11th Dec.1914: Saffron Walden: Trench Digging & Good Digs.

Bertie in Uniform
19 yrs in 1914

Pte BERTIE HIBBETT: Long Letter Part 1: (Pages 1-13) to BASIL HIBBETT at 95, Foden Road, Walsall. 

29, Gold St. Saffron Walden. Essex.    Dec 11 / 14    Pay Night I don’t think (1)

 My Dear Dodger,


All though tired, I will keep my promise and write to you, I shall get interested myself, as I write on, so here’s luck! (2)

We have had the hardest day for some good many weeks.  After stepping over from Bishop’s Stortford (the place you know where Cecil Rhodes’ father (3) was Vicar) we had the following day off  but had to go to the Baths. I must say that this town, which is another regular farmer’s centre, is far better than Bishop’s Stortford. The Baths were fine, I did not mind having a dip, & a good rub down. Sid did not come down, he had a bad cold, which we’ve all gotOur friend, Eddy Hateley*, has had sick leave for the day & was in luck’s way, I can tell you – you’ll know later on in this letter.

After leaving the Baths we had to stay in billets for fear of further ordersThe Lieutenant (Parr is his name*) and such a lankey chap but very gentlemanly & got plenty of common sense, superior to most other officers – well Parr came in – we all jumped up – he caught us round the kitchen fire – said that we must stay in as Captain Lister *would be coming round to say something – Lister never came.

In the morning we broke the rule and went to have our “stickey backs” taken (4).  You’ll know what those are when we send them. Don’t try & guess & guess & let the cat out of the bag to the others will you? – we want it to be a Xmas surprise.

Did you read in the “Daily Mail” about Free Passage home for soldiers. I do hope its true don’t you?   On the same morning we went to the Museum they’ve got here – beats Tamworth’s  show –  Rhinoceros, Giraffe, Eventure (sic) (5) etc –  all stuffed though. Birds with most gorgeous & beautifully coloured plumage, & some humming birds, so small – from America. And I saw an umbrella bird – however it could see I don’t know; it had feathers over its head like a lady’s hat coming right over the eyes & I could only see its beak.  It also had a long feather, like a small ostrich plume, coming from its breast & hanging in front like a leg. It also stood on one leg.  There was also a stuffed boa constrictor killing a stag.  Wild cats (hideous creatures) badgers, foxes etc. etc.  I also saw the Kaiser (eagle), a good subject for my original cartoon which I enclose (6).

11th Dec 1914 Cartoon Eagle
CARTOON:  A.H.H. 11th Dec. 1914.  THE FLAGS above are of the Allies: Britain, France, Russia and Belgium respectively.

Saffron Walden has got a handsome Market Square, a much finer Corn Exchange (with a handsome little Tower) than that of B(ishops) S(tortford) –

–  and old fashioned Town Hall, with wooden beams (see Sid’s PC ) – a Market Drinking Fountain in the centre and other municipal things.  Yes! Saffron Walden is a swanky place; you know it’s where the Lord Howard de Walden lived once, at Audley End (7). By what I’ve seen of the PCs it’s a magnificent mansion extending over a large area; with such an extensive Estate that it forms a district of Saffron  Walden.

Another mansion is about 4 miles away where Sir Carl Myer lived (8). He has been in trouble or rather lost all his property, for he had all his investments in Germany & so has had to have all his property sold here.  Lord Braybrooke (9) now lives at Audley End, at least I mean Lady Braybrooke, for his Lordship has gone to Egypt.

I’ve not finished yet!

Saffron Walden also boasts of a fine College called the “Friends’ School”  founded by Quakers & you know how rich they are. And not very far, at a place we passed on our way from Bishop’s Stortford, there is a Grammar School founded in 1588.  It has been enlarged since, as can be seen by the new brickwork; the architecture of the facings is similar to Walsall Grammar School. There are some very,  very old places in this old farm Town.

In the Museum –  I forgot to tell you this – there is an old arrangement for roasting the Christmas Beef.  The meat is put between four strong wires which altogether revolves – the whole arrangement is driven by a chain round a thing like a coffee grinder.  I’ll send you a P.C. of it soon.  Very interesting to watch it.

Well you’ll think we’ve been having a jolly easy time of it, if  I don’t tell you of to-day’s doings.   We told the people of this billet to wake us at 7.00 like Thursday morning, but about 5.45 this morning, orders were given at the door, breakfast at 6.am.  A tap came at our bedroom door & I jumped out of bed (Sid thinks I’m a marvel) and lit the candle.  I like getting up in the candle light. (I guess you are looking surprised after writing so mysteriously as the above.  Yes the kind lady has got us two “comfy” beds).

