World War I letters from ‘The Front’ to go under the hammer

7th November 2017

A fascinating collection of letters written by a First World War soldier to his wife in England will go under the hammer at a Cotswolds antiques auction later this month.

Such a collection would always make interesting reading – but what makes these letters remarkable is the position of privilege from which they were written.

Major Charles Ward-Jackson was a staff officer. His ‘Front’ was often several miles behind the front line of trenches. His duties included “transmitting messages from the front” and “altering maps”.

Occasionally he found himself too busy arranging a lunch for The King – “… all the arrangements were satisfactory and worked without a hitch. I believe the lunch was awful. The King never spoke a word and the Prince of Wales did not utter,” – or overseeing the establishment of a Prison of War camp to write.

But most days during his three-year posting he had the opportunity to write at least once a day – sometimes more – discussing not just what he had seen with his own eyes, or what “news” or “gossip” had crossed his desk, but world affairs as reported by the British newspapers, including the Irish rebellion, Russian revolution, and Women’s Suffrage.

And in three years’ of writing to his beloved Queenie, his letters were censored just a handful of times. The collection – typed and collated after his death in 1930 – are not memoirs clouded by the mists of time, but contemporaneous and unredacted reports.

One copy of the collection is believed to reside at the Imperial War Museum. The other will be offered for sale at Moore Allen & Innocent in Cirencester on Friday, November 24 with an auctioneer’s estimate of £2,000 to £3,000.

Educated at Eton, Charles Ward-Jackson served with the 3rd Yorkshire Regiment from 1889 until 1891 and with the Yorkshire Hussars from 1891 to 1907, fighting in the Boer War with the latter and being mentioned twice in dispatches.

On the outbreak of the war in 1914, at the age of 45, he rejoined the Hussars, and was posted to France in April 1915 as second in command of the Yorkshire Hussars Yeomanry under Lord Helmsley.

On his arrival in Havre he wrote: ““Everything seems so strange in this business. It seems even stranger to me who has been in one campaign than it does to others whose knowledge of war is confined to the newspapers. All is on such an enormous scale.”

The following day, he reported: “When I went to bed last night I could hear a tremendous bombardment going on somewhere east of Ypres I should imagine. It sounded very exciting and I could not help wondering whatever it was that has made us so ferocious as to invent all these horrid appliances for killing our fellow creatures.”

From his billet, where he paid his French landlady extra for an indoor bath and received a Fortnum and Mason hamper from Queenie, he witnessed the mass movement of troops, including “hundreds and hundreds of buses filled with the blue and red clothed little fellows” of the French infantry, and of seeing the injured transported from the front: “The English are nearly all cheery but the Scotch and Irish look glum.”

He observed the civilian refugees fleeing westwards, and the excitement of troops on seeing their first-ever aeroplane, rumours of German gas attacks, the arrival of Lord Kitcheners recruits to support the professional soldiers who had fought the first months of the war and, in September 1916, on seeing his first tank.

“They are shaped like an egg with one of the sides, the side which rests on the ground, rather flattened,” he wrote. “They are about half the length of a tennis lawn, are heavily armoured enough to resist the splinters of 77mm and shrapnel, hold ten men inside, and one hundred and twenty horse motor power.

“They go about two-and-a-half miles or less an hour, and will walk through any wall, palings, or barrier of wire; they can go through almost any pond and can climb trees, or very nearly so. Anyhow they sort of rear themselves up at it and sort of bend it over and crawl over it.

“They are armed with a machine gun in the front and rear and a six pounder on each side and are very alarming monsters indeed when they condescend to get a move on. Yesterday there were quite a number of them in the attack, but they didn’t all start.”

He was never slow to express his frustrations with the war. On May 15 1915 he wrote: “Don’t believe everything you read, things are not A1 out here at present and the position is still critical. Everyone in beginning to think now that neither side will ever break through; the Germans because our men are so brave, and we because the German defences are so fearfully strong.”

