Letters to Sarah

“The centuries have come and gone and so have the many shepherd families that used to call me home.   All around me the moorland hills, now quiet and deserted, were once abuzz with the men, women and children living in this isolated spot.   Once I was the centre of their lives.  Now I am a ruin.  But my old stone walls still echo with their voices.  I am a home with a story to tell. ”


HOC Linedrawing 2 - Reduced

One of the babies born inside my walls was a little gaffer called Thomas.  He was a small baby but strong and wiry and I watched him grow into a fine boy.  He was good with the sheep.  Excellent with the sheepdogs but even better with horses.  He was a hard worker.  Loved by his family and if my memory serves me well by many of the local lasses.  He got engaged to one of them and the family held a little party in my kitchen for Thomas and his new fiancé Florrie.  That day you would have thought that they had everything to look forward to.  Had everything ahead of them.  That was how they were treating the day and there was no doubt that they were looking forward to their life ahead.  Thomas was 19 and Florrie just 18.  But it was a celebration with a reason because, not long after, Thomas left Hoar Oak, walked across the moor to Lynton and went to war.  He joined the North Devon Hussars and later transferred to the 5th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment.  He didn’t come back.

His mother, Sarah, received two letters.  When the first one arrived, from the front line, a stillness descended over the cottage and my stones froze in anticipation.  I looked on as she opened the small envelope and withdrew its thin contents.  She read it to herself.  Over and over until the words had all sunk in.  Then, she read it out loud to all the children gathered around her in silence.  It was written by the Reverend W.H Kay – the Army Chaplain attached to Thomas’s battalion.  It is on a scrap of flimsy, tan coloured paper and the words are written in pencil.  It is dated  20th August 1917.

The first letter to Sarah reads as follows:

My dear Mrs Johnstone,

 It is with very deep regret that I have to tell you your son Corporal Johnstone 19282 of this battalion was killed during the recent attack we made on the 16th inst.  Fortunately, his body was recovered and buried.  He suffered no pain death being instantaneous. 

He was respected and loved by his section and his officers thought most highly of him.  I can only commend you in your great trouble to our Heavenly Father who is leading us through the sorrows of earth into a deeper and fuller joy in the life beyond.

 He sees you now though you do not see him and the last thing he would have you do is to worry or fret.

                                                                                                            May God comfort you.

                                                                                                                  Yours in deepest sympathy,

                                                                                                                         W H Kay CF (Chaplain to the Forces)

Here is a photo of that letter.



The second letter to Sarah is imagined and based on what is known about Thomas’s last few months at war.  It is what Reverend Kay could have written to Sarah.  It is what Sarah may have really wanted to read.  The truth about her beloved son’s comings and goings at war.  Truth that could replace her imaginings during the many long, dark Hoar Oak nights when, sat in front of the fire – knitting and writing letters – she wondered about her son.  A son killed at Passchendaele when he was only 23.

The second letter to Sarah reads as follows:

Dear Mrs Johnstone

It is with very deep regret that I have to tell you your son Corporal Johnstone 19282 of this battalion was killed during the recent attack we made on the 16th inst. 

In much of the past year, Thomas and our battalion have been in France in the Somme River area – flat farmland now full of damaged and deserted villages and farms and scarred by both our own and the enemy’s trenches and fortifications.   In late September of last year, the boys – I confess that I think of them all as my boys though I am only a year or two older than most of them – were tasked with trying to run the enemy out of the village of Thiepval.  As part of this action Thomas’s battalion, alongside a battalion of brave young men from Canada. were focused on trying to take the heavily defended Mouquet Farm from the enemy. 

Thomas often talked about your farm back on Exmoor but poor Mouquet no longer looked much like a farm.  It was in ruins and the farmer and his animals had gone long ago.  The ground was muddy and cratered and sad looking and all during that day and well into the night the enemy put up fierce resistance.  A number of Thomas’s mates and officers were killed or wounded but I want you to know that he was fearless in battle, in the unrelenting noise, the mud and confusion.  Thomas and I were, every now and then, alongside each other moving forward in battle but also trying to help our fallen comrades.  At last our battalion was relieved and we marched away from the fighting to a nearby village called Ovillers.  The village was empty.  The houses bombed and broken. But a few scraggy, old dogs came out to greet the boys and made them laugh as the hounds seemed to be marching alongside them.  On and off, over the next few weeks, the boys went back to the front line and continued the fight to win back the farms and villages around Thiepval, including Moquet Farm.  They never seemed to lose their resolve. Such strong young men.  At Christmas time, Thomas and his battalion – now bolstered by fresh troops arrived from England – were still close to the front line.  Still fighting.  And when they weren’t fighting they were supporting the other battalions.  

