My aim is to publish, in date order, the letters my father, Private Bertie Hibbett, wrote home to Walsall, almost twice a week, from 1914 – 1918. His self-styled ‘humble scribblings’ give a vivid picture of what it was like to be a Private in Kitchener’s Army but, with their original drawings, sketches and photographs, they provide an important collection of primary source material for social historians in this centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War.
As a child I was more aware of the 1st World War than of the 2nd, through which I grew up. My father was Vicar of St Vedast’s Church, Tathwell, Lincolnshire and I was never allowed to forget that my birthday was also St Vedast’s Day, for this was an ever present reminder to him of his dawn sentry duty on Easter Day 1915, at Neuville St. Vaast, Messines. *
Like my grandfather, Arthur Hibbett, Chief Inspector of Schools for the Borough of Walsall, my career has been in education; mainly in higher and further education, where I taught courses in historical and literary interpretation & methodology. I have a BA Hons.degree in Theology and History from the University of Nottingham and a Master’s degree in Hermeneutics from the University of Bristol.
My first teaching post was at Luton High School, then I became Lecturer & Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the College of St Matthias, Fishponds, teaching the University of Bristol, B.Ed. degree. After my marriage, in 1971, to David Kester Webb (painter, photographer and teacher), I became the first Open University Tutor Counsellor and Associate Lecturer in North Devon, from 1974 until 2000. During that time I also taught Religious Studies ‘A’ level at North Devon College.
Kester and I published our book, The Hidden Edge of Exmoor,in 2011 (www.thematic-trails.org). This is the story of our life-time’s climbing exploration of the Exmoor Coast at Sea-level; literally hands on geology. We have two offspring: Rebekah (Consultant in International Development: Gender/HIV/Aids) and Martin Vedast, (Project Manager in Ceramics for Disabled Adults).
* NB The name Vedast or Vaast means Foster in English. St Vedast was a 4th C. saint, patron of numerous churches in N. Europe, chiefly of Arras Cathedral. Apart from St Vedast Tathwell, the only other church in the Uk with this patronage is St Vedast, Foster Lane London.
HERBERT TURNBULL,498 Sunderland Rd, Gateshead on Tyne, to Pte BERTIE HIBBETT,the Cenacle, New Brighton, Cheshire.
Many thanks for your letter. I am very pleased to know you are still in Hospital, and carrying on the good work in No 10 Ward.
I am sorry to hear Byrd* has left (1).What have they done with him? When did Moore* go (2) ?
Thanks for your kind enquiry regarding my wife and children.They are in fairly good health now, but I have been ill for the past 3 weeks (in bed) and still feel very shaky, but I am ever so much more contented now. I am getting settled down again, in my own little Home.
Kind Remembrances to Matron, Sisters Wilson & Clive (3).
Corporal Herbert Turnbull , Royal Engineer, was one of five close friends in Ward 10 from the beginning of Pte Bertie’s stay at The Cenacle. He appears in a number of photographs most probably taken by one of Bertie’s brothers, Harold or Basil. This letter is a grim reminder that all the wounded at The Cenacle were under threat of being sent back to the Front as soon as they were well again. Hence Corp Turnbull’s hope that ‘Hibbett’ is still in hospital, his sorrow that ‘Byrd’ has left, and his wonder about what ‘they’ have ‘done with him’,
Cpl Turnbull seems to have been suffering from influenza. That he is ‘so much more contented now’ may indicate he had confided in my father about anxiety & shell shock; that he was in his ‘own little Home’ with his wife & children indicates he has been discharged from the Army ‘no longer fit for service’. NB Use of Surnames rather than Christian names.
(1) Corporal C. Bostock Byrd*. 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards.One of the five friends in Ward 10. Appears in several photographs, performs with Pte Bertie, Corp. J. Beck, and their favourite nurses in two Cenacle Concerts. See also his signature across a cigarette paper in Pt Bertie’s Autograph Album – Hibbett Letters 4th Oct & 11th Nov. 1916.
