As we have seen in docudramas on TV in recent weeks ‘every letter tells a story’ and as a writer it seemed the most effective way of communicating the tale of the lives of the Newton family as each play their part in The Great War. In this extract of ‘Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home‘ Jack serves on one of the earliest sea plane carriers in the waters off Turkey.
I have used various techniques including letters, story telling, conversation and the arrival of Harry Harper, the air correspondent of The Daily Mail, to describe the changing lives of each of the Newton family. Here I use the ‘now’ impact of letters, where conversation is impossible:
“As for Harriet’s son, Jack, he was now a competent and skilled mechanic, and having specialised in sea planes he was an asset to the RNAS. He travelled with his twin brother, Tom, to Winchester where Tom was to be transported north east with the rest of his regiment, following a short period of training. They said their short goodbyes and Jack continued on the train to London. His first visit to the capital was a little daunting, even for the brash Jack, but he had no time to dwell on the sights before finding his way to Liverpool Street Station where he caught a train to Harwich, reassured by the sight of many young men like him, nervously setting off into the unknown.
Once at the dock he was sent to a nearby training camp where he was put through drill and other preparations for the dangerous sea voyage that was to come, including basic strategies for defence and attack, to ensure he was prepared for any eventuality.
Jack’s role on board the tender would be to maintain and assist in the launch of the sea planes: no mean feat, as he discovered when they attempted a mock launch of a Sopwith Schneider sea plane in the harbour a month later. The plane was launched successfully from the ‘flying off’ deck at the front of the ship and made a few graceful circles before alighting on the water, taxiing towards the side of the ship. The hardest and most dangerous part was attaching it to the winch to be brought safely back on deck and he put life and limb in danger at each attempt. Excitedly, he wrote home to Hannah:
15th April, 1915
My dear Hannah,
I have enjoyed the most exhilarating time here in the port. You cannot imagine my joy when we finally embarked on HMS Ben my Chree, what a funny name for a ship. I thought I would be on a grand ship called the Majestic or Princess Elizabeth. Nevertheless it has been good finally to set sail and to leave the claustrophobic training camp. I had thought my training days were never going to end.
Today I was so proud when we launched one of our planes directly from the ship. It was wonderful, just like watching our little Phyllis take her first steps. How is she by the way? In fact the only thing to mar my joy at being here is that I am so far away from you and I cannot see her sweet face.
I know you are angry at me for volunteering so soon, but you’ll see. We’ll be sending out our sea planes on such successful missions that we’ll surprise the enemy, catch them on the hop and soon the war will be over. I’m sure you cannot begrudge me wanting to do my bit for my country.
Please give my love to Mother and Sarah and send news to Tom that I am well. I do believe that he has the hardest task in this war on the ground and my hope is that he too escapes the wet muddy fields of France and is given a chance to see a bit of the world. My part is just fun, mending and maintaining sea planes and sending them on their way. It’s what I do best. I’ll be fine, you’ll see.
Jack was standing on deck, full of excitement when on 3rd May 1915 the Ben my Chree left Harwich to take part in the raid on Norddeich but his heart sank when his unfortunate ship was forced to return to harbour due to fog. When back at Harwich, he was pleased to receive a letter from Hannah:
26th April, 1915
My dear Jack,
Phyllis and I are both well and settled in at your mother’s. She is very kind and good company for us and it means that we have saved so much in rent we could ill afford with you away.
We had a very quiet Christmas but we made the occasion as cheerful as possible for the sake of the children. You should have seen Phyllis open the picture of your ship you sent for her and she has proudly put it up on her wall beside her bed. It is a very strange looking ship, I must say, but I expect it is because of the deck where you launch those sea planes you so love.
After Christmas, Sarah and I made an important decision which I must tell you about. We began training at Supermarine under Ernest’s supervision. The benefits of this are many. Firstly, it means that we are able to make a greater contribution to the household expenses, since there are fewer fee-paying guests in these difficult times. Secondly, and more important, is that we feel we are contributing to the war effort.
I can’t say that we enjoy the dirty dusty tasks, but the girls we work with are such fun that we make the most of it. Now it’s spring time it’s easier to keep our spirits up and believe that war might end soon. I do hope so with all my heart.
