LANCE CORPORAL HERBERT COLERIDGE WATSON
Died 5th March 1917
No. R/21218 of the Kings Royal Rifle Corp., 1st Battalion.
Born: St. Leonards, Bucks. 1880
Herbert was the son of the Reverend Henry George and Lucy Eleanor Watson, who had moved to The Wilderness, off Heath Lane, Aspley Heath, now known as Aldermans Place, by the end of World War One. As a child, he attended Nottingham High School. Herbert became a barrister of The Inner Temple and a literary critic on the staff of The Daily Telegraph. The 1st Battalion went to France in August 1914.
He is listed on the Etaples Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. Listed on the Woburn Sands Memorial, and also on the Daily Telegraph Memorial to their staff who were killed, which now stands in the company reception at its premises in Canary Wharf. His army service papers have not survived.
There was also a Herbert Watson of Mount Pleasant, Aspley Guise, a butcher and publican, who was killed aged 42, of the Labour Corp. His records have survived at Kew.
After the war, Herberts parents published his collected works from The Telegraph, as well as his letters from The Front, in a book called “SELECTED ESSAYS AND REVIEWS ALSO HIS LAST LETTERS FROM THE FRONT” The Introduction; a piece he was writing before his death, dealing with living in military tents; and his letters, are reproduced below:
INTRODUCTION, by Alice Meynell
Herbert Coleridge Watson, who died in the noblest, the most just, and the last of wars, is mourned with many tears, but with profound gratitude. The words written by his father in memory of the beloved son are sentences of thanksgiving. And in that act of happy resignation all Herbert Watson’s family, all his relatives, all his friends, all his acquaintance (among whom the present writer can claim no more than a little place, sincerely prized) join with their hearts. But he was dear not only to those; he was a man admired by a public as a writer before he was honoured by the public in his heroic death. Honoured let me add, as a voluntary soldier, for he joined before Conscription. Not that anyone can justly take away from the honour due to the fallen Conscripts. For there is a divine permission for these, to use a proverb with a difference, and to “make a virtue of necessity” – a sacred virtue. “Compel them to come in,” as we read of the chosen captured. Nevertheless as star differeth from star in glory, so, in heroism the enterprising, the sensitive, the high-hearted, the tender, nay the reluctant, the early and the late, differ, yet all are equals.
And Herbert Watson, maker of the voluntary sacrifice, when he joined was renouncing an interesting life. The author has something more than a profession – he has a career. The successful writer, the major or the minor, has a happy career. It is a joy to write fairly well, it is a happiness to write very well; poetry, authorship, journalism, any of the three is hard to leave, even when it is age that signals the hour of retiring; but Herbert Watson was in mid-career. No one can read the essays here collected and fail to guess, even through their frequent melancholy, at his perpetual pleasure, at his not infrequent happiness, at success.
Such an essay as that on Music manifests the quality of intellectual imagination, and its attendant humour. “You are ‘musical’,” he supposes himself to answer to the trivial questioner, “I am not”! “There is a sense in which we, to whom music appears inseparable from any meaning that life may have, do not wish to be “musical” It is certain that some great music is of the very essence and stuff of life, a thing incalculable, its first and final attribute that of life itself – mystery impenetrable.” “There is a school which believes itself to be earnestly seeking culture, while in fact it is busily curtaining off its intelligence from the humiliating vision of the incomprehensible.”
Also deeply imaginative is the meditative essay “Something Else” in which the writer’s grave spirituality is wistfully, but never weakly suggested. The human mission is urged, the now somewhat habitual “love” of Nature gently discouraged. “Nature is the uncarved stone, the waiting canvas, the untouched keyboard.” This essay is written with intellectual passion and is the sign of an experience that, strikes at the reader’s heart.
There is much high journalism among these more momentous essays, such as the journalism of The River of London with its evidence of an artist’s eye and, more, of an artist’s thought; “It is not distance but proximity that lends enchantment to the river. To pass, as it were by a side-turning, from one world to another is a more romantic adventure than to make that transition by a long journey.” The writer shews a new sense of the air also. Himself a pilgrim of meditation in this ambiguous city, he has been aware of quite different strangers: a caterpillar, much out of place on the pavement under the spike-guarded trees, a butterfly, a cottage flower. In another paper – more purely an artist’s works we close eagerly with the author in his protest against the alien evergreen which bores us so much in English front-gardens.
I have done no more than indicate the thought, the vision, and the eye-sight, of this writer who exiled himself explicitly from an author’s life and implicitly from life itself. Many more readers must have greatly admired his work than he ever knew of or guessed about – a scattered public that, in its turn, never connected these essays with a thought of his personality – strangers and a stranger. It is right and just that his friends should have his work collected now under their hands, and should in this rereading deepen their memories and strengthen their affection.
[The first two chapters of the book are the collected essays and reviews that Herbert had published in the Telegraph Newspaper. These are not copied here, but one refers to Army life, so it is included below.]
This unfinished paper on “Tent Life,” found in his pocket case after death, is written from his own experience of nights in a tightly packed bell tent at Havre.
In the apparatus of this war we have seen terrible novelties and strange revivals, poison-gas and liquid flame, steel hats and hand grenades. Never before this age did man fight under water, but pre-historically the combats of the cave-dwellers must have had some resemblance to our own raiding of the dug-outs.