(2) Moore: JC ? Moore*238th (A.T.) Coy R.E.
(3) Sisters Wilson and Clive. No Sister Wilson is found in my father’s letters; but she could be one of the Senior nurses photographed next to Matron Gertrude Bellow (see below) – or maybe Turnbull meant Cicely G. Wilcox* one of two Wilcox sisters: See Hibbett Letters 10th Nov; 20th Nov & 25th Dec. 1916.
Sister Dorothy Clive: Hibbett Letters 30th Aug & 25th Dec 1916. Both Wilcox and Clive sang a song in the Patients’ Concert, 10th Nov. 1916 and signed Bertie’s Programme.
NEXT POST: 5th APRIL 1917: ‘My poor boy never to have seen his home all this time.’
KATHLEEN E. BROOKES, Fern Leigh, Walsall: LETTER to Pte BERTIE HIBBETT,The Cenacle, Red Cross Hospital, New Brighton.
Sunday night. (1)
My Dear Bertie,
How can I thank you enough for the beautiful painting you have given to me & the long hours you must have spent in doing it – I do admire it immensely & for your very kind thought – I am looking forward to having it framed. It is so kind of you, & thank you for your kind words – I am so glad to think that any words of mine may have helped you (2) – you know I shall always love to hear from my old pupils especially from one who was always so loyal.
I am so sorrythat, when in great excitement, I opened your parcel I never noticed that you had written ‘Private’ & I did not keep it private, I put it on the piano in the Breakfast Room & it was tremendously admired – please forgive me – of course your letter was quite private.
I hope if any time you would like to come & have a chat with me you will do so – I shall always be glad to see you.
With love & again very many thanks, & I think the picture is far too good for me.
Kathleen E. Brookes*.
PS Basilis a splendid fellow & a great help to me by his example. etc. (3)
As soon as the wound to his hand had healed well enough, my shell-shocked father appears to have spent a great deal of time drawing & painting. His ‘beautiful painting ‘ was quite likely a copy of one in his 21st Birthday Album – perhaps the one of poppies blooming in the trenches.
Kathleen Brookes: Sunday School Superintendent, St. Paul’s Walsall and long-time Hibbett Family friend. Greatly respected by Pte Bertie, she kept in touch with him & her ‘old boys’ throughout the War.Besides her Church work she became a land-girl, hay-making, milking etc. (cf her letter to Bertie 23rd June 1916, before Battle of Somme).
(1) Date: No envelope/postmark but internal evidence indicates a date in Jan or Feb 1917 after receiving this present from Bertie, perhaps before Basil left for France.
(2) ‘Words of mine’: Pte Bertie must have been referring to the spiritual and moral comfort she gave him as he struggled with his physical pain and his grief for Sydney.
(3) Basilhad had time to help Miss Brookes with her Church & Community work whilst waiting for his call-up papers.
NEXT POST: 6th MAR 1917: ‘Very pleased you are still in Hospital’. Letter from an old Hospital Pal.
LIEUTENANT BASIL HIBBETT, youngest son of Arthur & Marie Neal Hibbett, enlisted in the Manchester Regt. 9th Bn Territorials. It would appear he sailed from Holyhead on HMT Arcadian (3) on 4th March, arriving in Marseilles 11th March 1917.
The Manchester Territorials may have been intended for Alexandria & the Eastern Front but on arrival in Marseille they were entrained for Pont Remy (4) and the Western Front, arriving 14th March to become part of the 42nd Division, 10 miles east of Amiens.
These troops, the last of 42nd Division to arrive in France in WW1, were issued with rifles & steel helmets and began training in trench warfare, trench digging and route marches.
On 18th April the 9th Bn Manchester Territorials moved to Haquaix (5) and, on 22nd April, Basil Hibbett went into the trenches for the first time at Épehy (6) to take part in the Battle of Arras.
