Friday, July 16, 2010

Historic WW1 Album

At first sight this appeared to be another of many Edwardian autograph album's which have passed through my hands. In fact, if anything, given that these things are usually valued for the quality and number of drawings and artwork they contain, this might be thought to be a little on the poor side.

However, it doesn't take much flicking to realise that this is in fact a book which belonged to a nurse. She was a nurse in Dublin, and this album is where she collected the signatures and details of the soldiers she was nursing as they arrived back from the front in 1915. There is a delightful breeziness about some of the comments they have written: she seems to have asked them all to signed their name, give details of their wounds (what, where and when), their regiment and then even their home address in some cases (perhaps a little flirtatiously). Some of them have elaborated into verse. Now, no one is going to claim that these few lines are ever going to take a place among the works of "The War Poets" but they are both straightforward and authentic....

Private William Young of the 11th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry writes:

The night was dark and cold / The shells were bursting high, / When the Huns came rushing in, / To meet the H. L. I.

But the Scottish lads were ready, / And with a steady fire / They got the beggars on the run, / And soon their plight was dire.

But the Huns soon had another try, / This time to conquer or to do - / So now in front of us they lie / Slain by the gallant H. L. I. /

The day has dawned, and all is o'er / The Huns lie there to rise no more, / And they who failed but did not die / Are prisoners of the H. L. I.

But the two really stand-out things in this album are a full page watercolour which, as a sketch, betrays quite an accomplished hand, and although unsigned and untitled, one must imagine is a scene from the battlefield. The other stand-out page is a simple photograph.

The photo is contemporary and has been pasted in and underneath, probably not in the soldier's own hand, is the title "Cpl. Smyth V.C." In fact, this is a photograph of Corporal Issy Smith, the first Jew to be awarded the Victoria Cross. His story, which is a long and eventually happy one, can be read courtesy of Wikipedia. The difference in the spelling of the name worried me for a while but there are two pieces of evidence which confirmed the identification for me. Firstly, we know that Smith suffered gas inhalation during the Second Battle of Ypres where he won his V.C. and was returned to 'Blighty' for treatment, in fact, to Dublin. Also, there are a set of cigarette cards which show likenesses of V.C. winners and it is clear that this is the same man as the card which shows Issy Smith. Another nice point about this photo is that it clearly shows him with corporal's stripes which is absolutely correct for this time. After he recuperated under the care of my Nurse and others in Dublin he was sent around the country by the War Office on a recruitment drive and when he eventually went back to active service it was as a Sergeant.

All in all this is a rare and wonderful item in which a number of soldiers from the First World War seem to speak with their own voice across nearly a century.

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