100 years ago today my Great-Grandfather was in France.
Joe was the next biggest brother of my Great-Great-Aunt-Nance, born in 1876 as the third of the eight children. As a family they seem to have been extraordinarily well represented in the census records and I’ve traced him as a 5 year old scholar, a 15 year old ‘telegraph messenger’, and a 25 year old postman, living at home in Christchurch with his mother two little sisters and littlest brother in 1901.
Later that year he married Agnes, my great-grandmother. They didn’t move very far and in 1911 they were in Bournemouth with two of their three daughters, my great aunts Marjorie (born 1903) and Doris (born 1904), and shortly to be joined by my Grannie who arrived in 1912.
While he was still working as a postman, he’d also opened a photography studio. That seems to have been his passion in life and possibly his main career; my father thought of him as having been a photographer and it was only in digging around in census records that we found that he’d stayed with the post office the whole time. The studio was at their home, and it means that we have lots of portraits of the family, including some gorgeous very Victorian baby pictures of Grannie sat with her big sisters.
As a 38 year old with two careers, a wife and three small daughters it’s not surprising that he was not with his sister among the wave of volunteers of 1914, and even when conscription first came in in January 1916 he was exempt as a married man. But when that exemption was waived later in the year he was duly called up.
And because my great-aunts were excellent
hoarders archivists, and even my Grannie, who in another life would have given Marie Condo a run for her money, kept his cards, we have a little collection of his letters home, and can try to piece together what happened next.
He was sent to Rochester for training.
From what he wrote it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d taken that top photo and had it printed nearby.
My Dear Little Vi [my grandmother, aged not quite 4]
I hope you will like this postcard, it is the band of soldiers going to church, don’t they look smart, Daddy’s boots are all covered with mud. I hope you are being a good little girl
From Chichester he was posted to France, and the trenches. I’m not sure exactly where, because this is where there’s a gap in the correspondence for more than six months.
June 19th 1917
A Picture PC for you. I hope you are all keeping well we had a heavy thunder storm last night. Much cooler today. Love to all from Daddy
The next piece of the puzzle is one of the few postcards sent to him that he kept.
Doris & Queenie with love to Dear Daddy
Queenie was Marjorie’s nickname; the girls would have been 12 and 14 at the time that it was sent, though as the photo was taken by Joe, they may have been slightly younger in the picture. Marjorie is so like her Aunt Nance in that picture, clearly there were strong genetics on the Barrett side.
The back is the clue: Received July 4th 1917, Nieuport, France.
Nieuport was in Flanders rather than France, just down the line from Ypres on the Belgian coast, though you can forgive the confusion at the time given that only a tiny sliver of Belgium was behind the Allied trenches. He was in the trenches when he was wounded, though fortunately not too badly, and sent off to hospital in France to recuperate.
It must have been shortly after that postcard as the correspondence from August 1917 onwards comes from Army Post Office S11 which was based at Etaples serving the hospitals that surrounded it, including the Duchess of Westminster’s at Le Touquet.
And so the story goes that while he was recovering, the staff at the hospital discovered that he was a photographer and roped him in to help them in taking x-rays. And so my great-grandfather became the radiographer at the No 1 Red Cross Hospital, otherwise known as the Duchess of Westminster’s hospital. Where he clearly found himself with a bit more time to buy and send postcards, because there was a veritable flood of cards home to the girls.
France, Jan 21.18
My dear little Vi
Do you do your dolly’s hair like the little girl in the picture. Love to Dad
If the ‘Soldiers’ Rest’ card seems a little out of keeping with the others, there’s a reason;
I wonder if I shall want this on my return. Hope you are not too busy.
to which Joe has added to the top
Vi Barrett, I had this sent out to me, Dad
and sent it home.
For starters it confirms that he was working at the hospital by that point; you’re unlikely to refer to someone as being busy when they’re recuperating, but it’s the stamp that has pricked my curiosity. It must have been put on the card by Jack as homeward mail didn’t need a stamp, and in looking up the locations of various Army Post Offices, I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole on the language of stamps. Apparently it’s a Victorian thing, a little like the language of flowers, which may or may not actually have been widely used. If it is deliberate, and not just a wonky stamp, then it means either “I am sending you a kiss”, or “will you be mine”, both of which seem unlikely sentiments from someone addressing my great-grandfather by his surname. It will forever be a mystery!
And life obviously wasn’t all work; this is one of the few postcards addressed to my great-grandmother,
Had a pleasant afternoon with this old lady on her farm and this is the photo we took before leaving, J
Albeit that he was writing to his teenage and infant daughters, and occasionally his wife, his cards are short and sweet and almost make it sound as if he was on holiday. Perhaps he just wanted to escape for a little while, perhaps he was protecting them from his reality, and more than likely he was trying to ensure that everything got past the censor.
Joe remained in France for the rest of the war, still sending postcards home, including this very gorgeous embroidered card for Doris’ birthday
And then he came home.
Joe went back to being a postman and took photographs for the rest of his life. He retired in 1936 and was awarded the Imperial Service Medal on 21 February 1936, along with a silver cigarette case which looks like it had never been used.
The other two are his war medals; Squeak, the British War Medal, on the right, and Wilfred, the Allied Victory medal, in the centre.
On Remembrance Sunday I am hugely aware of how lucky my family has been. My great-grandfather and great-great-aunt came home in 1919, and both grandfathers and one grandma served in the second world war without coming to any harm, which makes them and us incredibly fortunate.
I’d been planning on telling this story for this year’s Remembrance for a while, but in the last couple of weeks it’s seemed even more important. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the political shockwaves this year seem to have pointed out and played to our differences and allowed the extreme ends of the spectrum a voice.
It makes the ordinary stories of Rembrance important; to recall that it wasn’t just about heroes and villains, victories and crushing defeats. If we know that for every photographer-postman private on the Allied side of the trenches there would have been a counterpart on the other side of the barbed wire, writing home about the thunderstorms and muddy boots to his daughters, how can we not see that for all the political posturing and drawing up of sides we are more alike than we are different.