And the following day he added “Personally I don’t see how either side is ever to make a very big gap in the other unless some new and still more murderous invention is devised… Every yard of the ground is really now a fort, and my belief is that unless it comes to an end by the exhaustion of one or both of the parties or from some outside cause, the war will go on all our lives.”

Despite being miles from the front line – most of his time in France was spent in a château commandeered as General Headquarters – he did see the trenches first-hand, taking more than one trip on horseback or by motorcar.

In September 1915 he wrote: “The trenches are so full of water that a man could almost swim along them. The banks are giving way and the parapets falling down, while the sides are so greasy that men can scarcely climb out of the trenches. It is all so dreadful and hopeless. And we were in such high hope that we might even finish the War, or start the beginning of the end at any rate. I cannot write any more. It is all too sickening to describe.”

And in July 1916 he noted: “You see pictures of them and photographs, but they do not really convey to your mind what they are like. You want the belt of desolation of No Man’s Land and the Trenches stretching on either side of them and the feeling that there are two rows of people there waiting to kill each other whose business is absolutely that and nothing else at all, nor has been for the last two years. Then you can get the atmosphere.”

He was not untouched by personal tragedy, either. In the summer of 1916 he wrote: “I was dreadfully sorry to hear that Lindsey and nearly all the other fellows of the London Scottish with whom I had dined the night before they went up are killed. I think out of the seven officers there is only one unwounded.”

And of his friend, fellow Old Etonian and regiment commander Lord Helmsley, he wrote in September 1916: “Poor Charlie Feversham has been killed. I only saw him, thank God, a few short days ago and I longed for him to get out of this show without a hurt.”

Two days later, after Lord Helmsley’s obituary appeared in the newspapers, he noted: “All that sophistry about that being the death he would have liked best is so awful. No-body wants to die at all, and this blasted war is killing everybody.”

As the tide turned in December 1916, he began to sympathise with the retreating soldiers and citizens of Germany: “They, poor devils, must be sad and sick at heart. Their leaders no longer even attempt to delude them with the idea that victory will one day reward them.

“Their part is now but to bestir themselves to hold back the force that moves ever more and more tremendously towards them with the word revenge written in letters of blood on its brow.

“Their leaders, their papers, their people talk of peace; ours of victory.”

In the spring of 1917 Ward-Jackson followed the troops eastwards towards Germany, where he was able to see the horrors of the trench warfare so recently fought.

“The whole ground is a mass of huge craters and broken trees and everything you could possibly imagine to resemble some terrible and immense upheaval of nature, some frightful cataclysm,” he told Queenie from Gommecourt.

“I saw the remains of a great many poor fellows. Their helmets were lying all over the place and most of them had holes in them. But all the bones and whatever could be found of their poor bodies are all reverently buried in little cemeteries along the middle of No Man’s Land.”

By late spring he was thoroughly fed up with the war. “Oh I am so bored, bored, bored,” he wrote. “I wish to God Almighty it was over.

“Sometimes the waste of time occurs to me and nearly drives me mad. Every day one hears of someone whom one knows being killed or maimed for life, and day after day, week after week, moth after month we go on boring and wearing ourselves out till one can almost cry out for peace at any price, if only to stop the misery, the cruelty, the wretched unhappiness and agony of this strife.”

In January 1918 he was told that he was being reposted England, to serve as aide-de-camp to Lt General Sir T D’Oyly Snow – another Old Etonian and veteran of the Boer War and The Somme.

“Now that the time comes close for me to quit France I am awfully sorry to do it for many reasons.” he told Queenie in one of his final letters.

“I feel as if I ought not to go, but ought to stick it out no matter whether I am stale or not. It is a dreadful thing to have served out here three years and to come home amongst the Great Unstuck and the Great Never-come-outs.”

Major Ward-Jackson’s military service ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Having failed to enter Parliament in 1910, he was returned as Conservative Coalitionist MP for the Leominster division at the general election in December 1918.

In the election of 1922 he transferred to the Harrow constituency in London, running as the official Conservative candidate. He lost to former Conservative Oswald Mosley, who ran as an Independent and would later launch the British Union of Fascists.

Major Ward-Jackson died in 1930, aged 61.

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