Get plenty of grub in

Finally,  on 22 November 1918, Grandad was on his way home.

At 19 years old Jack Wakefield had been a Prisoner of War in Germany for 7 months, endured meagre food rations, illness and no letters or parcels from home.  At long last the Armistice had happened and the prisoners could go free.

Sarah Paterson, in her book ‘Tracing Your Prisoner of War Ancestors, the First World War’ is very informative on how repatriation happened.  She describes the situation in Germany following the Armistice as “extremely chaotic”.  With transportation in a dire situation and soldiers taking matters into their own hands to try to make their way home, the Red Cross no longer knew who was where. Furthermore, the men were weakened by lack of food which hampered their efforts to get to a channel port.

My understanding is that Grandad and those with him were pretty much left to their own devices to find their way home.  His postcard home postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ bears a picture of Balatre – La Place.  L’Ecole des Filles.  Grandad wrote at the top “this is my last internment camp” and he has pencilled a cross on the right hand side of the building.  This would seem to indicate that he had been there as a POW – whether he had been moved around frequently during his time in captivity we shall probably never know, but the fact that by this stage he was close to France would have aided his journey home.  Those who were stuck in the heart of Germany had a long wait.

Balatre is today in Belgium, very near the French border.  This spring, on our tour of the battlefields and memorials, we also had time to visit this tiny village.  I had wondered whether any evidence of the school building might remain.  Unfortunately not, but we sat in La Place with its church on one side and war memorial on the other, and took in the fact that Grandad had been there 100 years earlier.  I wished that someone might appear who I could talk to, but the village seemed shut up and asleep.  Then finally an elderly woman emerged from a house.  I rushed over to approach her in my best French.  She was lovely – and most interested in my story.  I showed her the picture of the school and she was able to indicate where the building had been.  She knew people who had been in the village longer than she had and promised to see if she could find out more, so we exchanged addresses.  Subsequently we have corresponded, though she has not been able to find any additional information as yet. But I was so thrilled to have made a personal connection.

Balatre, Belgium
Balatre – La Place

How did Grandad get a postcard of the school?  Did the locals give the soldiers postcards as they left?

Grandad wrote on the card  “Dear Mother, Just a few lines to let you know that I am in dover and shall be home Saturday do not no (sic) what time”.  The aforementioned book describes how POWs returning through Dover went to a Reception Camp at Waterfall Meadow.  They were given a packet containing a pipe and tobacco, cigarettes, toffee, chocolate and biscuits in addition to a hot meal on disembarkation.  Once at Dover, provided the men were medically well enough, they were given their ‘leave and duty’ ration books, a message from the King and a rail warrant to travel home for two months’ leave.

Richard Van Emden, in his book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’, says that “by the end of November, fewer than ten per cent of POWs had reached England”.   Grandad was, indeed, fortunate to be among them.  How did his family react when he got home?  There must have been such a feeling of relief to get their son back, but mingled with the grief for the elder son who would never come home.  And quite possibly Grandad did not know of his brother William’s death until his return to Woking.

Did he get the cake that he had been so desperate for in those last seven months?  I hope that, despite the food rationing, the family were able to feed him up.  His final words on the postcard are “Get plenty of grub in for I been starved.”

L'ecole des filles Balatre 1918
L’ecole des filles Balatre
POW postcard WW1
Grandad’s final postcard home
Letter from the King




It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking

Grandad’s last full letter home from his prisoner of war camp is postmarked Gustrow 14.11.18.  The top of the letter, and therefore the date he wrote it, is missing and I strongly suspect that it was written a good bit before 14th November, especially since all the other letters have a postmark sometime after the date of the letter.

Grandad (Jack Wakefield) says “we are having some lovely weather out here now”, and that it is now 6 months since he was taken prisoner, so I’m guessing it was written in October.  Additionally, my understanding is that once the Armistice had been declared the Germans often just left the POW camps, leaving the prisoners to their own devices.

