In my collection of letters written during the First World War, there was one which didn’t appear in my book. That is mainly because it concerned events in Margate, but also because it is rather difficult to read. I have decided to reproduce it here in the hope that it will be of interest, especially to someone in that area of the country.
Here is my attempt at a transcription:
20 Vicarage Crescent
March 28th 1917
My dear old Coop,
On the whole I am getting on very well, though I was (as you would say) in a devil of a funk over that bombardment, it was so sudden, the shells came so near this house, (we are in East Margate) if they had exploded as they were meant to, it would really have been very bad, the marksmanship was very good, the ammunition was bad. Our soldiers picked up 46 unexploded shells after. I asked Harry to send me one of his ‘brutal’ letters to steady my nerves a bit, which he did, pointing out that if a shell happened to strike this house, it would be the next of kin, not I, who would have to do the worrying! – I was congratulated too, by him in having the sense to stay in bed, I refuse to go shivering about in the street, talking to a lot of wiseacres who with all their jaws didn’t know where the next shell was going to burst! But of course I would have turned out, Coop dear, if I could have done anything to help anyone, as I explained. I hear now, that the safest place is under the bed, so I think, when the next time comes, my dog and I will crawl underneath!!
We had a great scare last Saturday, everybody was very strung up – and indeed to see all the preparations was enough to frighten anyone – the sailors running, the soldiers marching, the guards•••• going along, the police in bicycles, all the volunteers, special constables, everyone called up – all order even to “Stand by with the Carts,” in case an evacuation order came. One man who lives here, the landlord, works at a factory, so he had to have his horses and carts ready. We are all to go to Canterbury if necessary, the women and children to drive, and the old – the young to walk. Fanny says “You must be elderly, Queenie••••, for that occasion” – Harry would say “You are that already”! – but of course dear, if it really came to that there wouldn’t be nearly enough vehicles to cart us all off, and I certainly shouldn’t go! I should stay with some of the poor and •••••, who couldn’t go – (never mind why, Coop, some wouldn’t be able!)
The doctor told me that people are leaving the neighbourhood not by hundreds, but thousands!
On Saturday evening I went to see a friend a few doors off, and my poor landlady with her boy, scared to death, called to know if I would soon be home for “Daddy” was called up, and would be out all night, and she couldn’t stay in this house alone! So I went back and cheered them up a bit, and insisted on them going to bed – she made the most elaborate preparations for flying, but I only put out a few warm things, and the money I had about me (precious little) and I didn’t tell her that I shouldn’t go with her to help her look after the baby, poor soul! Next morning I went to the mayor and he told me a few things which showed me it was no false alarm really, although nothing happened. He was a bit excited, and exclaimed “Everybody may go – the mayor will stand by the town”! So I think •••• (like Aunt Emily) “Lawks!•••• – but I didn’t think the time had arrived where I should beat my breast and say “The Health Visitor will also stand by the town!” for goodness knows, dear, if I shall have the pluck to do it, if the time really does come! The poor landlady came into my room on Sunday morning, very dishevelled after a wretched night to say “Daddy” had just come back and he was to go on duty again directly, so I had to provide some grub, and tuck. She came again and said they had me feel nervous, he doesn’t seem tired as he ought, but so excited. He got to the door, and whipped out his dagger (bayonet) and said “Will that do to stick ’em with mother?” and laughed, and I said “Daddy”, I don’t know you in these moods you talk of killing a poor fellow as one would stick a pig – son, you can’t see a poor animal suffering, and have never killed anything in your life!” but he didn’t seem to care, and laughed all the more! Private Herring is a steady, sober chap, and his work in a musical•••• factory has been very regular, and I am sure his experience of explosions has been confirmed to Soda water bottles, or Syphons, so I think it is rather wonderful how he has risen to the occasion, and when I had done laughing at her, (for her antics round the room, with her hair not done, and her old •••• blouse, and dirty apron showing me how Daddy •••• been teaching him for so long such “fierce work” that she was sure it meant something – I asked her what she meant, and she said “well you see, it’s like this, he’s drilled by one of the “Queen’s” sergeants, and they teach ’em to knock men under the jaw, and bang ’em with the butt end of their rifles, and it must be awful to hear ’em giving the orders, and they have to make such a noise, and misses, when they •••• at them to kill them! The Sergeant, he said “Come along Private Herring, and lets see what you can do! There’s a man at tieback, and a man in front, go at him, man, and let him have it”! So Daddy, he gave an awful sort of yell, and plunged that knife thing forward, and the sergeant said “Capital, capital, now fling the butt end over your shoulder and catch the man behind!” Well, I’ve just sent Daddy off again and upon my word, it makes his dagger was most funny) I said, “thoroughly sympathetic with your feelings, but I think we women must be glad there are some blood-thirsty Englishmen about, for that must mean fewer blood-thirsty Germans, and I thank God every night of my life I’m not obliged to see the awful slaughter of human life” but I know she is of course really very proud of him.
Edith Emily Gertrude May
to Henry James May of Southampton••••