April 24th Sat. Drill – Route March. Working Party of 200 men on G.H.Q. Line, 8 -12 midnight.
Lance Corp. SYDNEY HIBBETT: LETTER to sister IDA HIBBETT, 95, Foden Rd. Walsall – in which he gives a description of Wulverghem village, its shattered Church and Priest’s House. (1)
Saturday Afternoon April 24th 1915 ‘Himley Hall’ (2)
My Dear Sister Ida,
I am taking this, the first opportunity to answer your last two letters to me. Many thanks for your interesting chat and also for your good opinion of our doings. It cheers one up & eggs one on to know that you are all thinking & praying for us when you have time.
I was very glad Harold got my letter & ‘love’ & that you saw it. Ask him if he got my instructions about Eddie & George not touching my Velox motor as it is important (3) & (4).
I received (also Bert) your letter yesterday; the post always arrives about tea-time here at the Rest Camp. I was glad to hear from the Overend girls & I sent Winnie a Field PC by return, thanking her for the chocolate, or rather acknowledging the receipt of same & her letter you enclosed. It is very nice to know these people think of you.
As for courage & determination, I don’t think we remember that when they are shelling us, as I described to you before. If you are on sentry you have to still look over the parapet or through the loophole, as a matter of course, just to see if the beggars are watching the shells burst & then of course you take a sight on the blighter & perhaps over he goes – & there’s another for Whitby Abbey! (5).
The Lyddite are the worst shells as the fumes make your eyes smart so that you cannot see properly (6).
Our partner ‘E’ Coy. was shelled again on Wednesday & though not a man was hurt their dugouts & parapets were thrown down & in an awful mess. Several shells did not burst – there was a distant boom, a swish overhead, bump, but no explosion. Very funny to see the chaps’ faces when it didn’t burst. Well we came out of the trenches for the 3rd time on Thursday night at the usual hour when you would be asleep in bed. What would happen if all of us went to sleep then?
My platoon has not been in the trenches this time. When the Batt. went in last Sunday night we stopped at a farm in the rear which was our billet for the time (6). We slept in a barn & though bullets at times flattened themselves on the walls & in the yard we managed to keep clear of them, except for one or two who were hit in the arm & head. They are bullets that don’t strike the trenches’ parapets, but flying over continue until they descend in the farm which is close to a very much shattered village (7).
This village (about as big as Uffington (8) would be very pretty in peace time & especially now in the Spring but Good Lord! it is now a disorderly heap of bricks & wood. Every house is shattered, the church has one wall of the tower left, the clock remains at 6.10, the windows are broken & bent beams lie all around; graves have disappeared & only a great hole remains. The chairs inside are matchwood. The Catholic Priest’s house opposite was a very beautiful residence once, but all his pictures & library & household effects are littered about – valuable theological books are there – still whole, but neglected & dusty. Then his garden is still beautiful with flowers and shrubs but littered with biscuits (9) & refuse. In short a ghastly mess.
Well on Monday, a beautiful hot day, & very still & quiet except for an occasional ping from a passing bullet, I had the job of getting all the good timber floors & doors etc out of these houses & handing it over to the R.E. to make trench gratings etc from. Will finish this tomorrow as I am wanted outside. ***************
Sunday 6.pm. We have been building up the parapets in our reserve trenches from 10 am till 3 pm & so I am rather tired. The Germans sent some shells over us which exploded near the village. The holes could be seen & the earth & stuff went skying up. We were all digging hard, about the time you would be having dinner, when suddenly we heard the swish of the first shell coming over – down we all jumped into the trench & crouched thinking we were their blessed objective – but it passed over & I was just in time to see the shell burst near the village a few hundred yards away. Well we had it like this for about half an hour, our Territorial battery replying & then it ceased.
It has been very warm today – the artillery of both sides, especially our own, has been very busy lately & today also. We could see the gun flashes & hear the blessed shells.
I received a nice writing pad & material from Miss Negus (10) today & also a lovely box of chocolates & parkin from Auntie Pat* yesterday – nothing is left now! They had Church parade while we were away digging, so I have read the Psalm over for today myself (11).
Bert’s feet are still bad & he does not do many parades so that he can get them better. Nothing to worry about.(12)
Must close now. Best love & wishes,
Your loving brother, Sydney.
(1) Bruce Bairnsfather. Bullets & Billets. 1916. Chapter XXIII has a similar but more detailed description of the state of the Wulverghem Church & Priest’s House, 1915. The Project Gutenberg ebook produced by Jonathan Ingram, Steven desJardin & Distributer Proofreader.
(2) Himley Hall, Dudley, Staffordshire: Home of the Lords of Dudley* (since 16th Cent. Owners of coal and iron mines) – playful contrast with Sydney Hibbett’s present billet!
(3) Eddie & George – possibly young Hibbett cousins in Yorkshire. (4) Sydney Hibbett’s Velox was one of only 21 automobiles made by Velox Motor Company of Coventry (established 1902. Directors: George H. Davie & A.F. Harris). Grace’s Industrial History Guide.
(4) Whitby – 16th Dec. 1914 suffered 7 minute German bombardment from sea, . Abbey seriously damaged. (5) Lyddite is picric acid (Greek for ‘bitter’ reflecting taste/smell): formerly called ( TNP) 2,4,6 trinitrophenol – primarily an explosive, also used in medicine/anaesthetic. Lyddite Shells were high explosive shells, capable of piercing armour, used in Boer War & WW1. Common Lyddite shells detonated/ fragmented into small pieces in all directions (but no fire). See Pte Bertie Hibbett’s letter of 23rd April, 1915.
(6) Souvenir Farm/ Ration Farm? (7 ) Wulverghem. (8) Uffington in Lincolnshire (2 miles east of Stamford, i.e. close to Rutland – early 19th century home of Hibbett family).
(9) Biscuits. It occurs to me (brought up in a Vicarage) that these could be large unconsecrated Priest’s wafers ready for the Mass – even if a more humble biscuit they create a poignant image.
(10) Miss Negus (unable to trace). (11) Psalm for 24th day of month: Ps.116 -119. Book of Common Prayer, 1662.
(12) Bertie Hibbett’s April letters make no mention of his sore feet (no doubt to allay his Mother’s anxiety) but to be excused parade is indicative of ‘something to worry about‘.
NB Useful Links: Hellfire Corner. The North Staffordshire Regiment at Wulverghem. Contains pictures of Pte Bertie Hibbett’s Trench 8. <http://hellfirecorner.co.uk/wulverghem.htm >
Bruce Bairnsfather: Bullets & Billets ebook
NEXT POST: 25th APRIL 1915. Letter from Godmother Mary Foster, Fernleigh, Nottingham.