Mrs. Johnstone, I have to tell you that Thomas spent Christmas Day 1916 in a dugout in another damaged village very close to the front line.  No celebrations.  They were back helping defend the ground we had gained around Thiepval and putting up with a the constant thundering of artillery exchanges. Some of the boys remembered it was Christmas.  Others forgot – or chose to forget.  But your Thomas made me laugh on that Christmas day.  In a lull in the fighting he looked over and saw me and snapped a cheeky salute and shouted out, “Say Happy Birthday to Jesus for me Reverend.”  Finally, late on Christmas Day, when it was dark and cold and had started snowing, the boys were relieved by a battalion from the Yorkshire Regiment.  The mud had frozen hard and cold, and hungry and weary to the bone, we marched to the relative safety of a small village called Forceville.  Another sad little place.  Empty of people.  All in ruins.  But at least away from the constant noise and danger of the front line and with the usual troop of skinny dogs coming out to welcome us and to try and cadge a bit of our grub. 

You’ll be pleased to know we did eventually get to celebrate Christmas.  We all rested in dugouts at Forceville on the 26th December and on the 27th we kept Christmas day with a slap up meal. Letters and parcels from home were handed round to all the boys.  I think you sent a cake?  And a woolly muffler and gloves?  And a card and letter too I think.  Have I remembered that correctly?  That day Thomas told me he remembered Christmas at home at Hoar Oak Cottage with a joint of pork from your own pig that had been raised in the lean-to at the end of the cottage.  He made me laugh when he said, “We all loved ol’ piggy but we loved my Ma’s roast dinners more.“    On the 28th we were all allowed to have a bath and then my boys attended Church Parade.  Between you and me I don’t think many had their heart in Church Parade.  How could they? But they all came and sang and said their amens and went away a little bit lighter in spirit.  At least I hope they did.  

New Years Day, 1917, came and went and we were still in the Somme Valley and busy with frequent training exercises and working parties.  You know, war isn’t just about fighting and the front line – despite what the papers would have you believe.  Men work just as hard at the unglamorous jobs that need to be done to support the men up front.  It is all taken very seriously.  So is the constant training.  Mostly, we have no idea what we’re training for.  It’s all secret you see, but we’re told that those-in-the-know know, so we do what were told. Follow orders and learn the drills that our lives will depend upon.

By May, we were ordered back to the front, to hold the line near the village of Boursies and here we were under constant bombardment by enemy artillery.  We didn’t move forward. We didn’t go back.  Stalemate and under constant threat.  I confess that even my spirits became low during that tedious time.  Wounded boys, dying boys, sad boys and frightened boys.  I was surrounded by them all and tried to keep up their spirits when my own were failing.  Did I start to doubt in Our Good Lord?  Maybe.  But in the middle of May, we were relieved and marched to safe billets behind the front line and for the rest of the month we carried on training.  Day in and out.  It was warm and the sun shone and the noise of fighting was in the distance.  Big pushes were being planned and we had to be ready for when they came. Thomas and his fellows all worked hard at their training and sure enough, in June, we were on the move – marching north through France and into Belgium and by the end of July were in billets close to the small village of Elverdinghe.

My boys are wonderful at making up cheeky nicknames Mrs. Johnstone – for each other and for the tricky French and Belgian words and village names we encountered.  And so Elverdinghe became Elmer’s Dingle.  Naughty of the men but it made us all laugh. Mouquet Farm, by the way, had been nicknamed Moo Cow Farm – one of my favourite of their naughty renamings.  So, there we were at “Elmer’s Dingle” when, in the beginning of August, we got moved to a Siege Camp – that’s what we call a big tented encampment for lots of battalions gathering together in preparation for a big attack.  Now we knew we would soon be in heavy battle.  After another week’s training at Elmer’s Dingle we moved, on the 14th August, up to the western bank of the Steenbeek Canal – not much of a canal anymore, closer to a deep muddy ditch.  We were alongside other battalions, lads from Manchester and Durham mostly and there were hundreds of men, horses, guns and artillery.  The whole area was featureless, destroyed in previous battles.  It was muddy, there were big craters, no trees and the farm buildings in ruins.