Grandad obviously had an inkling that the end might come soon as news of the war’s progress filtered through:  “the war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over.”  Interestingly, he also says “I think I have got over the worst of my prisoners life now”.  We know from the previous letter that he had had a spell in hospital, but surely at this late stage of the war the food shortages would have been at their very worst?

We learn in this letter that he has received no letters or parcels at all from his family while he has been a prisoner.  His early letters were insistent about wanting cake and cigarettes.  I should think it highly likely that the family did send letters and parcels but that the chaos in Germany by this stage of the war meant that nothing got through to him.  He says “It would be nice to get a line from dear old Woking.  I have not had a word since I was taken prisoner 6 months now”.  Despite the cheery tone of the letter, Grandad must have wondered whether his letters had reached home and how his family were faring.  Presumably he still had no idea at this stage that his older brother William had been killed in Belgium back in April.

Jack Wakefield
Jack’s letter home Nov 1918

“Hoping to see you all soon”, he concludes.  And in fact, possibly around a month after writing this, he would, indeed finally be on his way home;  returning to a nation that was reeling from the loss of a generation of young men.  He was a 19 year old, returning home emaciated from months of starvation and having witnessed the most atrocious things.  No wonder he didn’t want to talk about it.

But tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, I will be going to “dear old Woking” and, as I lay a wreath in memory of Jack’s brother William, killed on 12 April 1918, I will be remembering too the ordeal Grandad endured as a POW.

We will remember them.

Jack Wakefield

Royal Victoria Military Hospital

It was almost exactly 3 years ago that I first wrote about my Great Uncle Bert Mitchell.  In an effort to submit a reasonable biography for him for the When West Grinstead Went To War publication, I had endeavoured to glean as much information as possible about his involvement in the WW1.

With no surviving service record it took me a little while to piece together, but I managed to discover that Bert enlisted as a Private in the Machine Gun Corps on 2 December 1915. His Medal Index Card helped to a certain extent but it is apparently notoriously difficult to trace the movements of someone in the Machine Gun Corps. Whilst we do not know where exactly Bert served with the British Expeditionary Force, we do know that he was overseas when he sustained a head injury and was evacuated back to England to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, for treatment and recovery.

Begun in the 1850s, the hospital was in its day the longest building in Europe!  Seen from Southampton Water, the hospital’s architecture was most impressive, though Florence Nightingale was critical of the design and felt it had not been planned with the wellbeing of patients in mind.  At the start of WW1 the hospital’s capacity was increased through the building of many wooden huts by the Red Cross.

I have known of the Netley connection for many years due to a good number of photos in my Granny’s photo album taken at the Royal Victoria Hospital during the First World War.  One of the photos shows her brother, Bert Mitchell “in theatre”.  After Bert was discharged from the army on 4 April 1918 due to wounds rendering him unfit for further war service, he stayed on at the hospital as a Red Cross orderly making and fitting artificial limbs.  The Red Cross personnel records show that he worked there from June 1918 until June 1919.

Royal Victoria Hospital
Bert in theatre (at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley)

I’ve visited Netley a number of times over the years, aware of the family connection.  So it was with great pleasure a few weeks ago that I was able to visit the chapel again, newly reopened after the extensive conservation work which has benefitted from Heritage Lottery funding.  The chapel is basically all that now remains of the former military hospital and the newly restored chapel is absolutely stunning.  There is an extensive exhibition inside the chapel on the history of the hospital, with a number of interesting artefacts such as a huge ‘iron lung’.  Entry to the chapel and exhibition is free, but you can also pay a small fee to climb the tower for a magnificent view across the park and across Southampton Water.

I was particularly interested to read in the guide book about the Japanese Red Cross nurses who worked at Netley between 1915 and 1916.  Interested because they feature in two photos in Granny’s photo album.  Since the guide book says that they left in 1916, I’m wondering if this could indicate that Bert was a patient there from perhaps quite early on in 1916, meaning that he possibly spent very little time in France or Belgium before being wounded.  It could also mean that he was a patient at the hospital for as much as two years before being discharged in April 1918.

