Edmund Leonard (Ned)
Of the three brothers who volunteered for Kitchener’s Armies in 1914, Ned is the hardest to get to know. That is only in part because he did not survive the war. Although he was the eldest, he seemed to find it more difficult to express his feelings, and his letters are consequently much less revealing of the man than those of Arthur or George. Nor did he find it easy to write descriptively at first, but after he arrived in France his letters changed. His impressions of the French countryside and rural life encouraged him to write a long and beautiful letter. When he reached the front and had time to write, his letters were observant and powerful. It is as if he did not care to write about himself, and he was perhaps inhibited by the difficulties he had in spelling ─ these days he might perhaps be diagnosed as having dyslexia.
It is easy to forget that although primary school education was free, the school-leaving age was raised from ten to twelve only in 1899, and remained at twelve until 1914. Secondary education ─ beyond twelve ─ had to be paid for (unless a talented pupil could win a scholarship), and it is likely that the Goodchild boys all left the village school at about that age. Once beyond the care of Mr Hardy the schoolmaster they probably had few occasions to practice letter-writing before they left home in 1914. All three used the formula “from your affectionate son” which we may guess was taught at school as the appropriate way to end a letter to parents, and it took Ned several weeks before he felt able to add his love.
Ned seems to have been a rather shy man, lacking in confidence. He made fewer demands on his mother than did his brothers, and he rarely complained about army life (though the deep mud at Shoreham camp tested his resolve). He was conscious that his front teeth were irregular and look rather comical. Although he knew how welcoming the Harveys had been to George, it was only after Joe’s twelve year-old son Arthur went to find Ned at Blackdown Camp at Farnborough that Ned went to Aldershot to meet the rest of the Harvey family. Ned’s great friend in the army was Sutton Smith who lived across Lower Road at Hawes Farm (now Hawthorn Cottage). Though he undoubtedly had other friends he was probably a reserved and private man. I am all by myself in our tent, all the other chaps are gone out. There’s nothing to annoy me tonight … (26 June 15).
Enlistment and training: Shoreham
Ned’s first letter home was (like so many others he sent) undated, and in this case also unsigned. Dear Mother, Just a card to let you know I am in the Army and am at Ipswich. We tried all we could to get home tonight but we could not. My bike is at the Running Buck [a pub at St Margaret’s Green], I am going to see the landlord to send it home by Dunnett. Sutton is down here, Clark, Buckingham is gone. We are in a big school on the Rendem [Ranelagh] Road. I can’t send my address till we get settled. Will write a letter as soon as possible. We could not get away from the Barracks till 7 o’clock. I am in the Infantry. Ned was enlisted as 15176 Pte. E.L. Goodchild, 9th Battalion Suffolk Regt, which formed part of 71st Brigade, 24th Division in the Third New Army (K3). Whether the confusion was his or the army’s, in his first letters home Ned reported his Company in the 9th as successively F, D and B before he confirmed that he was a member of C Coy.
The date of his enlistment can only be surmised. George wrote to his mother on 4 September 1914 “If Ned joins …”, and on 11 September “You say Ned is in the fourth Batt. …”, so it would appear that he was recruited during the first ten days of September, the peak time of the national recruiting boom (Simkins, ch. 2). (Incidentally, although George in this letter referred to ‘Ned’, when George wrote to him later in the month he called him ‘Teddie’ which astonished Ned so much that he mentioned it to their mother.)
Because of the overwhelming number of volunteers for Kitchener’s New Armies, at the beginning of September the government introduced a modest daily allowance of 6d for the deferred recruitment of attested men who would live at home until the army could absorb them adequately, and on 10 September the allowance was increased to 3s per day (Simkins pp. 73-4). Whether Ned knew about this scheme or not, he clearly expected to return home after enlisting. However, the practice at Ipswich appears to have been to keep the recruits at Ranelagh Road School until they could be sent on as quickly as possible to the regimental depot at Bury (in George’s case) or directly to the training centres on the south coast. Ned’s friend Sutton Smith received the preceding service no. 15175, which makes it likely that the two men agreed to meet up in Ipswich in order to join up together. Ned would have left his bike at the Running Buck and walked to Ranelagh Road, and then had to make arrangements to get it back to Grundisburgh. His next postcard, probably the following day but undated, asked his mother to please send a pound out of my box so that he could buy himself an overcoat as ordered. She did so but also sent one of Joe’s coats which Ned thought will suit me well, so he sent the pound back with the message tell Father to take what he think the coat is worth.
On this third undated postcard he told his mother that I was very much surprised to see Arthur come here tonight … Arthur is in a stew because they would not let him come home… His pigs made £9.11.. Unfortunately Arthur’s cards and letters home at this time are also undated, so we can only speculate about what was going on between the two brothers. When they were training at Shoreham togetherthey were evidently good if not inseparable friends (Arthur and me always get on well together [15 March 15]), so Ned’s intention to enlist with Sutton was probably known at Grundisburgh and was not intended as an unfriendly snub to his under-age brother. Writing home on 11 September George said “I should not advise Arthur to enlist”. But Arthur did enlist, to Ned’s great surprise, and close enough in time to Ned’s own enlistment that Arthur’s service no. precedes Ned’s and both were drafted into 9/Suffolk. We can guess that Arthur sold his pigs at Ipswich livestock market on Tuesday 15 September, either with the intention of enlisting, or having sold them decided to enlist on the spur of the moment.
Almost nothing emerges from Ned’s letters about his life before the war, why he volunteered, or why he waited until after George had taken the king’s shilling. It is inconceivable that he did not keep pigs like his brothers, and he certainly found employment (“under-stockman” in 1911 census) on farms in or around Grundisburgh. He mentions Gerald Smith of Great Bealings Hall where he was working in 1914: Tell Cecil to tell Mr Smith he needn’t worry himself about me anymore because I shall not trouble him anymore, if I have the chance. But I am pleased to hear that Cecil have got there … the money he is getting I mean. I expect they are forced to pay more now (c.15 June 15). But a month later, Cecil have got back to Hunt’s [Park Farm Grundisburgh, closer to The Fens] now then, he finds the difference in the walk I expect. Hunt’s is alright if their money is alright, that’s what done me. I thought perhaps Gerald Smith had altered a bit by now, as there isn’t many men about, but I expect he still have fits. He wants to reduce his stomach a bit (c.13-19 July 15). Bearing in mind what Arthur had to say about farm work (“if I get out of the army alive I shan’t work on the land if I can get any where else”), it is clear that a large part of the reason why Ned and his brothers enlisted in the army was to escape the hard, insecure and poorly-paid life of an agricultural labourer.
Ned arrived at the main training camp for the 9th Battalion at Shoreham, about five miles west of Brighton, on Saturday night, 19 September. (Arthur was able to make a brief visit to Grundisburgh that day and arrived two days later.) Whereas George and the 7th Battalion. changed trains in London and marched over the Thames en route to Shorncliffe, Ned had a tedious journey. I began to get sick of train rides … We had to stop at New Cross in London … I was never surprised so much in all my life to see so many trains and porters as there was there. It seemed as if we travelled nearly half the distance underground (the long tunnel of the East London line effectively from Liverpool St., where the train from Ipswich would have reversed, to Rotherhithe). First impressions of Shoreham were mixed. We are up high here and can see miles out to sea and nearly all over Brighton. This is a small but pretty town, its biggest part of low bedroom houses painted red and white… We go down to seaside and bathe sometimes. But it was not all good news. We are in tents down here, there is about fifteen thousand of us … sixteen in each tent. Initially the camp was on Slonk Hill, but within a week or two they had moved their tents to the adjoining Buckingham Park. When they visited Shoreham town, he found that It is no bigger than Woodbridge and we could hardly move for soldiers, and there is ten thousand more to come. Tents look to reach miles about … This is a very airy shop and not quite so comfortable as we were at Ranelagh School.
