Back to a friend that longs to grip your hand: a 1916 postcard to be sent to soldiers serving on the front. Photo: Getty
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“We are a long way from Blighty here”: letters home from the trenches

I discovered a box of wartime correspondence among some family papers this year, from my grandfather’s first cousin Walter Brabyn, a teenage soldier, to his parents and sister.

The Post Office delivered 12.5 million letters to soldiers each week throughout the Great War. It was an expensive operation but letters were deemed crucial to maintaining morale, both in the trenches and on the home front.

I discovered a box of wartime correspondence among some family papers this year, from my grandfather’s first cousin Walter Brabyn, a teenage soldier, to his parents and sister. Enlisted into the 1st Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment just after his 18th birthday in 1917, Walter was swiftly despatched to the heavily fortified front line in northern France.

His letters are deeply affecting, showing the boyish naivety of the young Tommies sent off to the trenches, but also how quickly they grew up. In the first missive Walter begs for parcels of chocolate and cake, but by the next he writes with solemn pride of his elevation to the rank of paid lance corporal: “I feel that a trust has been confided in me to which I must do my best to live up.”

Only the faintest glimmer of homesickness ever creeps in. “We are a long way from Blighty here,” he notes in one letter. Otherwise, a brazen jollity dominates. He concedes that “grub is pretty short” but adds earnestly that the dugouts in which he and his comrades sleep on wire netting mattresses are “quite cosy”, and free from rats.

A series of small vignettes in his letters captures the nature of trench life. Boredom, relieved by both back-breaking work and humour, dominates. “We had a laugh last night, when everyone was standing round some sandbags yawning and in the last stage of fedupness some funny Johnny in the next bay began to warble ‘the end of a perfect day’.”

Most heart-rending of the correspondence is the letter written to Walter’s mother by his commanding officer. It reads: “I am writing to give you information of your son – who was with me in the recent heavy fighting on the French front. To be as brief as possible – on the morning of 2/6 we were heavily attacked and your boy was hit in the left arm . . . It is difficult to say whether or not your boy succeeded in getting away. I will try and get some information and let you know.

“Just a final word to tell you what a fine example your boy set to his comrades in the face of a grave situation and did not even murmur or complain after being wounded when he must have endured a lot of pain.”

He continues ruefully: “Providence still seems to smile on me – this is my third time being the only surviving officer of the company in six weeks.”

Fate was less kind to Walter, who was taken prisoner in the Ardennes. A dictated note was his penultimate letter home: “I have been wounded and they have had to amputate my left arm near the shoulder. I am unhurt otherwise. I am going on well.”

In a final missive dated 6 June 1918, he explained that he had suffered gangrene, but wrote: “I hope I shall be better soon, and will see you all again perhaps, and have a change of grub. Best love to you all.”

Less than a fortnight later he was dead, a fact of which his family was informed in a cursory note from the War Office a year later. I had never heard mention of him in my family before discovering his letters but he is far from being yet another faceless soldier who went early to his grave: the existence of these letters makes his memory, in some small way, endure.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.