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January 1917; Charlie Payne’s Army Training Continues

The winter of 1916/1917 was , in its time, one of the coldest on record. While those soldiers already on the Western Front in France and Belgium, faced the worst conditions, life was not that easy for the recently-conscripted men, who were progressing with their training in England  (including my 33-year old grandfather, Charlie Payne).  Charlie's 28th January letter home to his wife, Ida, paints a  picture of the challenge that such men were facing to adapt to their new military environment; missing their families and 'normality', struggling to understand the ways of the army, anxiously awaiting Leave, facing shortages of food (which at this stage of the war were beginning to bite) and yet coping, not least with the help of their nearest and dearest at home who were also making sacrifices to support their menfolk.

"Pte C. F. Payne 21179, D Company 18th Btn, Yorkshire Regiment, Clacton-on Sea

Sunday 28/1/1917

My dear Wife, Many thanks for your parcel and all the contents were fine.  The cocoa and sugar is a good idea and I have a cup before turning in o’nights, and the apples were A1 – the first I have had since leaving home.  Thank Mrs Brown for the fish paste and I hope she is well, also Mr Brown.

Charlie's wife, Ida with their four sons (from the left) John, Rupert, Dick ('Bighead') and Ted
Charlie's wife, Ida with their four sons (from the left) John, Rupert, Dick ('Bighead') and Ted

I trust your next letter will tell me that the Parish’s food [charitable donation] has done my dear old Bighead a lot of good and that he is now quite better. This bitter weather wants a lot of guarding against, and I do hope all the little ones and your dear self get through it without any sickness.  I know it is cold in London by the papers, and it is quite arctic here.  Friday there was a gale, a heavy sea and a shipwreck.  The Clacton lifeboat went out and the crew were saved.  [Five cold and exhausted men were rescued after their boat had grounded on the South West Sands; Essex County Chronicle 2 Feb 1917.] We generally have a fire going now in our room from 4 p.m. till midnight, so are pretty comfortable, but even then the water freezes in the fire bucket and I have to wear my “nightcap” as I lie just underneath a somewhat drafty window. It is now fine and bright but am spending the afternoon indoors to write to you and I expect you are all in the  parlour with a nice fire and I only wish I was there dozing with little Rupert in my arms and John telling a tale about a bear having his tea on the pavement and Ted and Bighead laughing.

Ida's two younger brothers, Bill (left; 13th btn. East Surrey Regt) and Mike (seated), Machine Gun Corps
Ida's two younger brothers, Bill (left; 1/23rd Battalion, London Regiment) and Mike (seated; Machine Gun Corps)

Dinner today consisted of tough roast beef, two small potatoes, a few peas, a bit of bread and a mixture called boiled rice, with some paraffin added.  We get it every Sunday.  It is called rice pudding.  Oh for a good dinner at home, and a cup of tea or coffee afterwards.  Hope all are well at 28 [Coverton Road, Tooting]. Any further news of Mike and Bill [two of Ida's brothers, both in the Army] I shall be pleased to hear.  I wrote some weeks ago to Norman [Charlie's younger brother] at Harwich, but have had no reply – Do you know if he is still there?

Charlie's younger brother, Norman (1/4th Essex Regiment)
Charlie's younger brother, Norman (1/4th Essex Regiment)

Pleased to say I have got rid of the rheumatics and the weather being so cold we have escaped a good many parades and been taken for route marches instead and the country round here is rather pretty and we can smoke pipes and talk.  Friday I came into a fortune being paid the large sum of 5/6 [five shillings and sixpence, or 27.5 pence in today's currency], but against that I have had a pair of army socks stolen from under my blankets (unfortunately several of our chaps have lately missed things) so I suppose shall have to buy a new pair when I want them. Have to report that I have now passed through the miniature range firing tests, so expect soon to go up to the long ranges.

Ida's father, George Payne, outside his shop in Tooting (c. 1900)
Ida's father, George Payne, outside his shop in Tooting (c. 1900)

How does your Dad get on with his games of crib these days? Just now 2 of my pals are engaged in a game.  We also have draughts and dominoes which somebody or other kindly provided, - the results of the “comforts” entertainment, of which I sent you a programme, I expect. Well, my darling, I think this is all I can say this time, and I must post this letter before 4 oclock to reach you first post in the morning. I do hope I shall soon be up on a few days’ leave as I think we deserve it – don’t you? But they are very niggardly with it these days. With heaps of love and kisses to you and the dear boys. Ever your loving husband, Charlie."

A year later, Charlie would be living in even more uncomfortable circumstances, in a front-line trench in France.

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