Accommodation for this enormous and increasing number of men was the main problem, and when the weather deteriorated it grew worse. In the short term we have got some more blankets, and they are going to build some huts for the winter (27 Sept 14). By 26 October they have got floors for tents but we are getting rain here now … there is plenty of slush here now. Two weeks later, anyone wants the best of health to stand this in tents now. It is a little better getting about here now, we haven’t had so much rain here for the last day or two, there is plenty of mud when it does rain, it cart in the tents and get on our things so … All our huts are condemned, they have rushed over them and haven’t half done them, so we have got to wait until they are altered, the men done them at piece work. On 17 November relief was in sight: I expect we are going into the huts on Sunday, they have nearly done them now. We have had some rough weather here lately, and it is very hard getting about here now. We shall be alright in the huts. But it was 1 December before he could report They have got us out of tents now into the huts, they ain’t half done but they are better than tents … the mud here is something wonderful … We shall be alright in huts when they are finished.
However, a week before Christmas conditions at Shoreham were so bad that the 9th Suffolks were moved to billets in Brighton. This was not simply a local decision ─ the heavy rains of autumn 1914 affected the country as a whole ─ but was taken at the War Office such that 800,000 men were billeted on civilians (including eight at The Fens in Grundisburgh). The comforts of 17 Crescent Road, Ditchling Road ─ a very nice house … anything we like in the food line … three of us, we have a nice bedroom to ourselves … chest of drawers for our clothes … not so much mud here as at Shoreham, we can walk about clean and dry (20 Dec 14) ─ must have seemed like heaven after the knee-deep mire. All the troops had a week’s Christmas leave, though Ned’s came in mid-December so that he missed seeing George, but we are very comfortable at Brighton, and we spent a happy Xmas. We know Ned and Sutton were great friends ─ hardly a letter fails to mention him ─ but it is perhaps surprising that I went to Sutton’s to tea Xmas night, but if I had seen Arthur in the afternoon I should have asked him to ours (28 Dec 14).
As mentioned above, Arthur and me always get on well together (15 March 15). Because Arthur was under-age and had a hearing impairment, being in the same battalion until March 1915 meant that Ned was able to look out for him and offer his mother some reassurance. They shared some off-duty time and had a yarn together (20 Dec 14). Ned seemed to be confident that his brother was coping with his deafness: There are more than ever being discharged now. But Arthur won’t time he hears like he do now (20 Jan 15). I often see Arthur now, and very often have a chat with him, I can see him smiling yards before I reach him, he look well (2 Feb 15). Together we went for a row on the water Sunday, it was lovely and warm … At night we went to a sacred meeting at the Grand Theatre (23 Feb 15). But in March Arthur was transferred to the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe, and the Sunday before he left the two brothers and Sutton went to Brighton. We went round to his billet and saw … his people where he had been lodging. The landlady told us he was her best boy, and was sorry that he was going away, she told us that Arthur kissed them all before he went, and he is pleased he is going into the 3rd Batt. By now Ned felt Arthur might get his discharge, but either way he’ll never go out of England (15 March 15).
It is not clear whether Ned knew at this time that Arthur had met a young lady in Brighton. Possibly his mother told him after Arthur told her at the end of March, or maybe he learned about it from Mrs Cooper (Arthur’s landlady), but he certainly thought it was worth a gentle tease: Tell Arthur I think he is getting proud since he has been in the third Suffs. I reckon he spend most of his spare time writing to that girl at Brighton. Perhaps he think if he let me know too much I shall go off with her, as I am near and handy (15 June 15). George also came in for some fraternal ribbing, apparently because he was thought to be proud of his hair style: ask George if his hair has got its usual length yet. Joe Harvey said he had it off quite short, when he came in one day it altered his appearance so. I expect it did too, as he was always very particular about it (26 June 15).
In early January I thought Brighton was too good to last … They have put us back to this lovely place now, making roads … All the officers say we are doing splendid work … They would not think it splendid if they had to do it … We have had a lot of wet here lately … The huts are just the same as they were before. They have not done nothing to them, the chaps what are at Brighton [only about 100 Suffolks had been recalled to Shoreham to build roads, not Arthur but unfortunately including Ned,] ought to think themselves lucky they are there (16 Jan 15). On 29 January he was happy and comfortable again in Brighton, billeted at 3 Gerard Street, Clyde Road. Finally all the battalion returned to Shoreham on 10 March but conditions still merited comment: They have got us beds to lay on now, so it makes the huts seem warmer… There is a bit of a mess in our hut now they have been tarring it inside. It’s a bit unpleasant for them that don’t like the odour, the windows are all wide open, still it don’t make much difference, and won’t for three or four days. They tarred the huts on the roof and most of them, the tar drop through, some of them have got it on their new suits, it shows too on khaki and make it look very untidy, especially for them that think a lot of themselves (15 March 15). It is hard not to smile at that; evidently Ned was not bothered by a bit of tar. He continued to visit the friends he made at his billets in Brighton: I bet it is the best town in England, and the civilest people (30 March 15).
During their first six months in the army both Ned and Arthur frequently suffered colds. Given the living conditions they had to put up with, they were fortunate not to have had worse. George wrote about the incidence of scarlet fever and measles at Shorncliffe (which could not have been any less at Shoreham), and it was reported in the House of Commons that “up to 31 January 1915, 1,508 cases of pneumonia had been recorded among British troops in training in the United Kingdom. Of these, 301 had died” (Simkins p. 241). Ned made light of the reaction to his inoculations. The help that he did seek was in fact dental rather than medical, and he found it to be remarkably sympathetic. I have been a bit uneasy this last three or four days with the tooth ache, but it is alright I am glad to say. I went down to Shoreham and had it out. It was a bit of a pinch but I did not mind that so long as I got rid of it. It was that hollow one, and when he tried to pull it out it broke off, and then he had to get the stump out, but it was soon over. We have had a medical examination, just like enlisting again, the army dentist is going to do something to my front teeth to get them regular … He says it’s a pity my teeth [are] so unregular in front, as I have got some very good back ones. He is going to make them a bit more comfortable for me. He is a very nice chap and take a lot of interest in his work (30 March 15). It seems unlikely that the treatment was carried out (it is remarkable that it was even suggested by the army dentist), but Ned did regard his teeth as a problem. Like all the troops he liked to have his photo taken: another laughing fit we had, when we were there. It’s the only thing that spoiled mine, I show my front teeth which look rather comical (c.15 April 15).
If it had taken six months for the 9th Suffolks to get decent army accommodation, Ned had no real complaints about the food. We have all kinds of tinned stuff, such as fish and fruit. We get roast beef about twice a week, but we don’t get many little beef puddings. They make bread puddings with the bread that’s left over but I don’t think a lot of them (10 Nov 14). The way they feed us here is still good and we have plenty … For breakfast this morning we had two eggs and bread and butter, for dinner we shall have baked mutton, and for tea bread and butter, watercress, jam and a small piece of cake. We don’t have the same two days running (23 May 15). Extras from Grundisburgh were generally welcome, but not always: It was very kind of you to send the plums but someone must have sit on them, they were all spoilt and all over my shirts. Fortunately the army laundry service which he usually used was just 3d a week (12 Oct 14). The only time rations were short was when they arrived at Blackdown Camp: they would have starved us to death if it had lasted long like that. It cost me 8d a day for food three or four days running. It was no good making complaints. The chaps some of them would have sold all their kit to get money for food, there was some started it. The Norfolks had a riot over it, but that made things no better… We are getting more food again now (26 June 15). (The reference to the Norfolks is an interesting reminder that farm labourers there were much more militant than their Suffolk counterparts, with a number of strikes occurring on Norfolk farms in 1914 [Newby p. 214]).
