We have been preparing for an exhibition about Birmingham men who served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. I had the opportunity to follow up some of these individuals during my recent trip to Northern France. It’s hard to believe that the gentle countryside of the Somme has been the scene of death and destruction, but the reminders are everywhere, not only in the form of military cemeteries but also road signs indicating the front line at various dates during the Somme campaign. This is the first of two blog posts in which I will look at the stories of three men who lost their lives in this area.
Private Fred Andrews
Private Fred Andrews served with the 1/6th battalion of the Royal Warwicks and took part in ‘the big push’ on the Somme in July 1916. He came from a working-class family in Ladywood, Birmingham. He was an officer’s servant. In our collection we have a set of letters written by Fred to his mother and sister, which give an insight into Fred’s life on a training camp on Salisbury Plain and later as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
On Easter Monday 1916, Fred writes: ‘Dinner time we had biscuits instead of bread. We shall have them every Monday and Thursday. They are hard, but very nice, I can eat them all right. One man has put his wife’s address on one and a 1d stamp, on one side, and on the other he put, This is what they give us on Easter Monday, at Salisbury Plain. He sent one just the same last year from the trenches. If I was the post man I should eat it’.
Fred only writes two letters once he reaches France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. In one he says: ‘The Officers, and N.C.O’s [non-commissioned officers] are very good to us here. We can get two green envelopes a week, so you will get the letters pretty quick. Dear Mum, Will you please give Ollie [Fred’s girlfriend] my love, and address when you see her. They are a very nice lot of chaps that I am with now. And we get plenty of food to eat. I will close now with very Best Love to you all, and Ollie. Do not worry I hope the war will soon be over now. Things are looking up here. Love to all, Fred xxx’. The last letter from Fred was received by his mother on 30 June 1916.
The final letters in the series are from Fred’s mother. She writes to him repeatedly during July 1916, pleading with him to write to her: ‘oh son I do hope you are all right I have not had a line for nearly three weeks the last I had you wrote the 30 of June and now it is the 19 of July my own dear boy I am quite sure it is not your fault I do not know what is preventing you from writing if I could only get a line in your hand writing I should feel better’. Mrs Andrews’ letters are returned to her, the envelopes marked ‘missing’.
Fred had been killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 21 years old. Mrs Andrews eventually received this photograph of his grave (see image above). Fred still lies in Serre Road Cemetery No. 2 at Beaumont-Hamel, but he now has a permanent headstone.
I visited Fred’s grave in June 2014. Serre Road is one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was completed in 1934. The Commonwealth cemeteries are now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and are beautiful and peaceful places to visit.
During the 1920s and 30s many relatives of the dead visited their graves in France, some with the assistance of veterans’ associations. We do not know whether Fred’s family ever had the opportunity to do this.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the second blog: First World War – Bill Furse and James Rance