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Podcast 17: Home On Leave

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Ighty iddley ighty/ Carry me back to Blighty/ Blighty is the place for me/ Put me on the train for London town/ Drop me anywhere/ I don’t care…!

Many men and women who served in the First World War spent long periods of time away from home. To reduce this sense of separation, leave was granted to lift them out of the monotony and dangers of active service. William Davies, who was living in London at the start of the war, remembered civilian reaction to soldiers who came home on leave in the early months.

Fellows were coming home on leave. They were to me, especially as a young chap in the early days, they seemed demi-gods with their mud from the trenches still about their persons and tired-looking – brown but tired-looking – faces. And they were veritable demi-gods who’d been out there and come back from it for a short time.

Jack Dorgan of the Northumberland Fusiliers was sent on his first home leave sooner than he had expected.

Our battalion went to France in April 1915 and in the first week in June the colonel sent for me. He says, ‘Sergeant,’ he says, ‘I’ve just received this morning intimation from the War Office that leave can be started now. I’ve chosen you to be one of our first to go home for four days to England, on leave.’ I came out of his dugout, took off my hat – steel helmets weren’t invented then – and I put my Army-issue hat on the bankside and put a bullet through it. So that when I went home back to England wearing a hat with a bullet hole through I could say, ‘That was a near one.’ And that’s what I did.

Adam Collins served with the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front. He retained fond memories of being home on leave.

Every 10 months to 18 months – sometimes longer, sometimes shorter but usually about 12 months – we came on 10 days leave. That’s when we packed all our gear, went home complete with the dirt we’d accumulated in the front line, and then went home. First thing we had was a bath and a clean-up; after that we used to make merry. Then, returning after the end of our leave back to the old job again. The intervals were not long. Mind you I only had three leaves in four and a half years, only had three leaves. But it was nice to be back and to be made a fuss of, and that is one of the nice things I remember about war. Oh, you were treated as a hero. Oh, they were glad to see you, you were made very welcome. Because people appreciated in those days what a soldier was doing. It’s a pity it’s not the same today.

But when British NCO Hawtin Mundy visited his hometown, New Bradwell, he found his old social life had been changed by the war.

Well as you can imagine, it was great to be back home again from the trenches. But it was not quite what you might expect. Because when I came back here at that time, well Wolverton and Bradwell was more like a ghost town because all your mates had joined the forces. So there was hardly anyone about. If you went for a drink in the club or a pub, it seemed that all there was there was old men – well old men then, of course that’d be middle-aged men, men over 40, that wasn’t in the forces. Well, they appeared to us to be old men and that’s how it seemed. With the exception of perhaps a few here and there that had not joined the forces and wouldn’t join. Well of course, you didn’t want their company. And that’s how it worked out.

Charles Quinnell had mixed success in re-adjusting to his old routine during his leave from the Royal Fusiliers.

The first night I came home, I got into my old bed and do you think I could sleep? No. Sleep wouldn’t come. It was the first bed I’d laid in since I’d joined the Army and when mother brought my cup of tea up in morning she found me fast asleep on the floor. Now that’s true. I’d got so used to sleeping hard that I couldn’t sleep on a soft bed. I’d always been a great lover of the country and before the war I used to do a lot of cycling – pretty well every weekend in the summer I’d be out cycling. And one of the first things I did was resurrected my old bike; pumped the tyres up; oiled it; cleaned it; and I rode round the old country, visiting the old scenes that I knew in peacetime. And that to me was the most enjoyable thing.

Parisian Pierre Cheret served on the Western Front with the French Air Force, so didn’t have far to travel when he was given leave.

The best time we had was when we had leave. As we were never very far from Paris, we could come back for our leaves. I lived in Paris at the time – we could come back in Paris. And of course, owing to our uniform, we had the great success with the girls! So we could go out nearly every day with the same or with another girl and went to theatres and all that. The civilians of course used to be very fond and rather proud of the airmen.

But others had further distances to cover, and leave periods included the journey home. This was a problem for Emily Rumbold when she had leave from serving with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France.

And that’s when we went to Boulogne. And we had to report at 9 o’clock the next morning on the quay for the leave boat, to find all the men marching onto the boat, you see. And we had to stand at the side, only six of us. And then the RTO turned to our officer and said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got my full complement, you see, I have no room for your girls.’ So that meant we had to wait for the 4 o’clock boat. We were so disgusted we simply turned away and walked away. That meant neither Gough nor I could get home that night – we had to spend the night in London.