Whereas George as a K1 recruit had his first khaki uniform within days of enlisting (and a second in January 1915), Ned and Arthur as K3 volunteers had months to wait. It was impossible to secure an immediate supply of suitable clothing, and the War Office therefore resorted to short-term solutions. At first the men dressed as they had arrived (or with what they could get ─ from 10 September a clothing allowance of 10s was paid to each recruit). In October the 9th Suffolks were kitted out in ‘Kitchener blue’, doubtless run up from the Post Office blue serge requisitioned by the War Office, creating an outfit described by Arthur as “a blue one with black buttons and a red stripe on the cap” (10 Oct 14). Ned’s comment was less than enthusiastic: them suits are only for a make out till they can get some like George’s. They show the dirt well, we can brush forty times a day they wouldn’t be clean (26 Oct 14). Khaki uniforms were finally distributed in March, coinciding with the return to the huts at Shoreham and the dripping tar. Ned sent home a photograph of some of the chaps in my platoon, you will see my lieutenant on it, he had it taken and gave us all one each (8 March 15). Ned is standing unobtrusively in the back row, on the extreme right of the continuous row of men. Although taken in February, some of the platoon are already wearing khaki (including Ned’s cap, possibly borrowed), others (including the sergeant on the right) are still in blue. New rifles had been issued in January, but it is clear to see that they were obsolete Long Lee-Enfields.
Ned made very few comments about how the war was progressing, or how he felt about it. It is very dark about here (in Brighton) now, no lights allowed to show on account of air craft. The Germans are very proud of their Zeppelins and submarines, they are after our merchant ships now (29 Jan 15). I have seen several chaps who have been to the front and spoken to them … Some of the poor chaps look as if they had had something to put up with … They say the German artillery is something wonderful, but the infantry is not so good. One chap say it will finish in June, but it is hard to say when it will finish, it will be a happy release to the British Isles when it does … There are hundreds of Indians here now, more than ever, it amuse people to see them go about, they always wear their shirts outside their trousers, I suppose it is their style. They seem happy and contented. There have been some die here from bad wounds, they carry all the dead onto the hills to be burnt as it is their religion (2 Feb 15). At Blackdown Camp there are a lot of German prisoners here, one of East Lancs killed a German with a pick, the German said nasty things to him, so he give him a pat over the railings with his pick, he died the next morning, now there is a hundred yards space between them and us (20 June 15).
Shoreham did not offer many distractions when the men were off-duty. The army arranged occasional sports events on Sunday afternoons. And there were airplanes. I see one the other day above the clouds we could just see it go past the clear spaces then all at once it came out of the clouds right straight to the ground, just like a bird. I have seen one loop the loop, it looks very dangerous from the ground. They take passengers up for 15s, us they charge 5s. If they let me go for nothing I wouldn’t go (10 Nov 14). Brighton was livelier, with several picture palaces, free entry to the aquarium (all kinds of fish in there and sea flowers … in places like shop windows full of salt water (17 Nov 14). One of my mates won the first prize at fat cattle show, guessing the weight of a pig (28 Dec 14). Ned discovered a talent for drawing and sent one home (though it has not survived). I drew the Suffolk badge on our hut door at Shoreham … one chap took a fancy to it and asked me if I would colour it if he bought the crayons … it looked a treat for a month or two (26 June 15).
Family and home were never far from his thoughts, though birthdays ─ It was father’s birthday last month. I never thought of it before, do I should have sent him something (10 Nov 14) ─ and Christmas ─ I promised to send something home at Xmas or New Year’s, but that’s as far as I got with it. I got some things to send now, I will send them Tuesday. I shan’t let it run any longer (16 Jan 15) ─ were not always remembered promptly. He asked that one of his photos be sent to Uncle Lenny ─ his mother’s favourite brother who emigrated to Canada in 1891 ─ who wrote to express his support at the beginning of the war. There were often messages for Cecil, and after someone had evidently rubbed Hilda up the wrong way I can just picture Hilda cheeking him, I reckon he thinks she’s a rummun (10 Nov 14). He wondered who was looking after the garden: do Cecil do much to the flower garden which I had in hand, but I expect he have plenty to do helping Father with his lot. Vegetables stand before flowers (23 May 15). I expect there are some nice new potatoes in the garden by now (22 July 15). Once a basic supply of clothing was sorted out (in the absence of any provision from the army) and until he reached France he never asked his mother for anything ─ except, while he was at Blackdown, some Beecham’s Pills. It is too far to go to Frimley for things, then perhaps there is not any there. I always thought till now they were quite common all through England. I don’t think there is anything very common here, only heather and fir trees and soldiers … (13-19 July 15). Although Etta might have to act as banker and perhaps even ‘lender of last resort’ for his brothers, Ned was anxious not to be a financial burden: I am going to start sending some money home on Friday, and try and send some every week, then if you want it you can make use of it as things are likely to get dear. What you don’t want you can put by for me, but take the first ten shillings for my eight days which I had at home. I have been trying to get the allowance for you, but they say it can’t be done as father is at work, till it is gone through parliament, which they are trying for now (25 Jan 15).
It is clear also that he loved the village and people of Grundisburgh, though he was not fond of a lot of tell-talers like Mrs Daniels and the Quintons (30 March 15). I was pleased with that pretty postcard of the old school and green, it looked so familiar to me, but I think it is an old one isn’t it? I can’t realise [recognise] any of the kids there (15 June 15). A postcard used in 1908 matches Ned’s description of his and is probably the same. He was proud of being a soldier and I should very much like to march with the ninths through Grundisburgh (23 May 15).
Training and discipline are mentioned rather little in Ned’s letters. Parades and drill were routine of course, and physical exercise. They began firing practice in October, and trench digging in November. Restored to Shoreham in March 1915 “soldiering in earnest now began” (Murphy p. 93), with more night work especially trench digging. There was also instruction in bridge-building, and in another week or two we are going to learn barbed wire entanglements (30 March 15). Whereas guard duty and periods of Confined to Barracks cropped up quite often in his brothers’ letters, they get no mention from Ned. In April, 71st Brigade (9/Suffolk, 9/Norfolk, 8/Bedfords and 11/Essex) marched the 35 miles over two days to Reigate where Ned was billeted at 29 Effingham Road for the two-week stay. There was more trenching and manoeuvres and woodcutting (I like it better than running up and down them hills at Shoreham [25 April 15]), and more firing (I done well, I got 7 bulls out of seven … The captain wants me to be a sniper. Marching was not a problem, I have the gift of good feet, I’m glad to say (5 May 15).
Training: around Farnborough
Towards the end of June the battalion left Shoreham for the last time, marching with overnight stops at Horsham and Guildford, to complete training at Blackdown Camp near Farnborough. I am afraid we have left the best home we shall have in the Army. Could his memory have been that short? We are in these pokey little old tents again now (20 June 15). It is getting a bit unpleasant in our tents, [the rain] drops through, but it will never be like the tents at Shoreham, as we have a solid bottom to walk on. We can stick this after that Shoreham mud (13-19 July 15). He found he had left a number of kit items at Shoreham, but they can’t do much to me for that if they are lost, because it would be the first offence against me (26 June 15). We have to wear a light blue ribbon on the backs of our collars now, we can not make out what it’s for (13-19 July 15: this was in fact the 9th Battalion’s field badge).
