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The Letters of John Lawton
When John Lawton wrote his first letters home he was a private in the East Kent Regiment (The Buffs). This was a home defence regiment engaged in guarding garrisons and bases in and around Dover in Kent.
The 18th December, 1915, was John’ s 19th birthday and he wrote home on that day:-
I don’t know how to thank you for the magnificant [sic] parcel you have sent me. I don’t know what end to start at. The tobacco pouch is splendid & is admired by everybody in the hut & the pipe is nice & light. The toffee is delicious & reminds me of the toffee you always make at Christmas as it tastes just the same. I will write & thank Aunt Sarah & Ethel for the things they have sent me.
Well! I’m nineteen today & I feel proud of it, although its my first birth-day that I’ve spent from home & it feels a little strange.
I am sorry that I shall not be able to sit at the festal-board this Christmas with you, light the candle in the old & time-honoured Japanese lantern in the hall, eat pork pies, roast chestnuts on the dining-room hearth, sing Noel etc & torment Christmas waits, but then I shall still have a fine time down here as we are having a colossal blow-out here. I don’t know who’s going to pay for it but we are all to have poultry & plum pudding for dinner, mincepies, cakes etc, then there’s going to be a big concert etc & altogether we shall have a very jolly time.
In early 1916 John Lawton became a lance-corporal and after he had heard from home of Zeppelin raids to the Potteries he wrote to his parents on 4th February:-
You surprise me very much that the Zepps got so far inland. I knew there had been an air raid but air raids down here are too frequent to cause any comment so I passed it over. As the Zepps did not injure anyone in the Potteries I’m jolly glad they came over as the dunderheads living there will now dimly realise that we are at war. And as for the population refusing to put out their lights, well no blame can be attached to them. Why on earth weren’t the gas & electric light immediately cut off as they would have been in Dover. I suppose the officials in the Potteries suffer from the same complaint as those in Parliament today, the ‘procrastinwaitandsee complaint’.
Today I was called before the Machine Gun Officer who told me that the Company was in need of N.C.O.s & that the Adjutant had asked him to return any spare N.C.O.s he had in the Section, so he has returned me to duty.
Needless to say I am not at all sorry to hear this as now I shall have a chance of receiving promotion and as the men have only been in the Coy 6 weeks it must be a jolly long while before there is another draft picked; for they are in a terrible state & do not yet know how to ‘form fours.’ ... I had better close this letter in a hurry as it is tea time and if I am not standing round the table ready to grab I shall get nothing to eat.
Undated letter. Not in an envelope, but written in February 1916.
My dear Mother & Dad
You will be very surprised to hear that I am in hospital with a sceptic [sic] knee. I daresay you’ll think this sounds rather terrible & I’ve no doubt you will be very upset but I do hope you wont as really I am going on very nicely & the doctor says that I shall soon be about again.
It happened like this. You remember when I had my boots repaired when I came off pass. Well I slipped down on an aspheldt [sic] incline owing to the nails & struck my right knee a glancing blow.
My knee was recovering from this slight injury when I went on outpost about 3 weeks ago & going out in the dark early one morning to replenish the fire I slipped on some zinc sheeting covered with ice. This again injured my knee in the same place & the dirt must have got in although I went into a chemist’s shop & bought some lint, a roller bandage and some boracic ointment a few days later when I came off outpost. Owing to this treatment my knee seemed to be going on all right so I left the bandage off. Then on Wednesday last a little blister formed on the top of my knee right away from the injured part. I thought this was strange so I pricked it with a needle & water & matter ran out. Then on Thursday I went on outpost as you know & wrote to you on Friday night when my knee was paining me very much though I did not say so as I did not want to alarm you unnecessarily. Saturday & Sunday my knee began to swell a great deal & the pain spread from my knee up the inside of my leg to the groin where a big lump began to form. I was releived [sic] on Sunday & on Monday morning I went sick with it & the doctor said I had a sceptic [sic] knee & must go in hospital & I was taken there in an ambulance & here I am.