The Battle of Arras began on 9th April 1917 and would last until 16th May1917. It intended to ‘redress the failure of the Battle of the Somme’ 1st July 1916, force the Germans back 5 miles on a 4 mile front, capture Vimy Ridge and advance towards Cambrai. The aim was to support the French Nivelle Offensive on the Aisne (50 miles south) which had planned ‘to break through within 48 hours.’. Wikipedia.
My father’s first thought on 22nd Feb 1917 was for his Mother – and what she must be going through the day her youngest son, 18, left Home for Holyhead en route for France.
He would learn later that Basil entered the trenches just a few miles from where he & Sydney had been fighting the year before. I remember my father often spoke of his youngest brother as ‘taking the place’ of Sydney, Killed in Action, 1st July 1916.
(1) M.Os: Money Orders.
(2) Holyhead: Anglesey, Wales. Major specialist training centre for departures to France in WW1.
(3) RMSP Arcadian: Armed Troop Ship WW1. Originally the SS Ortano, (British transport passenger ship/cruise liner, built by Vickers, Barrow-in-Furness). Renamed RMSP Arcadian, 21st Sept 1910. In WW1 named HMT Arcadian (His Majesty’s Troop Ship) it transported troops to the Eastern Front. Torpedoed 15th April 1917, 26 miles NE of Milo on route for Salonika, Alexandria. Sank in 6 minutes: 1058 rescued. 279 drowned.
(4) Pont Remy: Commune in Somme Department, Hauts-de-France, where St Remigius (Remy) was born: with the help of St Vedast (Vaast) he baptised Clovis, King of the Franks into the Christian Faith, 25th Dec. AD 496. (See Hibbett profile/connexion).
(5) Haquaix: Reserve Camp for troops at Épehy Front Line?
(6) Épehy: Commune in Picardie, Somme, Hauts-de-France(13 miles from Cambrai / 14 miles from St Quentin).Parish Church of St Nicholas.
NOTE to HIBBETT FAMILY: if Lieutenant Basil Hibbett’s details are inaccurate in any way please contact me.
NEXT POST: 3rd March 1917. Wounded Pal’s Letter to Pte Bertie from ‘my own Little Home’.
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 & Iwent 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 theBeaconto‘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& asthis 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.Wilsonthe 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 Hibbettwrites 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 Americaneutral 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 aPeople’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 onDartmoor, 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 canalsand 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 WoodrowWilson, 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.AmericanWW1casualties made USA want to keep out of European affairs.
(10) Bunker Hill’s Sword: 24″ carbon steel blade with brass handguard & pommelused in Seige of Boston, Massachusets, known as theBattle 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.
Dr N.C.SCLATER, Darna, 1 Earlston Road, Liscard, Cheshire: LETTER to ARTHUR HIBBETT Esq., Education Office, Walsall Borough Council.
AT HOME 9-10 a.m. 6-7-11 p.m. Darna, Earlston Road, Liscard, Cheshire. (1)
TELEPHONE: 245 Liscard.
7th Feby. 1917.
I saw & examined your son this morning.His arm continues to improve, there being good union at the place where the bone was shattered (2).There is avery narrow & deep sinus(a kind of tunnel-way)in the site of the wound (3). This I have no doubt will take some weeks (possibly months) in healing. Your son’s health & spirits are good.
I do not know whether it will be a source of satisfaction or regretto you,but in my opinionI do not believe he will ever again be a soldier ‘at the front’. He will however have a first class arm with which to perform his work in life.
N. C. Sclater.
This news must have been welcomed with joy by the Hibbett Family. The operation was successful and their son’s future was secure. The ‘gunshot wound’ was serious enough to prevent his return to the Front but his hand was not worthless, he would be able to write & draw and have the career he chose. But Dr Sclater does not mention the ‘shell shock’ that Pte Bertie was to suffer all his life.
The 10 million military deaths in WW1 have been remembered ever since on War Memorials world-wide. It has taken the WW1 Centenary to focus attention on the 20 million soldiers who suffered life-changing wounds and to honour the extraordinary work of medics & nurses.
