Saturday 24 December 2016

CHRISTMAS AT WAR: A letter home in 1943

My father-in-law, William James Hicks joined the army in his late teens soon after the start of World War II.  Born in Shoreditch and then moving to Nottingham, he was an extremely pragmatic youngster from an impoverished background. His father was a semi-illiterate butcher's delivery man and slaughter house worker. His mother was a factory worker. He had been brought up with love, but at the school of hard knocks. He knew what was real and what was pretentious.

When he volunteered for his country, he freely admitted to his family later that he was volunteering with the intention of keeping his own hide intact. His plan was to become ground crew for the RAF, because even if there were still dangerous moments, it was still safer than some of the other gigs on offer.  However, that particular idea was stymied when a physical fitness test revealed that he was severely colour blind.  

Instead he found himself assigned to the infantry. Trained as a signals officer he wound up on a troop ship bound for North Africa, where later he was to become a tank commander and find himself in the thick of heavy fighting at El Alamein. From there he was posted to Sicily and Greece.  The attrition rate at times was terrible. He saw and did things that he mostly kept to himself, but sometimes a story would emerge when he had had one over the odds to drink, or he saw a Hollywood film depicting fighting and would say 'That's rubbish.  Men don't die like that.'  
Somewhere in North Africa
He emerged from the war with the rank of serjeant major and just 23 years old. The army asked him to stay on and make a career of it, but he refused and went instead to work at Raleigh Bicycles for the rest of his life. He was not ambitious. He was a highly intelligent man, but he cared little for the trappings of society and had his own idiosyncratic views on life.  The war scarred him as it scarred many.  At first once home in civvy life, he could not believe that he was going to live to see tomorrow. He drank heavily for a time, but gradually he healed himself.  The way he coped was to always live in the moment. The past was gone and you couldn't do anything to change it.  The future would be what it would be and there was no use worrying about that either. Live now, because that's all you have.  And be joyous about it, because what's the point in being down in the dumps?  You'll never have that moment again.

And he was always joyous. He married and fathered five children of which my husband is the second, and he lived a happy, ordinary life in the moment - a sort of inner city Hobbit who knew what really mattered and what didn't and who had one of the truest life compasses I have ever seen.

Playing at lions with the first 2 of his five children. My husband is the toddler.
When going through his effects when he passed away in 2011 just short of his 89th birthday (he was still going to the gym with us 3 months before he died), we found the two letters below.  One was written by him to his family at Christmas 1943 when he was in Italy.  The other is the circular letter from General Montgomery to the troops at this time.

On Christmas Eve 2016,  I think General Montgomery's words from 1943, remain spot on.

 "A Happy Christmas To you all and to your families wherever they may be."



Hicks  5.12.1943

Dear Mother,

Well just for a start here's wishing you a Merry Xmas And a very happy New Year. Sorry can't be with you to celebrate it, but I'll certainly be thinking of you about dinnertime Christmas Day. What's cooking anyway? Rabbits, turkeys or chicken? No, no, don't tell me, you are going to inflict them with mince pies again. Dad'S stomach lining will never stand it. We have been very lucky with our Christmas dinner, we have amassed in the last two days, three stray ducks, one portly tame rabbit, one turkey, and two chickens, that was going to be between four of us,  but as certain people passed allusions to travelling farmyards, we cut down to 3 ducks. Not that we wouldn't rather have kept the turkeys and chickens, but common sense dictated ducks because they are the slowest runners and our livestock has a distinct tendency to take a powder at every favourable opportunity. You should have seen me and the sergeant major catching the turkey. We chased it up cliffs, through cabbage patches, round shell holes, the sergeant major nearly breaking his neck down one of the latter. Luckily there was some thick mud at the bottom to break his fall, but he didn't seem to look on it as lucky at the time. In the end I cornered it in the outhouse of a farmhouse, and the darned thing had the cheek to peck me. Still  I have avenged those pecks. I gnawed his bones all last night in revenge.
When I get some brown paper and a slack period I shall be sending another parcel. It may not be sent for a few weeks or so yet though because I have not been able to get Dad anything yet and I want to avoid if I can any remark by him about poor old Bill being the onion! I did get a brand-new trilby the other day but I had the bright idea of folding it up in a parcel flat and I'm afraid the finished effort completely convinced me that trilbies do not fold. Tell him to hurry up and start smoking again before his poor son goes grey.
Enclosed as you may have noticed one of my maiden efforts at photography, what a mess. Still now I know what all the knobs and gadgets are for I may do better next time – that is of course when the  films arrive. 
Wish all the best to the neighbours, the best for Christmas especially to that dear old lady at number 14, and Mrs Ward and Mr Redburn. 
Love to all

Personal Message from the Army commander

Christmas 1943

To be read out to all Troops

1. Once again the eighth Army spends Christmas in the field.
This time last year we were in Tripolitania having just broken through the famous Agheila position;  now, we are well north of an East and West line through Rome.
And I would say to you, soldiers of the eighth Army, that you have every right to be very proud of what you have achieved during the past year; every officer and man has done his duty in a manner that is beyond all praise.

2. And so this Christmas 1943, I send to every officer and man in the great family of the eighth Army, my best wishes and my hearty greetings. And I send greetings from us all to your loved ones and friends in your homelands;  they are, indirectly, part of this great army in that their courage and fortitude is essential to the morale of the army itself.
And I know you will wish me to send our greetings also to all the workers on the home front; without their hard work in the factories and mines, we could win no victories in the field.

3. And today we recall the Christmas message:-


Surely this describes what we are fighting for?

Let us therefore Take it as our battlecry and our motto; and in doing so let us affirm that between us, you and I, we will see this thing through to the end.

4. And when peace has come, I like to think that the spirit of the eighth Army will be a factor for good in the unsettled and difficult days that will lie ahead.

Wherein lies the strength of this great Army?
It lies in its team spirit, in the firm determination of every man to do his duty, and in its high morale. This army is a great family with an ARMY "esprit de corps" and spirit the like of which can seldom have been seen before.
When the war is over and we all scatter to our various tasks, let us see to it that the spirit of the eighth Army lives on; may it be a great and powerful influence in the rebuilding of the nations.
The Christmas message will be our battle cry, not only now but in the years to come.

5. A Happy Christmas To you all and to your families wherever they may be.

B..L. Montgomery
General  Eighth Army


Susan Price said...

William Chadwick was plainly a man to respect. Thank you for sharing this.

Libby said...

Thanks for sharing Elizabeth, William Hicks sounds like quite a man