Nevertheless, 20th century soldiers on active service do not live altogether underground. There is one abode of armed men, as necessary and as common to this war as to all that went before it, and that is the tent.
The uncomely hut, and the earth-walled burrow, have not eliminated this ancient shelter of the nomad soldier. The canvas roofs spring up like mushrooms in a land that is at war. They are as useful to Tommy Atkins on his way to the battle of the Somme as they were to his predecessor en route to Agincourt. No other house is so swiftly raised nor so easily removed. Tents are primitive and almost elemental. They do not lend themselves to improvement or evolution. You must be satisfied with them as they are, – simple shields against the weather.
You cannot hang pegs, shelves, or pictures on their walls, nor add to them wings and storeys. How many times in the history of the world has the old campaigner told the new comer under canvas not to touch the sides of the tents when it is raining, and how often, that warning being disregarded, has the water come through! Somewhere at this moment a soldier is cursing such a relentless leakage, and always will be, while tents and ram endure together.
But with all its fearful discomforts, life in a tent always allures the adventurous. “This is soldiering at last,” says the ex-civilian, when he takes off his pack for the first time within a bell tent. Indeed it is a good training for the harder ordeal that lies before him. Gone now are the tressle beds and straw palliasses, luxuries of the recruit stage. A waterproof sheet, three blankets, and no pillow, with these must a couch be made on the floor boarding of the tent, one blanket beneath, and two to cover him; on the bitterest nights of winter, will not the soldier, fresh from hut, barrack or billet life, suffer agonies of cold? It is unlikely. There is no stove in the tent, but the warmth of twelve or fourteen or even sixteen bodies in that space is enough to counteract the cold breath of wintry nights. Therein lies the great compensation of an existence otherwise regrettably crowded. Though your knees are in your neighbour’s back, and someone else’s in yours, and all the feet be inextricably mingled at the base of the tent-pole, though you cannot turn without sending a wave of disturbance all round the tent, yet you keep each other warm. Here you learn many lessons of forbearance and economy and simple living. You must live to your neighbour. Not all of you can go to bed or rise at one and the same moment. “A” must put his blankets on recumbent “B” while clearing a space for himself.
If you are late in coming in at night, you must step with infinite caution over the floor of human bodies. If it ‘is muddy outside, the rest will insist on your taking off your boots “in the hall,” i.e., at the very threshold of the tent. Even so mud will be on the floor and on your blankets. You cannot escape it.
Better frost than rain for tent life. It is now you will learn how to do without possessions hitherto deemed essential to civilized life. There is nowhere to keep them. Concealment of a few cherished properties between your blankets is practised, but it has its anxieties. While you are out on the training ground, it may be all the bedding will be removed for an airing by cross-grained line orderlies, and that evening respective private properties will be confused or missing, and as you very well know you should have been carrying them on your back. Regulations do not recognise any belongings not so disposed of.
Never in our lives will those of us who have known it forget being one of fourteen soldiers cleaning their rifles and putting on their equipment by the light of a candle, in a bell tent in the Great War. From reveille to fall-in is not the time of sweetness or chaff. But at night when we are all in and snugly laid, then we turn this experience to infinite jest. We impose penalties for any complaints of lack of room. We talk of taking lodgers. We pass round chocolate and cough lozenges. We sing. We are nice to each other. Some of us with ingeniously, but perilously placed candles contrive to read awhile, but almost all of us have fallen fast asleep before “lights out,” and come snow, or rain, or howling tempest, we sleep sound.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE WITH LETTERS [Noted on the Contents page to be by his Mother]
The writer of the foregoing Essays and also of the Reviews and letters was the youngest son of the Revd. Henry G. Watson, formerly Vicar of St. Leonard’s, Bucks., and later of Great Staughton, Hunts.
By profession a journalist, also a barrister of the Inner Temple (though not practising), he was on the staff of “The Daily Telegraph,” which journal “he loyally served” for about eight years; during the last five writing reviews of books for the Literary Sheet, besides contributing biographical notices to this paper.
By nature a poet, and in all his tastes an artist, an ardent lover of music, literature and painting, he was able to express himself with ability and feeling through all these mediums. Of a sensitive and highly strung temperament, and not physically robust, a military career was the last that would naturally appeal to him. “Loving life and beauty,” as he wrote of Rupert Brooke, “he obeyed cheerfully, but not lightly, his country’s call to arms” in defence of righteousness and humanity, and like him “enjoying beauty so well” he was “not blind to the horror and ugliness of war.” But nevertheless, when the call came, he was ready like so many others to give up his work, to leave home, family, friends, and all his loved occupations, and to offer himself for the army. This he did, though thirty-five years of age (in 1915), on four occasions, but was rejected on account of defective vision.Herbert Watson
In September, 1914, he had joined the “United Arts Volunteers” 1st Battalion, and remained in it for eighteen months, acting as platoon commander during the last thirteen. He passed highly technical examinations with distinction, attending- camp several times, commanded a company frequently in tactical exercises, and had practical experience in entrenching on the London Defences. He was recommended by his Commandant “as well fitted to hold a commission in the regular army.” He now again presented himself for enlistment, and was accepted. At this date, a new regulation by the War Office made it necessary for men over thirty-five years of age to serve for a certain time in the ranks, before obtaining a commission.