Phyllis and Mother send their love to you, as does Sarah. Please keep safe, my dear Jack, and don’t go and do anything heroic.
Jack’s letter in return was less optimistic:
7th May, 1915
My dear Hannah,
Thank you for your letter. It was good to hear that you are well but I am worried that you are working at the factory. That’s no work for a young lady such as yourself and you should be at home looking after our daughter. I’m not happy with the arrangement at all and cross with Mother for allowing it to happen. I expect it is Ernest putting these ideas into your young head or that headstrong sister of mine.
I am afraid that here we are back in dock for minor repairs to our ship, which was rammed by one of our own, would you believe! We also had no end of trouble with the Schneider and had to abort its launch. That’s one of our best sea planes. You cannot understand how frustrating it is to be back with so little to show for it.
The only fortunate circumstance to come out of this delay is that I received your letter and though some of your news worries me, I will still treasure it close to my heart in the voyage ahead.
I cannot tell you where we are bound shortly, because it is a secret but I do know that it will be a long way away. It is sad that there is not enough time for me to visit you but rest assured that I am thinking of you.
Please send my love to Mother, Ernest, Sarah and Tom if you are able to and to Phyllis as ever.
I do love you, even though I do not tell you very often. By the way, I found out that ‘Ben my Chree’ means ‘Lady of My Heart’! My fondness for this ship grew when I heard of its apt name and I’m sure that it will bring us good luck.
Jack felt relief as HMS Ben my Chree finally set off from Harwich towards the Mediterranean and it was a long time before the family at Bourton Villas heard from him again. Once the voyage was underway Jack was uncharacteristically nervous as to what might lay ahead, but as his ship arrived at its first destination, his role of preparing the new Short seaplanes for reconnaissance work became quite routine.
He was just beginning to think that this work was no more exciting than his time at Calshot when on 15th August one of their best pilots, Flight Commander Charles Humphrey Kingsman Edmonds, made the first ever successful aerial torpedo attack on a Turkish ship in the Dardenelles. When this was followed by more success, Jack felt in his element. So proud was he to be part of this mission that he wished he could share his joy with the folks back home.
His wish was to be granted because a few months later they headed to Port Said.
20th February, 1916
My darling Hannah,
You would be so proud of your husband now! We have given the Turks what for and our planes have been at the centre of the action. When we rehearsed in England I would never have believed how much good we could do with these beauties. They are truly like my children and as I see them fly into action I feel such a glow in my heart.
How is Phyllis, by the way? She must be quite a little girl now and chattering so much too, I expect. Does she remember her daddy, I wonder?
All our practice for launching sea planes from the deck at home was a complete waste of time because we found out the hard way that it was much too risky. Now we always use a winch, hoisting the aircraft carefully over the side and on to the water. They have fitted long poles at the sides of the ship to fend off the planes and stop them bumping into the ship, or worse still, into one of us. They are a godsend. My job is made all the more difficult by the heat here, which creates havoc with our engines. Having enough spare parts to keep these babies flying causes me a constant headache, but me and Patrick Jones, he’s my right hand man here like he was in Calshot, usually manage it in the end.
After the excitement of our success with the Turks we did a good job in rescuing some Australians from their sunken ship, which I’m sure you will think was worthwhile, and then we headed towards Egypt. It was fortunate that we were near port when the SS Uganda came along side us. You wouldn’t believe it, but we collided! In fact I was amazed when it happened too, and couldn’t in my worst nightmares dream that we might be nearly sunk by our own side a second time. Fortunately, nothing of that nature happened, but nevertheless we are now here at Port Said waiting for repairs to be done.
Being in port has its compensations. With a bit of ingenuity we cleared the hangers and have been able to have quite a party, putting the piano we already had on board to even better use. What a time we’ve had! Who said there was a war on?
Another good thing to come out of this mess is being able to write to you and at least I can reassure you that I am well and safe. I hope that this confounded war ends soon and that I am able to return to you in one piece. Please give my love to Mother and a big hug to our little Phyllis.
Yours as ever,
Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home is Diana Jackson’s second novel, set between 1910 and 1920 telling the stories of members of the Newton family as they embark on their own role on The Great War.