The film showing in Epworth and Owston Ferry in July was ‘The Child Killers’ depicting a true episode of the invasion of France. The support film was a Keystone Cops comic! As noted earlier the obsession with fifth columnists in England meant that spy pictures were very popular. One such was ‘The Spy,’ a two-reel drama furthering the belief that German spies were everywhere.
Another was ‘The Deadly Model,’ a drama about the German Spy System in London, but by far the most chilling drama shown during these summer months was ‘The Mad Dog of War’ In another appeal to the masses, Dean Fry of Lincoln Cathedral preached on the need for local prudence. He begged for ‘strict economy’ as one of the most effective ways of helping our men at the front. ‘ He advised everyone to ‘set their faces against waste of any kind. ‘ A man of wide interests, Fry was a radical in politics and a liberal high-churchman.
In sermons, in addresses at meetings and church congresses, he spoke on such questions as the drink problem, purity, the sanctity of marriage, the housing question, and economic and industrial problems, with impassioned conviction, wholehearted fearlessness, and at times with bitter sarcasm. His messages to ‘give up alcohol and eat less for the time of the war, if not all time’ and, ‘to be content to go about every day in our shabbiest things’ were not well received by those with the money to provide a decent living; they were ignored by the poor! August saw a rash of letters home.
Private Henry Sissons, son of the Epworth stonemason, sent a postcard from Gallipoli to his father stating that he had been wounded but hoped soon to be discharged from hospital. A few days earlier he had written home to say, ‘I am writing this under heavy shellfire. We have just returned from the firing line. I can assure you I am glad to be away from it, although it is bad enough just here with shells. We have had a rough time of it altogether. Three of the officers in the company were wounded before we had been there many minutes. The Turks seem to be all led by Germans.
A year later Henry was killed in France, and his brother-in-law William Reasbeck (husband to Henry’s sister Minnie) died soon after. Another soldier, Private H. Fawcett of West Butterwick, also out in the Dardanelles wrote about a ‘big advance’ across open ground with the enemy entrenched on high ground. We had to advance in short rushes, a few yards at a time and then lay flat down. Shells and bullets were flying round us all the while, but we managed it, charged and took the hill. I got through that all right but on the 9th. we had a bigger hill to attack and could not see the Turks because of the bushes.
I was shot through the left leg and crawled away from the firing line. It was 5 o’clock in the morning and I lay where I had crawled to until the next morning. Then I was put on a stretcher and taken to a dressing station, and while I lay there a bullet came along and went through my right wrist. The bullet stopped in my pocket book which saved my life. The Turks shell the wounded or the Red Cross or anything they can get at, but when we get artillery and naval guns going, they are shifted.
Don’t worry, I shall soon be all right. I have a lot to be thankful for. Private Alf Newbitt of Epworth wrote to his parents about the privilege of being allowed to leave the front line and go ‘shopping in the nearby village. On other occasions he had asked to be excused a lack of correspondence owing to the trench not being an ideal place to write letters. ‘ In another letter Alf wrote about the Germans ‘giving us musical selections on the cornet and flutes. They played our National Anthem one afternoon. I don’t know whether it was meant as a slur or otherwise but the music was all right. ‘ On another occasion he spoke of it being, ‘A1 here.
We are billeted in a town and shall be able to enjoy ourselves a bit. Everyone wondered what was the matter when we awoke to hear the Church bells ringing for service. It is Sunday morning. I could fancy I was in bed at home listening to the bell going for 8 o’clock service. Excuse mistakes, everybody’s making such a noise – they are so pleased. No wonder! The Germans gave us such a gruelling last Sunday, with all sizes of shells, aerial torpedoes, rifle grenades, whizz-bangs – I think they used nearly everything but gas, and the smoke from the big shells was nearly as bad as gas.
It’s the biggest wonder in the world we were not all killed, but luckily not one of our platoon got worse than a bad shaking. It was such a strain on the nerves that half of our chaps had to report sick that night. We had some very narrow escapes. One large shell burst about five yards in front of our dug-outs, nearly choking us with dust and smoke; another dropped between two of our dug-outs and buried our water-can. Another hit a dug out which luckily was empty – there was nothing to be seen of it after; a large hole marked the spot where it stood. When these aerial torpedoes burst they shake the ground like an earthquake.
Private E. Dale of Belton, on active service in the Dardanelles, cautioned those at home about the dangers of trench warfare. ‘The snipers are good shots’, he wrote, ‘if you show your heads above the trench they have you! Private W. Johnson of Epworth, serving with the Lincolnshire Regiment, spoke of his spell in the trenches and things being, ‘a bit lively at times – bullets, shells, bombs, and whizz-bangs knocking about all over the place, especially when we are cooking our meals. We are having some very funny weather out here, and it is up to the knees in sludge and water in some of the trenches.