Accordingly he joined the 7th Battalion of the “King’s Royal Rifle Corps” as a private, shortly being made Lance Corporal. He took an N.C.O’s course at Hertfird, passing examinations with high marks, and also became a “marksman”. Later, another order from the War Office obliged men of that age to serve in the ranks abroad, before obtaining a commission. After remaining eight months in the K.R.R.C. he was ordered to France, and left England with a draft on Dec. 17th, 1916.
The following letters (printed more especially for the family abroad) were written from Le Havre, where the 1st Battalion of the K.R.R.C. was quartered. On the 25th of January his Company was ordered to join the rest of the 1st Battalion at the front. As a soldier, he was, of course, not allowed to give anything approaching to military information; any description of Cathedral or Country was blotted out by the censor. The letters to his mother and sister show his thoughtfulness in concealing any details in his life liable to cause additional anxiety to his parents, while from those to his brother, we learn something of his experiences in the trenches in the abnormal severity of the winter of 1917
Le Harve, December 21st, 1916. My Dear Mother,
I hope you had my letter announcing my arrival here. On the steamer I was lucky in getting a corner in the galley to sleep in, instead of being below deck, where I could not have slept. Also I got from the cooks a good hot breakfast in the morning.
We landed in the morning and marched a few miles to this camp, which is very well sited and picturesque. The conditions are, of course, more like that of active service than at home. There is a fine training ground, and very good instruction. In my tent there is a sergeant who knows Leonard well, and was in the Deal Volunteers with him. I found the cold very severe at first, but now it is warmer and tonight it is raining.
I have applied again for a commission, and I cannot yet say the result. Being at Havre reminds me that in mediaeval times, expeditions used to sail from Queenborough to Havre, and it was from here that Edward III brought Phillipa, after whom Queenboro’ is named.
The food is all right. It varies a good deal. For today we had a portion of bread, of cheese, of butter, of jam, and a handful of raisins. I have yet to have a pair of military spectacles, and I should not, I think, be going up the line before I get them. One sees little of the native population, but I have seen German prisoners at work. I will not ask you to send anything at present, as I shall have a good load to carry when we move. There is not much to write about, as, of course, this is like a bit of England transferred for military purposes, but everything is on a larger scale than at Queenboro’. Of course I may receive a reply from my original application from England. I shall hope to hear of your being well, with love,
Your affect. Son,
Herbert. P.S. – A happy Christmas to you and Father and Florence.
Le Harve, Sunday, Dec. 24th, 1916.
My Dear Mother,
I was pleased to have your letter yesterday, forwarded from Queenboro’.
Yesterday candidates for commissions were before the Brigadier. They only wanted twelve out of sixty, and I was not one of the selected, though I was in the running I believe.
I expect my age and sight turned the scales against me. One man a year older than myself was chosen, but all the rest were younger. I am sorry this man is going, we came out together, and he is one of the few educated men that I have met. He was in the mounted police at Salisbury during the Boer War. I have not yet heard the result of my application from Holm Place, but I do not feel much faith in it. I wish they had been so far considerate there as to tell me whether my papers had been sent to the War Office. In case of any further opportunity of applying occurs here, would you please send me Major Casserly’s testimonial, saying I am well fitted to hold a commission. It seems a pity all the thorough training he gave us in the “United Arts” should be wasted in my case, but I am resigned now to there being a fatality against my getting recognition. If I had been thrown with friends, or with men like there were in the ranks of the “United Arts” I should be quite content with serving in the ranks. However, it is not like being in the army for a profession, it must all be over surely within the coming year. It is the one thing to hope for.
Tomorrow is Xmas Day, we shall be doing our washing and no parades, and I expect we shall have real instead of bully beef for dinner. I almost wish we were going on with the ordinary training for something to do over and above the washing.
I should like to see Havre, but do not think we shall be allowed out of camp. There is a Y.M.C.A. cinema to which I went with a sergeant last night. It was rather a poor entertainment, but it was somewhere to be. The canteens and Y.M.C.A’s recreation rooms generally are always densely packed. There is again a welcome sun, and the sun seems more powerful here than it would be in England at this time.
I must realize that I shall soon be exposed to the common risks of a soldier, but these are much less than would appear on paper. The numbers are of course so large that the casualty lists seem more impressive actually, than they are relatively. If it were not for the anxieties of you and Father, I should not be concerned about the danger. It is the life, I think, rather than the possible closing of it, that is the trial.
So you would remember that. But I feel I shall probably come through, though when, or how, I do not know. I shall always be glad that we had that little week-end before I left, recalling all the many times I have come home, always to find you doing everything to make us comfortable and feel just as if we were back from school again.
In the army, of course, there is nothing that resembles home in any way, so one has to live on memories. I should like to describe this place, and its incidents and sights, but anything like military information is barred and so I must leave it. It would be quite a pleasant spot for summer time campaigning, and has a good deal of beauty.
Now with love, my dear Mother,
Your affect. Son,
Y.C.M.A. Le Harve, Xmas Day, 1916.
