The following three letters were written by Tom Garner to his parents, Mr and Mrs J J Garner, whilst serving on the Eastern Front in World War One as a Petty Officer in the RNAS Armoured Car Division. Tom was amongst those awarded the Russian St George’s Cross for valour on the Roumanian Front. The letters were printed in the ‘Olney Advertiser’ in 1916 and 1917.
In addition to war conditions, these letters provide a vivid insight into the harsh living conditions to which British servicemen were subjected. The addresses issued by the King and Commanders to servicemen, prior to engaging the enemy, would not comfortably sit in today’s culture. These letters were of course subjected to censoring; deleted passages are indicated here by a ‘series of five full stops’.
The first letter as it appeared in the ‘Olney Advertiser’, Saturday, February 19th, 1916
FROM OLNEY TO THE ARCTIC REGIONS
National Anthem Farthest North
Mr J J Garner has received the first communication from his son, Petty Officer Tom Garner, who sailed for Russia last November, and thought the following extracts might be of interest to his many friends: –
“We have just had our Xmas dinner on board, and hope it will be the last under such circumstances, but am glad to say our voyage is almost at an end. I shall never forget the four days cyclone we went through, and seeing 95 per cent of our fellows very ill. I was not sick myself, but felt bad for some days. The following is an extract from our little paper printed on board:-
‘I quite believe the majority of us will remember that day for many years to come, for it is an experience that is reserved only for a few of the teeming millions of this world; and since it is one that many of us have undergone for the first time, it may safely be said that but a few of us realised fully the seriousness of our position on Sunday, for it was a matter of ‘touch and go’ with us on that eventful day. Two lifeboats were blown away, the cook-house was completely demolished, the porthole was also smashed, and the hold was flooded to a considerable depth. Our brave captain knew of the great danger we were in, and his grave responsibility. He knew of his duty towards us, and loyally he did it…..’
We are still on board and cannot get to our destination owing to the ice. No extra eatable left on board now; we had a canteen, but it is exhausted, and we are anchored in a Bay, with high snow covered rocks all round. The place we have just reached is only a village. A number of our fellows have already landed, and are living in empty houses and schoolrooms, and I shall be glad to go ashore myself, if only for more exercise to get warm. The temperature is 7 degrees below zero. We can see a few houses in the snow, so know the place is civilised. Don’t worry about me, I am quite well…..Have now left the ship and our Squadron is in a schoolroom. It is quite nice to be able to sleep in a warm place. Everything here is moved on sleighs, even the baby prams are on runners. We have to draw all our stores up a very steep hill, and it is a case of going 3 yards and slipping back 2, but it keeps us warm. Some sleighs are drawn by dogs, others by reindeer, and it is quite a common sight to see a Laplander covered in furs driving 3 reindeer. The principal food seems to be venison and black bread. What few stores were in this place have been cleared of all eatables by us.
The King sent a cheering message to our Expedition. Last Sunday morning the Armoured Car Squadron established a record by singing “God Save the King” farther north than any British Field Force on active service has ever done before. We sang lustily with all our hearts behind the words we uttered, and the scene was most impressive.
The Commander writes (through the medium of the paper printed for us), to the officers of men and of the Squadron and says:
“We have left our shores for the distant land of a great Ally on behalf of a cause dear to us both. We shall be the only British troops in a country containing some 140 millions of stranger-souls. Our force, though numerically small, is yet representative of our far flung Empire, recruited as it is, not only from the United Kingdom, but from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. We are thus called upon to uphold the honour, not of one nation alone, but in fact of all those peoples who make up Greater Britain, and who now march, united under one King, to victory in this war.
Our task, therefore, is no light one. Upon our lonely shoulders falls the duty of maintaining in Russia the prestige of British arms and traditions. And I would ask if there is any effort we would not make to preserve and improve this? Assuredly not. In matters of money, therefore, in our dealings with men and women, in the daily economy of life, let us see that we exercise honour and discretion, courtesy, and self-restraint. Even in our conduct towards the enemy, we can reveal our origin, and prove ourselves sons of an idea as ennobling as any that ever put arms into English hands.
For this war was not of our seeking. As a nation, we entered it, in no spirit of aggrandisement or conquest. It would therefore ill-behove even our small unit to treat it is some personal difference between Britons and Germans. It is something far finer than that. It is a duel between rival religions; it is once again a battle of beliefs; it is the old-age contrast between the Dominion of Darkness and the Kingdom of Christ. We fight that liberty may live, that love may never perish from the earth. And inasmuch as the strength of the fighter is the strength of his faith, our cause must in the end prevail.
I suppose the leaders of most enterprises promise their followers good times. I scorn to lay before you prospects of ease and cheap success. You would scorn to expect such from me. I will only promise you difficulties, discomforts, wounds, yes and even death. But I ask your loyal service for a sacred cause, and hold no doubt as to your reply. So with the King’s Message ringing in our ears, let us go forward confidently in the spirit of the motto which heads this journal which sums up a soldier’s whole duty so well: let us ‘Fear God and Fear Nought”’.
