“Do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can”
On the day that his brother died (see last week’s post), Jack was probably digging a support line somewhere south east of Hazebrouck in France, near the Belgian border, having experienced heavy enemy attack all day.
My Granddad, John Henry Wakefield, known as Jack, was born on 18 February 1899 in Brixton. He would have been about 9 when the family moved out of London to Woking, and his first job was minding bikes at Woking station.
At the outbreak of the First World War Jack was keen to be in on the action like his older brother William. He joined the Royal Sussex Regiment in October 1915 (aged 16!), but was discovered to be underage and was discharged seven days later in Chichester, his papers stating that he was “well conducted during his seven days service”.
Less than 18 months later he successfully re-enlisted to the 21st Training Reserve. He also served in the 51st Battalion Royal West Surreys (Queens) before joining the Royal Fusiliers.
The Medal Rolls indicate Grandad’s rank as Private GS/75946 2nd London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers, and this was part of the 86th Brigade, 29th Division.
In the spring of 1918 the unit war diaries indicate that the battalion moved from Hazebrouck across the Belgian border to Brandhoek – “Billets good”. Whilst in Brandhoek blankets and great coats were disinfected. The weather was fine and warm and there was a football match and voluntary Church parade.
Towards the middle of March they marched via Ypres to a line east of Passchendale. This area was shelled with gas on the 18th and 19th, with the Battalion returning to California Camp on the 20th “after much enemy action”.
California Camp was itself shelled the following day, early in the morning, and one man was killed. In spite of this, here the men were able to have baths. On the 22nd all the companies were working on the Gravenstafel defence line, which is just south west of Passchendale, very near the Tyne Cot cemetery.
By the 29th the weather had turned cold and wet and the following day they moved to Brandhoek by train, where they were supplied with hot tea. Here the War Diary notes: “weather fine…rifle inspections. An enemy aeroplane flew over the camp and was shot down…Battalion deloused and bathed at Laiterie”.
On 4th April the Battalion relieved the 4/Kings Liverpool Regiment near Zonnebeke. The instructions noted “rations will be carried on the man, including one Tommies cooker. 8 tins of water per company. All water bottles to be filled before leaving camp. Blankets rolled in bundles of ten and labelled with company label, packs and great coats. Tea and rum will be issued before leaving camp.” The instructions also included a note on Trench Feet: “dirty socks can be exchanged at Divisional Baths Vlahertihghe. Powder can be obtained from the foot baths at Irish Farm.”
After a few days on the front the Battalion was relieved and returned to Brandhoek. Just as the situation was becoming critical for brother William on the front at Messines, just a few miles away, Jack’s regiment was moved south, across the French border, to the Merville area. They saw the Battle of Estaires and the Battle of Hazebrouck. The casualties were heavy: the 13th April saw 23 other ranks killed, 156 wounded and 145 missing.
Following a retreat, a composite Brigade was formed of the survivors. Lewis gun classes were held on the 16th and the following day the Battalion moved forward to reserve positions at Le Peuplier (west of Caestre) and on the 19th April they moved to billets around Hondeghem, the Brigade being “under half an hour’s notice to move by day, and one hour’s notice by night”.
The next three days were spent trench-digging and wiring. On the 24th April, 12 days after his brother William’s death, Jack was captured by the Germans. The Battalion seems to have spent the day on trench construction and there is no mention in the diary of soldiers missing, nor in the subsequent few days, though on the 28th one man was missing after a reconnoitring patrol unexpectedly came upon an enemy outpost and had to retire, leaving one Lewis Gun behind.
Less than a month later he was able to write a letter home from his POW camp The letter is marked ‘Gustrow’, but by this stage of the war many POWs were actually held much closer to the frontline. Gustrow may have been the ‘parent’ camp, but Jack may not have actually been held there.
18 year old Jack writes: “don’t worry about me for I shall look after my-self while here”. It must have been painful for his family to read “all I hope is that Will is safe”, since by then they knew that his brother had been killed in action. He goes on to say “I should like something to eat, you know a good big cake and some tobacco” and tells his mum that she can find out what to put in a parcel at the post office. However, the letter must have taken at least 2 months to reach home (the postmark is 10th July), before which he had written again. He is still hopeful of a parcel (“do your best to send me a parcel as soon as you can”) and still hopeful of a good big cake. This letter is also postmarked 10th July. We have a postcard written at the end of September where he says he has not been able to write for the last two months because he has been in hospital, but is “much better now”. “Please don’t forget the parcels”. This card was postmarked 30th October.
A letter postmarked 14th November reads “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.” Whether letters and parcels were indeed sent from home or not, we shall never know, but Jack obviously did not receive anything, possibly because he was not actually being held at Gustrow, or possibly because the situation in Germany was by this stage of the war so chaotic.
“The war seems as though it won’t be long before it is all over”, he writes. The date he wrote this is missing, but of course by the time of the postmark it was indeed all over. A postcard postmarked ‘Dover 22 November 1918 5.30pm’ is of Balatre – La Place. L’Ecole des Filles, and Grandad writes “this is my last internment camp”. “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. Get plenty of grub in for I been starved.”
Grandad was awarded the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.