My Dear Mother,
This has been an unusual Xmas Day. Reveille went as usual at 5.30, but I stayed in bed until nearly 7, which was breakfast time, but we had to wait three-quarters of an hour for the meal, which was tea, bread and butter, and two little slices of beef. At 9 o’clock we were on parade for inspection. After parade I spoke to the Company Officer who said no doubt I wanted to know why I had not been selected among the candidates for commissions.
He said that it was simply a matter of numbers, and that when the required number had been obtained, the rest were postponed, but that more would very probably be wanted and it would be much quicker to obtain it here, than in England. Next I did my week’s washing by hand, not very successfully, I think, as my experience is limited. Dinner was to be the great event, but again I had to wait a long while, and in the end was unlucky in getting only a taste of roast beef and plum pudding, plus a mug of beer.
You must keep a plum pudding for me in case I can eat it with you in the New Year! The sergeants waited on us, which was a good idea. When the Y.M.C.A. opened at 4 o’clock I was able to get some mince-pies, which were quite good. The Chaplain opened a new box for me, on hearing that my Xmas dinner had not been excessive.
Tea was more plentiful, and I am now sufficiently full! having got dates, etc., at the canteen! One can get all sorts of things at the canteens, though the prices are high. Since tea I have been reading a novel by candle light in my tent, and now I am in the Y.M.C.A. again, where a chaplain officer has formed the men into lines, and is directing an impromptu concert before giving us all a Xmas present. This suits me as I am able to get a seat at a table, and write this letter. Outside on the road in the dark, troops are marching by to destiny.
A rifleman (solicitor’s clerk) tells me he remembers seeing me in the law courts, when I was reporting there. There have been no Church Parades today, I know not why, but we had Christmas hymns at Church (in a cinema theatre) yesterday.
I was startled two nights ago to hear a regiment on the march singing “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night.” But they were a Scottish battalion and that makes all the difference.
I have seen much that is pictorially fine. The active service dress with its practicabilities is far more picturesque than the smart turn-out of peace time at home, and in the broken light of lamps, shining in the dark, the effects are very striking and dramatic. One of the lady workers (a Miss Wood) has just presented me with a pocket letter case containing stationery, a mirror, and a notebook and pencil, and cigarettes. So I have had a Xmas present, which is very welcome. There has been no mail today so I have had no chance of letters. The men have now given three cheers for Lloyd George.
Altogether, war time and active service being the conditions, my Xmas has not been so bad: and I must give a vote of thanks to the Y.M.C.A. I hope you and Father have had a restful day with a pleasant gathering in the evening.
As the Colonel said this morning, “We shall all be having next Christmas with our own people.” With love.
Your affectionate son,
Le Harve, December 31st, 1916.
We are holding on here at present, and every day of winter that goes by is a gain, since the weather conditions are doubtless the most trying feature of campaigning during this season. Being under canvas in December is itself no picnic. But I admire the thorough efficiency and order with which the camps are sited and arranged. The Base is well furnished with Y.M.C.A.’s, and Salvation Army, and Church Army, and other similar institutions, as well as the B.E.F. canteens, yet they are always full up. Last night I went to a concert by the Lena Ashwell party, this was pretty good
There are Rhodesians in my crowd, including Salisbury men of your period. I have now found out the sort of things one wants for the job, and I think a Tommy’s cooker would have been useful, or alternately some artificial fuel and a tripod. Later on, I must let you know about these things. I regret most not having brought an enamelled mug. There is still a possibility of my being trained for a commission, and this might affect my movements if it comes to pass. Whenever I do get home, I propose to get a substantial Xmas dinner somewhere, even if it is August!! This morning I could not remember the name of Leonard’s late father-in-law and a sergeant in my tent told me. Let me know if my second lot of photographs are considered good.
Your affectionate brother,
Le Harve, January 6th, 1917.
My Dear Mother,
I handed over to you the testimonial letter from Major Casserly, my appointment as an officer in the “United Arts Rifles” signed by Lord Crewe, and a post card from Dr. Gow, etc. I just wanted those papers taken charge of in case I wanted them.
Yes! of course, the subaltern officer runs more risks than the men. In fact all leaders must do so, officers or N.C.O.’s I have had all your letters and one from Florence.
Rosalie’s letter gives me an interesting account of her children, and she says how much she wishes she could bring them over to see you and Father. I have had a glimpse of ——— church or cathedral, which has most beautiful stone work in one doorway. I wish I could remember the historic associations of ————. After all, the man I spoke of has not gone to get his commission, the age difficulty having intervened. No further news. I will write again. I have been able to get some books to read from the Y.M.C.A., I am thankful to say.
With much love,
Your affectionate son,
Le Harve, January 6th, 1917.
I received today letters from you and Mother and Father – coming opportunely to remind me it was my birthday. I also received a parcel from Mrs. Humphreys, containing home-made “Turkish Delight.” This was posted to Holly Mount on December 21st, and forwarded thence, so I could hardly expect to get today the parcel, or parcels which you are sending me from Woburn Sands. I shall welcome the chocolate of which Mother spoke of having sent in her penultimate letter, also the fruit or any other such delicacies; but as I cannot say from day to day how long I shall be here, and parcels are such a long time on the journey, it would perhaps not be worth while to send perishables.
I have had a letter from Gordon, and he kindly wrote to my C.O. here, about me, procuring me another interview – as to the sequel I cannot say. The others who were chosen have not been finally accepted yet.
