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Whispers from WW1: Harry White's postcards

Friday, October 30, 2020
English

The collection of 14 postcards were sent by Harry from Belgium and France between 1915 and 1916 to Lucy Tedd’s maternal grandmother, and her great aunt, Lillie. Several of the postcards show the devastation of towns and villages including Ypres and Vermelles. Others show more 'normal' scenes such as the market at Béthune, the casino at Mers-les-Bains and the ‘prom’ in Le Tréport. The earliest postcard in this collection, sent on 12 August 1915, is in fact a reproduction of an image from the ‘Campagne De 1914-15’, the last bombardment of Ypres, depicting the scene from the Corporations Houses to the cattle market:

This postcard, sent to his sister Lucy Jenkins (née White) at the Vicarage in Llangynnwr, Carmarthen bears no message, but the image of the bombing that surrounded the young lieutenant made it quite clear what kind of world he was thrown into as a member of the Ist Batalion of the Welch Regiment.
Also in Lucy Tedd’s collections are scans of 30 letters from the same period, from 1914-1916. As she explains: ‘A cousin (David Martin Brunel White 1929–2012) in Carmarthen had the letters that Harry wrote to his sisters Lillie and Lucy. Following his retirement, as Deputy County Architect, David spent a lot of time in the 1990s researching the history and genealogy of the White family in Carmarthen. In 2005 I assisted him by scanning the letters and another relative, Mary Hughes, bound these, as well as some other relevant material into a few hand-crafted books for family members. Loading the letters as well as the postcards Harry sent into the People’s Collection Wales makes these more accessible for all.’

The above letter, for example, is a ‘chain letter’, written on 12 January 1915 from the ‘Canadian Officers’ Convalescent Home’ in which he sends a prayer given to him by one of the nurses there, and asks his sister Lillie to share the ‘Ancient Prayer’ with nine other people:

‘Oh Lord, Implore thee to bless all mankind.
Bring us to Thee. Keep me to dwell in Thee.’

As Lucy Tedd explains, ‘Henry Thompson White (known as Harry) was one of my grandmother’s brothers. The family is pictured in this family group here with Harry on the right hand side of his mother.

‘My grandmother (Lucy Hannah Jenkins, née White, 1885–1959), pictured below in 1912, died when I was 10 and I cannot remember her talking about her brother.

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‘However, I heard more about Harry from my mother (Margaret White Davies, 1918–2009). Harry and Lucy’s parents died early (their father in 1886 and their mother in 1891) and the two boys (Harry and Jack) were sent off to board at Emanuel School in London and the three girls (Lillie, Norah and Lucy) were looked after in Carmarthen by their Aunt Georgie. Lucy was very fond of her brother Harry and would see him (as evidenced in her 1910 diary) when in London. However, none of the sisters went to his wedding in 1911 to Kathleen Marion Beatrice Vereker’:

As many of the young men of the time, Harry was called up to fight in the Great War of 1914–1918. Having initially been attached to the Welsh Fusiliers, from April 1915 he was attached to the 12th Welch Regiment, and then became a Lieutenant in the Second and First Batalion. Whilst on active service in France he was wounded at Loos on 3rd October 1915 and later died during an assault at High Wood, on the Somme in 1916. Harry, seen here (on the right) with his army friends, was photographed in 1915:

According to Lucy Tedd: ‘My grandmother found it very stressful in 1916 when they heard word that Harry was missing, and my mother always believed that she suffered a miscarriage as a result.’

The first postcard in this collection was followed by another one two days after to Lucy on 14th August 1915 from Dickebusch. It shows a picture of the church, and this time Harry sends a simple message saying: ‘Where I joined up. The village has now disappeared.’ Yet another postcard was sent to Carmarthen the following day – this time to Lillie – depicting the devastated La Rue de Lille in Ypres. In this flurry of correspondence we get a real sense of the stark reality faced by this young soldier, and these images also punctuate the letters that he sent his sisters Lillie and Lucy, full of messages of thanks for acts of kindness such as parcels sent to him and clothes that Lillie mended, snippets of news and everyday observations which shine a light on the very close bond they had between them. He asks for cake to be sent to him ‘every fortnight’ and for items of food sent to be packaged carefully so they are not damaged.

But many of the thirty letters in this collection also disclose the harsh reality of life in the rat-ridden trenches. In a letter he sent on 28th September 1915 he tells Lucy: ‘I am trying amidst scenes unimaginable to write you something. We have been sitting in trenches, and the next few days will be momentous.’ Two months later, he describes the terrible conditions he endured in a letter sent on 12 December 1915: ‘The houses are just shelters. I woke up this morning and found my tiny room soaked with water and my equipment practically floating. The conditions are terrible. The people in England ought to make supreme sacrifice for the soldiers out here and thank God for the comfort they are in. I think of nothing else to tell you today so with fondest love to all...’

On Christmas Day 1915, the postcards that he sent both Lillie and Lucy are again of the devastation of war. And although to them this war was fought far away in France and Belgium, the postcards they received by Harry must have brought the fighting closer to them too. He tells Lucy that the image sent to her is of ‘The ruins of a Church I passed by several times during last few days’, and Lillie receives a postcard which shows Edward, Prince of Wales visiting the ruins at Vermelles. He wrote: ‘Near by, during our last few days in...all desolation’.

Learning about Harry’s illness through his correspondence must have been difficult for his sisters; the Béthune postcard sent to Carmarthen in 1915 by Harry on 28 December 1915 simply says: ‘Gone into hospital since Boxing Day with Quinsy throat. Moving further down the line today.’ More details about his departure is disclosed in his postcard to Lucy, in which he says that he was sent to the Field Ambulance before the regiment left for the trenches and that he was ‘being moved by the next train from the Clearing Station’. By 31st of December we learn from his letters that he is admitted to the General Hospital in Le Tréport. The very last postcard in the collection (sent to Lillie on 6 January 1916) is one of the prom in Le Tréport, a small fishing port in Normandy, some 20 miles north-east of Dieppe, with an image of calmer and more pleasant times.

But on the back, he leaves this heartfelt message: ‘Think I am leaving tomorrow – uncertain of my destination yet – probably convalescent home Dieppe’.

However, some weeks later he makes a full recovery and after some time back in the trenches, he is able to spend some of his leave in Carmarthen in May. In June 1916, amongst the carnage, he is in awe of nature's presence and writes that ‘The no man’s land is full of poppies, the blue of the cornflower and the variegated yellow blossoms of the commoner species which abound, in plentitude’. But by the beginning of July we are told that he is ‘in the thick of it’, and by August, we get a very clear sense that the war was all encompassing. The last full letter sent by Harry on 28th August 1916 outlines the horrors of the war. Bewildered, he tells Lucy that: ‘Trenches and woods were lost sight of in the smoke of the shells, so rapid and numerous were the bursts, and yet hundreds came out untouched.’ And still, through the terror of being front line his sprit is not broken as his he thinks of home, although he knows that it is out of his reach at that time: ' I should like to come back for a bit to potter around again, instrumentally give Jim a hand, but it can’t be yet.. ' he writes.

High Wood was the last of the major woods in the Somme offensive of 1916 to be captured by the British and it was here that Harry White lost his life in September. It is estimated that the remains of some 8,000 British and German soldiers still lie there today, as the woods were never fully cleared.

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Elena Gruffudd's picture