After spending so much time with George during March to May, and knowing from Grundisburgh that Ned was not far away at Farnborough, the Harveys in Aldershot no doubt expected Ned to visit. We can be sure his mother urged him to. She must have told him that she and his father used to know Farnborough, to his surprise: I little thought you knew much about this place, I thought you lived more in the town of Aldershot (26 June 15). After about three weeks at Blackdown I was surprised to see Joe Harvey’s boy yesterday, he came up to the camp on purpose to see me … He asked me to come to Aldershot and see them. I told him I would come on Sunday. I should have went before … (13-19 July 15). I went to see the Harveys and I enjoyed myself too yesterday. I got a ride there by bus from Frimley, but I had to walk back. Joe and his wife, and boy, and another young lady came about half way with me. Joe shew me the barracks which Father helped to cart the bricks for, it seemed his delight to show me round a bit (26 July 15). I went to Aldershot from Saturday afternoon to Sunday this week and had a good time there too … I see three or four of Joe’s brothers [Joe had five altogether] … We had a chat between us about one thing and another. Joe and his wife wished me to remember them to you and Father … and they would be very pleased to see you and Father in Aldershot once more …. They are all very good to me … (3-7 Aug 15). I and Sutton went to Aldershot again on Sunday … (12 Aug 15).
In July the troops received their proper service rifles (the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield) and long bayonets and worked intensively on the ranges at Bisley, zeroing their weapons (ie adjusting the sights on each man’s weapon to perfect as far as possible his marksmanship, a procedure still routine in the British army). The ceremonial culmination of training came on 12 August: Lord Kict [Kitchener] has been and expected [inspected] us on the downs, I should think there were 30 or 40 thousand of us [probably two divisions]. You can guess we were all eager to see him but were not sorry when he had gone, as we were getting sick of the strict position we had to stand in, with our full equipment …(12 Aug 15). According to Murphy (p. 98) it was in fact the King who inspected the troops with Kitchener in attendance, but Ned makes no mention of a royal presence.
In none of his letters does Ned say where the 9th Suffolks were being sent. He may not have known, or perhaps he told his parents when home on embarkation leave. There was plenty of speculation beforehand. A fortnight before they left England it was either France or Dardanelles, according to what our officers say. Well I think Mother we are fit to stand a bit, I feel I could knock a German down with my little rifle at any distance if I got a clear shot at him. I have done well in firing and have proved to be a first class shot all through my firing (15 Aug 15). On 26 June Ned had been in a more reflective mood: It is all the talk that our Division is going to India, but I don’t know true it is. I know we are going over the water somewhere. I am willing to go anywhere, but trust that God will spare me to return home again in Grundisburgh. The three of us are doing our share for King and Country. How nice it will be to get home again, all of us, and tell tales of what we have experienced in the Army in different places. There will be a great improvement in things then, both for us and all of you at home. No-one can call us slackers after the war is over, however things end. Sadly that reunion was never to happen.
The 9th Suffolks crossed on calm seas from Folkestone to Boulogne on the night of 30 August. The battalion was then conveyed by train to Montreuil, about 7 miles south-east of Etaples, and from Montreuil they marched a few miles north to Alette. This was to be their base for three weeks, billeted in farm buildings. The area round Etaples and north of the Canche river was the site of many infantry base depots. Etaples (“dismal tents, huge wooden warehouses, glum roadways, prisoning wire” was notorious for “The Bullring, that thirsty, savage, interminable training ground” (Blunden, p 17). Troops passing through were deemed to be in need of toughening up, and infantrymen were at the mercy of merciless NCO instructors. If Alette was hard Ned gave no hint of it. They presumably worked at such procedures as bayonet drill, bombing, assault courses, grenade handling and gas mask drill. Ned mentioned none of this but was clearly delighted to record how rural France compared with Suffolk (his only complaint being that French cigarettes were too strong to smoke). This was one of his longest letters, and suddenly he found his voice. It is a very old country place here, nothing but small farms and a few cottages and some very old churches which look to be the pride of the villages, and now and then alongside of the road there is a crucifix, an old wooden cross and a lot of small ones stuck round the bottom of it, look as if they might be gifts from different people in the place. There is one about twenty yards from where we sleep. The women about here goes to work on the farm just the same as a man, cart the corn and help to stack. It is very rare we see a man milking, the women do all that, and feed the pigs. They wear great old hard boots just like a man, and take no more notice of farm work than you do housework. They seem to be brought up to it, it looked a bit strange to us at first, and of course we had to have a laugh over that, and the ways they have, but they are alright, not so much pride as English. I and Sutton are both writing together in the orchard, in the shade of an old apple tree, the trees are full of apples, and there [are] some trees nearly smothered with mistletoe, the berries are just showing themselves, and look as if there will be plenty for Xmas here. There are some very nice horses (undoubtedly Percherons, introduced to England after 1918) here on the farms, nearly all of them are grey, and look to me to be a better shape to most of ours. I haven’t seen a black one since we have been here yet, the way they harness them took my attention at first, and when they are carting corn they have a basket strapped to the horse’s head, so as to act like a muzzle on a dog, to prevent them eating the corn. They look so comical as they go about. There are no thrashing engines here, it’s all done by horses and hand … I expect harvest is nearly finished in Suffolk by now, but here there is a lot of corn about in the fields (11 Sept 15).
Although the Army Order for the training of New Army infantry laid down a six-month schedule of activity (Simkins p. 296), the extreme shortage of experienced officers and NCOs as well as the interruption caused by bad weather and inadequate accommodation meant that a year had elapsed since the 9th Battalion was raised before it could enter active service. Even so, because final preparation was distorted by the late distribution of service (as opposed to practice) rifles and the consequent need for intensive musketry, it and the other battalions of the 24th Division “were thought to be better trained than they really were, and were sent into action after being three weeks in France in back areas, without any period of initiation” (Edmonds 1928, p. 294). Graves believed that a junior officer was of little use in front line trenches for his first three weeks, until he knew “the rules of health and safety”, and could recognize “degrees of danger” (p. 178); this was no doubt the same for all ranks. Ned’s battalion and the others in the Division, all New Army battalions, were indeed badly treated. It was not merely that they received no introduction into what was required to maximise chances of survival in the routine of the trenches. They were in fact sent exhausted, unfed and thirsty, too late, and without artillery support, to push forward an ill-advised attack. This was the battle of Loos, which Ned somehow survived. Future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, then a subaltern in 4/Grenadier Guards, later wrote “I have often wondered since why the decision was made to put in these divisions [21st and 24th], who had never seen a shot fired and come straight from England, ahead of the Guards Division. It seemed a fatal error” (p. 75). Judging the design and execution of the Loos attack harshly is not to subscribe blindly to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ school of thought, but reflects a consensus of informed opinion.
In a PS to his letter of 11 Sept 15, written in the shade of an old apple tree, Ned added we can hear the guns in the distance. On the night of 21st-22nd the distance began to get shorter. According to Murphy (Ned was scrupulous in avoiding the censor’s blue pencil) they marched on that and the following three nights from Alette via Matringhem, Ham-en-Artois, Le Cornet Bourdois and Béthune to join the battle of Loos. “The march had been an exceptionally trying one. The battalion had been on the move in drenching rain for four nights in succession, covering a distance of nearly seventy miles” (p. 94). Having arrived at Béthune at 1am on 25 September, the 71st Brigade (9th Suffolks plus three other battalions) was roused in the early hours and moved up via Vermelles, and at 8pm advanced across the British lines in the direction of Vendin le Vieil. “Progress was exceedingly wearisome and slow owing to the state of the ground and the obstacles encountered … the rain came down in torrents” (Edmonds 1928, pp. 287-8). In darkness and with two trench systems to negotiate, German wire, shell holes and mud, “the 21st and 24th Divisions [the latter included 71 Brigade] had thus spent the night in an exhausting march across country” (Edmonds 1928, p. 293). A day later the Guards Division followed the New Army formations. “I can still remember vividly this march from Vermelles to Loos. I must confess that for many months and even years I would dream of it” (Macmillan p. 74). An additional problem was that the system of road control in the battle area had been worked out for the distribution of supplies from railheads “without any arrangement for the through passage of large reinforcements to the front … To get through Béthune to Vermelles nine cross and entering [traffic] streams, besides three level crossings had to be passed. This mattered little with short quickly moving motor convoys, but meant dislocation with divisions, each occupying fifteen miles of road when closed up” (Edmonds 1928, p. 295). All this, and Ned’s battalion had yet to make close contact with the enemy.
