Es­sex His­tory

As we mark the cen­te­nary of the end of world War I, Han­nah Sal­is­bury from the Es­sex Record Of­fice re­veals a unique in­sight into life at war dur­ing this bleak time

Essex Life - - INSIDE -

Sketches from the First World War front­line

Ger­ald Rick­word’s ad­vice to, ‘Never look back­ward, al­ways look ahead’ ap­pears on his sketch of a World War I sol­dier whose gaze is set firmly on the drinks at the bar in front of him. While never look­ing back is not ad­vice that we could ad­vo­cate at the archive, it must have been one way of cop­ing with life on the Western Front, where Rick­word was based when he made the sketch.

Ger­ald Rick­word was born in Colch­ester in 1886, the sec­ond of four chil­dren. His brother John Edgell Rick­word also served in the war, and is the bet­ter known of the two. John Edgell was a poet, critic and jour­nal­ist, and in the 1930s be­came a lead­ing com­mu­nist in­tel­lec­tual.

Both were the sons of Ge­orge Rick­word, who was Colch­ester Bor­ough Li­brar­ian and at­tended Colch­ester Royal Gram­mar School. In later life Ger­ald main­tained a life-long in­ter­est in Colch­ester’s his­tory.

Be­fore the begin­ning of World War I, Ger­ald was an in­sur­ance clerk. Dur­ing the war, he served first with the Royal Berk­shire Reg­i­ment and then with the Labour Corps as a trans­port of­fi­cer. It was dur­ing this pe­riod that Ger­ald drew the sketches shown here.

A col­lec­tion of about 30 sketches made by Ger­ald dur­ing the war sur­vive to­day at the Es­sex Record Of­fice, each full of evoca­tive lit­tle de­tails that pro­vide win­dows into scenes that Ger­ald wit­nessed. The sketches are all in pen­cil and most are mono­tone, with just a few in colour. The sketches are all loose and on scraps of var­i­ous pa­per stocks.

Some of the sketches show men of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties and reg­i­ments ob­served by Ger­ald. One of these is dated Jan­uary 8, 1917, and shows dif­fer­ent sol­diers Ger­ald had seen on the Boule­vard Jacquard (he doesn’t give a town, but this could per­haps be the Boule­vard

Jacquard in Calais). One head and shoul­ders sketch is of a French Al­ge­rian sol­dier, while a full length por­trait is of a French cav­alry of­fi­cer. The sketch is in black and white, but for the cav­alry of­fi­cer Ger­ald has noted the colours of his uni­form – a red hat, a light blue tu­nic, red breeches and red cloak lined with white.

Sev­eral of the sketches are hu­mor­ous, such as, A por­tion of the rear of the Bri­tish line, show­ing a rear view of a rather wide Bri­tish sol­dier, his uni­form strain­ing around him. In another sketch, two mice help them­selves to cheese and crack­ers. In another, a sen­try stands in driv­ing rain, his jacket but­toned up over his face, a large wide-brimmed hat hope­fully en­sur­ing he didn’t get rain wa­ter pour­ing down the back of his neck. The cap­tion in­forms us that de­spite ap­pear­ances, this man is, ‘A sen­try, not one of the lifeboat crew’. Other sketches are more haunt­ing, such as the one of a sol­dier in a gas mask.

After the war Ger­ald re­turned to Es­sex and in 1923 mar­ried Florence Webb in Colch­ester. He lived un­til 1969, when he died aged 82.N

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