georges would survive or not.
After Georges was shipped back to Britain to convalesce, only Paul and Guy remained in France. In the weeks before the Battle of Miraumont, Paul was increasingly depressed about his fading prospects of getting leave. He wrote to Marion on 30th January 1917, ‘Sadly I see the chances of four whole months in England slipping through my fingers’.
The Battle of Miraumont was conceived as an operation to capture Hill 130 and put pressure on the German salient at Serre. The furthest advance during the action was 1000 yards and the hill was not taken, however this does seem to have been followed by a German retreat. This was the most costly action the 22nd had yet been involved in and Geoff Inglis calculates that 276 men were killed.
Lance-Sergeant F.W. Palmer [above] won the VC at Miraumont for his bravery in dislodging an enemy machine gun and holding out against determined counter-attacks but amongst the dead were Paul and Guy Destrube. Mufti, the Regimental Magazine, records that ‘At Miraumont ‘Plum’s [Vincent Plummer, a Lewis Gun team leader] team were posted in a shell hole under Capt. Pimm and Sergeant Brierly. They saw dear old Axtens wounded by a sniper and then killed by a second shot, while trying to crawl towards them, Brierly got out of the shell hole and fell back dead into Plummer’s arms, shot through the head by the same sniper. Guy Destrube was the next victim and when his brother Paul rushed to his aid he was also killed. The brothers were found clasped in death.’
I’ll leave you with Paul’s own description of the night before he was killed. Here he is, still surviving during one of the coldest winters of the last century, alive a little while longer yet with his brother, Guy, by his side.
There is a real resonance in hearing someone describe things in their own words. It’s harder for them to be a statistic, to be lost among the seventeen million killed in World War One and this surely is why we pick out personal stories It reminds us that every one of those casualties was a unique person who didn’t like potted beef or had red hair or who was a good father, who had things they still wanted to achieve and who hoped to survive the war and return to their lives and the people who loved them. Paul’s story also reminds us of the way in which the war cut off so many futures before they had a chance to unfold. Would Paul have married Marian and had children? We have no way of knowing whether he felt she was the love of his life or simply a casual fling but the war made sure he had no way of finding out either.
You can see more material from our WW1 archives at http://www.kcworldwar1.org.uk
Lucy will soon be leaving us to work on an exciting new project at a national museum. In the last ten months she has worked on a travelling exhibition, the WW1 website and done workshops for adults and school students. Not to mention a great deal of original research in our archives and elsewhere. Without her talent and energy none of what has been achieved would have been possible. So I’d like to thank her on behalf of myself and my team and wish her good luck for the future.