The attack at Loos was proposed by Joffre, the French C-in-C, as the British part of a joint offensive to begin on 25 September 1915. The location was chosen because here the British First Army commanded by Haig was on the immediate left of the French Tenth. The British would advance across open land and attack established German positions in an old coal-mining area of ruined buildings, pits and slag heaps. Sir John French, Joffre’s opposite number, was unenthusiastic about the location and the forces at his disposal, but was under pressure to achieve a success after earlier failures. Kitchener as War Secretary shared French’s misgivings but gave a direct order “to take the offensive and act vigorously”. His reasons were political rather than military. He feared that otherwise France might make a separate peace with Germany, and famously observed “we must … do our utmost to help France … even though by so doing we may suffer very heavy losses”. Haig pinned his hopes of success on the use of gas, for the first time by British forces. The difficulty was that the British attack had to begin on the 25th to co-ordinate with the French advance, and therefore the gas (the ‘accessory’, for security reasons) had to be discharged at a fixed time however feeble the wind. Though the gas probably imposed more casualties on the British forces than on the enemy, some advances were made through the German front line and the attackers, exhausted, then waited for support.
However, French had decided to keep the reserve divisions under his personal and inevitably remote control, and it was not until late morning on the 26th, when hopes of success had all but gone, that the 24th (including the 9th Suffolks) and 21st Divisions were committed to the battle. “The conditions under which the attack was to be launched were most unfavourable from the outset. The men, wet through, had passed a sleepless and trying night, and this after a series of night marches … it had been impossible to bring the ration wagons and cookers up to the battalions … The leaders were in an even more unhappy state of mind than their men, for there was a complete absence of information as to the general situation and the exact position of the various battalions” (Edmonds 1928, pp. 317-8). However, of the 24 battalions (ie two divisions) which should have been available, poor communications and a German counter-attack effectively reduced the attacking force to four battalions plus two in reserve of the 21st, and the 9/Suffolk and 11/Essex battalions of the 24th. Their objective was German positions between Hulluch and Bois Hugo, which had been strengthened overnight. Successive assaults on these strong defences by other units failed. The Suffolks, who received the order to advance very late, were brought to a halt just beyond the Lens-La Bassée road. Ahead of them, the units which had reached the German wire had no chance of getting through, and there were heavy casualties. In the absence of any clear direction, the survivors of the attack began to withdraw under heavy machine gun fire from Hulluch. General Haking, commanding XI Corps, reported a consensus among the soldiers he spoke to who found their way back: “We did not understand what it was like; we will do all right next time” (Edmonds 1928, p.335).
Perhaps the most astonishing feature of this military disaster was the reaction of the German troops. It appears that they were amazed at the unsupported attack by the British troops across open country. Quoting Wynne’s translation from Forstner’s history of the (German) 15th Reserve Regiment, “A target was offered to us such as had never been seen before, nor even thought possible … Never had machine guns had such straightforward work to do, nor done it so effectively … The enemy could be seen falling literally in hundreds, but they continued their march in good order … some even reaching the wire entanglement in front of the reserve line, which their artillery had scarcely touched … [We were] nauseated by the sight of the massacre on what became known as ‘the field of corpses of Loos’, and when British survivors began to retire no more shots were fired at them for the rest of the day, so great was the feeling of compassion and mercy after such a victory” (Wynne, pp. 76-7 quoting Forstner, pp. 226-32). In the context of so much slaughter this eventual humanitarian restraint by German troops seems incredible, but is confirmed by the official British war history: “The Germans did not follow in pursuit but from Hulluch about 2pm they sent out medical personnel and stretcher bearers, who, regardless of shelling, worked at binding up the British wounded, sending all who could walk or crawl back to the British lines” (Edmonds 1928, p.334).
This brief account of the battle of Loos is worth attempting because Ned had taken part in one of the great battles of the war, and certainly the largest British offensive up to that time. For men with no experience of warfare, to be thrust into such a bloody conflict must have been a terrifying experience. The attack was an expensive failure, and French paid for it by losing his post as C-in-C of the BEF to Haig in December 1915. The number of British casualties is difficult to determine. According to Holmes the twelve New Army battalions in the attack on 26 September, drawn from the 21st and 24th Divisions, lost 8,000 of their 10,000 officers and men, but he does not indicate his source (p. 37). Edmonds 1928, in the ‘Official History’ (pp. 341-2), indicates that the total loss from all 24 of the battalions in the two divisions was 8,229 (from a complement of about 21,000), still a shocking and unsustainable rate of attrition. It has to be said that of the six brigades, the losses incurred by the 71st were the least (781), and within the 71st the losses of the 9th Suffolks were the least (144). That is perfectly consistent with the Suffolks receiving the order to advance later than almost all other units (and all received it too late to be effective), hence arriving later at the battlefield and comprehending that those already at the uncut German wire and with no artillery or gas support had no hope of penetrating the German line. “In a situation where the fog of battle mingled with inept command, it was not wonderful that raw troops behaved inappropriately. What is noteworthy is that this applied not only to those who broke too easily. It is true also of those who stuck to their task when circumstances demanded its abandonment” (Wilson, p. 260). Ultimately the New Army infantrymen paid the price for their inadequate training, a price made inevitable by a shocking miscalculation by senior commanders.
Ned’s letters at first had nothing to say about any of this. On 30 September he thanked his mother for sending cigarettes, and remarked I dare say by now you have heard we have been in action, but we are now out for a rest. But there were now two other Suffolk battalions moving into the Loos sector: on the 29th the 1st Battalion in which Arthur was now briefly serving went into reserve trenches near Cambrin and the following day moved to Vermelles. I have seen the First Suffolks, but am sorry to say I never saw Arthur. I saw Walter Pipe, he was the only one I happened to see what I knew. Also, on 30 September George’s 7th Battalion relieved 1/Coldstream Guards in trenches in front of the Chalk Pit (close to Bois Hugo). Thus on the last day of September 1915 all three Goodchild brothers were within a few miles of each other, but they did not meet. On 6 October (6 November? Jack was killed on 27 October) Ned expressed his sorrow at the news that Sutton’s brother Jack (Lacey John Smith, in the Royal Field Artillery) had been killed ─ Sutton himself was away on a trench work course. By this time the 9th Battalion had been withdrawn from the Loos sector to Ham-en-Artois where they had been what must have seemed a lifetime ago, thence to Proven (north-west of Poperinge on the N9) to rest and reorganise, and on the 5th to Brandhoek between Poperinge and Ypres, “making its first acquaintance with the Immortal Salient a day or so later” (Murphy p. 123).
