NEUVILLE ST VAAST
28th Mar. Tue: Battalion in Brigade Reserve. Carrying Parties. Draft of 191 men arrived at 8.20 pm. V. Quiet Day.
The way may be rough, but it cannot be long And then oh how joyful the Conqueror’s song. (1)
Behold, we count them Happy which endure. James 5:11.
Mar. 28th 1915
My Very Dear Mother & Father.
After coming from fatigue I read Mother’s two very long but interesting letters (& touching too they were) before settling down to snooze, although it was 3 in the morning. I was sending you a green on Sunday but have kept it for this to answer, in a more detailed way, your ripping parcels & letters. You will get my letter of yesterday & Sunday together before this.
1st I will answer Mum’s letter of 14th. That, which you started with, holds good in my case:- ‘My head seems to be so full of things that I hardly know what to say’ (& how to begin) (2) .
– Now I must go back to the Sunday letter of Mum’s to say that I too went to Holy Communion so that makes a third & Providential cause of your going, for it was the Sunday night we went to the trenches. I was very pleased & amused on reading that you got a letter from me on Sunday. I should like you always to get one on a Sunday, as well as for me to write to you on a Sunday.
Do you know, dearest Mum, & all of you, that I am sorry for Dear Sydney & that sorrow sometimes takes away the hopes of the pleasure of seeing him – I mean the pleasure of seeing him.
Glad you like Thacker* no doubt then, if you should like him, Sydney would, as he told me in his Christmas letter.
I expected to see dear Sydney when I came off fatigues last night. We live in a cave while in reserve & do fatigues at night. The way down to this dark hole is long & ‘squeemish’ & at the end I quite expected Sydney’s voice to be heard. Well, I suppose he will come today. Yes, I am so grateful he is Sergeant & he has a nice chum Burton*, who was made Sergeant Major after the bombing accident (3), & was formerly Sergeant when Sydney made chums. Burton is TT & only smokes select tobacco & a Woodbine now & again, he does not care for dear cigs.
Yes the shirt is most lovely & comfortable & what I say is:- ‘A Comfortable Shirt is half the Battle’. A light pair of pants is my next requisite for underwear. The socks I must especially thank you for, with the exquisitely beautiful scented soap within, for they have come at a very acceptable time amidst rain, water & dirt —— I am telling you more about me sen.
Oh dearest Mum, I should so like to write you a letter you would really like & which would prove a comfort to you dear ones. Wouldn’t Ida & Dad say that, if I said more about myself & what I do, I might take a stride too far & then you would feel more anxious & unhappy. And then there is the Censor too; some censors I’m afraid would burn the letter if it contained news of importance to the enemy – or hints even. But as you were so brave & collected dear Mum during that alarm (4) I will venture to tell you more aboot me sen, without gobbling up the fishing rod & hook, as well as the fish.
I shall need more candles if we are down here for any considerable time. Another reason why I couldn’t write to you, as I would have liked, is that we could not get any lights & it rained up at the top. I wrote my Sunday letter at the entrance – tell Ida it’s like Linley Caverns (5) & would be jolly for a picnic in Peace time, – but oh its far from a pic-nic in War time.
You are most self-sacrificing to put butter in the parcel & eggs too, my word. If you like you can send currant bread & I will eat this without you putting butter in the parcel. Dad said he hoped I had as much pleasure in consuming the contents as you have in packing them up. Ah I am more than indebted to you & can hardly find words. I fairly shivered with emotion on opening your parcel & reading the letters. The parcels acted as a good stimulus when I was on that tiresome fatigue & I thought of Miss Foster’s* apt quotation in Wayside Memories. ‘And then Oh how JOYFUL the Conqueror’s Song’ – & indeed it was like a beautiful song which was wafted with the parcel & good thoughts from Home.
Can you read this awful letter dears? – surely I am not so ‘bad’ as George*(6) & Mrs Jones’s* writings. Do you really & honestly think the photo a good one and DO I GIVE you a cheerful impression when you see me? I did think of Miss Foster* but I did not want to send her a photo which would make her think I was a WEE bit sad (7). Shall I send her that photo? I have one left in that little khaki case of mine.
