Tag Archives: Military

Guest Post: Lest We Forget: In Search of the Forgotten Voices of World War One

Yet another fascinating post from recent PhD graduate Lauren O’Hagan on her poignant discoveries in the Janet Powney Collection of Children’s Literature.

Thursdays have become my new favourite day of the week. Why? Because I get to spend the day in Special Collections and help catalogue the Janet Powney Collection – the fantastic assortment of Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature. Every week, the Collection brings a new surprise or delight. In recent weeks, I have come across such unique treasures as a copy of What Katy Did Next mysteriously inscribed two years before its actual publication date and a beautiful 1871 edition of Hetty’s Resolve hand-bound and gilded by a devoted husband to his wife. I may have also accidentally uncovered a nineteenth-century insurance scam involving the arson of a pub (but more about that another time!). But something that has remained a bittersweet constant over the past few months has been the fact that, hidden in most of these books, are some of the forgotten voices of World War One.

John's adventures

John’s Adventures by Thomas Miller, London, c. 1897. Prize awarded to young Albert Stopher.

The Swan's Egg

The Swan’s Egg by S. C. Hall, London, c. 1895. Awarded to a very young George Stopher in 1905.

Behind the beautiful pictorial covers of these treasured Sunday school prize books lie the tragic tales of many of the working-class men who marched off to war to fight the Germans just a few years later. Beguiled by the notion of adventure or the ‘Great Game’, as Kipling put it, many would never return. I would like to use the blog space this week to share the story of two incredible brothers. In doing so, I hope to show how book inscriptions may offer a new way to explore and explain the War, keeping alive the stories of soldiers for future generations now that the conflict only exists outside of human memory.

George Stopher and Albert Stopher
When the Stopher brothers, George and Albert, received The Swan’s Egg and John’s Adventure from St John’s Church of England Sunday School for attendance, good conduct and progress in 1905, little did they know that some years later, they would be dressed in military uniforms and sent off to battle in France.

George and Albert came from a working-class family in Saxmundham, Suffolk. Born just one year apart in 1896 and 1897, respectively, the boys grew up at White House Farm Cottages, with their parents, Herbert (a farm labourer) and Lydia, and six other siblings.

When George and Albert left school, they quickly found work as gardeners. However, the job was precarious and poorly paid. As a result, both boys enlisted quickly in the Suffolk Regiment of the army upon the outbreak of World War One in 1914. George served in the 8th Battalion and Albert in the 11th Battalion. After completing training in Ripon, Yorkshire and Salisbury Plain, George landed in France in July 1915, while Albert arrived in January 1916 – both ready for action on the Western Front. Shortly after his arrival, George became wounded and spent some weeks recuperating in hospital before returning to action.

George Stopher inscription

Inscription recording the award of The Swan’s Egg to George in 1905.

During their time in France, George and Albert regularly corresponded with their families and sweethearts. There is a wonderful surviving archive of their letters hosted at Suffolk Record Office in Ipswich. The letters vividly describe their experiences of war. In August 1916, George was hospitalised once again for shellshock. A surviving letter to his mother poignantly states that sending him back to the front line would be like “sending a rat to catch a dog.” It is surprising that it got past the censor.

On 9th April 1917, the Battalions began the Arras offensive, advancing slowly to attack German defences near the city of Arras. The next day, both George and Albert took place in the First Battle of the Scarpe, which involved a series of attacks that pushed the Germans back north and south of the Scarpe river. Tragically, Albert was shot by an enemy and died immediately. He was just 19 years old. His body was never recovered. Today, he is remembered on the Arras Memorial at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery.

George continued on in what must have been harrowing circumstances. He successfully took part in the Second Battle of the Scarpe (April 1917), helping to capture part of the Hindenburg position and push the Germans to the Drocourt-Quéant line south of the River Scarpe. However, during the Third Battle of the Scarpe (May 1917), which involved a general offensive by all three armies astride the Scarpe to secure better defensive positions, he was badly wounded. George held out for nine days in a field hospital before succumbing to his wounds and dying on May 19th 1917 at 21 years old. He was buried in the Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery at Saulty.

Tragically, Herbert and Lydia Stopher had to deal with the loss of two sons, just over one month apart from each other.

Today, George and Albert’s medals are on show at the Suffolk Regiment Museum. Their names are also commemorated on a War Memorial in Saxmundham Parish Church. In recent years, Rachel Duffett, a lecturer at the University of Essex and a member of the Everyday Lives in War Centre, has painstakingly attempted to retell their stories using the letters held at Suffolk Record Office. She plans to write a book on the subject and work with local seamstresses to recreate some of the local landscapes where the Stopher brothers grew up.

Albert Stopher inscription

Inscription recording the award of John’s Adventures to Albert in 1905.

With its unique range of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prize books, I already found the Janet Powney Collection to be exceptional. Now knowing some of the stories that are lingering like shadows between the colourful covers of these volumes, I feel even more appreciation for the Collection. While buildings no longer stand, communities have passed on and grass on the bloody battlefields grows once more, these books keep alive the memories of many of the brave men and women who gave their Today for our Tomorrow. They stand as a testimony of the unsettling victory of material objects over the temporality of the people that once owned them and the places in which they formerly dwelled.

“The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.”

