Tag Archives: World War 1

Postcards from the land of ruins

This week’s post arise from some postcards in a scrapbook in our collection, put together by members of the Old Comrades Association of the 22nd Royal Fusilers (The Kensingtons). the scrapbook contains memorabilia relating to reunions, trips to places in France and Belgium where the members served, and to war cemeteries and memorials. Along with photographs taken by the travellers, there were also printed postcards bought by them while travelling. I realised that this was not an uncommon form of souvenir when I found postcards of the same type in a small album I brought home from my mother’s house a couple of years ago. This is a typical example.

 

 

At first glance it seems like an odd form of souvenir, scenes of destruction, even ones as striking as this, but we  have to remember I suppose that these scenes were fresh in the minds of survivors of the Great War, still trying to make sense of an intense period in their own histories.

 

 

Many former soldiers must have travelled back to places they remembered.

 

 

When they last saw these ruins, they must have been accompanied the sounds of warfare and the threat of personal danger.

 

 

The first five images come from the album now in my possession.

 

 

The next ones are from the OCA scrapbook.

 

 

See how the road has been cleared but not the rubble. The authorities must have wanted the ruins to be seen, so show what had happened to buildings which were once an integral part of everyday life.

 

 

Some of the photographs were taken while the war was still taking place.

This one shows the same building in 1914.

 

 

In some cases, substantial parts of the bombed or shelled buildings remained.

 

 

In other the devastation looks almost total.

 

 

Another part of the same city


This one shows more low level damage.

 

 

A figure is visible on the right of the picture.

These picture are all sombre, and remind us of the lives lost in the Great War, but at the same time they remind us of the ruins of antiquity, as in this postcard from my mother’s album, posted in 1912.

 

 

The Sphinx was still partially covered by sand.

 

 

The message ( I have no idea who the recipient was, or the sender) is simply a birthday greeting. The two people concerned (two women, or a woman and a man?) had no idea what new forms of ruin would be created by the events to come in their near future.

Postscript

I’ll come back to the OCA in a future post, but I thought these unusual postcard images deserved their own outing. We’ve become used to the destruction of war in modern cities, but we should remember past destruction as well, just as the members of the OCA did.


One man’s war: Paul Destrube

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’.

Destrube Grave 2

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):

Destrube Brothers

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.’

Letters to Marion - page 2 - Your letter reached me when

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.

Destrube - Incoming Passenger Lists Aug 1914 - Cropped

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.

SS. Ionian

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.

Letters to Marion - page 4 - I've not been long up from my post

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.

Cottage where encamped

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.

Letters to Marion - page 6 - Cropped - BottomLetters to Marion - page 7 - Cropped - Top

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’.

Lewis Gun Team from Imperial War Museum Collection[Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum]

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.

Frederick Palmer - Page 22 Volume 7

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.

Letters to Marion - page 11 - Cropped - BottomLetters to Marion - page 12 - Affectionately yours

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.

Destrube grave

Postscript (DW)

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.


One man’s war: Randle Barnett Barker 1870-1918

This week’s guest blogger is writer Lucy Yates who is working with me in our Local Studies department on a World War 1 project. She has been looking at some of the unique material in our archives.

‘The Regiment doesn’t now exist’. Exhausted, depressed, this is the opening of the letter Lieutenant Colonel Randle Barnett Barker wrote to the William Davison, the Mayor of Kensington, on 30th April 1917.

Page 35 Volume 7 - Bottom Half
The Mayor of Kensington would have been distraught to hear such harrowing news. He was the one who had raised the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, also known as ‘The Kensingtons’, rallied recruitment meetings and mounted a campaign to encourage men to join up, using striking posters such as the one below.

Kensington Battalion Poster  A3

The Mayor of Kensington was assiduous in his efforts to make sure they were well equipped, ordering and paying for uniforms out of his own pocket from the last supplies of khaki Harrods had. He sent them briar pipes at Christmas and in one of the scrapbooks he kept he pasted a copy of this magazine, which would have been sent out to amuse the troops at the front.

Page 34 Volume 6

The bearer of the bad news about the Battalion’s near annihilation, Colonel Randle Barnett Barker, was a career soldier who’d served in India but retired from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in 1906. Born in 1870, he was 46 at the time of writing the letter and he was the Lieutenant Colonel of 22nd.

Major R Barnett-Barker

Colonel Barker can be seen reading the lesson from his wooden stand at the camp in Roffey near Horsham. This is where the 22nd were based before they embarked for France on 6th November 1915.

Colonel Barker at Roffey - Church Parade p73

The figure who stands out on the right is Captain Alan McDougall, who, according to G.I.S. Inglis’s excellent and exhaustive book, The Kensington Battalion, would be killed during the heavy shelling of Delville Wood in the early hours of 4th August 1916. Parties searching for his body came back empty-handed until a boot sticking out of the ground was recognised and his body recovered. The light and composition make this a sombre scene.

Below, the Kensingtons at Roffey:

Dave 2

Note that the picture has been marked up with crosses and ticks after the war to indicate those who died and those who survived.

