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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.