Cummings’ goings: Letters from the front line
- Credit: Archant
BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Mark Cummings shares the story of Cotswold groundsman-turned-soldier William Henry Fisher, one of the over 8 million who fought on behalf of the British Empire in WWI
This year, my colleagues throughout the BBC are documenting the centenary of World War One. I’m sure you’ve already experienced some of the myriad ways we are bringing the events spanning 1914-1918 to your TV, radio, classroom, computer or smartphone. Sometimes the most powerful way of conveying what really happened in history is to simply tell the story of one individual who lived through the reality of this period. So in this month’s column I’d like to share with you the story of William Henry Fisher.
William Henry Fisher was working as a groundsman at Cowley Manor, the country home of the Horlicks family, when war broke out on the August 4, 1914. Just over eight months later, in April, 1915 he volunteered to serve King and Country becoming Private number 21121 with the 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. The young soldier would lose his life in the French coal-mining village of Loos on the October 13 that year. He was just 21.
The Battle of Loos began on September 25 and was the largest conflict for the British Expeditionary Force in the war at that time. In many areas the British artillery hadn’t managed to cut the German wire ahead of the attack resulting in devastating losses as they tried to advance over open fields. Despite the heavy losses the British were able to break through German defences and capture the town of Loos. The following day, when the battle resumed, the Germans managed to stop a further advance eventually forcing the British back to their starting positions with the fighting subsiding on the September 28. The Germans then made further attempts to recapture the Hohenzollern Redoubt with success on October 3. A final offensive was made by the British on October 13 which failed.
We can get a glimpse into what it was like for William as he left Gloucestershire and made his way to the battlefield through the letters he wrote home to his parents and sister in the days leading up to his death. Written in pencil on flimsy paper and now held at the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, they tell of the day to day life of a young man far from home.
In June 1915: “They are busy hay making round here, good crops too. We are going to our trenches Monday for 24 hours so we shall have a night in them, we are going to blow them up I think so that will be all right, we shall make the dust fly when we starts.”
On August 19: “Well I have seen the country a bit since I left home it is rather a dirty place about here we are not so very far off the firing line now so our time will come to have our revenge on the Germans”.
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On September 9: “Elsie she sent me a bottle of Horlicks milk tablets that’s the stuff to give them, I shant half get fat out here about as fat as a match” and then later, in the same letter home to his sister, he writes “I have got a job now we have to learn to throw bombs, that’s the stuff to give them”
William didn’t take part in the first major battle of Loos on September 25 because he caught mumps, but he wrote that a lot of his battalion had been killed or wounded. William was one of an estimated 60,000 casualties at Loos out of a total British force of 250,000. The Battle of Loos marked the first major engagement involving British New Army units, volunteer troops who enlisted for the duration of the war. It was part of a joint Anglo-French offensive on a wide section of the front. The British Army possessed insufficient artillery for the initial bombardment of the German lines, so this was supplemented by the use of chlorine gas, the first time this weapon was employed by the British. Initial British success was succeeded by German counter-attack, and the battle resulted in very high losses for little ground gained. Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, resigned his post not long after the battle and was succeeded by one of his Army commanders, Sir Douglas Haig.
In William Fisher’s last letter home - written on October 4, 1915, he writes: “My Dearest Sister, just a few lines to say I am keeping fairly well.”
This one simple story of a Cotswold man is just one small piece of a larger jigsaw aiming to tell the story of what happened 100 years ago. On BBC Radio Gloucestershire we will be visiting places that tell their own unique story from World War One. For example, we visit Twigworth and explore the poetry of Ivor Gurney, in Quedgeley we explain the role of the Canary Girls, at Leighterton Cemetery we look into the history of the Australian Squadrons training for the Western Front and discover why Amberley played such a crucial role in making sure The Fallen were never forgotten. For more details bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire
April showers of random thoughts
The wrong trousers... A story I often tell when explaining my behaviour due to lack of sleep is the one where I end up putting the bucket collar on the wrong dog. It happened during one of my dopey afternoons and my wife hasn’t let me forget about it. Nor has the dog who didn’t have any sore paws to protect. I told this to a group of wonderful women in Longhope in the Forest of Dean and afterwards Helen came up to me to share a gem about her husband Shaun. They have two young children and apparently regularly after he has been head of bath time he has dressed the little ones in the wrong clothes. The oldest is nearly four, the youngest is nine months!
It’s only words... I’ve started a campaign to reintroduce ancient Gloucestershire words back into our everyday lives. Published in 1890, The Glossary of Dialect and Archaic Words used in the County of Gloucester has some crackers. Some words you’ll be hearing embedded into the show soon are ‘Vlobber’ (stupid talk), ‘Jerry-me-diddler’ (an ignorant, good for nothing fellow) and ‘Oontityump’ (molehill).
In a spin... You know the thing that goes round and round as a YouTube video loads? That ‘spinny’ thing can be the bane of our lives as we wait with baited breath for the vital thing to appear on our computer. To make matters worse this hypnotic irritant hasn’t even got a name. Well it has now - it is definitely a Tirley. When you are waiting for hours for the download think of this Cotswold place name and spare a thought for the residents who’ve had the wettest and most stressful winter on record.
Feeling great on the A38
At the time of going to print we are about to embark on a living history road trip up the A38. Before we make a voyage like this I always ask our audience if they have any gems for us to go and explore and they certainly haven’t let us down with tales about this stretch of tasty tarmac.
If you drive along any road there are hundreds of stories to be told and here are a few we will be chasing up. There was once a double decker bus parked near Moreton Vallence which was home to a whole family! I’ve found someone who went to school with one of the children in the family so hopefully we will get the whole story.
There used to be a Tug of War contest every Boxing Day over the river Cam by The George Pub in Cambridge. A member of the ICI team told us about it - obviously the losers ended up in the river. Hopefully we will find more teams who took part and recreate the contest.
We are also chasing rumours of a stallion that used to trot up and down the A38, the father and son who played cricket in the road when it was quiet and we have the families who will recount the holiday car journeys pre-M5 down to Cornwall that took 12 hours.
We have tracked down the policeman who used to direct traffic on the A38 when it passed through The Cross in Gloucester and we will be reliving the roadside cafes including The Cheerio Cafe in Eastington and The Orange Umbrella near Falfield. Next month I’ll update on our ventures and share with you some wonderful photos that have just arrived of a very quiet Cole Avenue roundabout in 1968 and a whole host of men falling in a river playing tug of war. If any of these stories have any resonance with your life please email me your story and or photos to email@example.com
Mark can be heard on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s morning show 6am-9am
104.7FM and 1413AM, Stroud 95FM and Cirencester 95.8FM