Officially my father’s wound is recorded as a ‘gunshot wound’ but I have not been able to determine whether this referred to ‘shrapnel’ (ball bearings, nails & other metal pieces packed into shells) or to ‘shell fragment’ (shell casing exploded into a myriad pieces). In 2016,the iron pieces I picked up in No Man’s Land between Foncquevillers & Gommecourt, are 3-4 inches average and similar to those illustrated below.
From very early childhood I was fascinated by the hole in my father’s wrist. He called it a ‘shrapnel’ wound. He was often in pain but never grumbled. To him it must have been an ever-present reminder of his Walsall pal, Arthur Venables, who stopped to give him first aid and was later killed that day. See Menu: My Memories of the First World War.
(1) Dr N.C.Sclater. See Hibbett Letter 25th Nov. 1916. His home & surgery in Liscard is still a busy Medical Centre today.
(2) Forearm Bones/ Radius & Ulna:Hibbett Letter:13th Dec.1916. Muscles of the arm & forearm are attached to the radius& ulnato provide movement for everyday tasks and allow the hand to pivot at the wrist.
(3) Sinus (tunnel-way): deep & slow to heal, serious cause for concern if infected & unable to drain. The possibility of amputation of Pte Bertie’s hand or forearm is not mentioned in the Hibbett Lettersbut the threat must have been there since he was wounded on 1st July1916.
NEXT POST: 7th FEB. 1917: The U.S.A. has come in at Last – only Two years 6 Months Too Late!
CECIL JACKSON,1/6 R.W.F.; E.E.F. (1) c/o G.P.O. London: POSTCARD to Pte BERTIE HIBBETTc/o The Cenacle Hospital, New Brighton , Cheshire, England.
On Active Service.Posted 2nd Jan, 1917
Just a line to wish you the very best for the New Year. Please give my address to all.
Yours sincerely, Cecil Jackson. (3)
Pte Bertie’s pal Cecil Jackson is an example of how once recovered, a wounded soldier was often sent to other regiments to make up numbers lost in battle, rather than returned to his Unit.
Service in Egypt: ‘the land where the British forces were active in 1914-1918 lies in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudia Arabia and Syria. … Later, operations were necessary in the Hejaz and in Aden, before in 1917 an offensive was launched which took British troops into the Holy Land and Syria.’ Wikipedia.
Alexandria: ‘after the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, Alexandria remained an important hospital centre during later operations in Egypt and Palestine and the port was much used by hospital ships and troop transports bringing reinforcements and carrying the sick and wounded out of the theatres of war.’ https://www.cwgc.org/
(2) Livadas & Coutsicos: postcard publishers in Cairo.
(3) Cecil Jackson. Former pupil QMS (Queen Mary’s Grammar School, Walsall). Bank Clerk United Counties Bank, Wolverhampton. Volunteered No 8834 with 5th South Staffords until wounded July 1915. Patient Llandudno Hospital. When recovered joined 1/6 Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF) & with Egyptian Expeditionary Force. See Hibbett Letters:28th March 1915, 30th May 1915, 9th July 1915, 29th Aug.1915.
NEXT POST: 28th JAN 1917: Pte Bertie’s ‘Beautiful Painting’.
CENACLE NURSE’S POSTCARD to Pte BERTIE HIBBETT at Fazerkeley Red Cross Hospital, Liverpool, where he was recovering from an operation to his arm & hand.
NB This Postcard was redirected back to The Cenacle Red Cross Hospital, New Brighton some time in January 1917. The message is temporarily missing . From memory it said the nurse was unable to visit Pte Bertie in Liverpool as she was very busy at The Cenacle.
NEXT POST: 2nd Jan. 1917: Pal’s Postcard ‘On Active Service’ Egypt.
The WW1 Letters and Drawings of Private Bertie Hibbett, 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, to his family in Walsall, will be posted again, one hundred years on, from August 1914 to November 1918, by his daughter Elizabeth Hibbett Webb. The first posting will be the Recruitment Postcard sent by Queen Mary's Grammar School Headmaster to the Hibbett family on holiday in Abergele, Wales.