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Friday, 19 September 2014

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Family's poignant letters from the Front

THE Thompson family of Whitehaven lost two sons, Joe and Billie, in World War One. A third son, John, was badly injured but survived and returned home.

By Margaret Crosby

Their story is not so unusual, in that millions of families were similarly affected when so many young men fell in the carnage of that terrible conflict. What is unusual is that a series of letters from the Front were kept and cherished and have been passed down to descendants so they may never forget the sacrifices their ancestors made.

Much of the content is everyday – “thanks for the cake”, “send more socks” sort of stuff – but it is their context that makes them so poignant. They were written to their mother and sisters by three young hopefuls who faced death on a daily basis but hung on to the hope of survival by immersing themselves into the minutae and ordinariness of life back home.

The letters were written from the trenches of France by brothers John, Billie and Joe Thompson, the sons of William and Jane (née Snoddon) Thompson, of Sunnyhill. The message from the three sons is: “Don’t worry, we’re doing fine, everything is ok.” While, of course, it wasn’t.

Many are addressed to sister Jessie, who later married John Kennaugh and lived in Liverpool. It was Jessie’s daughters who found the letters in 1974 when they were clearing out the Victoria Road home of their late aunt, Jessie’s unmarried sister Sarah. The account of wartime memories that Jessie had copied and kept gave a poignant insight into living through war, at the front, and at home.

Billie was killed on the first day of the Somme on July 1, 1916, and Joe three months later, also at the Somme, a double blow for a close and caring family. Their parents and three sisters, Jessie, Sarah and Janey, were devastated.

On March 23, 1915, John wrote to his mother to let her know he and Joe had arrived safely but that Billie had yet to arrive as his platoon was helping to discharge the transport. The food was grim and monotonous, Bully beef and biscuits and they had had all their hair cut off, “like convicts”.

John Thompson was a teacher in Birmingham and a member of the TA. Billie was an apprentice jeweller and watchmaker with his uncle, Tom Langstaff, on Lowther Street. He had a beautiful voice and intended to pursue a musical career in London. Joe had been serving his time at Lowca pit and volunteered at the beginning of the war. He lied about his age to enlist.

Their father William was a boilermaker with Vickers at Barrow and lived there during the week, returning home by train on Saturdays.

Janey Thompson, before her marriage to J. Thompson Ray, was a teacher at St. James’ Infant School. J. Thompson Ray served with the army in Egypt and while he was away Janey carried on his job as a grocery rep, travelling throughout Cumberland and Westmorland daily.

Sarah Thompson was a dressmaker with work rooms in the town and Jessie Thompson was a teacher at the National School. Jessie and her husband John Kennaugh brought up their family in Liverpool, but they always maintained very close ties with Whitehaven and they and their daughters spent many holidays in Whitehaven and St Bees. In 1943 John Kennaugh presented a lifeboat to the Whitehaven Sea Scouts.

In a letter to Sarah on March 10, 1916, Billie wrote that it had snowed for a fortnight and he and his fellow soldiers “have had quite our share of winter trench warfare”. All leave had been stopped. “We all read Tennant’s speech in the House of Lords and you should have heard the remarks. He wants to come out here and do 12 months, and then have his leave stopped, just when he could see it in sight, and then see how he would like that.”

Soon after, on March 14, Billie wrote to Janey: “We have been congratulated by the General of our Corps on the way we have held the line and generally frightened the enemy. We are transferred now out of the 3rd and into the 4th and seeing they are up in Flanders we may get a rest very soon. We have just had a glorious supper, one of the chaps in the team had some bacon sent, so we had it fried about 1 this morning – I never enjoyed anything better.”

Another person to get letters was May Watson, a cousin, who later married Whitehaven solicitor Henry Lawton. She was born in 1900 and was very much a contemporary of her cousins.

On March 31, 1916 Billie wrote to Janey: “It is a glorious day today and feels a treat to be alive.” Three months later he was dead but it was weeks before the family knew for certain as he was reported “missing in action” and the Thompsons were hoping, vainly, that Billie had been taken prisoner and would see out the rest of the conflict in relative safety.

On May 18, 1915, Billie told Janey: “When we take the reserve trench the sentry gets in the trench and keeps guard, and we lay down on our oil sheets outside and try to get a little sleep, and it really is surprising how you get used to it and manage to get a few hours’ sleep, especially when we retire to the wood. The wood is lovely, the birds all singing, and it is lined with violets, strawberry plants in flower etc. It is part of Hennessy brandy merchant’s estate. About 4am one or two of us set off and have a hunt through the wood and it is a treat. We hear the nightingale and cuckoo every night in the trenches, and if it was not for the sound of the guns you would almost imagine we were back in England.”

And to Sarah: “The truth is we will all be pleased to get back in the trenches again, as when we are out resting we have to work like pack horses carrying ammunition etc up to the firing line and then when it gets light we occupy the reserve trenches in case anything happens, and I can tell you it is a rotten job lying out in the field waiting for the order to move off.”

John tells Janey: “Everybody (officers included) has to do his share of hard and dangerous work, but we have got accustomed to it. We all look at it in the same light. If you have got to be hit it is no use trying to dodge the bullet.”

By this time John and Billie are in the same platoon and sharing the goodies received in their regular parcels from home. John receives a special parcel for his birthday but doesn’t get chance to enjoy it as he is hit in the leg by a stray bullet.

Billie is the more prolific letter writer, invariably signing off with the phrase that he is “in the pink”. He wears a bag of camphor his mother sent him, which helps overpower “the strong smell of the dead when the sun gets on them.” And Joe writes asking his mother to send more Harrison’s Pomade (nits and lice cleaner). The Brothers Thompson become well known for receiving more parcels than anyone else.

By July 1916 Joe writes that he thinks the war is drawing to a close and that he has heard Billie, serving with the 8th Warwickshire Regiment, has been wounded. A week later the Thompsons receive a letter from the War Office stating Billie was wounded and missing since July. His brother Joe was killed in action on October 22, 1916, hit by a shell at the Somme.

After his injury John did not return to France. At the end of the war (by which time he had been promoted to Captain) he returned to teaching and for many years was the headmaster of Denham School in Buckinghamshire. His leg troubled him all his life.

Billie’s grave is at Serre Road cemetery No 2, near Amiens, alongside more than 7,000 others. and Joe’s name is recorded on the Thiepval memorial.

Their mother never recovered from the loss of her two sons. She rarely left the house and was always dressed completely in black, relieved only by a plain gold locket with a photograph of Billie and Joe on either side.

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