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 rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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