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?

Dan Kitwood/Getty
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I believe only Yvette Cooper has the breadth of support to beat Jeremy Corbyn

All the recent polling suggests Andy Burnham is losing more votes than anyone else to Jeremy Corbyn, says Diana Johnson MP.

Tom Blenkinsop MP on the New Statesman website today says he is giving his second preference to Andy Burnham as he thinks that Andy has the best chance of beating Jeremy.

This is on the basis that if Yvette goes out first all her second preferences will swing behind Andy, whereas if Andy goes out first then his second preferences, due to the broad alliance he has created behind his campaign, will all or largely switch to the other male candidate, Jeremy.

Let's take a deep breath and try and think through what will be the effect of preferential voting in the Labour leadership.

First of all, it is very difficult to know how second preferences will switch. From my telephone canvassing there is some rather interesting voting going on, but I don't accept that Tom’s analysis is correct. I have certainly picked up growing support for Yvette in recent weeks.

In fact you can argue the reverse of Tom’s analysis is true – Andy has moved further away from the centre and, as a result, his pitch to those like Tom who are supporting Liz first is now narrower. As a result, Yvette is more likely to pick up those second preferences.

Stats from the Yvette For Labour team show Yvette picking up the majority of second preferences from all candidates – from the Progress wing supporting Liz to the softer left fans of Jeremy – and Andy's supporters too. Their figures show many undecideds opting for Yvette as their first preference, as well as others choosing to switch their first preference to Yvette from one of the other candidates. It's for this reason I still believe only Yvette has the breadth of support to beat Jeremy and then to go on to win in 2020.

It's interesting that Andy has not been willing to make it clear that second preferences should go to Yvette or Liz. Yvette has been very clear that she would encourage second preferences to be for Andy or Liz.

Having watched Andy on Sky's Murnaghan show this morning, he categorically states that Labour will not get beyond first base with the electorate at a general election if we are not economically credible and that fundamentally Jeremy's economic plans do not add up. So, I am unsure why Andy is so unwilling to be clear on second preferences.

All the recent polling suggests Andy is losing more votes than anyone else to Jeremy. He trails fourth in London – where a huge proportion of our electorate is based.

So I would urge Tom to reflect more widely on who is best placed to provide the strongest opposition to the Tories, appeal to the widest group of voters and reach out to the communities we need to win back. I believe that this has to be Yvette.

The Newsnight focus group a few days ago showed that Yvette is best placed to win back those former Labour voters we will need in 2020.

Labour will pay a massive price if we ignore this.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.