There is nothing much to record of the life here; when the weather is good it is quite tolerable, and I see primroses blooming in a garden. When it is cold or wet, it is trying, and one learns for the first time to be thankful for body heating, and of course when packed up for parades one is always warm.
A few days ago we went for a route march, and I saw a bit of the country. The column covered half a mile, so I was fortunate in the fact that when we halted for a rest I was just opposite a house, and that Monsieur and Madame were out on their doorstep.
It is against the rules to accept hospitalities, but I dreamed that the woman .went in and made me a cup of Cafe au lait, and gave me a large piece of bread and butter, and that her husband brought out a bottle of cider which was like white wine, and gave us to drink, and that they refused to take any payment.
The experienced soldiers say, you get very little for nothing in France, so the refreshment of which I dreamed was doubly pleasant. I was rather amused yesterday with an old peasant who was trying to drive a couple of little bullocks roped together up a steep hill, and whacking them over the nose with a stick, and making a great fuss; he came up and shewed me a written address of a farm, and asked me which was the way there, of course I said “Moi meme, Je suis etranger ici.” Moreover I was myself assisting up the hill a man who had fallen out of the ranks suffering “wiv me chest.”
I am now in another tent, and in place of an ex-Methodist Sergeant next me, I have a Corporal who I surmise has been something in the Church, as he has the Greek Testament under the blankets, and reads also a tiny book of piety at times. I should mention that another sergeant in my late tent used to put in all his odd moments reading “Hazlitt’s Table Talk.” These are exceptions, “John Bull” is about the top note of literature current generally. I have myself obtained some novels from the Y.M.C.A., and at the third attempt have now got through the “Mill on the Floss,” begun at St. Leonards, I think, and luckily, as the first chapter or so is missing from this copy, but it has the very fascinating wood-cut illustrations of the old era. Skipping generously the prosy preaching, I find it is a book with real gold in it, especially the character of Maggie. To-night I have secured “Wildfell Hall” for tomorrow’s reading. I am sorry to hear of Uncle Charlie being so ill. With love,
Your affectionate brother,
Le Harve, January 8th, 1917.
My Dear Mother,
I have received today your letter (with photo) of January 5th, following those of January 2nd and 3rd, which I had on my birthday. I feel sure I have had all your letters, and you have kept me pretty well posted with all news. I look forward to the parcel containing chocolate and cake, and the second one of fruit, but these may be a long while on the way. I am sorry if I did not thank you for the Xmas card, as well as the letters therewith. I have had letters also from Harry, Fred, Flo, Rosalie, Gordon, and Edward. By the way, it was not from Folkestone that we crossed over. I have no news. It has been raining very heavily today, and I have been reading in the tent, a Bronte novel, and feel overwhelmed at the amazing propriety of the sentiments expressed by educated people of that epoch. How conversation has changed! I suppose I shall be apprized soon about the commission affair, which is still open. I am finding Florence’s meloids good for my catarrh, which is inevitable in winter, and a plague, though not in itself of importance. Well, I hope you are keeping yourself well, and able to rest.
With love, Your affectionate son,
Le Harve, January 10th, 1917.
Many thanks for your letter received two days ago. I hope you find yourself fit again now. I shall be very pleased to have the enamelled mug. I miss one every day, and the cigarettes will be very welcome. I am afraid it will be a long time before I receive the parcel as things now go.
There is just the possibility I might be returning to Blighty soon, if the commission application goes through; but I think my age will dish me, and I have not told the Parents of the possibility of such return. Parcels would be forwarded to me up the line, but there might be a difficulty in getting them sent back to England. Sorry I don’t know any Rhodesian names here, one man is in for a commission.
I have been shovelling muck from one place to another most of the day. I don’t think that amounts to military information. My wrist watch has broken down and that is a serious nuisance. I don’t know from day to day when I shall be moving, but I’ll send you word as soon as I know. Tobacco is cheaper here and everything else dearer.
Your affectionate brother,
Le Harve, January 12th, 1917.
My Dear Mother,
Yesterday I received the parcel of dates and raisins which were very welcome and the muscatels of the very best. My grateful thanks for them. The chocolate, sad to say, has not come yet, but I still have hopes of it. Chocolate is even dearer here, and not so good as at home. I have also received from you “The Weekly Times” and “Graphic,” which I am reading by degrees, and am glad to have on hand. Strange to say someone else has sent me, I don’t know who, by the same post, another “Weekly Times” of the same date, and I have given this copy to a Corporal in my tent – a very nice man, who has just been accepted for a commission. The rain has been persistent and is a great nuisance in this kind of life.
I am inclined to think you had better not send any more parcels until I give the word, as it can’t be much longer that I shall be here. I shall probably ask you to send my gun-metal watch. I have received from Fred a useful mug and a tin of cigarettes, and from Mr. Penoyre a khaki sweater and a pair of socks, and I have been doing well, and must be careful, or I shall be crowded. One day is much like another; a good deal of cleaning to do, a struggle with life in a small space, when ‘at home’; troops coming and going, and nothing much to record.
Your affectionate son,
Le Harve, January 16th, 1917.