Japanese Red Cross nurses at the hospital






It’s strange to think that my Great Uncle Bert is likely to have attended services in that chapel both as a patient and as a member of staff.  His future wife, Lily Loosemore, also worked at the hospital as a VAD clerk from July 1916.  Separately or together they would have heard the organ played (which is again in good working order), looked up at the stained glass and admired the lofty ceiling.  I very much enjoyed rediscovering my family connection with the hospital and would recommend a visit if you get the chance.    

Work still in progress on the chapel this spring
Inside the newly restored chapel
The chapel organ

With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink

“With love these few lines trusting they find you in the pink”.  So begins the third letter which we have which was written by my Grandad while a POW in Gustrow, Germany, in 1918.  The previous one was written on 11th June, although the postmark was a month later on 10th July.  This one was written on 29th Sept and again there was a month’s delay before the postmark of 30th October.

There may have been other letters written in July, but then a big gap, which Grandad explains:  “Well Mum, I have not been able to write for the last 2 months as I have been in hospital and am pleased to say that I am much better now”.  He gives no more details of the reason for his hospitalisation.  It is possible that it was due to dysentery or a condition related to the general starvation of prisoners and the poor sanitation arrangements in captivity.  Equally it could be that he contracted flu.

The so-called Spanish flu is widely known to have affected young adults more than the elderly or the young.  With no reporting restrictions in neutral Spain, the spread of the epidemic was known about in that country, but in fact it was widespread.  In Richard Van Emden’s book ‘Prisoners of the Kaiser’ he writes “the flu epidemic that was sweeping Europe was killing off prisoners at an alarming rate, as most were too weak or sick to put up any resistance”.  Whether it was flu or not, Grandad was fortunate to make such a good recovery.

Now that he has the opportunity to write home again, Grandad wishes to remind his Mum to send the parcels of which he wrote in such great detail in his first letters, and he sends his love to all at home.  His optimism at soon being home again (“cheer up, shall soon see you all again”) possibly indicates that he was aware of the regular rumours reaching the POW camps at around this time of the Allied advances.  The knowledge that the Germans were definitely retreating by this stage must have given many of the prisoners the mental strength to hold out for an eventual release.  Those last weeks must have been some of the toughest, though, with provisions at an all-time low and many food parcels never reaching their destinations.  “It was just a matter of hanging on until peace was declared” writes Richard Van Emden.

POW letter
Jack Wakefield’s letter home 29 Sept 1918


The Wedding Cake

So photos taken at my daughter’s wedding last month continue to appear, via social media, email and memory stick.  The official ones have yet to make an appearance, but it the meantime there are plenty to pore over.

Seeing photos of the cake-cutting reminded me that there is a photo in my Granny’s photo album of her rather splendid-looking wedding cake.  Although the photo is of poor quality it is unusual for being one taken indoors.  There are three tiers and it looks as though there is a fair amount of piping work decorating the cake.   This rich fruit cake was made by ‘Auntie’ Maggie, a friend from Cowfold with whom Granny had been in service some years before.

Emily Mitchell’s wedding cake 1924

A recent discovery has been a rather delicate loose sheet of paper tucked inside Granny’s recipe book on which is written a list of all the ingredients for this very wedding cake together with the costings!  Granny had very helpfully written on this piece of paper at a later stage “my wedding cake, made by Auntie Maggie, 1924”.  The list makes interesting reading:  2 ½ lbs of butter and 2 ½ lbs of lard, 3 lbs of sultanas, 3 lbs of currants and ….wait for it….. 18 eggs!!  The biggest single expense seems to have been 8 shillings for the 4 lbs of ground almonds needed for the almond paste.  All that royal icing we can see in the photo required 6 lbs of icing sugar and another 9 eggs.   The total costing appears to be £2 – 0 – 3, which, according to the Historical UK Inflation Rates calculator, is approximately equivalent to £115 in today’s money.

The wedding cake ingredients

I don’t know how much it would actually cost to make this cake today – it would be an interesting exercise to do the costings but one that I don’t really have time for just now!  What I do know is that it is one of the bigger expenses of a wedding and some of those we saw at the various wedding fairs we went along to cost many hundreds of pounds.

