Many will know of the works of the World War I poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but much was also written by and about ordinary folk and their experiences.

Below are five pieces that appeared in the Medway press during the Great War / WW1. Each conveys something of the ‘loss’ experienced by ordinary people in exceptional situations; three of the pieces were penned by Medway wordsmiths. All pieces would probably have struck an emotional chord – particularly with female readers of the time.

The first is a poem that was sent from the Front. It was penned by Sgt. George Kill and sent to his friends at Rochester. He seems to have been cynical about the information released by the Press Bureau – rightly, as we know now.

1). George Kill writes from the Front (Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham News, 28 Nov. 1914).

We’re hidden deep in a trench
         Front line and angle fire;
A drain of drip and drench,
         a fence of barbed wire.
There Allied arms must be,
         And barley show a head;
An odd game this, “I spy,”
         Instead of laughter, lead.
Things come to those who wait;
         “Coal boxes”, “Black Marias”;
The stroke of cruel fate,
         The death betwixt two fires.
We play a hand of whist,
         Smoke, sing a marching song;
We hear a sudden “Hist”!
         Attack! All out! So long!
A smothered cry, a thrust,
         A curse beneath the breath;
A Bosche has bitten dust
         For him or me ’twas death.
We’ve made a “slight advance,”
         So states the Press Bureau;
We’ve made the beggars dance,
         We’ll make them dance anew.
This poem would have contradicted the perception that the war was an adventure that would be over by Christmas; it would have also raised the anxieties of loved ones at home.

{It was reported in June 1915 that George then aged 21 had been killed by shrapnel. He was a well-known footballer in Rochester and winner of a number of swimming competitions. 26 June 1915, Kent Messenger.}

Poems such as that written by George Kill, would not have encouraged men to enlist. The next poem is by Anon and was printed in the Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham News, 14 Oct. 1916. It probably was not written by a Medway person but it was clearly aimed at the women of the Medway (Military) Towns with the intention of encouraging them to put pressure on their menfolk to enlist.

2). The Woman’s Part

The boys in their khaki, go out to the Front!
What are the woman to do?
They say “men must work and women must weep.”
Is that all that is left to you?
Don’t believe it! The hardest part to play is
the part of the mothers and wives.
To give your own life is a little thing, we give
Our men folks’ lives.
The baby you’ve born and suckled, and put
In his shortened frocks.
The boy that you’ve often scolded, when you
Washed him and darned his socks.
We’ve bred them and reared them, and loved
them – and now it’s the woman’s part.
To send them to die for England – with a
smile and a breaking heart.

And we’ll do it! Our girls might trifle in the
careless days of peace.
With the boy of the seaside bandstand, his
flannels without a crease.
We might flirt, and kiss, and flutter – but the
day the war began.
We women had done with the loafer – what we
want today is a Man!
The man that will shoulder a rifle, and go
where the bullets fly.
With his head held high, and a song on his
lips – and a smile as he bids “Good-bye!”
We’ll bid him God-speed, and wish him good
luck, and tell him he’s one of the best.
And he’ll soon be back, with his duty done,
and the hero’s cross on his breast.

There’s no place for the girl in the fighting
line, but let this be your woman’s plan.
If we can’t enlist for service, we can each of
us send a man.
If he lags, wake him up with a scornful
word; let him feel the lash of shame.
Till you fire his soul to ardour, and kindle
his blood to flame.
Let it be “hands off” for the sluggard for
the knut and the “flappers joy.”
No smile and kiss for the shirker; keep
your lips for soldier boy.
Send your boy to the colours, mother, hand him
belt and gun.
It’s better to lose him nobly,
than to be ashamed of your son.

When the work of the day is over, you can let
yourself go and cry.
In the gloom of the desolate fireside – in the
dark, where there’s no body by.
There isn’t a sock that wants darning; there
isn’t a boy to scold.
For the cigarette ash on the carpet – for the
dinner they’re let grow cold.
Their caps still hang on the hat stand, but
there isn’t a step on the stair.
There’s no gay voice calling “Mother,” no
sound for the boys aren’t there.
That’s the time you know the anguish of the
waiting woman’s part.
In the hush of the lonesome home, it’s the
silence that tears your heart.

Night passes! We’ll welcome the morning
with a smile and steadfast will.
If we haven’t our boys to work for, we’ll work
for our country still.
Be glad that your mean are fighters for the
shame that surely that hurts
Is to have a coward man-child, who hides
behind women’s skirts.
Just clench your teeth when you read the
lists of the wounded and dead.
And if the names that you love are there be
proud and hold up your head.
Don’t cry! For they’ve climbed the pathway
that heroes and martyrs trod.
They sleep in the rest of Heaven! They stand
in the glory of God!

