by Ed Perkins, Culture Volunteer
I’ve been intrigued by the First World War since watching Captain Edmund Blackadder wriggling with dismay at the predicament he found himself in on the Front Line on the Western Front. Well, long before, to be honest. Since being told by my dad about my grandfather’s injury. Wounded at the Battle of Arras, a piece of shrapnel stayed lodged by his heart for the rest of his life. It was too dangerous to remove. He never spoke a word about what he had been through. They didn’t, did they?
But knowing that he must have been through hell, like millions of others, made me wonder: How would I have fared? How would I have felt? With shells, grenades, snipers’ bullets and machine gun fire bursting around me and, perhaps, the threat of gas, would I have held my nerve? Or would the coward in me have crept out?
And so much of the war on the Western Front was a stalemate. ‘We’ve been sitting here since Christmas 1914, during which time millions of men have died, and we’ve advanced no further than an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping,’ said Blackadder, in the classic TV comedy. But we all knew that the comedy masked a grim period in the world’s history. It took a brave person to volunteer to fight in Kitchener’s Army.
Luckily, it didn’t need courage for me to become a volunteer in Poole Museum’s fascinating First World War project that is looking into how the conflict affected the town and the legacy it left behind. It has been an education, giving me a small insight into what those men, and their families left behind, went through. And what might have befallen you and me if born at a different time.
My assignment is to look at the stories of the survivors. They were the lucky ones. But, even so, a great many of them were damaged by the experience. Each has a unique tale that they could have told, though so many couldn’t bear burden their loved ones what they had been through.
One of those Poole soldiers was William Barfoot. And, on top of the horrors he endured on active service in France, he was to receive bombshell news from back home. On April 20 1916, his nine-year-old son, Jesse, was killed by a train on the railway line by Poole Park.
We don’t know how the news was broken to him but we do know that a few days after the tragedy happened, the Registry of Births and Deaths in Poole sent a request saying payment was due. They wanted the half-crown (12.5p) for the cost of registering the boy’s death. And a penny extra for Stamp Duty.
William lived with his wife, Bessie, with their youngest children in Market Street, Poole. Bessie Amey and William had married in Wimborne in 1901. A labourer by occupation, he must have been out of work in August 1915 for he was sent by the Labour Exchange in Bournemouth to a recruiting sergeant. He was 40 years old and 5ft 4ins, not unusual for the times. The next day he was in the Royal Engineers and less than three weeks later was serving with the British Expeditionary Force in France.
We don’t know how Pioneer Barfoot reacted at first to the awful news of his son’s death. Little Jesse was partially deaf, an inquest would be told. He had always been told to keep off the railway line and Jesse had promised his mum he was going to the Ladies Walking Field. But, on that fateful day, he had climbed over the railings and onto the line with two friends to get a piece of wood. They stayed on the line to collect fir cones and pick up sticks. When one heard a train coming he shouted to warn the others… but Jess did not hear. He was knocked down by the train at the bridge at what local people called ‘the bunny’.
The train stopped as soon as it could. The driver, no doubt traumatised himself, was later praised for the speed of his reactions. But poor Jesse had had no chance. He had died instantaneously.
Across the Channel, though death was a daily fact of life for soldiers on active service, the loss of his third youngest son must have hit Pioneer Barfoot hard. The following year, a little over a year after the anniversary of his son’s death, he was up on a disciplinary charge. On May 29 1917 he ‘absented himself from work from 3pm to 5pm’. He had gone to an ‘estaminet’ – a French café bar. He was given fourteen days’ field punishment under ‘close arrest’. William Barfoot, who would be transferred to the Labour Company before returning to the Royal Engineers to serve with the Water Boring section, was not granted leave until the following October. He would have to wait until the January of 1919 before being demobbed and able to return home for good.
There is something especially poignant in the ordeal of William Barfoot but every soldier’s life revealed in the Poole Museum First World War project can uncover a compelling story. For my starting point in looking at their wartime history I’m using the Poole Absent Voters List, comprehensively drawn up by a fellow volunteer. It lists the servicemen from the town who were registered to vote in the 1918 election, when still in the Armed Forces. Many having them would be voting for the first time.
When Captain Edmund Blackadder, in Blackadder Goes Forth, hears that his batman Baldrick may get the vote, his reaction is predictable. ‘Give the likes of Baldrick the vote and we’ll be back to cavorting druids, death by stoning and dung for dinner,’ he observed.
He was wrong. If anyone deserved the vote to decide on the country’s future it was the men who had served on the Western (and other) Fronts. Their often bleak stories are our heritage. And, perhaps, lessons to be learnt.