Tag Archive | world war one

First World War – Bill Furse and James Rance

During a trip to Northern France in June 2014, I visited the graves of some men whose stories we are featuring in an exhibition about Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. The family photograph and letters reproduced here are part of the collection of Dave Vaux.

Bill and Alan Furse

The Furse family

The Furse family (Bill seated to the left and Alan is standing)

Bill Furse and his brother Alan lived in Moseley, Birmingham.  When war broke out Lord Kitchener put out an appeal for volunteers, and many white-collar workers joined the so–called ‘Pals’ battalions. Bill and Alan both joined the 1st Birmingham battalion (also known as the 14th battalion) in September 1914. In this photograph Bill is seated to the left hand side, and Alan is standing.

Letter written by Alan Furse

Letter written by Alan Furse

The Furse brothers were middle-class and their background and education would have qualified them for advancement. Both were commissioned to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Alan’s letters home give a vivid picture of life in the British Expeditionary Force. He describes the conditions in the trenches:  ‘Whilst on your tour of duty round in the front line you are floundering knee deep in mud and both sides are slimy with mud so that you have nothing clean to steady yourself by and when you get back to your dugout to rest you have the slimy walls and at least a foot of mud on the floor. You soon learn not to drop things as of course they are useless afterwards and the great trouble is to find somewhere to put something down’.

Alan also writes to his teenage brother Claude, who was an Army Cadet. These letters present the war as a great adventure:  ‘It is a grand sight to see the anti aircraft guns firing at an aeroplane, little puffs like bunches of cotton wool suddenly appearing all round the plane until he gets out of range…Whilst we were walking back to the wood today a couple of shells fell about 100 yds away and kicked up a devil of a row…They are called Whizzbangs because they are of such high velocity and you get no warning of their arrival, just the whiz thro’ the air and then the explosion…’.

Telegram informing of Bill's death

Telegram informing of Bill’s death

Tragically, Alan’s brother Bill was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 25. Alan was not far away, but he did not hear the news of Bill’s death until several days later when his parents informed him by telegram. Alan’s response to his parents is a prime example of ‘stiff upper lip’, but his grief can be read between the lines:  ‘Thus goes the finest pal I have ever had and one of the best and most straightforward men who ever lived. Of course the shock has been bad for me but what you must feel at home having to sit still I can’t imagine but you must not give way more than you can help. Try and bear up. God grant you all His help at this awful time and give you strength to bear the loss of such a splendid man’.

Bill Furse's headstone

Bill Furse’s headstone

I visited Bill’s grave in June 2014. By the time he died Bill had been transferred to the Tyneside Scottish Brigade, formed of ‘Pals’ battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Bill was temporarily buried where he fell, but was transferred to Bapaume Post Cemetery near Albert after the Armistice.

Alan Furse was discharged on medical grounds later in 1916 and survived the war.

James Edward Weeks Rance

Many men who served in the first world war also went on to fight in the second world war. One example is James Edward Weeks Rance of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the first world war.

Jame Rance's headstone

Jame Rance’s headstone

In May 1940 Major Rance, now aged 42, was part of the British Expeditionary Force once again. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt, where he was killed. Following this battle, 80 Royal Warwicks were taken prisoner by the Waffen-SS division, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler.  They were locked into a barn and murdered.

Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery

Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery

Rance is now buried at Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery. A small number of Commonwealth war dead from both world wars lie among civilian graves. It was quite moving to see war graves scattered among the tombs of the local townspeople.

Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories:  Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.

Read the first part of this blog: First World War – Private Fred Andrews

 

Henrietta Lockhart
Curator (History)

Photographs 1-3 courtesy of Dave Vaux.

 

First World War – Private Fred Andrews

We have been preparing for an exhibition about Birmingham men who served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. I had the opportunity to follow up some of these individuals during my recent trip to Northern France. It’s hard to believe that the gentle countryside of the Somme has been the scene of death and destruction, but the reminders are everywhere, not only in the form of military cemeteries but also road signs indicating the front line at various dates during the Somme campaign. This is the first of two blog posts in which I will look at the stories of three men who lost their lives in this area.

Private Fred Andrews

Private Fred Andrews

Private Fred Andrews

Private Fred Andrews served with the 1/6th battalion of the Royal Warwicks and took part in ‘the big push’ on the Somme in July 1916. He came from a working-class family in Ladywood, Birmingham. He was an officer’s servant. In our collection we have a set of letters written by Fred to his mother and sister, which give an insight into Fred’s life on a training camp on Salisbury Plain and later as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.