And when J Reid of the Gordon Highlanders was granted leave in mid-1915, he spent a good deal of it travelling to Scotland.

One day, when I was sitting in the front line, there was this orderly come up from the orderly room and he asks for Sergeant Reid. I says, ‘I’m Sergeant Reid.’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘You’re wanted down in the orderly room.’ I says, ‘What am I wanted for?’ He says, ‘I don’t know what it is, but you’ve got to come down now.’ So I went down to the orderly room and the adjutant, he said, ‘Sergeant Reid, you’re going on leave.’ I said, ‘I’m going on leave!’ ‘Oh yes,’ he says, ‘You’re going home for six days – six days leave.’ And he says, ‘You’re going down on this mail cart, you’re going to a station, the name of Chocques.’ Away I went to Chocques and down to Boulogne; got on the boat first to Folkestone; up to London; everything went smooth all the time, no trouble. Took a taxi right over from Victoria Station to King’s Cross and then home to Aberdeen and Huntly. Well I was only three and a half days in Huntly and then I had to go out back again! I had only six days from the time I came out the front line ‘til the time I went back!

As well as leave being automatically assigned, it could be applied for in special circumstances. The delay in getting news from home meant British officer Tom Adlam was initially frustrated at being unable to get back quickly. But remaining at the front eventually led to its own reward.

I was unfortunate because my dear mother died while I was out there. They applied for me to come home on leave. But I saw the adjutant and he said, ‘Well, if you go back,’ he said, ‘the time you get there the funeral will be over, by the time you get back, because,’ he said, ‘it’s taken this message … she was supposed to have died so-and-so and,’ he said, ‘she must be buried by now. I advise you to stay here.’ He said, ‘You can’t do any good going home.’ And so I did. And of course, if I had gone back I shouldn’t have won the VC because I wouldn’t have been there to do it!

Another reason for securing special leave was for a wartime wedding, as Basil Farrer discovered while serving with the Army Pay Corps in Nottingham.

I hadn’t been in the house five or ten minutes when my landlady said, ‘There’s a soldier at the door, wants to speak to you.’ And I went, and it was a Canadian soldier. I didn’t know him. He said, ‘I saw you just arrive and I want to ask you a favour.’ I said, ‘Well, what favour can I do you?’ He said, ‘I’m on special leave from the front – I’m getting married tomorrow and returning the next day. I know nobody in town; will you be the best man?’ I said, ‘But I don’t know you!’ He said, ‘That doesn’t matter. I want a best man.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what to do!’ He said, ‘You do nothing, you just hand me the ring,’ or something. And next day, at a church nearby, I was best man at this soldier’s wedding. After the wedding we went and had a drink at one of the houses. Never heard or saw him again.

The frequency of leave given to those on active service varied. Alice Remington served with the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment in France.

If you applied for it and it was desperately needed either for health or family reasons, you could have a week’s leave. But there was nothing definite, not like there is now – 14 or 7 days every 3 months. I had a leave after I’d been out about a year. And then I had this sick leave because I’d damaged my hand, and I was home then for quite a few weeks. And then they said, ‘Can you come back? We’re getting a bit short.’ And then finally I came back early ’18 – I came back for good.

For British officer James Naylor, the gaps between his periods of leave seemed very lengthy.

In January 1917 I got my second leave – that was 14 months after my first leave. And I remember so well going back to the rail head to get on the train, and there were two Army nurses walking along the line in front of me, talking to each other. And do you know, I hadn’t heard an English woman talking English for 14 months. And I was so impressed or so interested or so, you know, sort of – I can’t describe it quite – but I just walked behind them and listened to them talking. I don’t know what on earth they thought of me but it was something quite extraordinary, something I’ve never forgotten all these years, over all these years.

Serving with the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) in Salonika, Walter Lunt had no leave at all.

There was very little chance of being posted home. There was no chance whatsoever of leave home. For the troops I would say it was worse because, if they belonged to the battalion of the King’s, then they belonged to the battalion of the King’s. And if they went sick, they would go down to hospital and they would come back to the same spot. I mean, for a fellow sitting in France who got a letter to the effect that things weren’t going quite as well with his family, he stood a very good chance if he went to his commanding officer and asked for could he have his 10 days leave now and that kind of thing. But in Salonika it was hopeless, quite hopeless!