We were in the trenches for sixteen days for a start and we were told we stood it as well as the regular soldiers. We have now been in four days. The night before last we got word that the Germans were using their gas on our side near Ypres, but later we heard that the gas had turned back on their own men. We can always know when it is meal times because the Germans start sending us a few whizz bangs. We laugh and joke and say that it is a few more iron rations for Tommy. We are about 200 yards from the German lines but cannot see anyone as they keep down in the daytime, all the firing – except artillery – being done at night.
Driver A. Maw of Wroot celebrated his ‘coming of age’ in a dugout with the sound of guns all around. He wrote of the ingenuity of the men who had fixed up a pair of bunks from bits of wood and had made a fireplace from mess tins. His mate, Alf Eastwood, had gone up the trench and Driver Maw arranged to make him some cocoa to warm him up on his return. He thanked his parents for the presents and the local paper they had sent out to him and told them he would sooner see the old “Bells” than any other paper going as ‘it seems to draw me nearer home when I am reading it. In another letter there was more information about living conditions. We are in fair-sized “dugouts” about 5ft. deep, 8ft. wide and 20ft. Iong,’ the author wrote.
‘There are five of us in these “dug-outs” on the edge of a wood all connected by deep communication trenches. The “dug-outs” are roofed over with pine logs and about 18in. of earth. We have tables and chairs and straw inside, so we are fairly comfortable. We cannot go outside much as shrapnel keeps bursting over us and bullets that have gone high over the trenches in front keep on hitting the trees all around, which are all pitted and cut with bits of shell. ‘Our kitchen is just next door in a deep hole, with a trench connecting up. You would be very amused to see us all bobbing in and out like a lot of rabbits. We have great difficulty in getting water, which is scarce, and then we have to boil it.
However, we manage to do ourselves pretty well all the same. We get our Government rations every day, and supplement with the things you all send out to us. Our menu tonight is going to be, tinned Ox-tail soup, fried fillet of beef, potatoes and peas, rice pudding, whisky and soda. One of the most prolific writers of letters home was Lance Corporal Ronald Wrench. His letters were, in the main, cheery and upbeat and often ended with a plea to the men of the Isle to join up and ‘do their bit. ‘ In early August he wrote to Mr. Atack complimenting him on the number of recruits that had been sent from Epworth. He said he hoped ‘to see some of them out here if the war isn’t over before they arrive!
A few days later, on 28 August, while he was moving through the trenches, a sniper’s bullet passed through his head at 2 a. m. He was buried in Sanctuary Wood under a wooden cross. At his memorial service in Epworth the collection taken up by the rector went towards insuring the Rectory, St Andrew’s Church and other parish properties against bombing by aircraft. Alf Newbitt (who had enlisted with Ronald) wrote,’1 have lost my best friend. It will be very dull for me. Ronald was a brave fellow! ‘ Situated just outside Ypres, Sanctuary Wood is lieved to have been the inspiration for the well-known poem by John McRae ‘In Flanders Fields’ as he sat on the back of a medical field ambulance.
In August too, the Advertiser reported that, ‘somewhere in France,’ there was a formidable reunion of the Crowle Tommies. No less than 36 men met up in what was described as a ‘camp meeting. ‘ For some time it had been a matter of considerable pride to the town that Crowle was so well represented at the front and their meeting together strengthened further this feeling. In the same month Private J. A. Robinson (Epworth) of The Ports’ Battery, writing home from the Royal Naval Hospital in Carradino, Malta, told how his life had been saved by his pocket diary. I was lucky to get away with as slight a wound as I did. If it had not been for my pocket diary, the bullet would have gone through my right breast and might have meant death to me. I am sending the book home for you to see. We were doing a bayonet charge when I got hit.
We were making a dash towards Achi Baba, the hill you have no doubt read a lot about. It is a very strong hill and well trenched but it will come to grief someday. They cannot sustain the enormous losses they are sustaining. I have seen some sights since I have been out here which I shall not forget, and had some narrow escapes. Private Robinson’s one request was for his family to send him some plum bread – ‘one of the good things about North Lincolnshire! He was very lucky to recover from his wounds without contracting Malta Fever. The hospital kept its own flock of goats to supply patients with milk and the brucellosis germs from unpasteurised milk led to severe cases of the fever. It was common for a person to enter hospital with a minor wound and leave with intermittent fever and shivering and aches for several weeks.