On 16 October Ned wrote again, to say that morning they had had a nice disinfecting bath every man, how we enjoy it. Don’t worry yourself about me any more than you can help, for I am pleased to thank God that I am in the best of health and spirit, in spite of all that we go through in facing our foe. We have had lecture by our general [Lieut-General Sir John Keir commanding VIth Corps] and he says he is very pleased with what our Div. has done in so short a time, and our regt. has won an honour which will never be forgotten [the VC awarded to Sgt. Saunders of the 9th Battalion for conspicuous bravery on 26 September at Loos], and now our regt. has been transferred out of the 24th Div. into the 6th and we have now marched to our winter quarters in Belgium and are going into action again in a very short time. [In fact it was the 71st Brigade as a whole which transferred to 6th Division, as part of a policy after Loos to ‘stiffen’ New Army divisions by bringing in experienced battalions.] We are a good thirty miles off where we had that great battle near hill 70 [Loos]. We marched 70 miles and went right into action all in one stretch. I am like George, I saw some sights there I shall never forget, and we all think it marvellous how so many of us got through. It took about three days to get our Batt. together again, and then we found there were only 127 casualties. Amongst them were the colonel in command and our major, who we greatly missed as he looked after us so well in the way of food and clothing … I and Sutton were together and we got slightly gassed but nothing to hinder us in any way. We can only thank God we got through at all … Sutton is Lance-Corp so we seem to be jogging along alright together. Give my best respects to all who ask about me, and tell them I am happy although in a great trial. We are all doing our best, and are going to as long as God give us the power to … I quite expected this before we came.
On a lighter note, Now Mother I will tell you I have [taken] to the job as one of the barbers and am getting on well at it. They have bought me some machines for cutting and some razors and I had some scissors, and now when we are out of the trenches I have to get to work. Amongst Ned’s personal effects which still survive is a notebook with a list of names under the heading ‘Hair Cutting from Oct 15’. The first in the list is Sgt. Baily, who perhaps volunteered to encourage the others, but after 63 names the list ends. The only other items in the notebook are George’s address at Graylingwell Hospital, the names of Mr CH Thompson and Mrs EH Taylor, Grundisburgh House, and intriguingly, ‘Miss CA Lankester, 16 Balcaskie Road, Eltham SE’. This was probably Constance Alice Lankester, a cousin of Sutton Smith born in Framlingham in 1893 (the same year as Ned) who may well have visited her aunt Kate at Hawes Farm in Grundisburgh and thus met Ned. She was in service in Wood Green Middlesex in 1911 from where she might have moved to a new position in Eltham.
Another matter was kept a secret between Ned and his mother. Mother I think you have had a letter from Brighton, you haven’t told me yet, but never mind, there’s nothing there I am ashamed of, I have sent a card or two to let them know I am alright. She evidently confirmed that she had heard from Brighton, and he responded on 23 October: Don’t write to Brighton any more, I think in your letter you speak very sensibly of it, and I agree to what you say, so I shall not write [to whoever in Brighton] any more. Besides, he had more pressing concerns: We were shelled well yesterday, Sutton had a piece of shrapnel cut his tunic across the shoulder [no steel helmets yet], but as luck happened it didn’t touch his skin. There were two wounded at the same time, no more than five yards from where I stood, but it was not so bad as the first place we went to [Loos]. Ned was now making ‘demands’ ─ minimal requests ─ of his mother: cigarettes; later my gloves and two handkerchiefs instead of cigarettes, I can do without them well (6 Oct 15); if you don’t mind send a mouth organ, that is if you going to town. Get a good one, you shall have the money back whatever happen (16 Oct 15); vaseline; and cigarettes again. He also had letters and a parcel from the Harveys ─ Joe had been at the station to see him off when they left for Folkestone.
The battalion spent the last two months of 1915 in the (Ypres) Salient, “occupying the line at Forward Cottage trenches, or at St Jean. The weather was atrocious, and the period as a whole indescribably wretched and trying for everyone. When not actually in the line the battalion was at or near Poperinghe, furnishing everlasting working parties at night, which had to grope their way up to the front in rain, mud, and darkness, and under persistent shell-fire. All ranks were constantly exercised in the rapid manipulation of gas-masks in anticipation of gas attacks” (Murphy, pp 123-4). When Ned wrote next, on 16 November, the mouth organ had been a victim of these appalling conditions: It was a very good one, but when we were in the trenches last time the weather and mud did not suit it, and so it got spoiled. I had it in my top pocket too. I tried to play it after then, but it made such a tune, so I will leave it to you to guess what I done with it at the finish. Perhaps one of the enemy was surprised to see it come sailing out of the trenches opposite. Ned had learned that George was wounded, and hoped now he will have the winter in England, as it will be hard for [him] to go into hospital and come out again during the bad weather in the trenches. I was not a bit surprised to hear he was wounded, and I wonder the three of us have got along as far as we have without something of the sort happening before. Nothing had been heard from Arthur since mid-October, when he was still in France.
The letter of 16 November 1915 was Ned’s longest and most descriptive of his life at the front. We have been in a barn for about four days, about three miles straight across country from the firing line. It was pretty quiet till last night. The Germans started to shell us, and we began to think we were in for a rough night. They put between twenty and thirty of their coal boxes [a shell burst causing a cloud of black smoke] over, but as luck happened they didn’t do a lot of damage. One hit the corner of the barn and shifted some bricks. After they started, our Guns started from all round us, and they poured some of our nice little shell over, and within an hour our guns had silenced the Germans from that quarter. The guns flashed from all round like a very sharp tempest, and the old barn seemed to rock like a boat on the water, but still our chaps were cheery and some were singing. They didn’t seem to take no more notice than if there was nothing happening, we have got so used to it. Some of the Germans’ shells are very powerful, and some are not. If you were to see some of [the] holes a Jack Johnson [shell so called because of its size and black smoke, after the black heavyweight boxer] make you would be surprised. They are like a decent-sized pond, and after a great battle our people have buried as many as forty-five in one of them, so it gives you a little indication what they are like. They are very good drains for the trenches as the water gets a good fall into them. There was some come over here onto the road at the back of us and upset a transport going along, wounded some chaps, and they called out for the 9th Suffolk stretcher bearers. So they took the stretchers and were looking after these chaps when another shell come and knocked four of the SBs out. It’s handy when the chaps were doing their best for them that were wounded, and then to get it as well. That is how the Germans treat our stretchers, it seems to me as though there’s nothing too bad for the devils. We are off to the trenches again tomorrow night for not quite so long as we were in before. I dare say they will give us a warm reception, and so we shall them. We have got some of the ammunition, they haven’t got it all, nor have they got all the rifles. We go to the trenches nearly every night when we are out to carry things up there for use in the trenches, and sometimes we have to do them up where they have fallen, or where a shell have knocked them down. It is rather a dangerous job. Sometimes they turn machine guns on us, and sometimes they send us some shells, but we have got pretty keen so we know exactly what is coming off very often, and do our best to dodge, but it’s all a job sometimes. Well Mother, we are getting some of the winter weather here now and I expect you are at home. The trenches are in rather a poor condition where we are. When we were in them the last time, the water was a foot over our knees and the boards were floating on the top. I don’t think they are much better now. The fall of the water runs towards the German trenches, and the devils stop it so that it cannot get away from ours very free. But they haven’t drowned us yet. They are up to everything of the sort, and we must be the same. Lately we have had some sharp frosts so that the ground have been hard to walk on, I don’t mind them, they are better than the mud. There are several of our chaps gone with frost-bitten feet, and I expect there will be more go yet. It is the report that we are going for a month’s rest from the 21st of this month. I hope it’s right, we can all now about do with it. We are to go right back from the noise of guns. When we were in the trenches before, a chap had only just relieved me when a shell came in the same spot where I was on guard and blew the trench in and wounded the chap. If it [had] been a few minutes before it would have been me instead of him. I was not far off at the time, some of the stuff fell on my back but it didn’t hurt me. I can tell you I thought myself lucky, although it’s no more for one than another. I couldn’t see for smoke for several minutes. When you write again I should like some of Mrs Fosker’s peppermint sweets. You know, the ones with “extra strong” on them, they will keep alright. Don’t send anything else this time. I hope Mother I don’t trouble you too much, but I know you are willing to do all you can for us, and may God speed the war to the finish and take us all to the old Home again. That will seem like going to Heaven to me, and will be a great relief to you all at Home.