Well we got down in plenty enough time for breakfast. Sid had got some choice bacon the night before; better than the scrubby little bits of fat & burnt rind we have had before.  Beg pardon, I must not really make remarks about food, but still.  Well we had a really bostin breakfast (10). I had some coffee which I have never tasted for breakfast since I left home. At the Drill Hall, Bishop’s Stortford Refreshment Stall I had a cup of coffee 1/2d nearly every night.

Soon after breakfast “Fall In” went, 7.20 aboutHow funny it seemed tramping down the street in the star light.  I nearly won a medal – it’s the proper thing when going on parade to slope arms every time & then come to the “at easy” when in the file –  well on passing a corporal, who was marching to the parade with arms at ease, I jokingly told him to slope arms & passed on.  I saw Capt. Lister –  of course I need not have saluted, because coming on parade is an every day occurrence.  Perhaps if I had had done, I should have been wearing that medal of honour, what oh! I don’t think.

Another occasion when the Coy. had marched to the Batt. parade ground, ‘A’ Coy  was standing at ease & had not got an NCO in command at the time – when up came the Colonel (11)*. The majority still kept at the easy, strolling and propping themselves up with their rifles, but I set the example, but rather sheepishly I came to the attention & our Colonel touched his hat as he saw me. Ah! I nearly touched for the medal again –  perhaps this time it was because I did not come up smart enough!

Part of ‘A’ Coy. were told off to ‘C’ Coy, that notable Coy. of which that notable personage Capt Billy Wistance* is in command, –  a jolly ‘nice’ chap though.

Captain William Wistance.

We marched on & on & on, till at last we recollected that we were going along the same road we had come from B.S. to here.  Some of the Ptes punned about returning to that old place;– ‘oh! we are just going to pay the old place of Bishop’s Stortford a visit to see how they are getting on and how they’ve fared since we soldiers left it’.  But we turned to the left after marching about 5 miles & went to a little village called Widdington.  Now I’ve not got a cold all this much. It is Widdington I tell you, not Wittington (12), there are no barracks there you know.Marching Map 1914

What a rough time we had there.  Eddie Hateley would have just died through it.  We stood in the shivering cold for a jolly long time & then were kindly presented with a pick  – – – AND a nice shovel as well mind you & were told to carry our chum the rifle on our back & sling over the left shoulder.  Thus we began to tramp & tramp & tramp through pools & pools & roads, I mean cart tracks, of mud, mud, mud & worst of all through a wood –  on & on we went, our shoulders crying out to be released of the burdens – for we had got the full pack & 150 rounds of  ball cartridge for fear we were leaving Saffron Walden  – but alas! we were on our way to Dig Trenches. 

We managed to balance ourselves on the cart tracks.  We halted in the wood & strict orders were given NOT to make a row of any sort, but some idiots could not control their poor selves from rattling the shovels & jabbering silly talk & grumbling about their unhappy condition.  We then had to crawl down a slippery, muddy bank & up again through a hedge & then we formed up in Coys: & had a little rest at LAST!

It was not long before we were on the last  move  to the field where the trenches were to be dug.  Billy Wistance spoke a cheery bit to us, that we must buck into it, for the trench, which was to be 3’.8” or so deep & 2’ wide, must be done most part to-day  –  for we should have to spend Saturday on it to get finished.  So away we went, hack! hack! hack! & shove! shove! shove! & chuck! chuck! chuck!  – for 1/2 hour off & 1/2 hour on.

Our Colonel,  who always enters into such things, got up a spade & did a good bit of digging – in fact he beat me.  (V.Evans* made a bit of a sarcastic remark & grinned about this). Well – the other officers saw the poor Colonel (who is said to be over 60 & was on the retired list) & followed his example.  Captain Lees* got his coat off & sleeves to work & Norman Smith*, who is now with us as a 2nd Lieut, also swanked a bit, while 1st Lieut Pearman Smith* was very busy giving instructions.

