Some of you will remember that I am working on a novella called The Soldier and the Radium Girl, but I don’t think I mentioned that I am writing it in the form of letters, journal and diary entries just like my literary hero, Bram Stoker.
I have been working quite hard on it this weekend and thought I would share my beginning. It’s not fully edited yet, but it’s a good start.
Letter from Private Jake Tanner to his fiancé, Kate Henderson
20 October 1917
My dearest Kate
I can hardly believe that it has already been six weeks since I last held you in my arms. So much has happened in this short time, I feel as if a lifetime has passed.
As you know, my troop ship left Harlem Station in New York on the 25th of September and sailed up the coast to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Despite the excitement of my fellow soldiers who were singing and laughing and treating the whole ‘going off to war’ experience as a wonderful game, I felt sad when the ship swung slowly past the Statue of Liberty. I watched as this symbol of American freedom faded out of sight and prayed that I would return to you and my family.
At Halifax, my ship met up with a dozen other troop ships and several navy destroyers whose job was to protect us from attack by German ‘Hun’ submarines. The ships formed themselves into a convoy and set off together across the seemingly endless expanse of cold, dark ocean on the 1st of October. I must confess dear Kate, that the thought of hostile submarines, hiding out of sight beneath the waves and waiting to attack the convey, was disconcerting.
The voyage lasted nine days and it wasn’t an easy one. With so many men being transported, my ship was crowed. The bunks were stacked several layers high and I had only the tiniest of spaces to store my equipment. It was cramped and uncomfortable and each group of men was only allowed to go up on deck once or twice a day for exercise and lifeboat drills.
The ship pitched and rolled and lots of the men were seasick. Some were so bad they couldn’t get out of their bunks for days. I wasn’t that bad, but the endless rocking did make it difficult for me to write in my journal. I am trying to keep a daily record of everything that is happening.
Our convey was lucky. Although a few submarines were sighted on route and one of the ships passed within twenty feet a floating mine, the voyage was uneventful. We were not attacked, nor did we encounter any big storms.
In hindsight, despite the continuous threat of attack by Hun submarines, having to adapt to English food and customs ended up being the hardest part of the trip for most of the troops. We ate nothing but boiled pork and boiled rabbit and you cannot imagine the stuffy pompousness of the British and French officers.
It was a great relief for all of us when, two days out of Liverpool, we were met by a flotilla of English submarine chasers which guided and guarded our way into port.
On the 8th of October, the Irish coastline was spotted and the next day the coastline of English was sighted. It was an exciting moment for most of us to see our destination at last. A few hours later, the convoy sailed passed the lighthouse at the mouth of Liverpool Harbour. We had arrived.
At Liverpool, my ship was boarded by American staff officers. All of us Yankees were delighted to see their smiling faces and hear their familiar American accents. Some of the men were immediately entrained for Southampton, but I was among the troops who were sent by train to a so-called rest camp at Oxney Camp, Bordon Haunts near Kingsley. My Battalion spent a week there waiting for transportation to Le Harve in France.
Our time at Oxney Camp was informative. We interacted with British “Tommies”, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, most of whom had been wounded at the front and were convalescing at the base hospital. The Australians, in particular, are friendly, but they do exaggerate. Their stories about life in the trenches are dramatic and we don’t believe it can be that bad.
We were billeted in tents which would have been alright, but the place was sea of mud. It rained most of the time, apparently this is usual for England at this time of year, and we’ve spent a good deal of time wet and dirty. At night, we go to bed with wet, muddy clothes and sleep on wet blankets. The rain drums down on the tents, runs down the sides, and collects in overflowing moats around them.
There are also ration shortages which have prompted us to explore several of the nearby towns. We don’t have much money, but the people are willing to trade our small trinkets for food, so it all works out well.
Yesterday, I again found myself on a train, this time travelling to Southhampton Port. I am mailing this letter to you today and tonight I will be boarding a channel boat and crossing the English Channel to Le Havre. The next time I write to you, I will be in France.
This is all my news for now, dear. I hope you and your family are well and your mother has recovered from her illness.
Write to me soon and tell me all your news. I am keen to know everything that is happening at home, it makes you all feel closer to you, somehow. Also let me know if you’ve moved to Orange yet. I have your aunt’s address and will send my letter there.
I came across this song today when I was doing some research. I know bits and pieces of this song from my childhood but I didn’t know it was a WW1 marching song.