On 21 November Ned wrote to George: We came out of the trenches on the 19th for a month’s rest, and were relieved by the K.R.R.s [Kings Royal Rifle Corps] of the 14th Division. We have been round this quarter ever since we left Loos, at Ypres we are, I don’t know if you know much about this part, if you did, I could explain exactly the parts we have been laying. The trenches here are in a poor condition, plenty of mud and water in them, and the dugouts were like some of the ruined buildings by Ypres. I thought when Mother told me you were wounded that [you] were hit by a piece of shrapnel from a “wiz-bang” as they have been very plentiful where we have been, and they don’t give one much of a chance to get down. We have not been troubled by many bombs, only when we have been out on patrol, but we have had several rifle grenades in the trenches and all sorts of other weapons, as “I dare say” you know all about. We have all had very narrow escapes, and can think ourselves lucky we are still alive … I wonder us three have got through as far as we have. In these storms of shot and shell, people in England who have never been out here will never realise what it’s like, they can read papers till their eyes drop out, if they never experience it.
Ned wrote to thank his mother on 27 November for the peppermints and to let her know the Harveys had written again. We are now in a great building in Poperhinge, we marched here today from some huts in the centre of a wood about six miles from here, as near as I can tell you. We are now about 11 miles from the firing line, but we are still in the reach of the enemy’s shell-fire but they don’t worry us a lot here … I am glad that Father [is] too old for this. Where we have been this last two months is Ypres, no doubt you have seen a lot in the papers about it. We marched through to get to our place in the trenches. I expect by the look of it Ypres was a beautiful place before the war, but it looks to me as if it has well felt the effects of war now. But two days later: I will now finish writing your letter as I had to leave it a day or two on account of a sudden call out. We were up at the trenches again last night 29th putting up barbed wire. We came back lucky, only one casualty, it was raining fast all night On 9 December, I think we are going into the trenches again in about four days time, but not exactly in the same place as before, a little to the right of where we were before. There have been a lot of artillery fire here lately but it seems a bit quieter now, but I reckon they will soon strike up again and have another day or two of it, just to let them know Old England is still alive. The weather here has been a bit milder lately but we still get plenty of wet, and here the land is so flat that it takes a long time for the water [to] run off.
Death and burial
His last letter to his mother was written on 15 December with little news except that his constant friend Sutton Smith had been taken to hospital on the 9th suffering apparently from enteric (typhoid) fever. He closed Wishing you all every success for a Merry Xmas and Prosperous Happy New Year. On 18 December (postmarked 19th) he wrote to George with no news yet of Sutton, but I have also received a parcel from Mrs Taylor containing some useful things, which the Grundisburgh people had kindly subscribed and arranged for every man on active service of the parish [these were gifts sent by the “Soldiers’ Xmas Presents Fund”]. I couldn’t hardly believe my own eyes at first, as I thought it was very unusual of them “you know”. Less happily, We are still out of the trenches, but I shouldn’t be surprised if we go back at any time now. There has been a heavy bombardment by our artillery today, and this morning the Germans made a gas attack on our front, but as luck happened it didn’t take much effect. Well George, I don’t think I have much more news at present, and will close wishing you every good wish for Xmas and the New Year.
The action in which Ned was killed is described by Murphy (p. 124): “On December 19, while the battalion was in trenches in front of St Jean, the enemy again became active. Gas was sent over early in the morning, followed by a very heavy bombardment lasting twenty-four hours … The casualties in the battalion amounted to over eighty, including 2nd Lieut. BH Collis [it was the practice in the regimental history to name casualties among officers but not the men] who died on the 20th from the effects of his wounds. The battalion received a congratulatory telegram from the Army Commander for having held its trenches so successfully on December 19-20, during the gas attack and bombardment”. The 9th Battalion was the first unit of the New Armies to experience a gas attack and in May 1916 four awards for gallantry by battalion personnel on 19 December were announced, three Military Medals and one Military Cross (the equivalent of the MM for officers). The number of casualties in this attack was high: in the 9th Battalion eleven, including Ned, were killed on the 19th, and a further six died of their wounds in the following three days. The action did not form part of any of the three battles of Ypres, but in the context of the war as a whole was highly significant for the fact that this was the first time the German army used phosgene gas.
Edmonds 1932 (pp. 158-62) adds further detail to the events of 19 December, and a map. Information from a prisoner, and north-easterly winds, had prepared the British lines for the likelihood of a gas attack. At 5am on the 19th unusual activity by the enemy gave sufficient warning for a ‘Gas Alert’ to be issued, and shortly after “the hissing sound of the release of gas was heard and its smell noticed” (p. 159). No Man’s Land between the two front lines was little more than 20 yards wide at the northern limit of the British lines held by 49th Division (to the left of 71st Brigade which included the 9th Suffolks) and the map suggests that the gas cylinders were concentrated (and well dug in) in that sector. The majority of British casualties occurred here. The gas was later found to be chlorine but with 20 per cent phosgene (a colourless gas with a less distinctive odour and more lethal than chlorine with delayed but fatal effects). British troops were equipped with P- helmets which had proved reasonably effective against chlorine ─ the BEF had indeed used this gas itself two months previously at Loos ─ but not against the new weapon (nor indeed against the disabling tear gas). The 5am gas attack was followed at about 6.15 by a renewed assault using a different delivery: “the front was deluged with gas shell, which came with deadly quietness through the darkness, and exploded with a dull splash. Before it was realised what was afoot, some men were gassed, but the British helmets as a rule seemed to be sufficient protection.” But they were not so on this occasion: of 1,069 casualties “from gas” on 19 December, 120 officers and men were killed.
It is not clear from this account whether the casualty figures include those killed by high-explosive shells and rifle fire which accompanied the gas, but 71st Brigade (including 9/Suffolk) was targetted “by an intense bombardment with shrapnel of the salient [the projection of the British line towards the enemy] north-west of Wieltje”. It may well be that the fatal event in the attack came for Ned during that German artillery assault, and that he died somewhere between St Jean and Wieltje.
The commanding officer of C Company wrote to Ned’s mother on the day after his death: “Dear Mrs Goodchild, I deeply regret it is my duty to write and inform you that your brave son was killed in action early yesterday morning. It grieves me greatly to have to write the sad news, and I hope it will be a little consolation to know that he died bravely under most trying circumstances. It was during a gas attack and he was killed by a shell while acting as guard on a barricade in a little village. The same shell killed the officer of his platoon. He was buried last night by our chaplain and rests in a little village in a graveyard for our regiment outside of Ypres. I sympathise most deeply with you in your sad loss and to me he also is a great loss being one of my best and bravest soldiers. He died with his rifle by him ready for the enemy. No man can do more. Yours very sincerely, Seymour W. Church, Capt.”
The letter is simply and movingly expressed, written on the back of a signals form. Cynically, we may wonder whether there was a suggested pattern for letters of condolence made available to assist young officers who would have had many such letters to write, but Seymour Wolsely Church may not have needed such help. He was Australian, from Melbourne, born in 1884, appointed temporary Lieutenant in 9/Suffolk in November 1914 and promoted to Captain a year later. Whatever his background, it is certain that Joe and Etta found consolation in Church’s words. They had a printed and decorated transcript of the letter prepared which has been displayed in the house at Grundisburgh ever since. Two surprising features of the letter are firstly that Ned is not actually named, and secondly that his parents had still not been informed of his death on 28 December, when Etta wrote her customary letter to him. Her letter was returned to her on about 9 January and she left it unopened. It gave news of his brothers and Sutton, and asked if there was anything she might send. “I hope you are still alright … Xmas passed over alright here. Cecil and Hilda had a few games, we should be dull if it was not for them, they make us laugh sometimes … What kind of Xmas did you spend? Pray to God the New Year will bring peace so that you can all come home again.”
