Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. Elsewhere in this blog, you can read the engaging story of the cigarette case that saved the life of a soldier in the First World War. Almost a century later, the shrapnel is still embedded in the lid of the case. It is a tangible reminder of the randomness of events and the half inch gap between life and death. Over the last month I have picked up three quite disparate items at auction. Like the cigarette case, each has a connection to the Great War. As you will see, one told a sad story from the outset. The other two could have gone either way but as it turned out, there was precious little luck associated with either of them. Sometimes when you get unlucky there is no way back.
The solid silver wrist watch at right is a nice example of a good quality “trench watch”. It was sold by the London retailer, Kendal & Dent and would have been a pretty special purchase when it was originally bought. As you can see in the second photo below, it is engraved to the case-back “R. A. Turner. India. Norfolk Regiment”. It is unusual to be so certain of the original owner.
At the beginning of World War I, the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment was already stationed in India. With the understandable concentration on events in France and Belgium, it is sometimes forgotten that not all the fighting happened in Europe. Because the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany, there was also significant action in the Middle East where British interests were threatened at several locations.
In 1915, the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment was transferred from Bombay to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and was subsequently involved in a number of battles across the region. The military record reveals that the only R. A. Turner serving with the regiment at this time was Private Reginald Arthur Turner from Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast. Private Turner was among large numbers of Norfolk Regiment men killed in action at the Second Battle of Gaza on April 19th in 1917. He was 19 years old and the only son of Ellen Turner, a widow.
This watch may have been returned to Private Turner’s mother with his effects either via official channels or brought home by a comrade. Alternatively, as the watch would have been a valuable item, it is possible that Private Turner had brought it home for safe keeping during a leave period and did not have it with him in the Middle East. Either way, it is poignant reminder of a young man who gave his life a very long way from the East Anglian seaside of his childhood. Private Turner is one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers registered as having “no known grave”.
The Middle East was a place of misery, pain and death for Private Turner and many thousands like him. Before the war of course, it had seemed a place of romance and exoticism. The tatty little book pictured left is a pocket edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of verse by an 11th century Persian poet, which enjoyed a long-lasting popularity after Edward Fitzgerald’s original translation of 1875. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was published in a variety of editions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including editions decorated by some of the great names of European illustration.
This edition was illustrated by Charles Robinson for Collins. It is a pretty little book and exactly right for an affectionate gift, which is just what it was. There is a chilling undertone though, to the ostensibly light-hearted message written to the the flyleaf. Sergeant Walter E. H. Pacey of Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment (aka the Green Howards) writes:
To my Dearest Girl Chum as a memento of my happy sojourn in Shepton Mallet in the year of Armageddon 1916. With my best wishes for a happy birthday and sincere wishes for many Happy Returns of same.
Walter came from Doncaster. It’s good to know that he had a good time in Somerset in 1916. Sadly, that might well have been the last good time of his life. Walter was to die on the battlefield in France on July 27th 1917. Someone has added a pencilled note to his original inscription in the book; “September 14th 1917”. I guess that may be the date his “girl chum” heard the news.
Finally, take a look at the pictures below. Once you realise what is going on in these two family photographs, they suddenly become rather eerie and yet intensely moving.
The one above is not quite so easy to spot but it doesn’t take very long to unlock the the secret of the one below. The soldier was not actually there in reality. He has been superimposed on the image. There is, I think, only one possible explanation for this – that the young man was killed during the First World War. His family probably had no picture of him in uniform in which they too were present, so they had this one made. Most ordinary people at this time, might have only a handful of photographs taken during their entire lifetime – and the studio pictures of soldiers in uniform that one often sees were usually taken somewhere away from home and posted back to the family. I expect these bereaved parents wanted both to commemorate their son and to have a tangible expression of their pride in him. Probably too, they found solace in this image. I imagine this photograph also shows something the young soldier saw in his own mind many, many times while he was away on the Western Front or wherever it was he served – the comforting presence of his mum, dad and brother.
Until I found this photograph, I had never seen another like it and had no idea that this was something that bereaved families would sometimes do. I have now found a couple of other examples online but I think the practice must have been fairly uncommon. Certainly it seems likely that surviving examples of photos like this are few and far between. The limitations of photographic technology at the time must mean, I reckon, that images of this kind could have been made in only one way; by actually cutting up a photo of the soldier with a pair of scissors, pasting the cut-out onto an pre-existing family photograph and then re-photographing it. In this case, I wonder if the photo of the parents and brother was taken especially for the purpose. There is a convenient gap for the image of the son in both.
The results of such a process were bound to be a bit hit and miss. The landscape format photo works very well. Indeed, without the other one as a guide, one might never notice that it had been manufactured. The second one though, is much less successful. The soldier appears to be hovering a couple of feet off the ground. The effect is undeniably comical but it is impossible to laugh at something so heartfelt and tragic. Rather, the very naivety of the image adds to its poignancy. I’m sure the family found it easy enough to overlook the technical failings.
In the case of Private Turner’s watch and the book given by Sergeant Pacey, we have a name but no idea of what the soldiers looked like. With the photos we have the reverse, an image but sadly, no name. There is nothing written on either to give a clue to the name of the soldier. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to tell a little of their stories here.