Since the tradition of keeping the top tier for the christening cake of the first child is no longer a thing, fruit cakes are probably less popular than variously flavoured sponge cakes these days.

My Mum made my wedding cake and went to cake decorating classes specially.  My daughter’s cake was a very nice sponge with simple icing and ribbon and, with the addition of a small posy of flowers by the florist, looked elegant.   Who made it?  Not me, not a family friend, but M&S!

Not just any wedding cake…

Happy Anniversary!

Well today is the third anniversary of my family history blog!  I can’t quite believe that I’ve been doing it for so long, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back over the subjects I have written about during that time.

My computer records tell me that this is my 88th blog post.  From the outset I wanted to write about thoughts that occurred to me both while making progress with my family history research and in just normal everyday life, since the topic of family history is never far from my mind. So what subjects have I tackled over these three years?

I’ve written, unsurprisingly, of trips I’ve undertaken with primary research very much in mind.  I started out three years ago writing about our trip to Norfolk to research both the George family of East Dereham and the Muskett family of various locations in that county.  I talked about visiting Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Family History Society’s research base at Kirby Hall as well as our tour round a number of villagesI’ve subsequently written about visits to West Sussex Record Office, researching the Mitchell family and The Keep in Brighton, looking at Combridges and Bryants.

There have been other opportunities to undertake what you might call ‘family history tourism’:  visiting West Grinstead in Spring 2017, Staffordshire in May 2017 and Chalvey in the summer of 2017.  More recently there has been our memorable trip to France and Belgium this Spring, marking the centenary of William Wakefield’s death.

I have written about types of resources often used in family history:  wills, newspaper archives and inquests, for example.  Then there have been artefacts which have proved a trigger for a train of thought:  buttons, a doll’s house, Christmas toys, old photos, memorable trees as well as the ‘mystery object’ of early 2017.

A couple of authors, namely Jane Austen and Flora Thompson, have been the inspiration for blogs and I have dipped into a couple of antiquarian books on Sussex, too.

Whilst ancestral occupations is an area that I think I could explore more fully in the future, I have frequently written about other family activities such as gardening, marmalade making and picking winterpicks.

Overall I’m pleased with the eclectic mix and I hope that you, too, have enjoyed the variety and will continue to post your comments.

Now, what shall I write about next….?

The Wedding Day

It’s always exciting to be able to add another name to the family tree, but usually this is a name of someone long deceased.  However, this week I have the thrill of adding someone who is very much alive – my new son in law!

The much anticipated wedding day of my daughter has come and gone and what a joyous occasion it was!  The sun shone (well, let’s be honest, it has for most of this summer) but with air con at the reception venue it was quite comfortable, even if the Church was a bit on the warm side.  It was fantastic to have so many family members and friends there to celebrate with us and has created many memories to treasure.

One of my lasting memories will be my 88 year old Mum standing up to join in with the final dance of the evening – a Circassian Circle!  Fortunately my brother kept a close eye on her.  It was great to be able to catch up with members of my wider family and to be able to note down the names of a recently-arrived little twiglet to add to the tree.  Lovely, too, to see both sets of families mingling and getting to know each other and discovering things in common.

In these days of family members often living a long way from each other, events such as a wedding are important in strengthening the bonds which would have been more naturally there when families lived in much closer proximity.

I thought I’d check through my family tree software for other August weddings, but it seems that this month has not been particularly popular.  However my own parents married in August as did my Great Great Grandfather William Wakefield in 1857.

I don’t have that many wedding photos for ancestors, but there are some lovely ones of my maternal grandparents’ wedding in September 1924.  This one shows the family group, and apparently my Granny (Emily Mitchell) was a little cross that her mother planted herself in the middle of the photo when she felt that was the place of the bride and groom!

Alf and Emily George Sept 1924

No such problems on Saturday – it was all very organized – and though eventually we shall see the official photos, in the meantime it’s great to have so many sent to us electronically.



The small baby in this one is my grandparents’ niece, Mary.  Her granddaughter has just had a baby of her own.  And so life continues and the tree grows!