Yes, I still have your dear faces left & my poor, poor Prayer Book & khaki Bible look all the worse for wear and I am anxious that they will last until I come on Home Leave.
Oh dears, I have a little better & hopeful news. Home Leave, as I told you in my last letter, is going at a more satisfactory pace & if it does not stop suddenly, like it has done in times past, I shall, or rather hope to, spend Easter with you & oh how joyful it will be if we spend Easter Sunday together & go before the altar to thank God for His mercy.
I told you in my last that Sydney sent me a F.P.C. from the Base with the line ‘letter follows at first opp.’ so I took it that it was another of Sydney’s ways of taking the letter to be himself following. I will let you know as soon as he comes and at my 1st opportunity. Yes, I expect Sydney will be exceptionally full of talking, although he is not one for ‘gassing’ as I am. I hope his Com. will push on with greater speed now our Colonel*(Lt Col.R.Raymer) is back.
Now I must say how my heart leaps to you in congratulations for your extra good work at Mrs Venables* (8) Yes, if you can spare me one of those squares I should indeed be delighted with one & treasure it to think of you whenever I use it (9).
I am glad you have lost that wretched snow & hope Spring weather will soon be there for you to enjoy. Yes SPRING, & I hope it will bring me with it. How most Providential, you being so cool during the Raid. I too have been surprised at myself for I could not have been frightened if I tried during some shelling we had. I felt it a duty to cheer up those who were nervous. You were most apt in your description, yes, it is just like a Peace within one (10).
I think I mentioned the bombing accident before, but of course I refrained from telling you details for two reasons, we are forbidden to mention casualties in our letters until we see them published in the papers, & also I thought you would be more anxious with the sudden news from me.
Remember me kindly to Mrs Brown* & the Venables*. I should think Arthur*(11) is one of the youngest subalterns in his Regiment. You say you feel very, very sad at times dear Mum, well, I too felt sorry that you were like that, but I do not disbelieve my prayers have not been heard. I must persevere more (12) Yes, I think Sydney & you all, will feel the parting sore for a time, but I hope it will be short.
I conjure up all sorts of things that I will do when I go Home to you. How it puzzles me to get Home clean & how I shall have to try to dodge being seen & pressed on going from the Station to the House. How I shall pop into the Arcade Restaurant (13) & buy you some pork pies and then go to Sammons for some tomatoes & flowers. I might think of playing a practical joke, but now I think it would be best to go straight forward.
Now for your delightful letter of 19th. So Dad was playing hymns – ah! they seem to have their truer meaning nowadays & I think we shall ‘sing them with the understanding also’ (14). Although it has been such a long time since I heard the Psalms sung I can remember some quite well & they remind me of Sydney liking them. How beautifully happy, yes, that is how I felt when I read that you were happy although it rained on Sunday. You see you kept your promise that is why, & jolly old Basil, he did do a ‘dodge’ out of his cosy bed and dodged first. I remember well you saying you liked walking in the fresh rain.
Yes, Mr Darling * would feel mentally tired, as well as physically. He told me so one night I went to my Preparation (Confirmation) Class & it was Lent then too. I am sure he takes it more of a duty now-adays. Of course you will tell me if Mr Dixon* gave a stirring sermon & brought a crowded church (15).
Sydney is true in saying he finds his position as Sergeant an advantage, but he will, and will have done, by what I gather from your letters found correspondence goes against the grain at times & the amount of mind concentration upon his extra duties will cause him & anyone to be inclined not to bring his thoughts on behalf of Home etc into action.
I am glad you are all well generally, but sorry Mum has those nasty pains. I am wondering if Sydney will be attached to either another Coy. or Platoon, if so you must send smaller parcels. Compris! I shan’t mind a toss – its the thoughts I care for – except when the rations are na pous ‘finis’ & bread is scarce (16). We are having better & bigger rations of bread now as we go into the trenches.
