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First World War letters
EASY DOES IT: Officers pose outside the Staple Hall Signal Depot during the First World War. For one of the troops stationed at Staple Hall, a chance meeting with a friend at a local railway station led to the decision to join the Royal Flying Corps and, despite having only one eye, he became a top scoring 'ace'. Apart from those at Staple Hall, other troops were also billeted in the town and - as reserves - their task was to guard local bridges and railways.

To mark the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, historian John Taylor looks at what the war meant for local people, and one young man in particular

Having been frequently featured in the national and local media, (and indeed being the subject of a recent article in Local Pages), the ceremony of the Fenny 'Poppers' is now well known.

By those who are unaware of their significance, it is often assumed that there must be some connection with Armistice Day, since both fall on November 11.

Athough this is incorrect, it was during the First World War that the 'Poppers' began to achieve a more widespread renown, beginning with the establishment in early 1915 of Staple Hall as the Southern Division of the Royal Engineers Signal Section.

From all comers of the British Empire, troops were sent for training and, billeted in the town, they soon began to contribute significantly to the local economy - primarily the shops and pubs.

Due to this new source of wealth, it was perhaps inevitable that the potential for a 'souvenir' trade would soon be seen, and thus at the end of 1915 a 'Popper' was despatched to the factory of Messrs Goss, the well-known manufacturer of armorial china, to be reproduced in quantity to the exact scale.

With the person commemorated by the Fenny Poppers having begun his career as a soldier, what better souvenir could there be for those thousands of troops who would be variously stationed in the town?

In fact, apart from the vicar, it would be officers of the Royal Engineers who on at least one occasion fired the Poppers, in a field close to the Staple Hall depot.

During the Second World War the ceremony would cease due to the regulations regarding noise. However, many things pioneered during the First World War would be resurrected during the Second World War, from the entertainments staged at the Temperance Hall and Spurgeon Memorial Baptist Hall to the Blackout, which recalled the Lighting Order. No lights in the ' town had to be visible during Zeppelin alerts, and this truly brought home to many civilians the new danger that they now faced.

As for the frontline troops, they would endure a conflict on a scale and of a savagery that had no precedent, and perhaps the horrors are best described in the letters sent home by the soldiers serving in the trenches.

One graphic example is from Rifleman Fred Thurlow, the son of Mr and Mrs Harry Thurlow, of Napier Street.

Writing to his sister, Mrs B. Kemp, of Bletchley, he tells how Corporal Sam Tompkins (who before enlisting was employed as a baker for many years by Mr Richardson, of Bletchley Road) was wounded.

Along with four other young men from Fenny Stratford, they had enlisted in the Rifle Brigade in September 1914.

"I am getting on all right, and all the other boys are well, with the exception of Sammy. He went out on night patrol with our platoon officer, Mr Torry.

"I was outside the trenches lying under our barbed wire, listening for the Germans, when he came out with Mr Torry. He told me what the password would be when they came back and then they went on; and that is the last we have seen of him.

"A patrol is supposed to be out for about two hours, but three hours passed before we heard anything. Then a Gurkha came down the line and said what had happened.

"It seems that this Gurkha was out with a patrol of his men lying on the edge of a 'Jack Johnson' hole, watching a party of about 10 Germans moving about, when all at once they heard the Germans say: 'Hands up!'

Then they could see Mr Torry, with Sammy about five yards behind him. Torry was putting his hands up, and as he was doing so he turned round to Tompkins and said: 'Run for it,' and then bolted in the opposite direction to Sammy.

"As they bolted the Germans fired at them and threw a bomb. Mr Torry, who it so happened, was running towards the Gurkhas, was hit three or four times and fell down into the hole where the Gurkhas were. Tompkins seemed to disappear altogether. The Gurkha said he appeared to be going towards the German trenches, mistaking them for our own. Of course, it was very dark at the time and everything was hard to see.

"The Gurkhas brought Mr Torry into our trenches, but he died the next day from his wounds. I asked for permission to go out and look for Sammy, as he might have been badly wounded and unable to get in. The Major allowed me to go the following night (Sunday). Sammy had gone out on the Saturday night.

"Another fellow and I set out. We crawled all over the ground from where the Gurkhas saw them, back to where they started from, but we could not find him nor his rifle."

The next day Rifleman Thurlow continued the letter.

"Sammy crawled in the Gurkha trenches half a mile away, as I was writing yesterday. He was captured by the Germans, but managed to get away and hide again in a shell hole. He explained how it was he was out so long. As he was running away when the Germans first saw him, he lost his direction and did not know which were ours or the German lines.

"He was light-headed when he came in and did not know how long he had been out till we told him. He had not had anything to eat or drink all the time (three days). How he came to be away so long was that he could not remember anything about Sunday night, so I conclude he must have been knocked out by the bomb the Germans threw at him.

"On Monday night he made for what he thought were our trenches, but they were the Germans'! They fired at him and shot him in the hand, but he managed to get away and stopped in a hole all day.

"On Tuesday night he made his way to the opposite lot of trenches and lay in a ditch waiting for somebody to look over. At length a Gurkha did so. Sammy yelled at him and the Gurkha officer told him to come in. This was about half a mile down the line from where he started on the Sunday night. So he had Gurkhas on one side of him and Germans on the other, and could not understand the lingo of either. He is in hospital now, and he needs it, too. While I am writing, a terrible bombardment is still going on. We have absolutely smashed the German trenches to bits."