The shape of the trench was very peculiar, something like the sketch (13).  Well after much sweating away in the cold air we went to have dinner; another tramp through the wood (our rifles were not fit to be seen) & the mud.  We halted in a field – even the smell of pontoon was enough to make my mouth water.  I spied the officers with their hands full of ham sandwiches & a lump of cake on the top. Ah! I said before dinner, ‘I guess the officers wish they were having something hot like the soup of pontoon’.  I soon changed the idea though for the soup tasted sweet. Ah! how horrid, & the meat soon went cold & the spuds were steamed in jackets & no salt or bread.  You should, or rather can imagine, Sid carving away at a huge leg of mutton, with a knife, he did not stick it long. Knives were wanted &  Sid gave up his for some time.

It was not long after dinner before we were on the way back. How long it seemed in front of us, all the way back passed Widdington, turn on the main road, passed Newport & turn to right again up a jolly long hill, down & up again. Most of the time not one of us muttered a word, except at a halt under a bridge –  raining all the time – had our oil sheets on.  When we were entering the town we let ourselves go & sang all the comic songs.  ‘Here we are!  here we are! ringing wet’  – and so on.  

The Landlady of our billet was extremely considerate & kind – came to the door to meet us & Mr Penning* (14) took the oil sheets & hung them up to dry –  and cleaned our boots for us at night.  We had a bostin tea & have had porridge for supper (we bought this ourselves).  These last 2 nights I had something you like very much for my supper. Cold Rice Pudding.

Mr Penning is just like Father for keeping awake when things concerning other people are on the move.  He wakes us up at 7. 0 regularly, & is awake for any knock that may come before that time.

Continued on 12th Dec. 1914.

ELIZABETH HIBBETT WEBB 2009NB* Details of Soldiers are updated in  the Staffordshire Soldiers Page, as they appear in the Letters.

(1) Pay Day was irregular. (2Furor Scribendi:  Bertie is  in a ‘furious scribble’ to write the longest letter. (3) Cecil Rhodes 1853 -1902. British Colonialist/diamond mining magnate, became Prime Minister of Cape Colony, S. Africa. [ Fifth son of Vicar of Bishop’s Stortford, (who boasted his sermons were never longer than 10 mins}. Bertie assumed his young brother knew his colonial history. (4) ‘Stickey-backs’ – photos. (5) Eventure (sic) ?  (6Cartoon: The Russian Bear cannot stop the German Eagle as it preys on the Belgium Lamb, to the angry roar of the British Lion and French Poodle. (Are those tiny Rabbits sheltering under the over-hang? –  who do they represent I wonder?).

(7) Admiral Lord Thomas Howard (de Walden) was created Baron by Queen Elizabeth 1, in 1597, for his role in the Spanish Armada, 1588. Lived at Audley End, a 17th Cent. Jacobean Country House on the site of Walden Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery (granted to Sir Thomas Audley, in 1538, by Henry VIII at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it came into the Howard family through marriage).

(8) Karl Ferdinand Meyer,  banker & diamond mine-owner, became a British citizen; changed name to Carl Myer, and bought Shortgrove Manor, Herts, in 1903. Created Baronet, 1909, for services to the Arts – notably the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. Wrote to the Times (at government request) criticising German sinking of the Lusitania.  [Incident in which my Maternal Grandfather, Frank Arnold Goodison, Chief Engineer Mercantile Marine, was wounded and suffered from shell-shock. He was awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal & Ribbon in 1919.]

(9) Lord Braybrooke, 8th Baron Howard de Walden, 1880 – 1946. In WW1 he served with Westminster Dragoons and 9th Bn Welsh Fusiliers, Gallipoli & France. (10) Bostin/en/ bosting: Black Country slang for ‘very good’ ‘excellent’. (10) Colonel Archer Parry Crawley*.  (11) Whittington Barracks: home of Staffordshire Regiment & Museum, Lichfield. (11) Sketch is missing. (12) Mr. John Francis Penning: husband of Landlady, Mrs. Annie Penning. My father kept up this act of caring, getting us up in the morning as children and cleaning our shoes till they shone. (See Page:  Friends in Saffron Walden/ Penning.)

NB My father’s cheerful and playful disposition, taking the rough with the smooth, is clear in this letter. His powers of observation and description both entertain and inform his young brother about life in the Army. ‘Wittingly & Unwittingly’* he shows his knowledge of and respect for the social & political hierarchy of 1914. (*Prof. Arthur Marwick, late Dean of Faculty of Arts, O.U.).

NEXT POSTS:  12th Dec. 1914. Long Letter: Part 2. (Pages 13 -26) to brother Basil. 13th Dec. 1914 to Mother.

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