Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jac­que­line Wadsworth is the au­thor of Let­ters from the Trenches, pub­lished by Pen and Sword Books (RRP £19.99)

Fa­thers in the First World War trenches reach out to their fam­i­lies at home

Es­tranged fa­thers in the trenches of the First World War were not the stuffy Ed­war­dian char­ac­ters we may imag­ine, says Jac­que­line Wadsworth…

Young Sid Cole must have been rather puz­zled when this mes­sage ar­rived from his father from the Western Front dur­ing the First World War: “Best Love and Kisses to my Dear Siddy from Daddy.”

Writ­ten on the back of a beau­ti­fully embroidered post­card, it was full of love and ten­der­ness – but com­pletely out of char­ac­ter for the man Sid re­mem­bered say­ing good­bye to, aged five, in Au­gust 1914. For Wil­liam Cole, a gun­ner with the Royal Gar­ri­son Ar­tillery, had been a strict father and a man of few words who rarely re­vealed any feel­ings to­wards his wife or chil­dren at home in Sal­is­bury. “They were cer­tainly not the sort of words he would have used to his chil­dren when he was with them,” says Sid’s daugh­ter, Wendy Stone.

How­ever, war changed men in the most un­ex­pected ways and Cole wasn’t the only starchy Ed­war­dian father to re­veal a softer side when writ­ing home from the trenches. Long sep­a­ra­tions from fam­i­lies and the risk of be­ing killed at any time prompted many to ex­press emo­tions they may oth­er­wise have felt too in­hib­ited to show, or per­haps had never even thought about.

Some let­ters were al­most ma­ter­nal in tone, such as Pri­vate Tom Fake’s to his wife and young son in Bris­tol: “Good night my dears, and God bless you both, I close with my fond­est love and kisses,” he wrote, adding touch­ingly: “Shouldn’t I just like to come up for a week­end and have a peep at you.”

And for men who couldn’t find the right words, a thriv­ing post­card busi­ness ex­isted at the Front with sim­ple mes­sages of

en­dear­ment, such as: “From your lov­ing Daddy”, “Many kisses for you”, “To my dear lit­tle boy”, “God be with you till we meet again”. Such sen­si­tiv­ity and con­cern for off­spring may have been height­ened by the men’s own ex­pe­ri­ences in the trenches, sug­gests Dr Rosie Kennedy in her book

The Chil­dren’s War: Bri­tain, 1914-1918.

Much of their rou­tine work in­volved car­ing for fel­low sol­diers: cook­ing, or­gan­is­ing laun­dry, nurs­ing the wounded, or sim­ply try­ing to cheer up the down­hearted – not dis­sim­i­lar to the tasks that filled a mother’s day at home. “The con­cerns over health and ad­e­quate diet ex­pressed by many fa­thers in their let­ters to their chil­dren cer­tainly sug­gest that they now recog­nised the fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance of th­ese is­sues,” says Dr Kennedy.

Pri­vate thoughts

Pri­vate Philip Lux­ton, who came from the min­ing town of Aber­tillery in Wales, thought of lit­tle else but his fam­ily dur­ing quiet pe­ri­ods in France and fret­ted over the poor health of his el­dest daugh­ter, Gla­dys. “I would not send her to school un­til she have [sic] seen the Doc­tor again,” he ad­vised his wife in 1915. A few days later he added: “I would not worry about her not go­ing to school for I shall not trou­ble my­self, for I will try and teach her my­self when I come home.” Pri­vate Lux­ton was killed by ma­chine gun fire the fol­low­ing month.

In a sim­i­lar vein, a sol­dier quoted by Dr Jes­sica Meyer in her book Men of War: Mas­culin­ity and the First World War in Bri­tain, wrote home at length about mak­ing sure his three chil­dren had new boots for the win­ter: “The kid­dies [sic] boots might get bad just now. I know what it is to have wet, freez­ing feet and I couldn’t bear to think you or they had to put up with it.”

It wasn’t just their own off­spring that men’s hearts went out to. Tom Fake was dis­tressed to hear that a fel­low sol­dier’s six-year-old niece had died in school dur­ing a Ger­man bomb­ing raid on Lon­don in 1917. And when news reached him that a neigh­bour, Ge­orge Richards, had been killed, he wrote touch­ingly to his wife: “Tell Mrs Richards how sorry I feel and sin­cerely hope that some­thing will turn up for her, and her poor lit­tle chil­dren.”