My new address for the time being is
L/Corp J. Lawton 1872
South 4 Ward
Western Heights Military Hospital
I do hope you will not be worried as it is nothing serious & I shall be about again in no time & meanwhile I am having a nice long rest with plenty of good food & a lot of nice fellows to associate with.
So long now
With fondest love
P.S. Please excuse my handwriting as I have written this in bed. I could not write before as I had no paper or envelopes.
In March, 1916, John was still in hospital and in an undated letter he said:
This morning all was bright & peaceful, the bells were ringing & now & then a siren from the harbour was heard. At 10 o’clock the Angel of death & destruction was hovering very near us. Suddenly a terrific explosion shook the ward to its foundations. All those who were up rushed outside & were just in time to see a magnificent P & O Liner rapidly disappearing beneath the waves & now the report which I am afraid is only too true is that the hotel facing the pier is full of boatloads of casualties. It must have struck a mine. At the same time a tank steamer was sunk in the vicinity. When one is so near such terrible happenings it makes one realise to the full the grim horror of war & the truth of the scriptural proverb and epigram ‘in the midst of life we are in death’. One moment a splendid liner crowded with passengers with hopes & aspirations like ourselves, breathing-in the pure sea air & thrilled with the joy of life. Next they are swiftly hurled into eternity & the liner is a thing of the past. Surely war is a frightful thing.
In a later letter John had moved on to a V.A.D. Hospital on the seafront in Deal and he told his parents:-
... I take long walks along the sea shore. The sea down here is very rough & comes in with a majestic sweep bringing in all kinds of flotsam. There has been a big timber ship mined in the North Sea this weekend the fishermen have been making no end of money by selling the timber washed ashore.
...In the Downs we can see all sorts & conditions of neutral ships, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, etc and they tell me that every time a big Dutchman arrives in there is an air raid the following day. It seems rather funny doesn’t it. I think that we ought to have declared war on Holland before now for the part she has played in the war for she has not in any way been neutral. Then we should have been able to blockade Germany with a will & Holland being throttled would have accepted our own terms & stopped all her nonsense long ago. What do you think of the North Sea rumour. I should not be a bit surprised if the report is true as the German Fleet must come out some day or it might as well never have existed. If only she would come out & have a splash, the war would be considerably shortened one way or the other.
You are right about the recruiting muddle. Every man-jack in Parliament wants clearing out & put in internment camps & then we can get to business & carry on. The war has been going on for well over a year now & everyone a long time ago realised how vital it was to us that we should win. At the beginning of the war preparations should have been made to equip the new armies & a definite time limit given for enlistment under the voluntary system & nothing more said till that date arrived. Then the voluntary system should have been closed & those who had not answered their country’s call should have been called up as conscripts. The Government knew that conscription was inevitably coming. They made a terrible fuss to get the men enlisted under the voluntary system before it came off. Why? Surely not to be able to swank in years to come & say that we raised our armies without conscription because here it is upon us.
In an undated letter that was probably written in late March, 1916, my father reported to his parents that he had been discharged from hospital and had been sent to join No. 4 Company of the 5th Royal Fusiliers at Northfall Meadows, Dover.
The following are extracts from two letters that he wrote home in the first week of April:-
... On Friday, the night of the raid, the alarm sounded in barracks at 8.30 p.m.& the siren warned the people in the town. The swaddies in the town were hounded up to barracks at the double by the Military Police & we were all taken into the open fields some distance from barracks & stayed there from 8.30 at night till 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Some April Fools weren’t we? It was jolly rotten I can tell you. Last night we were all roused up from sleep at 12.30 & had to go out again in the same sloppy manner. This time they shouted to us to bring a blanket with us. I & Fryer took 4 apiece.
