An article that some followers on Twitter posted a link to today, <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/world-history/the-gathering-storm-a-look-back-on-middleclass-europes-last-carefree-christmas-before-the-onset-of-world-war-one-9020184.html” target=”_blank”>in the Independent, described Christmas a century ago saying it was “Europe’s last carefree Christmas before the onset of World War One.” It is easy to look back on the Edwardian period as some sort of golden era, a view especially prominent with recent television programmes like Downton Abbey. The reality is poverty was still rife more than a decade after the death of the Old Queen and while the Middle and Upper classes were profiting, many others were not.
But it was, of course, the last ‘normal’ Christmas families in Britain, and indeed across Europe, would experience for many years to come. The author Henry Williamson called it the ‘Last Winter of the Old World’, a world in which he had grown from boy to man, and would soon take him in khaki to the front line of Flanders. A year later his Christmas would be on the battlefield; in No Man’s Land at Ploegsteert, face to face with the enemy during the so-called Christmas Truce.
So to mark this important passage in the story of the Great War Centenary, and thinking of old Henry a hundred years ago, the final image for this year is not one of war, but of peace: a winter’s scene in 1913 on Hilly Fields, the open parkland near Henry Williamson’s own home in Eastern Road, Ladywell, South-East London. The Middle Classes of London are out in force, and alongside them no doubt the boys from some of what Williamson called ‘the rougher streets’ who attended the school on the hill, which is still there and still a school; now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. The school has its own war memorial to the old boys who fell, some of whom may well be on this image; but whoever the young men seen here in 1913 are, a year later, like Williamson, they would be off to war and an unknown future; days like these would appear as if part of a different, unconnected past.
As Christmas approaches thoughts turn to trench life on the Western Front during the Great War. This image dates from a small private collection relating to the 1/13th Battalion London Regiment (Kensingtons) and was taken in France near Fleurbaix during the winter of 1914/15. The men are dressed informally as was typical of that early period of the conflict and aside from a great deal of personal kit being worn to keep the cold out, the man on the left has a typical goat/sheep-skin jerkin of this first winter. At least the rum ration is close at hand! The fact that the men are standing up and the parapet of the positions behind is low, would indicate this was in a reserve trench some distance from the actual front line.
These two images are postcards which are bent and tatty, the corners are curled up and they are pretty dirty. But they were once very important to one man: Joseph Kinna. Kinna was a family man who was conscripted in 1916 and joined the Gloucestershire Regiment. He fought with the 8th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the Somme and the reason why these postcards were important to him is shown on the reverse:
Joseph Kinna was wounded in that attack at Grandcourt, in the tail-end of the Somme battle, and posted home. Medically downgraded due to his wounds, he was eventually discharged from the army, aged 22, in 1917.
Two simple postcards, carried in a soldier’s pocket nearly a century ago; memories of his life back home to him, but today, as the nation pauses to remember, it is simple stories like this which transport us back to those days of the Great War when even a simple postcard meant something to one family at war.