Sergeant Ge­orge Fair­clough’s pity even ex­tended to chil­dren of the en­emy. At the end of 1914 he wrote home apol­o­gis­ing that he wouldn’t be able to dress up as Santa Claus for his daugh­ter: “Tell Olive that Father Christ­mas will come next year for cer­tain – he had to go to Ger­many this year as there are a lot of lit­tle girls who have no Daddy. (That’s true by Jove). I’m wear­ing one fel­low’s belt at present who won’t re­turn, poor devil.”

Many fa­thers were de­ter­mined to main­tain their role within the fam­ily – al­beit from a dis­tance – and ‘con­ver­sa­tions’ about do­mes­tic mat­ters are ev­i­dent in let­ters to spouses. In the au­tumn of 1917, Tom Fake chat­ted to his wife, Char­lotte, about get­ting their son Tommy a new win­ter coat:

6 Septem­ber: “I think it will be nice to get him a rain proof coat, and as you say if it’s plenty big enough it will do for a se­cond sea­son won’t it.”

18 Oc­to­ber: “So you are leav­ing Tommy’s coat un­til I come home, very well my dear, I don’t mind a bit, only hope that the day will soon come.”

6 Novem­ber (Char­lotte has gone ahead and bought the coat be­cause her hus­band’s leave is so long com­ing): “I bet he looks a toff in his new rig out, but it will carry him through the win­ter won’t it my dear.”

Ex­changes like this sug­gest that, even be­fore the war, Ed­war­dian fa­thers were far more ‘ hand­son’ in bring­ing up chil­dren than is pop­u­larly thought. Not all were re­mote, stern fig­ures, puff­ing on pipes be­hind a news­pa­per, or tired and grouchy at the tea-ta­ble af­ter long hours at work. This is the view of Julie-Marie Strange, who ar­gues in her book, Fa­ther­hood and the Bri­tish Work­ing Class, 1865-1914: “Fa­thers did spend much of their time in work but this did not ren­der them ab­sent from, or even pe­riph­eral to, fam­ily life… Even the ba­nal prac­tices of ev­ery­day life, such as teatime and men’s evening oc­cu­pa­tion of their chair be­came times and spa­ces for father-child in­ti­macy.”

Pri­vate Lux­ton was cer­tainly a cen­tral fig­ure in the lives of his two daugh­ters and he was for­lorn that he couldn’t be with them for Whit­sun in 1915: “I think this will be the first Whit­sun for me to be from them and I hope it will be the last.” When Au­gust Bank Hol­i­day ap­proached, he wrote to his wife: “I ex­pect you will soon be pre­par­ing to take the chil­dren down to the sands and I hope you and the kid­dies will en­joy your­selves and don’t for­get to buy them a bucket and spade just as if I was with them.”

The av­er­age sol­dier at the Western Front could ex­pect leave once a year if he was lucky (more of­ten for of­fi­cers) and even less fre­quently in re­moter the­atres of war.

Con­cern for offffff­spring may have been height­ened by ex­pe­ri­ences in the trenches

In an at­tempt to main­tain con­tact with home, let­ters were of­ten sent sev­eral times a week and this rather des­per­ate one, quoted in Jes­sica Meyer’s book, shows just how painful sep­a­ra­tion could be: “If the young­sters are bad at any time please don’t hide it from me, I shall only be more wor­ried and fancy they are worse than they re­ally are.”

For fa­thers who were too old to fight, the roles were re­versed as they watched their grown-up sons leave for the fight­ing. Th­ese young men now took on a re­as­sur­ing – some­times even fa­therly – role in their cor­re­spon­dence, which led to ma­ture new re­la­tion­ships be­tween fa­thers and sons.

When Ed­win Wood, 23, was trans­ferred from the Western Front to Italy in 1917, he wrote to his father in Bris­tol: “Some­times I have thought how you must be wor­ry­ing about me, but re­ally Dad there is no need to yet! I wasn’t sorry to get away from France Dad, as I knew it pretty well af­ter two years and eight months.”

Just be­fore the Bat­tle of the Somme in 1916, Stan­ley Good­head, a pri­vate with the Manch­ester Pals, opened up to his father in a way he may never have done dur­ing peace­time: “I wish to thank you Dad for the way you have looked af­ter me whilst out here, also when at home and you have my very best.”

When the war was fi­nally over and men were al­lowed to go home, a sense of ner­vous­ness was not un­com­mon as fa­thers pre­pared to meet chil­dren who were now four or five years older. It was some­thing that had played on their minds through­out the war, ex­pressed in lit­tle asides to wives. “I sup­pose the lit­tle dar­ling is al­most for­get­ting her Dad by now,” wrote Ge­orge Fair­clough of his daugh­ter as early as Septem­ber 1914. “I sup­pose I shall hardly know him if I see him again,” wrote Tom Fake of his son.