3). Public condemnation of ‘marital-mischief’ in Allhallows

Poems / ditties were not always about events of the Front. Humour – unless you were the target of it – was a good way to draw attention to what was regarded as unacceptable behavior. Quite understandably there would be criticism of a solider, stationed in a home garrison, getting ‘close’ to the wife of a man serving at the Front. This would have been particularly so in a small community such as Allhallows on the Isle of Grain. Particularly vulnerable to censure would have been landladies who provided billets for soldiers and munition workers.

The following doggerel was penned by John Parsons a farm labourer from Allhallows. It was sung around the village and was published in the Dover Express, 9 Nov. 1917 and Maidstone Telegraph 1 Dec. 1917. He clearly wanted to draw attention to the conduct of Arthur Kirk, a private in the Royal Defence Corp, who he appears to have thought was getting ‘to close’ to a woman whose husband was away at war.

         Come into the kitchen, Arthur;
                   Come into the kitchen do!
         You shall sit in the easy chair,
                   And I will sit by the side of you.
         My husband, he’s a solider,
                   And is gone to fight for me;
         While he’s away you are willing to stay
                   And fill up his place with me.

{The woman was not named in the ditty but nor was Arthur Kirk. But Arthur, who lodged with Mrs Brooker at 3 Parker’s Corner, thought it was about him. A fight ensued but Arthur was cleared of assaulting the ‘poet’.}

Whole Communities in Medway could be affected by a Naval Disaster

The Medway Towns were military towns. As a consequence a naval ‘disaster’ hit many families across the towns. Over 1,400 men perished in the sinking of the “Bait Ships” – the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue – in September 1914. These were Chatham ships and were crewed by many local men. Col. H. D’Arch Breton, the Mayor of Rochester, observed that the women and children in the towns were “overloaded with grief”. He reported that Gillingham was most severely affected with 43 women being widowed in one street and 28 in another. 4 Jan. 1915, Birmingham Gazette.

Live Bait Squadron
HMS’s Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue at anchor in Chatham Dockyard. Painting by Kevin Clarkson and on display at the Guildhall Museum, Rochester, Kent.

The following accounts appeared in the local press. Without sensitisation they further conveyed the magnitude of personal loss, tragedy and burden that afflicted those ‘left behind’.

4). Chatham Dockyard bombed – more than 100 killed.

On 3 September 1917 bombs were dropped on the glass-roofed drill hall in which men were sleeping. News quickly spread across the towns and women gathered at the dockyard gate seeking news of loved ones.

For hours and hours, the wide space outside the depot gates thronged with anxious-eyed young wives, many with babies in perambulators seeking news about their husbands. They were most kindly met by the specially augmented staff – not an inquiry was spurned or neglected, and the women were comforted while inquiries were being made for their men. At tea time a long line of men streamed out; now and again a young woman would dash from her babe having spotted her boy in the press, and fling her arms about him with the cry “Thank God, you’re safe” and so the vigil went out until the light faded and the gates closed for the night. Some stayed on and now and again a warrant officer would beckon a young woman – pale but resolute she would go to him with almost motherly solicitude.” 8 Sept. 1917, Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer.

5). Mothers take comfort from the fact your son died the death he would have wished.

With the announcement of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 there was understandable jubilation. The joy of the news though could not be shared by all – particularly by women who had lost menfolk in the war. For many there would have been emptiness not joy in the lives or homes.

The following is a sensitively crafted piece by Mrs Amelia McCudden who had lost three sons including James McCudden VC from Gillingham, during the war. Despite this loss she found it within herself to write words of comfort to women in a similar situation. It was published in the Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer, 23 Nov. 1918.

Mrs. McCudden wrote that mothers should take comfort from the fact their son died the death he would have wished. She repeated the words that a past teacher of her son wrote on a memorial card:

                            He is not dead
                                     Such sports never die –
                            They are unquenchable He only sleeps.
                                     And in some other sphere He will awaken.

She went on “Mothers of England whose boys have run their last race, remember, remember, what they did was done for you; the sacrifice that they made, with life stretching away in front of them, was made for you.

Remember this, mothers, and as you gaze on an empty chair … or passing the bedroom where he once slept and you peep in, call up the ‘carry on’ spirit. It is what he would have wished. You can almost hear him saying “Carry on mother, carry on!” You will then be able to face the world with a proud smile. It was all done for you. – He is not dead, Such spirits never die.”


Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler

6 May 2021