BASIL HIBBETT, Foden Road, Walsall: LETTER to Pte BERTIE HIBBETT, The Cenacle Red Cross Hospital, New Brighton, Cheshire.
Dear Old Chap,
Am very sorry I have not written lately but it wasn’t because I never thought of my dear wounded brother & I have often wished that you were at Home, for there is nothing much for me to do here.
Thank you ever so much for the cigs & the cash: but you must not waste your money on me; you know I have got my bit to do yet. No I don’t smoke much & I never buy cigs myself yet. Nevertheless I like ‘Players No 3‘ (better than the Embassy) but of course I shall get through them all!
Well, here I am still waiting & my patience (never a great quantity!) is nearly exhausted. One thing, the weather is ripping & I should think the Arboretum (1) is frozen to the bottom! Of course they are skating on it. Sister & I went on last night in the moonlight to see what it was like. There was 25° of frost here yesterday & at Market Harborough there was 40°! (2).
I generally go for long walks in the afternoons & occupy my time in judging distances, at which I am getting expert.
Yesterday I got on the car (3) to the Bell Inn (4) & walked round Great Bar (5) & right along the Beacon to ‘Bosty’ Lane (6). It was a grand afternoon & if only my papers would come I should be happy as possible. I saw 3 lambs on the Beacon, all in the snow & about as big as one’s hand!
Mr Machin* (7) lent me 2 military books & as this part of the country is good for manoeuvres, I imagine that I am in command of a section or ½ platoon: as I walk along & judge whether I am within artillery or rifle fire from different positions & if so what formation to adopt. Of course that sort of warfare is not much used now as in former wars, but it is interesting & occupies one’s mind.
We have heard rumours of an offensive in March, but mind you, only rumours (8).
So U.S. has come in at last. Wilson the gas-bag, the note-writer, the peace without victory chump (9).
“When he hears of a liner blown up on the sea he gets as mad as a hornet, he does, yes sur-ree! An’ he cables across – ‘Wuz thar Yankees aboard? By jiminy! if so gimme Bunker Hill’s Sword! (10) But ur course, if thar warn’t, it’s nawthin’ tu me, I’m a jestice of peace, an fer nootralitee; I’m too proud fer tu fight fer ole papers an’ scraps. Tho’ I mebbe hev signed ’em – gold data ’em – perhaps!” (11).
Well, he’s only 2 years 6 months too late!
I am glad you had a nice time with Mother & Ida. We shall have to leave the Picture until you come home & then you & Ida can go to B’ham to choose one. (Ed: a frame for one of Bertie’s sketches?)
Well hoping you won’t be frozen to the marrow when you get into bed tonight: you would think there was an elephant in my bed with all the clothes & overcoats, waistcoats & trousers & then myself underneath it all trying to get warm!!!
With much love from Dodger.
The Winter of 1916-1917 was especially harsh throughout Europe. The Meteriological Office Monthly Weather Report for February 1917 records the most severe frost in England since February 1895; many rivers & canals were frozen over for weeks. One can only imagine the conditions for the men in the trenches and be glad that my father was not one of them.
Pte Bertie’s youngest brother Basil, 19, was still waiting impatiently for his call-up papers. His letter gives a good idea of his character, his intelligence & youthful courage. He was in Queen Mary’s School O.T.C. (as Sydney & Bertie had been) and was hoping for a commission in the Manchester Regiment. The Hibbett Family was anxious that Basil should avoid something of the menial work & harsh conditions that his brothers had undergone in the ranks. He had gained his Senior Oxford School Certificate and his father was probably better able to afford a commission for his youngest son, than in 1914, when his brothers volunteered and the War was expected to be ‘over by Christmas’.
Basil Hibbett writes as if the U.S.A. was already in the War by 7th Feb. but it was not until 6th April 1917 that President Woodrow Wilson signed a Declaration of War on Germany – in order to make ‘the world safe for democracy’. Since 1914, he had fought to keep America neutral but his hand was forced when Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all shipping (whether neutral or not) with the sinking of the American liner, Housatonic, 31st January 1917. (British intelligence also reported that Germany was pushing Mexico to declare war on America).
Even so, it was not until May 1918 that a full-scale American Army arrived in France: by then Lieut. Basil Hibbett was already at the Front doing ‘his bit’.
(1) Arboretum Lake, Walsall: E. A. Foden, (gave his name to Foden Road, now Broadway), decided to turn his estate into a People’s Park. It was officially opened in 1874 with two lakes, two lodges, and a boathouse. The lakes were created by flooding the deep disused limestone mines. Hatherton Lake is 40ft deep in places. In WW1 the playing fields were used for growing potatoes and the Women’s Volunteer Reserve helped maintain the Park. (‘The Story of Walsall’, Bev Parker, Black Country Historian).
(2) Market Harborough (Leicestershire) 40 ° frost. The Met. Office Monthly Weather Report for Feb. 1917 records 91 days of frost on Dartmoor, the severest frost lasting 5 weeks, the longest since 1855: ‘nearly all the furze (gorse) is killed’. Birds & evergreen trees ‘severely affected’. See also Scott Richards’ Weather Videos from 1871 (YouTube 13th Jan 2016).
(3) Car: i.e. Tramcar.
(4) The Bell Inn: Birmingham Road, Bloxwich, Walsall.
(5) The Beacon, Great Barr, parish of Aldridge, one of Pte Bertie’s favourite cycle rides.
The Beacon Way runs from Sandwell, West Bromwich, to Barr Beacon (now a local nature reserve) taking in canals and woodlands around Walsall. The Hibbett Family would have joined the walk at Rushall Church a mile or so from 95, Foden Road.
(6) ‘Bosty Lane’: (the B4754 between Rushall & the Beacon). ‘Bosty‘: slang for ‘filthy’ – here a muddy lane frequented by cattle?
(7) Mr Machin*: Hibbett Family friend, one of Pte Bertie’s mentors, father of Alan Machin, QMS pal. See Hibbett Letters, also Menu: My Memories.
(8) Rumours: The ‘March Offensive’ became The Battle of Arras, 9th April – 16th May 1917. French intended to breakthrough German lines ‘within 24 hours’, 50 miles south on the Aisne, whilst British were to divert German reserves by attacking their defences at Arras, re-capturing Vimy Ridge dominating the plain of Douai and advancing towards Cambrai.
(9) President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 1856 -1924. 28th U.S.A. President 1913-1921. Democrat.
Woodrow Wilson: generally considered one of the best of U.S.A. Presidents, with a reputation as a progressive reformer. Signed Treaty of Versailles at Paris Peace Conference (28th June -21st Jan 1920). Championed a new League of Nations but unable to win Senate approval. American WW1 casualties made USA want to keep out of European affairs.
(10) Bunker Hill’s Sword: 24″ carbon steel blade with brass handguard & pommel used in Seige of Boston, Massachusets, known as the Battle of Bunker’s Hill,17th June 1775; American Revolution’s first major battle, (British pyrrhic victory/ 2,200 killed or wounded).
(11) Basil Hibbett’s doggerel? I am unable to discover the authorship of this witty piece on typical British attitudes towards America in 1917 -it might well be Basil’s own. ‘Ole papers & scraps . . . gold data’em‘: ref. to Congress’ Declaration of War or earlier declarations signed in gold?
NEXT POST: 22nd FEB 1917: Basil Hibbett leaves Home for War.