Ned was buried on the night of 19 December in Cottage Garden Cemetery, close to the main street in St Jean, the village halfway between Ypres and Wieltje. It is not clear when his parents were told where he was buried ─ in February all they were given was a military map reference for the location (“St Jean, ref to map sheet 28 Sq. C.27.d.3.4”). The burial was conducted by the Rev. Kinlock Jones, of 71 Brigade. Forty-four soldiers from the UK and one Canadian were buried here during 1914-15. There is a photograph showing a wooden cross with three metal strips on the cross-piece ─ Ned’s name and number, unit, and date ─ just legible. There is another grave adjacent, a rough brick path by the crosses, a wire fence marking the edge of the cemetery, and a ruined building beyond. On the upright of the cross are the initials GRC (Graves Registration Commission); the GRC was established in 1915, becoming the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in 1917. By then the provision of photographs of graves when requested was an established service, and the photograph was certainly taken before the end of the war, but to add the information “Nearest Railway Station: Ypres” was absurdly optimistic.
In July 1922 the IWGC wrote to Ned’s mother to say that by agreement with the governments of France and Belgium bodies buried in small cemeteries were being concentrated in larger cemeteries, and thus it had been found necessary to remove the bodies buried in the Cottage Garden for re-interment in White House Cemetery in St Jean. However, “I very much regret to say that when this work was undertaken it was not possible to identify the actual grave of the late Private Goodchild. I would point out that, as you will readily understand in many areas which have been under constant shell fire, the whole surface of the ground has been so completely altered, that landmarks and grave registration marks have been obliterated”. In place of individual graves it was intended to erect a special memorial cross at White House Cemetery bearing the names of Ned and nine other soldiers (in March 1925 the IWGC sent a list of their names) whose graves at Cottage Garden Cemetery had been destroyed during the war. However, this plan was abandoned and an individual gravestone commemorating Ned was erected. The registry for the cemetery which lists those who are buried or commemorated here states that Ned “died of wounds”, which is certainly incorrect. The gravestone itself bears the inscription “a devoted son & brother whose untimely end caused immense grief”. Six other members of the 9th Battalion Suffolk Regiment who were killed on 19 December 1915 are also buried here.
In March 1916 Joe received the balance of Ned’s pay owing to him: £5-14s-4d (£5.72). His personal effects were sent in a white cloth bag ─ perhaps an ammunition bag. They were itemised as 1 (identity) disc, 1 belt, 1 leather cigarette case, 1 pipe, 3 photos (in case), 1 notebook. The pipe was no longer there, but the other items were (and are now with the Regimental Museum). Of the three photos, one is badly deteriorated ─ male, unknown ─ one is George in uniform, and the third is a young woman. On the back she has written “To Dear Ted, with Love and best wishes from Annie”. This was perhaps Annie Lankester, another niece of Sutton Smith’s mother. She was born in nearby Otley in 1894, was thus a year younger than Ned, and in domestic service in Ipswich in 1911. Or was Annie a friend he had made in Brighton? Most poignant of all is to find in his cigarette case three “ARF A MO” cigarettes, made by Martins Ltd London, Ned’s last cigarettes which have remained undisturbed now for nearly a century.
Of the seven surviving letters of condolence that Joe and Etta received, three were from Etta’s sisters and nieces at Grove Farm Lt. Wenham (Hilda Hope), Hill House Tattingstone, and Barfield House Capel St Mary. John Salmon Goodchild wrote from East Bergholt. He was indeed her nephew but because of the closeness of their ages he used to irritate her by insisting on calling her ‘aunt’. Cecil H Thompson, minister at the Baptist Chapel close to The Fens, was evidently staying with family or friends at 18 York Road Brighton when he wrote to express his condolences. It may be that all the boys had grown up attending the Chapel. Thompson sent a Christmas 1915 circular letter to George and perhaps to the others (“We are proud that as a Chapel we have nearly 50 men serving with the colours”).
A letter in his distinctive italic handwriting arrived from Henry Spadaccini in Poplar. Spadaccini was by then an inspector with the Sanitary Authority of the Port of London, of Italian descent but born in Dublin. His connection to Etta is a remarkable story. In 1873 he had married Julia Louisa Salmon, Etta’s cousin though Julia was older by 23 years. He was a master-mariner, Julia had been abandoned by her parents when she was two, and lived her childhood in Tattingstone workhouse. She found her way to London, somehow met Spadaccini, and they married. In 1878 Etta’s father George Salmon died in Capel St Mary leaving his widow and young family ─ Etta was six years old ─ facing poverty. News of this must have reached the Spadaccinis who were childless, and no doubt with memories of Julia’s own upbringing they offered Etta a home in London. Thus it was through living in Burdett Road Limehouse and attending a school in East India Dock Road that she came to see General Gordon’s troops leaving for Egypt and Sudan in 1884, and to see the survivors return (“Oh what a difference there was in those men” I remember her saying). By 1891 she had decided to return to Suffolk, and the following year married Joe. But Spadaccini stayed closely in touch with Etta before and after Julia died, and visited her and the family in Grundisburgh in 1908.
He wrote: “Dear Ethel, I am very sorry for you. Of course you have my sympathy, and if of any use, my prayers. It is half past six and I am off directly to church as it is the first Friday of the month. You and he and his brothers will be remembered. There was a time when I wrote long letters of condolence but what is the good of saying more. He died a good death, giving up his life for all of us who in this country have to thank our sailors and soldiers for our security from invasion. I enclose a prayer by Canon Wilberforce the Chaplain of the House of Commons, who also wrote “A Prayer for a Departed Friend”, of which, I think, I sent you a copy seven or eight years ago. With good wishes for a speedy and complete victory and a lasting peace. Hy. Spadaccini [PS] 8.15am My eyes were wet as I recalled three schoolboys on their way home one day as I was walking towards your village and then remembered that one of them was resting in a strange land. No better end could be.”
The letter which will have meant most came from Joe’s cousin in Aldershot. Joe Harvey had lost one nephew in the Dardanelles at Suvla Bay, and another was recovering from wounds. “Dear Cousin, I write these few lines to you hoping you are both keeping fairly well under the circumstances, as I regret to hear from your boy George of the death of your son Ned. I feel that I must write to you first to say that I and my wife have both felt for you in this sad bereavement. Poor boy, he was a jolly sort of chap, and like George often came to see us whilst they were here on training. I hope by this time you have heard from your other lad in Salonika. Oh this horrible war, may peace come quickly is what everybody wish for … Have you heard of Sutton (Ned’s mate) whether he is alright. I remember how I saw them both off at Frimley station on the Monday when they left for France. Both were singing and seemed joyful at the sight of going. I have thought to myself today that I was the last one to see him, and I can’t seem to think it’s true yet. I wrote to him a week before Christmas and sent him a parcel, but whether he received it or not we haven’t heard unless you hear from Sutton (his mate) … We are glad to hear that your boy George is going on alright and hope by the time he is better peace will be here, but of course I doubt it. We see plenty of cripples here in this town now on sticks and crutches, I’m sorry to say. Well Joe, I’ll now draw to a close, I have no more to say. It is the first letter I wrote to you, but hearing the sad news this morning I felt I must write you, for I and my wife feel for you both in your sad loss of poor Ned. Kind regards from us all, I remain your loving cousin Joe Harvey”.