FIRST WORLD WAR DADS
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 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