Although wireless operator Edgar Woolley – stationed in Egypt – was granted leave, he couldn’t spend it back in Britain.

During a fortnight’s leave – and the only leave I ever had in the Army – to Cairo. Whilst there I visited the Great Pyramid and went on top and also inside the Great Pyramid. The camel journey was from the town of Cairo itself to the pyramids and it was advisable to go by camel actually because of the road, or part, was mainly loose sand. I also went to the Sphinx and had a walk all over the Sphinx. Seeing them as I did, one could not but be impressed with the fact that they’re fantastic constructions.

The intensity of service with the Royal Flying Corps was supposed to lead to regular leave periods. However, observer W Wardrop discovered this wasn’t always the case.

We were supposed to have a certain leave after a certain number of raids and all that sort of thing. What they did in this war I just don’t know. But the theory was all right. The practice wasn’t quite so good. Because, well, we just couldn’t afford it, we had no other people to do it, you see – after a time. I had two crashes, one as I say; I was brought down from Bruges, the next one we collapsed at 200 feet about 10 or 12 days after. And just after that, Commander Brackley thought it was about time I had some leave. So I was sent back to England in about four hours. That’s when I had a very nice leave, 14 days.

As years of being at war took their toll, the men at the front became ever more in need of a break from fighting. Clifford Lane described this feeling.

We began to lose our optimism to some extent that was when… Moreover, we’d been away from England for two years with perhaps a couple of weeks leave, and we then were beginning to want to get back to home again. That’s what it amounted to. And it was then that a Blighty wound would have been very welcome.

The desire to be sent home to Britain, known as ‘Blighty’, even manifested itself in a popular wartime song, which British private William Holmes recalled many years later.

Ighty iddley ighty/ Carry me back to Blighty/ Blighty is the place for me/ Put me on the train for London town/ Drop me anywhere/ I don’t care!/ If it’s Piccadilly, The Strand or Leicester Square.

All I want to see is my best girl/ Cuddling up again we soon should be/ So it’s ighty iddley ighty/ Take me back to Blighty/ Blighty is the place for me!

Returning from the front, soldiers on leave had a chance to gauge the general public’s perception of the war, and their part in it. Fred Dixon had a positive reception in London.

The first time I came home on leave, I remember I got to Victoria Station and I wanted to see a bit of London after two years, so I wasn’t going to Waterloo by Underground, I thought I’d wait for a bus. Well, I waited outside Victoria, but then there was no queuing in those days and there was a whole crowd of people waiting to get on. And when the bus did come there was a mad rush to get on, you see. Well, I drew back – I wasn’t going to be pushed about in that mob. Just then, there was a flower woman who stood at the side of the pavement selling flowers; she had a basket of flowers on her arm. She caught hold of the rail of the bus and she pushed the crowd back with her basket of flowers. She said, ‘Come on my boy,’ she said, ‘you’ve done your bit, you get on first.’ Well I felt about that size! And yet I felt proud. I felt very humble; it was a mixture of pride and humility. And I said thank you very much and walked up stairs.

British signaller Leonard Ounsworth had a similar experience during his home leave, but found there was little interest in the wider war.

Everybody was glad to see me. You know, sort of returned hero worship and all that sort of thing. I had to go round to all my relatives and such as that, you know. Well, they were more inclined to be on the personal angle, you see. They weren’t much interested in the progress of the war, just on how I’d been faring. They don’t have the same point of view at home as you have in France, you see. Apart from anything else, they’ve got possibly a wider view, if less intense. In France you’ve only got a local view, but more intense, of your own particular section of the front, for say two or three miles either side.

Many servicemen and women had difficulty explaining to their families what life was like at the fighting front, and felt distanced by their experiences. British private Thomas Baker struggled to get people to understand the realities of war.

People wanted to know, you know, what it was like because I was the first casualty in our village. I was the first one, and I was wounded on May the 3rd. And I happened to be the very first casualty, so of course it all went round and everybody I met wanted to know what it was like. And I told them it was some kind of hell. Which it was.  And it was impossible to tell them really just how it was. You told them the story of how men were at one moment were alive, and the next moment they were dead. You know, it was just like that. People didn’t seem to realise, you know, what a terrible thing war was, they didn’t. You couldn’t convey the awful state of things where you lived like animals and behaved like animals. They just didn’t understand it…

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us on iTunes or leave a comment at 1914.org.

Listen out for Podcast 18: Mesopotamia