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Guest Post: The Barbiers and the French Army

After completing her work on the Barbier archive, our CUROP intern Katy Stone shares her final, fascinating discoveries about life in the French army at the end of the nineteenth and turn of the twentieth century.

For my final blog about the Barbiers I’d like to share some contrasting discoveries about Cardiff-born Georges and Jules Barbier’s experiences of military service with the French Army, revealed through their heartfelt letters written from 1898 to 1904. As shown in a blog by last year’s CUROP student Pip Bartlett, all of the Barbier brothers – due to their dual nationality – completed mandatory national military service with the French Army well before the First World War, with both Georges and Jules subsequently remaining ‘poilus’, or ordinary field soldiers.

Georges Barbier and the comfort of letters in Le Mans

In 1899 Georges Barbier was deployed to the 26th Artillery in Le Mans and many of his letters support Pip’s previous insight that, out of all the family members who went to war, he undoubtedly suffered the loneliest military experience. In one letter dated 3 February 1899, he paints a dark picture of the stark living conditions within his regiment, describing his barracks as a “dirty shack” and expressing gratitude to his brother, Paul Barbier fils, for writing to him – “it is such a blessing to receive letters in this hole”. Georges was clearly unhappy in his regiment and their frequent exchange of letters was not only a source of comfort, but also a channel for escapism. To make things worse, he appears to have found it difficult to fit in with his peers – “all those who sleep in the same room as me are vagabonds, so I have no luck at all”. Hard work was, surprisingly, a blessing in disguise for Georges and I was struck to find him striving for more – “The work is very hard, but that I don’t mind in the least for when I have plenty of work I have not time to worry, which is a very good thing for me”. This eagerness throws light on the mental challenges faced by many soldiers on a daily basis – he was “completely disgusted with life” and would “rather do hard labour than be controlled by a lot of morons who can’t read”.

Scan 1

Barrack detail from a letter dated 20 Februray 1899

Other letters give an insight into his basic military diet – “I live on bread and cheese and once a week I eat meat, on Sundays”. It was also surprising to learn that Georges had to pay for his military meals out of his own pocket, and that his limited financial means meant there was no spare money for any luxuries – “I find that I eat very little here. I have no appetite, and not only that but I have to pay for everything I eat”. A letter to his mother, Euphémie, dated 31 January 1899 reinforces the daily struggle faced by the majority of his peers – “I was so ashamed to buy for so little that I nearly broke down, when there was a lot that could not do as much”. Life was tough in the French Army and although stress and anxiety may have been accountable for his poor appetite, the demands of the physical work also contributed to his struggles with mental and physical health. In his letters he complains of toothaches, headaches and sore feet, yet despite “suffering a great deal”, he avoids going to see the doctor because he “would have to stop work, not only that but I would be unable to go out in the evening”. Another letter sheds light on his perception of being treated differently to his French peers due to his British identity – “You know I have been very sick and had to get treatment in town because the major refused to recognise me … I believe it’s because I’m English”.

Scan 2

Insignia of the Soissons Regiment, 1899

Jules Barbier “far from being miserable” at Soissons

Jules Barbier seems to have experienced a far less despondent national service with an infantry in Soissons. He recalls being “received very kindly” at the barracks, and remarks that “there are some nice boys” and “all the officers have been very kind”. In contrast to the discrimination faced by Georges at Le Mans, Jules mentions that his captain remarked “it was very nice of me to come and do my service from England”. This would have no doubt boosted his enthusiasm and spirits, enhancing his military experience and possibly reinforcing his bond with his French heritage. The Barbier Archive gave me the impression that Jules, to some extent at least,  enjoyed his work in the French infantry, often describing his activities in a buoyant tone – “Yesterday I was taught to salute and about different ranks of officers. I was given my rifle, and tomorrow we will exercise”. This is in stark contrast to the more physically demanding and draining responsibilities encountered by Georges.

Scan 3

Self-portrait of Jules E. Barbier in a letter to his mother, 5 August, 1899

Like Georges, however, Jules often reported that money and food were particularly scant, referring to himself as being “as poor as a church mouse”. In one letter dated 11 February 1899, he feels ashamed for having to borrow 15 francs from a friend, alluding that money was a lingering concern. All his money was solely spent on necessities – “I’m just eating, I’m always hungry”, suggesting that there was no such thing as disposable income in the French Army. Despite having a more positive experience than his brother, Jules’s time in the military was also hampered by illness; “I am in the infirmary. Last bed. I was taken ill with a fever and also with my throat in fact. I have got an abscess there and it is very painful”. But the fact that he was admitted to the infirmary, and a promise that his captain “would come to see me in the hospital”, suggests that the quality of pastoral care was far superior to that experienced by Georges. In one letter Jules announces “I am far from being miserable” and is eager to return to his duties – “Time passes very slowly here in the hospital. I would be pretty eager to go back to the barracks”.

Early colour printing of a barracks scene, 1899

When I embarked on my summer placement with the Barbier Archive at Special Collections and Archives, I did not expect to discover such contrasting personal accounts of life in the French Army through the eyes of the sons of Cardiff. Sometimes harrowing, often spirited, but always heartfelt, this fascinating archive paints a vivid picture of everyday life at a time when the world was on the cusp of one of its most turbulent periods. It has been an absolute indulgence to be able to tease out yet another remarkable story in Cardiff’s history.