Letter written by Fred

Letter written by Fred

On Easter Monday 1916, Fred writes: ‘Dinner time we had biscuits instead of bread. We shall have them every Monday and Thursday. They are hard, but very nice, I can eat them all right. One man has put his wife’s address on one and a 1d stamp, on one side, and on the other he put, This is what they give us on Easter Monday, at Salisbury Plain. He sent one just the same last year from the trenches. If I was the post man I should eat it’.

Fred only writes two letters once he reaches France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. In one he says: ‘The Officers, and N.C.O’s [non-commissioned officers] are very good to us here. We can get two green envelopes a week, so you will get the letters pretty quick. Dear Mum, Will you please give Ollie [Fred’s girlfriend] my love, and address when you see her. They are a very nice lot of chaps that I am with now. And we get plenty of food to eat. I will close now with very Best Love to you all, and Ollie. Do not worry I hope the war will soon be over now. Things are looking up here. Love to all, Fred xxx’. The last letter from Fred was received by his mother on 30 June 1916.

Letter written by Fred's mother to Fred

Letter written by Fred’s mother

The final letters in the series are from Fred’s mother. She writes to him repeatedly during July 1916, pleading with him to write to her: ‘oh son I do hope you are all right I have not had a line for nearly three weeks the last I had you wrote the 30 of June and now it is the 19 of July my own dear boy I am quite sure it is not your fault I do not know what is preventing you from writing if I could only get a line in your hand writing I should feel better’. Mrs Andrews’ letters are returned to her, the envelopes marked ‘missing’.

Fred Andrews Graves Registration Card

Fred Andrews Graves Registration Card

Fred had been killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 21 years old. Mrs Andrews eventually received this photograph of his grave (see image above). Fred still lies in Serre Road Cemetery No. 2 at Beaumont-Hamel, but he now has a permanent headstone.

Fred's permanent headstone

Fred’s permanent headstone

I visited Fred’s grave in June 2014. Serre Road is one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was completed in 1934. The Commonwealth cemeteries are now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and are beautiful and peaceful places to visit.

Serre Road cemetery

Serre Road cemetery

During the 1920s and 30s many relatives of the dead visited their graves in France, some with the assistance of veterans’ associations. We do not know whether Fred’s family ever had the opportunity to do this.

Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.

Read the second blog: First World War – Bill Furse and James Rance

Henrietta Lockhart
Curator (History)

Birmingham and the First World War – oral histories

As part of Birmingham Museums First World War Centenary programme some of our first world war sound archive will be made available on-line.

The recordings were made in 1981 as part of a project called the Great War. A number of Birmingham men and women were interviewed about their experiences during the First World War. Their personal stories account for a whole range of experiences and include men and women who served on the Western Front as soldiers or in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, women who worked in munitions factories or who served as nurses in the city’s military hospitals, conscientious objectors, and experience of the war from a child’s perspective.

These interviews have been used over the years by researchers, and in exhibitions, most recently ‘Birmingham its people its history’. They have not previously been made available on-line. We will keep you updated via the blog when we upload new interviews over the coming months. Transcripts for the interviews will also be posted on the blog.

Highlights from this first batch of interviews include:

Lilly Duckham OBE

Lilly Duckham volunteered to serve in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). She was one of the first groups of women to serve overseas with the WAAC. Lilly was awarded an OBE for her service during the war.

Lilly Duckham in her Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform c. 1917.

Lilly Duckham in her Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform c. 1917.

Download Lily Duckham OBE transcript (pdf)

Marjorie Peers

Marjorie Peers was born in 1887. When war broke out Marjorie was apprentice clothes designer. She initially went into war work as a sail maker for a company in Bromsgrove Street. She also served in the WAAC.

Marjoree Peers

Marjorie Peers

Download Marjorie Peers transcript (pdf)

Elizabeth Cross

Elizabeth Cross was born in Small Heath. Cross discusses war on the Home Front from a child’s perspective. She discusses patriotic songs she sung at school, children’s games, as well as other popular songs, and seeing Belgium refugees in Birmingham. She also discusses the impact of Spanish flu epidemic after the war.

Download Elizabeth Cross transcript (pdf)

Max Berner

Max Berner was the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He was born in Manchester but moved to Birmingham aged 3 months old. After leaving school Berner worked in the metal industry which led to him setting up his own scrap metal business at the beginning of the war. In March 1917 he enlisted with ‘H’ Special Company, Royal Engineers in the Poison Gas Section. He served in France and Belgium.

Download Max Berner transcript (pdf)

Jo-Ann Curtis,
Curator (History)