The second letter as it appeared in the ‘Olney Advertiser’, Saturday, November 25th, 1916
LETTER FROM THE FRONT
Mr and Mrs J J Garner have received the following communications from their son – Petty Officer Tom Garner, RNAS, Armoured Car Division, and thought the same might interest his many friends:-
“I am glad to say our Squadron is back in Russia again for a short time after having been well into enemy country for the past few weeks….. We had great difficulty in getting to the firing line, owing to there being no roads, but managed to succeed, and did “very good work”, against the Kurds and Turks.
The last action we were in, our Squadron put two thousand Turks to flight, and the Russians with us were able to burn the villages….. The General seemed very pleased with our work, and doubtless you will see accounts of our doings in the papers…..We had to return to this place as the rainy season will soon be here, and it was also too dangerous to stay any longer, so we are having a rest at this place, and then it is possible we may go to ….. to escape the bad weather. The country we have been in is parched up with the intense heat of the day, and every short distance you see something lying dead, a sight which is not very pleasing….. We have passed some fine vineyards around M….., and of course “did our duty” properly towards them. There are hundreds of things I cannot write down, so you will have to wait a long time for details. I hope every thing is going on well at home and at Olney. The last time I heard from you was June 7th, we have had no mail since. Sept. 20th – A mail just arrived – many thanks for letters, papers, and parcels, the contents of which were most acceptable. I only wish they had come a few weeks ago when we were in Turkey, and could not get our rations up to us, but that is all over now, and the ‘Gun’s Crew’ have just enjoyed fried eggs and white bread as a little extra to the ordinary issue for tea…..For the past several weeks we have been sleeping with the ‘stars our ceiling’, and altogether we had only three or four wet nights. It is quite sufficient to realise how uncomfortable it is possible to get….. You cannot imagine how nice it is to come back to even the worst Russian Barracks and take your clothes off the night – about all we have been able to take off lately is our hats and then you have to cover your heads with a blanket or some handkerchiefs to keep the mosquitoes away. I am glad you have seen accounts of us in the papers, as no doubt there are many little incidents put in which I do not mention – You must keep the papers – I should like to see them if I am fortunate enough to get home again. Perhaps now the news of our fighting has arrived in England…..We had a Church Service outside a few days ago, it was the first time I knew the name of the day since we left ….. for the war area. Our life has been most primitive lately, trying to sleep as soon as it gets dark, and rise at dawn (that is when you are not on duty all night). We are getting quite expert cooks now, for my chum was out with some other fellows recently and came back with a sheep which we soon made short work of, and we have also had two bullocks which we captured from the Turks….. The vineyards too helped us greatly, as for four or five days we had practically no rations left. I should like to get a Motor Cycle paper to look at as soon as possible. We are busy cleaning our guns again now but I will write again whenever there is an opportunity to do so. – Hope you are all well.
The third letter covering May/June 1917 and announcement as they appeared in the ‘Olney Advertiser’
LETTER FROM THE RUSSIAN FRONT
After waiting four months Mr and Mrs Garner have had news from their son during the past week, and writing from the Galican Front he says:- “We have just received a Mail and am pleased to say there were four parcels for me, one of them you sent me on December 19 – I was in the trenches when they arrived, and you can guess everything was most welcome. I can see you have been reading the papers about the Revolution, but you have evidently been reading all the nice things…..We have been doing a good deal of night work lately and when any one tells us it is Sunday we get ready for something extra as that seems to be our unlucky day…..The snow has all gone and we are having weather more like the English now, on one occasion all of us in our Dug-out had to go about with only our shirts and caps on as all our clothes had been soaked through time after time…..We are now on another Front and things have been a little more business-like, although everything is of a proper steam roller fashion. The country round here is rather nice and the ground is made good use of, quite different to some of the parts in Russia where you can go miles on end without seeing anything. We have got our eyes in lots of places where the potatoes are growing very nicely, and there is also a good deal of fruit on the trees, but we shall not have patience to let it ripen, for we may get moved on any minute and miss it all…..We have now left the Roumanian front and are in Galacia, one reason for our leaving, we were in rather a critical position amongst the Russians as we ….. wanted to fight and they did not…..Soon as you cross the border line and get in either Austria or Roumania, you notice a marked difference in the style and expression of the people’s faces, they seem more intelligent and enterprising than the Russians, for 60 percent of these people cannot write, and even some of the sailors here do not know that England is an Island – of course the well educated Russians are not so bad. We have had some very hot (dangerous) times, but up to now our gun has been very lucky ..… Don’t worry about me – I am fit and well…..”
Dated May and June, 1917
ANOTHER HONOUR FOR OLNEY
The British Armoured Cars earned the warm gratitude of the Russian Commander-in-Chief for the part they took in covering the Russian retreat. He personally congratulated Commander Locker-Lampson and presented 26 of his men with the St George’s Cross. We are pleased to hear that Petty Officer Tom Garner was one of those who received the above honour for valour on the Roumanian front with the British Armoured Cars.