I was pleased to have your letter. I like your address, and it is only in America that you would get it. I have greatly enjoyed Jack London’s stories of California, and was very sorry that he was dead. I remember writing an obituary notice about him, but he survived it. You will have heard that I am out here in France, “where the War is.” I have not much to record at present. It is a stiff life of course in the Army, especially if you have not been a manual labourer before you enter it. Or if your tastes run to books, etc. However, I am none the worse for it so far, though I often wish I were a decade younger. I think the weather is the chief hardship.
I find the cold of this winter under active service conditions very trying, but I am getting adapted even to that. I think everybody finds the duties and routine monstrous and wearisome, and it is bound to be so.
Trench warfare in particular does not lend itself to that kind of manoeuvre, chess-like fighting, which I suppose was the joy of Napoleon’s heart. In fact the weak point about modern war is, that you can’t finish it, and to one ounce of fighting, there is a pound of navvy’s work, and waiting. Really I don’t know how they manage to feed us; but so far, though by old civilian standards, we keep the right to grumble, the rations are quite adequate. We have some quite delightful jams, and something like real butter. If only they would get their bread made in France by the French, instead of giving us the English variety, I should enjoy the meals more. But I expect T. A. likes it. I confess I have seen no lack of provisions in England either, though we are always being warned to economise. Prices are high, but I doubt if anyone is worse fed than before the war. Glad you liked that photo of the Brook in Father’s book. I was pleased with it myself; possibly Nigel might be interested to know that it was taken at 6 p.m. on an August evening. I hope we shall see you both after the war. With love,
Your affectionate brother,
Le Harve, January 21st, 1917.
My Dear Mother,
I think my application will be effective in due course, and that Gordon’s letter had due recognition; but the matter is not decided here, and I must await the issue. I do not think there is any immediate prospect of my being in any risk, and that you need not feel anxieties. The life is bound to be rather dull, especially as one cannot see anything of the country or the people. However, it cannot last for ever, and I should think this is the final phase. I have had to-day a parcel from the Gillmans, containing a cake, socks knitted by Aunt Jennie, mittens by Barbara, and tobacco and a tinder from Uncle Arthur; this was a surprise and very good of them.
It is interesting that Gordon will be married on February 1st, and I will be writing to him. If there is any family present, I will join. I don’t think I have any news. With much love,
Your affectionate son,
January 24th, 1917.
I expect to join my battalion soon.
The Commission application, which appeared very favourable a few days ago, now seems to have stumped.
The cold is horrible now, an acute frost. I expect you are feeling it, the job is to keep one’s feet warm sans fires. I don’t want to carry more than I can help, so I shall not want anything else sent yet awhile. I will report progress.
Y. A. B.,
H. C. W.
Le Harve, January 29th, 1917.
My Dear Mother
I am leaving here today to join my battalion. It will be some days before I can let you have my new address. Meanwhile letters will be forwarded, and I shall get your parcel eventually, also one due from Florence. Just had parcel from Mrs. Jeston with cigarettes, socks and chocolate. With much love, Your affectionate son,
Address blotted out by Censor. January 29th, 1917.
My Dear Mother,
The above is now my address. I arrived at my destination today. I am in a hut again which is more comfortable than a tent. The cold is severe, but the sun shines by day. I am close to the front now. I shall not want anything more that needs carrying. I shall be able to get cocoa here, and to use the cooker when I receive it from Florence. Many of the men that I knew at the Tile works, and at Holm Place are here.
It is impressive to see at last the conditions of which one has so often read – in the villages I passed through.
When I was leaving the base, the Colonel (Commandant in the Camp) told me he had “heard from my brother.” I think this must refer to a second letter. I think the application is favourably received, and that it is a question of time, for the completion of the matter. Please let Fred have my address, and when anyone is writing to Uncle Ned, thank him for his letter to me.
It will be a trying time I make no doubt, but I am sure I shall get through. With my love to you and Father, and hoping that you will take care of yourselves in this weather,
Your affectionate son,
Address blotted out by Censor. January 30th, 1917.
I joined my battn. yesterday morning. It was a long train journey. Sometimes I got out to fill up my water bottle, at a butt and caught the train up again. Nevertheless we passed at two places overturned trucks, where there had been accidents.
We started in an ordinary 3rd class and continued in horse boxes which are not bad, as there is room to stretch your legs and get a full length bed on the floor, and we were able to make a brazier and keep it going. The first night we hadn’t time to do this, and it was mighty cold. There are no windows but plenty of ventilation in the sliding doors. We had 4 or 5 hours at a rest camp on the first morning, and I managed to find a corner where I got some sleep. There was also a good canteen and I had my first egg in France and my first coffee – poor stuff tho’. In the train we made tea at all hours, and sometimes alighted and bought bread when there happened to be some on sale. We arrived at our railway destination in the afternoon and after the customary waiting about, set off to find our battn. – There were 12 of us for this unit. We had no guide, but were told the battalion was in a certain village not far away. Thither we went, but it was not there. Moreover we could get no tea or refreshment. We were directed to another village, and there we had the same experience. We seemed to be marching for many hours, and carrying the load that we did we were fairly done up, and had to make frequent halts at the road side. It was so cold, I could not get the stopper out of my water bottle. When we arrived at H. Q. we found the battalion had just shifted elsewhere. We couldn’t go any further, but luckily there remained our Q.M. and he provided us with a billet and blankets and rum, and breakfast in the morning; this was all very welcome.