... The pain in my back has gone, also my headache, but my chest is still in a bad way & I cough very much. I soaked it in camphorated oil last night & it has loosened the rubbish considerably. I expect I shall get over it in a few days. I expect it was the change from hospital life to trench digging that caused it.
... I was very ill indeed last weekend & had a job to find the energy to write to you. Sunday I felt a little better & was sent on outpost. Better be on outpost than trench-digging. Trench digging has now absorbed our whole programme & every regiment is at it hammer & tongues. When one leaves off another arrives to take its place.
... This beautiful spring weather reminds me forcibly of our weekly walks around Whitmore, Stableford, Beech, Trentham and Clayton. It also reminds me of the paper chases we used to run at school about this time of the year.
Letter written from Dover on 8th April, 1916, on Royal Fusiliers headed notepaper:
... My dear Mother & Dad,
Just a few lines on this swanky notepaper to let you know that I have now quite recovered from my cold & am feeling quite fit again. You will be glad to hear that I am on very light duty just now. I am a musketry instructor on the big range, that is I dish out the chargers of ammunition to the men of my section which they fire & I collect the empty cartridge cases & replace them in the bandoliers to be sent back to the manufacturers as nothing of that kind is wasted in the army. I also direct the recruit’s fire by telling him where he is hitting the target.
... Life is worth living down here, now I have been transferred to the Company where I am treated with more respect & where I stand a good chance of promotion, as sometimes I shall be left in charge of a whole platoon when the Sergeant is away… I do hope you are visited by no more Zeppellins as it makes me anxious about you. I am taking the ‘Sentinels’ on outpost with me to read there. They seem to be very interesting from the look of them.
Going home on leave was important to every soldier and John Lawton was no exception. He wrote from Dover to his parents on 13th April, 1916:-
... I should very much like to come over this Easter. I should like to hear the ‘Crucifixion’ sung by our Choir & to see the whole family communicate together on the Church’s greatest day & I should like to walk with you to Bart[h]omely on Easter Monday as we did before. Wouldn’t it be jolly?
In another letter two days later he said he had every hope of getting away and asked if his parents could send him the fare. In that letter he described his work cooking meals for soldiers while on outpost:-
... We are having a fine time on outpost here only the wind is very strong. We buy eggs every morning & have bacon & eggs for breakfast & lots of ‘sergeant-major’s tea & new bread. For dinner we have a stew of turnips, parsnips, onions, spuds & a mixture of meat & mutton… You ought to see me flavouring it with salt and pepper & last but not least burning sugar in a big spoon & adding to the flavour of the ‘gypo’ or soup.
The Letters of Oswald Tittle, 1912-1918
Oswald Tittle was a different character from John Lawton, from a working-class background and less-well educated. However, he is not less interesting. Oswald went to Australia as a young man confident in his abilities and eager to make his fortune in the world through hard work. He was enthusiastic about all he found and wrote about it for his family, not so adventurous, back in Audley. Nevertheless, he did not forget his home and we learn quite a lot about characters back in Audley as well as those he met in his new life. These extracts start very soon after he landed in Australia.
LETTER 4: Aug 12.1912 Addison Street, Kensington, Sydney, N.S.W
Dear Uncle Tom and Eliza
In reference to letter from Gertie Sarah & Will and Thomas jun I am very pleased to hear that you are all well as it leaves me at present in fine health. Tell Gertie we shall not be able to go to Blackpool this wakes. I must say I see more sea out here every day than there is at Blackpool. There are large steamers coming in here every day from all parts of the world. I hope that you all have a good time at the Wakes. Uncle Tom big day for Mr Dodd. By the way I hope that Willie face will soon get better and Aunt Lizas throat will soon be better as I know that there is no time for sickness where Liza is. She is so fond of work & the wash tub. I very often think and wonder how she is going on with her little odd jobs that I used to do for her.