By then we knew that the ‘big attack’ would come on the 16th August.  And so there we were.  Waiting and all ready for it.  Now I want to tell you Mrs. Johnstone that the boys knew what was to come.  No one had any doubts.  A few had misapprehensions.  I asked all the boys to think about writing a letter home.  Just in case.  You know.  And I’d make sure it got back to their loved ones.  Thomas did write a letter and he did leave it with me but it got torn and wet and dirty and I’m sorry to say I no longer have it to send on.  But I can tell you what he did say.  I remember it clearly because it was just like brave, cheeky, naughty Thomas to say to his mother, “Just a wee note Mam to say the chances of me getting back are nix.  Don’t let the papers say I was a hero or anything daft.  Your son is a soldier and if I get pipped it’s just because I’m doing my job”.  Of course, he signed it with love to his brothers and sisters, a few kisses for you and he asked you to look after Florrie. 

Zero Hour on the 16th of August was at 4:45 AM.  The sky was just beginning to lighten and Thomas and the others began to move forward behind a creeping barrage – that’s when our big guns behind us start firing over our heads and into the enemy.  Protecting us as we moved forward about 100 yards every 5 minutes.  Finally, Thomas and the others from the 5th Dorsets – having crossed the canal balancing on slippery, wet and muddy planks – had managed to join the great mass of men, the 34th Brigade, who were making ready to attack the enemy in the nearby village of Langemarck.  Ahead, they were faced with a difficult and treacherous manoeuvre.  The land was featureless, churned up and flattened by shelling, horses, men’s boots and rain.  Some of the soldiers were sent ahead to place stakes in the ground with tapes run between them so that the others would have a means to find their way, to grope their way along, in the confusion of battle. We’d trained for this but it was all so much harder in reality.   Our attack on Langemarck started at 6am and later that day the British took Langemarck.  In the official diary for that terrible day I’ve seen it written that, “the objective was successful”.  We Army types should all get a medal for understatement.

But, somewhere between crossing the canal and groping along in the mud trying to hang onto the guide tape Thomas fell. The enemy were only about 500 yards ahead.  They had been firing on us constantly with machine guns and mortars. 28 men of the 5th Dorset Battalion died crossing that muddy field.  Trying to get to Langemarck and capture it from the enemy.  All of my boys had a long hard difficult day driving the Germans back and winning Langemarck.  It was an important battle and we won it.  Thomas was part of it.  Part of the success.  But sadly, also part of our terrible losses. I have to tell you Mrs. Johnstone that we don’t really know what happened to Thomas.  We knew he started the battle.  We knew he wasn’t with us at the end of the battle.  The ground was muddy, wet and full of shell holes and we did manage to find and bury the bodies of some of my boys where they had fallen. In the mud.  With their other chums who, as Thomas would have it, were also ‘pipped’ that day.  Hand on heart, I think I can say that Thomas suffered no pain.  He probably wouldn’t have known what hit him.  Wouldn’t have had time to know what had happened.  I think his death would have been instantaneous.

I liked your son. He was respected by his officers and loved by all the boys in his section.  He made us laugh.  He often sang us silly songs – ones about hunting on Exmoor which were a little bit rude but made us all grin.  He never let anyone down. He never put his own safety before a fallen colleague who needed help.  Be in no doubt.  He was brave.  Brave as brave.  We all thought well of Thomas and he was singing his funny songs in the trench on that last night before the battle for Langemarck, making us laugh, making us think of home. 

I know how often he thought of you and wanted you to think of him as a man who was just doing his job.   But what a job he did.  You will already know that Thomas has been awarded the Military Medal, a medal that only goes to soldiers of great bravery and courage and who go above and beyond the call of duty.  He certainly did that.  We will miss Thomas, the soldier.  We will miss Thomas, our friend.   I’m sure that he sees you now though you do not see him and the last thing he would have you do is to worry or fret.

                                                                                                    May God comfort you.

                                                                                                               Yours in deepest sympathy,

                                                                                                                       W H Kay CF  (Chaplain to the Forces)



If you’d like to read more go to http://www.hoaroakcottage.org/WW1HoarOakStories.  The story of Thomas will shortly be updated.  Thanks to Jeremy Banning, Phil Curme, Jim Baldwin – dedicated battlefield history guys – who helped with Sarah’s second letter.





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