I should so much have liked to have sent my contribution for Mr Darling*. I was very touched on reading that Sanger*did not go to see you. Well never mind, everything is for the best.
No, (this time) it didn’t even enter my mind that your parcel was a long time in coming. I mean since your promise of a parcel. You will no doubt be thinking I am a long time in acknowledging yours, but do forgive me dears, I do try. Yes, I am sure God is keeping us all safe & I am grateful Sydney had a safe crossing & I have come out safely from six days in the trenches & every night on fatigue so far. I am quite well enough to manage & peg this War out.
I must now answer Harold’s letter & parcel containing Milk Tablets, which came in useful to quench my parched lips on fatigue. Please dears, I advise you not to depend too much upon the cloth wrapping when sending parcels as the cardboard box is liable to get smashed.
Best love Bertie.
Pte Bertie Hibbett’s family wanted him to write more ‘about me sen’ (more about myself). But true to character this letter is full of the thoughtfulness and understanding of others that my father invariably showed in his life.
NB My father had expected to see his brother arrive with the draft of 181 men reported in S Staffords War Diary for 28th Mar.1916.
(1) Conqueror’s Song: Hymn: John Newton 1779. Former Slave owner turned anti-slavery. Collection of Hymns by John Wesley. 1875.
(2) ‘A Little Book of Words & Doings’. Hibbett Letter 13th March. 1916 1916. (3) Bombing Accident: Hibbett Letter 28th Feb. 1916. (4) Zeppelin Raid Walsall. 19th Jan. 1916.
(5) Linley Caverns, Aldridge, Staffordshire. Extensive 19th cent limestone workings now flooded: ‘an incredibly dangerous place’. Used for storing bombs in WW2. See <https:brownhillsbog.com> details of Urban Exploration at Linley Caverns. 1957 (16th Aug.1957 edition Walsall Observer).
6) George Lammerman (Ida’s friend from childhood). (7) ‘Wee bit sad’: Ida’s comment on Bertie’s photo with Hindustani Sikh at Marseilles. 27th Feb.1916.
8) Mrs Venables*: ref. to Bertie’s Mother helping at her Knitting Workshops & Sales for Soldiers, 1914-1918. (9) Face-flannel squares.
(10) ‘Peace within’: See below Little Book of Words & Doings & Page: My Memories A.H.H. (I remember from childhood how my father’s sermons were often about ‘Peace’). (11) Corp. Arthur Venables dressed Pte Bertie’s wound 1st July 1916. Later Killed in Action.
(12) ‘Very, very Sad’: ‘Little Book of Words & Doings’. Hibbett Letter 27th Mar.1916.
(13) Arcade Restaurant, Walsall. Sammons (Brothers?): Walsall Greengrocer. (My father’s dream of arriving in Walsall on Home Leave and buying pork pies, tomatoes & flowers I find particularly poignant).
(14) ‘Sing with the understanding also’. I Cor. 14.5. St Paul ‘I will sing/prayer with the spirit and use words with the understanding also.(15) The Revd E. More Darling, (Vicar of Walsall ) last Services on Retirement.
(16) ‘na pous finis’: British soldiers’ slang for French saying -‘no good/ rubbish’.
Pte Bertie Hibbett’s ‘Little Book of Words & Doings’. Treasured Sayings in Letters from Home. March 1916.
‘My head seems so full of things that I hardly know what to say. Mother’.
The Zeppelin Raid: ‘Do you know dear Bertie, Mother was the best of all of them. When the raid came I seem to have had strength given to me. I do not think Basil was frightened at all – he wanted to know where the things were going . . . Dad looked white & pinched round the nose & Ida took hold of my hand & cried & said ” Oh Mum I am frightened” and I said ” Never mind my love, we shall be all right” and I felt such a peace in me. Mother. ‘
NB Computer problems meant this Letter was posted with:-
NEXT POST: 30th Mar: 1916.