Of course I cannot say where I am, but naturally it is within sound, and (by night) sight of gunfire. A bomb fell outside our billet in the night, but did not perform. Here the scene is like a depot of arctic explorers, a white expanse, craters everywhere. Stumps once a wood, some isolated graves – a desolate land of relics. My sleeping quarters, tho’ crowded, are more comfortable as to bed than my late tent. It is bad luck getting into a winter that reminds me of the long frost of 1893 or 4, when, for nearly a whole term, we skated and sleighed instead of playing football. We get plenty of food but it is not easy to provide water; so far, however, hot tea fails not. For the first time I find unlimited jam, but not yet the much talked of bacon.
Jan. 31st. The last named materialised this morning. I was one of a carrying party last night. I never had such a walk in my life, about 8 miles and scarcely one firm step. I went down about half a dozen times, I didn’t mind that so much, as that slipping back one, for every step forward. We had no casualties. I was dead dog tired when we got back in the early hours.
Feb. 1st. Today I become a temporary caveman.
Your affectionate brother,
H. C. W.
Address scratched out by Censor, Feb. 7th, 1917.
My Dear Mother
I am glad to see the enclosures which I will return when opportunity offers. It is satisfactory as far as it goes, and I hope the sequel will be effective and soon [re: commission]
I was sent up the line as I wrote to you, about thirteen days ago, and opportunities of writing or at least of sending letters have not been many. My unit has been at the front and is now out again. I do not know for how long. We were glad to come out.
I am in a village now, where the inhabitants still remain. A woman who is washing some handkerchiefs for me, yesterday said of herself and her husband, “Nous avons vu la guerre comme un soldat,” and looking at the houses and gardens I can well believe it. I shall be interested to hear of Gordon’s wedding, and I hope he got well in time, and was able to leave. I must thank you for a “Weekly Dispatch,” I would be glad if you will send the “Weekly Times” again. It is difficult to say whether the mud, or the cold is the worst trial. So far I have only experienced the latter here, tho’ we had plenty of mud at Havre, where however it did not matter as it must at the front. It is a terrible winter in every way, but Spring cannot be very far now. With love and hoping to see you when the time comes,
Your affectionate son,
I emerged from dugout life early this morning, and we are now resting in a village at the back of the front! very glad to find ourselves there. Some, of course, remained behind. I put in two days in a dugout with thirteen others. It was pretty cold notwithstanding our brazier. Some of the men were Figis, decent chaps; and generally I am always pleased to get with Colonials, as they are so much more friendly than the native article – and these men were educated which was refreshing.
I had the luck to be in support, and did not go into the front line. Part of our division brought off an effective raid of which you will have read. The sequel was a violent bombardment on the following night – the last of our turn in the line.
This delayed the relief in the front line, but with joy, we, the reserve, found ourselves released at last and my lot were just marching off, when I was selected to take a message up to a certain spot, which meant going through the barrage. There was a devil of a noise with the guns of both sides pounding away and it was a lonely trip. I dodged them all right, though when a few yards short of my destination I was spattered with earth at an habitually unhealthy corner. On returning things were quieter. I followed up my party, got a good whack of rum on the way and a ride of nearly two miles on a limber, which tipped up once and spilled us. However, anything is better than carrying these loads, especially on slippery roads. I arrived in the early hours, got ‘ some more rum and tea and bread and cheese, and a billet in a barn in a village where we now are, and where the civilians remain. The cold is the devil, and has caused several deaths in the line. Our own casualties were considerable. The Whiteley parcel not yet arrived. Sorry to miss the Gordon wedding. Will write to you again soon.
Your affectionate brother,
H. C. W.
February 9th and 10th, 1917.
My Dear Mother
Also I have just had the parcel of muscatels and almonds which are very welcome – and by the same post from Florence, the Whiteley parcel, for which please thank her, all the contents are most acceptable. The weather continues exactly the same from day to day, and I have become more adjusted to it. The leather jerkin with which we are supplied makes a good protector for the trunk.
I hear rumours of a great naval victory and of America being at war with Germany, but I do not know what is the fact. One wishes time would hurry on. As you say, at your age you can see the outstanding truths of life more clearly, and I think that must be the compensation of growing old. Problems become sifted, the horizen is discerned, and there is less to worry over. I shall be hearing soon about Gordon’s wedding. I have had letters from Miss Copland and her sister Mrs. Campion, the latter telling me she saw that Gordon had come home and was married, but this perhaps was pre- mature. They mentioned your having written. I am now going to bed, I have a bed!
With love, Your affectionate Son,
February 11th, 1917.
I hope this will be in time to wish you many happy returns. You are not likely to have any more war-birthdays. There is that. I hope your scheme of work goes forward. I have now had your parcel with all contents, that was particularly excellent chocolate and consumed with almonds and raisins is very entertaining. In addressing me now put same battalion, D Coy., and cut out all the rest except B.E.F. The cold continues, but I think it is better than the mud, which will doubtless be its successor. I expect sugar and sweets will be prohibitive with you soon; so the chocolate was particularly bien venu.
With love, Your affectionate brother,
About February 11th, 1917.