… Tell David that I am getting a first class shot. I very often go out shooting parrots and rabbits most Saturday & Sunday and the country out here is fine for health plenty of sunshine and fresh air. I have put over one stone in weight on already since I came up the country. I feel very sorry for Mr Downes being so poorly has he was such a strong healthy looking man. I really would not have tought that he would be taken like he his but none of us no what may come to us in our life. We have to take things as the come and try to make the best of them. I very often think of little Sybil & little [?] on the picture. I know she will being getting a fine girl now. I suppose that Jimmy keeps paying you a visit in the little [?] of Polly & David & reading his Turf [of?] handicap also Will. I suppose that work at Audley is know better for the Colliers but I hope that you have better days in store. So good bye till we meet again. I have so many people that keep writing to me it fills all my spare time to write back to them. So I will keep writing a few lines to you in your turn
Fondest love to all
LETTER 5: Aug 16 1912. Addison St, Kensington, Sydney, N.S.Wales.
Dear Father & all
I am very pleased to hear that you have commenced work & I hope that you will soon be well & feel like your self again. I should not over work my-self, just take things very calmly and steady till your back is perfectly well again. I see that Mary & Fred & little Madge have been to Hanley flower show. My-word how time flies. Twelve-months gone since you & me were there. It only seems but a few days to me. You say the flowers are lovly but they are nothing to be compared with the flowers out here. There are flowers here all the year roud and they are beautiful. There is sunshine all the year round out here and the Oranges trees are in full bloom, over-burdened with fruit. It is a fine sight to see Oranges growing; my word if you had them in England your teeth would run water but I am getting tired of eating them. They are very common fruit out here, also peachs & all kinds of fruits you may mention as you will know that this Climate is the finest in the world. It his the garden of the world for sunshine and fruits and what sun we have here. It his extra hot but I think that I shall be able to stand the heat al-right. I see that you have seen Tom Scott. Just remember me to him when you may see him again. Also I see that they had a wet day for the Sermons at Mill End. No doubt it would make it rather a bad day for them. I see that Mr & Mrs Everson have decided to come to New Zealand. Well no doubt they are acting very wise in doing so as I don’t think that any one will make their fortune at home very quickly as trade is so very bad. I am rather surprised to hear that Mr Robert Mayer is thinking of going to Canda but I am sure he will do much better there than at home and I wish him every success in life. Just remember me to Miss Mayer when see his over. Also I will write to the girls in turn. I am receiving letters very frequently and it takes all my spare time to keep corresponding back to them. No doubt you will know by letters in front of this that I am up the country and that I have struck a fare job as long as it lasts. It will give me a good start and it his very healthy up the country. The wall-papers that I have to put on have cost over £50-0-0 so you realise what a good job it his. On Saturday & Sunday I go out shooting parrotts & rabbits as the chapels & churches are a few miles from here and for health I am feeling fine, only we eat a great ammount of beef & mutton out here and I get a little bit tired of it some times as the Colonials eat a great amount of flesh. They say it suits a hot climate. Also the boss that I am working for his a decent fellow and he likes to see a good job and he can tell a good job when he sees one to. He his a very straight-forword man to deal with and he finds me the same. Some of the people here think that they know every-thing but you have to take things very calm and think all the more. That is the best way to get on. You must not send me on any money if you have not sent any on as I shall do without it now things are better only just at the start I was thinking that I may not get work very soon but I have been very fortunate so far and I mean to take care of what I get. The hottest days out here are over 106 degrees in the shade so it his much warmer than at home. This climate will suit father al right and he would never hardly be cold out here. They only danger here is the snakes & the death adder that prowls about the bush forest. They lie sleeping in the rocks and if the bite you it his instant death so it is not all sunshine in these hot climate there are all kinds of reptiles & [animal?] tribe here. It is a sight to see such things but you have to take great care when going to & fro in the fields. Tell Jim he would be alright out here, plenty of Rabbitts to shoot at and birds of all kinds. I will write a few lines most weeks. So good night till we meet again. Good-health, good luck to you all.