Some men re­turned to chil­dren they had never even met. Sergeant Ma­jor Al­fred Dowl­ing, of the Royal Ir­ish Ri­fles, was taken pris­oner by the Ger­mans early in the war and didn’t see his daugh­ter, May, who was born in Au­gust 1914, un­til he was repa­tri­ated in 1919. The Dowl­ing fam­ily (seen on page 68) re­mained strong de­spite the sep­a­ra­tion and Al­fred and his wife, who also had three older sons, went on to have an­other daugh­ter in 1920, Bri­die, who is still alive. She re­calls: “May al­ways said she was Dad’s favourite – un­til I was born!”

Life was par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for dis­abled sol­diers who now had to be cared for by their fam­i­lies. Chil­dren were en­cour­aged to be help­ful and sup­port their moth­ers, and their sto­ries are now be­ing col­lected in an oral his­tory pro­ject called The Gen­er­a­tion Be­tween, by Michael Roper at the Univer­sity of Es­sex.

On the sur­face, their ac­counts are un­com­plain­ing – a re­flec­tion of the emo­tional re­straint that was a hall­mark of in­ter-war cul­ture, says Pro­fes­sor Roper. But dis­tress­ing ex­pe­ri­ences seep through. One child en­dured the hu­mil­i­a­tion of hav­ing his father mocked af­ter a men­tal break­down. An­other re­called her father, wounded in the war, moan­ing in pain at night through the pa­per-thin walls, de­spite be­ing dosed up with mor­phine. And some boys missed the com­pan­ion­ship of an able-bod­ied father: “There was no­body to

say: ‘Come along, I’ll teach you how to fish’. The First World War put an enor­mous strain on fam­ily life but, by and large, moth­ers man­aged to cope with­out a man at the helm. They not only took care of the house­work but also less fa­mil­iar jobs, like han­dling the fi­nances and dis­ci­pline. It proved a lot for some re­turn­ing sol­diers to come to terms with.

Did the con­flict change fa­ther­hood?

“The roles as­so­ci­ated with fa­ther­hood re­mained largely static de­spite the so­cial changes of the First World War and af­ter­wards, such as the

en­fran­chise­ment of women,” said Dr Laura King of the Univer­sity of Leeds, whose book Fam­ily Men: Fa­ther­hood and Mas­culin­ity in

Bri­tain, 1914-1960 was pub­lished ear­lier this year. “First and fore­most, fa­ther­hood still meant bread­win­ning, with dis­ci­plin­ing and guid­ing chil­dren, en­ter­tain­ing them, and help­ing mother fol­low­ing this. Moth­ers were still un­der­stood as the pri­mary carer for chil­dren, in both phys­i­cal and emo­tional terms.”

Some his­to­ri­ans, how­ever, have ar­gued that a qui­eter and gen­tler kind of mas­culin­ity came to pre­dom­i­nate in the in­ter-war pe­riod and th­ese years, says Dr King, saw a new fo­cus on fa­ther­hood cul­tur­ally. Classes in ‘ fa­ther­craft’ were started in the 1920s, which en­cour­aged the view that child-rear­ing wasn’t just ‘women’s busi­ness’. In many dis­tricts, ‘Fa­thers’ Coun­cils’ were held along­side wel­fare clin­ics, and fa­ther­hood now be­came a sub­ject that was com­monly aired in news­pa­pers.

In 1920, the Daily Mail pub­lished a reader’s let­ter en­ti­tled The Right to Fa­ther­hood, which called for chil­dren of un­mar­ried par­ents (of which there were plenty dur­ing the First World War) to be reg­is­tered in the father’s name, not the mother’s. And in 1928, this ap­peared in the Aberdeen Press and Jour­nal: “In­nu­mer­able books have been writ­ten on the sub­jects of moth­er­hood… but as far as we are aware no work has ap­peared on fa­ther­hood. This need is sup­plied by EM and KM Walker in ‘On Be­ing a Father’, an in­ter­est­ing book which should help hith­erto ne­glected fa­thers to take their place in their own nurs­eries.”

Who Do You Think You Are?

TheTh ColeC l f fam­i­lyil – Willi Wil­liam sent tl lovingi mes­sages back from the Front ( see ‘Per­sonal File’ below)

Cap­tain Lee of the 1st Camero­ni­ans writ­ing a let­ter in the trenches

of the Western Front, 1915

A lov­ing mes­sage sent home from the trenches dur­ing the First World War

A post­card busi­ness from the Front thrived, al­low­ing fa­thers to send a quick mes­sage home

Al­fred Dowl­ing and his wife with their two daugh­ters and three sons, af­ter WW1

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