Thanks for yours of Feb. 3rd. I have had the Whiteley parcel. Fortunately I have not had to carry my pack since the cooker arrived, and I am using it, so all is well. I suppose they would understand at home that I am not very eligible for insurance, and I can’t say when that situation will abate. I suppose we really are coming to a climax in the affair. Glad to hear from you, first intimation and details of the wedding.
Never have I known such rigours of winter. I have to thaw my ration of bread every day, and also all tinned things. My water-bottle freezes on me.
I suppose the application on my behalf may yet be fruitful; could you write to C. G. that if he knows anv way of expediting the matter at your end, it would be a much appreciated favour. I don’t know who finally decides.
I am now completely cut off from any of the men I came out with, or knew before, and in fact there is no one to talk things over with. I shall be pleased to see the “Sunday Chronicle.” I see a newspaper occasionally and gather that America is still contriving to be dignified and not at war. I shall be interested to hear how the voluntary rationing works out.
I am not allowed to give any account of military happenings. I suppose the soldiers’ letters that we used to read in the newspapers appear no longer.
In addressing me cut out all the “base” part and insert D Coy., with the unit.
Your affectionate brother,
A last field card, dated February 16th, shews that he and his company are ordered to move forward again, as it proved, to join the advance on Grandcourt.
After a “terrible journey” in the dark hours of the morning through the deep mud, “dragging bags of bombs, as well as the heavy kit,” himself falling repeatedly, he and his comrades come under shell fire, they fling themselves down in a shell crater, “but do not go low enough.” A shell bursts near them, killing six of their number, and wounding him severely. Around him “were exclamations from the others, and then all became very still.”
These, and further tragic details, we learn from a little mud-stained diary found in his pocket after death. With what effort we shall never know his courage, and wonderful will-power enabled him to draw for us, a brief though graphic sketch of what he went through, while lying alone, wounded, “unable to move,” on the frozen ground, and surrounded by the dead. His last entry faintly written, breaks off on the third day, but alas! it was five days before he was found, and brought in by two officers, in a state of extreme exhaustion, with badly frost-bitten feet, and eventually taken to No. 26 Hospital, Etaples.
On removal there, he was able to ask for his brother Colonel Gordon Watson to be sent for, and to give his address at Headquarters. His first words, on his brother’s speedy arrival, were an inquiry if he had brought with him, his newly married wife, and then to ask for his love to be sent to his mother and father, and to all at home.
“No murmur of complaint of hardship borne, as crippled on the shell-swept ground he lay for days and nights, untended and forgot, while hopes of help and home, each day, each night, more distant grew. His only thought, his only hope, how soon for home, and mother, father, sisters, brothers, friends! one longing wish for peace and rest.”
This is quoted as the comment of one who was with him at that time. For some days all was reported to be going on well, but when hope was strongest – a fatal change took place. On the Sunday morning he received the Holy Communion, still quite conscious. Holding in his hands some of his favourite anemones just arrived from his sister, he listened to his mother’s letter, sent messages of love to all his family, and passed peacefully from this life in his sleep, in the early hours of the morning of Monday, March the 5th, 1917.
[It may be interesting here to insert a short note from his cousin Col. Cyril Spencer Watson, V.C., similarly left on the battle field; who, later, gained posthumously the V.C. The relation of this experience may afford consolation to the minds of us all.
“I think you may like to know that my experience of lying out wounded, only two and a half days, thank God! – leads me to believe that God mercifully sends freedom from pain most of the time, and also a sense of mental peace of having done one’s duty, submission to whatever God may send, and complete indifference to further danger.”]
The following letter was received after his death by his brother Arthur, from the Assistant Editor of the Daily Telegraph:-
“The Daily Telegraph,” Fleet Street, London, March 7th, 1917.
It was with real sorrow that I read your note this evening, informing me of the death of your brother Herbert C. Watson. He is the first of the Editorial Staff to lay down his life in our great cause. There is probably no business organisation in which men get to know one another’s character better than in a newspaper office, and your brother had established for himself a place in the regard of his fellows, of which he might have been proud, if such a feeling had been natural to his disposition.
Beneath his quiet exterior, he possessed a singularly modest and attractive personality, and his mental endowments made him a valued member of the staff.
All his colleagues have heard the sad news with a sense of personal loss, and Lord Burnham was deeply grieved when I gave him your letter. He desires me to send to you and to your family an expression of his deep sympathy, in which I need hardly add Mr. Le Sage and other members of the Staff sincerely join.
Fredk. Miller. [Assistant Editor Daily Telegraph]
“The Daily Telegraph,” Fleet Street, London, E.C. March 8th, 1917.
My Dear Sir,
I hope you will accept my sincerest sympathy and that of all the proprietors of this paper on your heavy sorrow. Your son, Mr. H. C. Watson enjoyed the confidence and respect of all his colleagues, who admired alike his fine character and his distinguished abilities. He served this paper faithfully and well for all the years he was with us, and we much regretted the necessity of his going, but his patriotic enthusiasm took him to the front, where he has fallen like so many other true and brave Englishmen.
With renewed condolence with you and all your family,
Burnham [Harry Lawson Webster Levy-Lawson, 2nd Baron Burnham]
Page last updated Jan. 2019.