Here the Kensingtons can be seen practising digging trenches, a skill which would prove vital when they reached France.

Dave 1

The offensive, which was to prove so disastrous for the 22nd, was the struggle for Oppy Wood. This was a dense patch of forest which contained nests of German machine guns and trench mortars. In May 1917, the 22nd Battalion had failed to dislodge the Germans from this strategic position and casualties had been high. And to top it all the Germans had launched gas attacks to finish off any survivors lying out wounded in No Man’s Land. Colonel Barker’s letter to the Mayor of Kensington continues in an unsurprisingly despairing vein, ‘I am very depressed at losing all my gallant friends … Haven’t closed my eyes for 48 hours, so tell any doctor that says it’s an impossibility that he’s a liar’.

Page 36 Volume 7 - Top Half

On Friday 4th May 1917 The Times reported, ‘The battle has flared up again, and the Germans are again getting heavy punishment’. Unfortunately, as we have seen, this was not entirely what the under-strength 22nd Kensington Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers were dishing out.

In his official report, Colonel Barker writes, ‘I wish to place on record the splendid gallantry of Second Lieutenant Jeffcoat…It was entirely owing to the excellent report he sent me on the situation that I was able to push up the 23rd R. Fus. and so capture practically the whole of the objective given me.’ However, in a second letter to the Mayor he provides a less sanitised account: ‘He was running about on top of the trench, encouraging the men, till he fell blown to bits. They brought him to my Headquarters. He had one leg blown off and the other half off. Half his face was gone and one eye… I told him I would move Heaven and Earth to get him a VC.’ Colonel Barker adds, ‘I am sick of these bloody battles and everything connected with them’.

Page 39 Volume 7

Page 40 Volume 7 - He had one leg blow off

This usually stoical man adds, ‘This murder of heroes is appalling. I have had my Regt. more or less wiped out 3 times besides heavy casualties in other battles, but this last time to have it annihilated is more than I can bear – 60 men at the outside left…’ A full battalion would have numbered 1007 men.

Page 40 Volume 7 - This murder of heroes

However, according to The Kensington News later that month, there were some bright spots for the 22nd Battalion – tales of gallant self-sacrifice amongst the slaughter.

Page 36 Volume 7- Bottom Half

However, the story behind this impressive display of leadership was rather different, as Colonel Barker records on 6th May 1917.

Page 48 Volume 7

The newspaper account allows the more obvious assumption that this was a German bomb when actually Barker’s letter reveals this to have been an unlucky accident during grenade throwing practice. Rather than ‘rushing forward to seize the bomb and throw it out’, Barker’s account reports that the Corporal was trying (very sensibly) to run away. The newspaper account concludes that ‘by sacrificing himself Lieutenant Wright saved his men from the full effects of the explosion’, whereas Barker reports that the trench was empty except for the two men. He writes that Lieutenant Wright ‘was an extraordinary brave and plucky fellow but a damned fool’, a truth which feels much more human than the newspaper account of daring-do and noble sacrifice.

This picture from a periodical shows  Barker and his men in action.

Dave 3

The 22nd Battalion never really recovered from the heavy losses it sustained and was disbanded on 5th February 1918. The Mayor of Kensington wrote to Field Marshal Douglas Haig on 6th February pleading for the Battalion to be kept together but it was too late.

Six weeks after the Kensingtons were disbanded, Barker was killed during the Second Battle of the Somme on 24th March 1918. The entry in the Brigade HQ diary reads simply, ‘Shells began to fall in and around Guendecourt at 5.45pm. Brigadier General R. Barnett Barker, DSO and Captain E. I. Bell, MC (staff Captain) were killed by a shell.’ It would be another eight months before the end of the First World War.

 The 22nd Royal Fusiliers Old Comrades’ Association were still visiting Lietenant Colonel Barker’s grave in France as late as 1930.

Colonel BB's grave p73

No one who fought in WW1 now survives, so this Centenary is a crucial point at which lived events start to crystallise into history and we begin to decide how this war will be remembered.

Randle Barnett Barker’s letters suggest that war is more confused and horrifying than any neat re-creation of black lines pushing across on a map can convey and for this, for his honesty and for returning to these events a human dimension, we owe him a great debt. It’s hard not to discern in these letters a lesson in the messy futility of war. Siegfried Sassoon puts it better than anyone could:

Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,

And tell Him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod

Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …

Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;

But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,

Staring into the dark. Cheero!

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

Postscript

 If you’d like to know more we’re creating a website featuring more material from our collection which will be launched in January 2015 at www.kcworldwar1.org.uk

The website will also feature photographs and family memories of Kensington and Chelsea during World War 1 .You’ll be able to upload your content directly onto the website but we’d also be pleased to hear from you now if you would like to contribute photographs or family stories.

Most of the images in this week’s post come from a set of scrapbooks put together by William Davison who served two terms as Mayor of Kensington. There are also some from a scrapbook created by members of the Old Comrades Association of the Kensingtons who had many reunions after the war and organised visits to former battelfields and war cemeteries. DW


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