Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month 1918

6,Platoon B Coy
1/15 London Regiment
My Dear Peter,
                        Thanks so much for your letter received today. I was jolly gla dto receive it as I have often wondered how you  were getting on.Really we are quite alright out here, heaps of grub,good billets and under the circs are very comfortable.
Do you know Peter I haven't had a letter from home for eleven days and since my arrival in France six weeks ago I have had only two letters from them (Susie and William McGinn,mother and father) don't you think its jolly rotten of them. If you write to them please jog them up a bit for me.

Dear Peter, I hope you will write often and I will write you as often as poss; You see sometimes we are very busy and haven't much time. To day I haven't time to write any more so must say good bye.
Your loving brother,
P.S. Love to Ettie (Peters girlfriend and future wife.)

This letter was written by my great uncle, William McGinn, in 1918 from France.There is a sense that he was feeling pressured but trying to hide it. by blaming his mother and father for not writing to him. Reading Jill Knights account of the movements of the 1/15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) for that period makes me think William was suffering stress when he wrote the letter. 

There are two parts to the letter. Both parts begin with, Dear Peter. Perhaps they were written at different times in the day, between activities. The second part appears to be written in a hurry. The handwriting changes. It slants to the right and is more of a scrawl in parts. He finishes hurriedly,

“ I haven’t time to write any more, so must say goodbye.”

I found a calendar for 1918. On his way to France, after training, at probably the army camp on Wimbledon Common, where many of the rifle regiments trained before going over to France, he first wrote a postcard from Southampton.The date of the postcard  is dated Tuesday 5th February 1918.

Once across the Channel and disembarked at Rouen, he wrote another postcard home.The postcard from Rouen, is not dated.

  William says in the letter, dated the Thursday 14th March, that he has been in France for six weeks. Between the Southampton postcard dated 5th February and the letter written on the 14th March it is exactly five weeks and two days. He must have sailed for France almost at the same time he wrote  the Southampton postcard.

He died on Monday of the 1st April, two weeks and four days after sending the 14th March letter.

Battalion names got complicated, especially as the war progressed towards its finale.
Field Marshal Haig  restructured the Army in February 1918 in preparation for the expected German offensive. The 1/15th Battalion, London Regiment, which was The Prince of Wales Civil Service Rifles, became part of the 140th Infantry Brigade, London Regiment which was itself part of the 47th London Division. Many regiments and battalions were  disbanded and the soldiers were used to strengthen other battalions and brigades. The Civil Service Rifles continued to remain as a unit but it was connected to other groups.

According to Jill Knights book,THE CIVIL SERVICE RIFLES IN THE GREAT WAR,(All Bloody Gentleman), the Spring of 1918 was wet. The Civil Service Rifles were deployed at Ribecourt and Flesquieres during the month of January. They saw little action in that time but there was continual shelling and aerial bombardment of their positions.

In February they were brought up to full fighting strength with the arrival of one hundred men from the disbanded 6th London Battalion. Those reinforcements must have also included William. They spent most of their days hiding in dugouts and foxholes. Jill Knight states that sixty three men  reported sickness from gas attacks by the end of February.During the eleven weeks, from the start of January to the 19th March, only two men were killed however.

On the 19th March the 1/15 London (Civil Service Rifles) were required to defend the right flank of the whole British Army and on the 21st March the Germans began their offensive. At one stage, because of gas attacks, they had to wear box respirators continuously for six hours. William was a member of B company but the whole of C company was surrounded and captured by the Germans and taken prisoner. Many of C company died in the assault. William was lucky to escape. The Germans were resisted and the British Army was kept intact.

The Civil Service Rifles were withdrawn from the front line to rest for a while. They returned to the front on the 29th March at Aveluy Woods for three days. Aveluy Woods  is three kilometres north of Albert and a few kilometres south of Arras. They suffered fifteen casualties from shelling. William was one of those.
William McGinn, my great uncle.