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"HalesOwen will seem very quiet when all the boys have left"

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: June 30, 2005

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This is a quotation taken from a letter dated 6th January 1916 that was written by my grandfather, Leonard Hodgkins. He was serving with the 4th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment and was stationed in Malta, having been injured in fighting in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli Campaign.

Only in recent years has a batch of 110 letters and an equal number of colour postcards come to light amongst family papers. They create an amazing picture of life during 1915-16 of his life in Malta, and later letters reflect situations in France. His brother Ferdo enlisted with him; he was with a different battalion and served in France.

I am currently preparing a book from these letters, showing instances of life, both at the Front and also for the family and friends back in Halesowen. Throughout the letters, he refers to friends back home, neighbours and relatives, and gives news of other "HalesOwen Boys" who were either at the Devonport base camp here, or with him over in Malta.

Malta had effectively been turned into a Military Hospital site, and wounded from the trenches of the British, Australian and New Zealand troops were brought there.

Over the twelve months from February 1915 to March 1916 there is a picture of life and events in Halesowen progressing through his letters. These letters are positively littered with names of local men, friends and acquaintances from the town and surrounding areas with whom he come into contact. In February he mentions Harry Mundon, who must have been on leave at that point. Later he relays news of injuries to Art Partridge, an E. Davis (no Christian name given) and a Frank Tristram who lost an arm during a battle. As all of these names are mentioned within the letters, I presume the rest of the family in Halesowen must have been familiar with these people.

Some time in early March, before the 17th (because he mentions the approaching birthday of his baby sister, and this is its date), he told his mother that the Battalion was not now going to France as they all expected, but instead they would be heading for Egypt, "... so it will sure to be a year or two before I see you again", and to reassure her he comments,"... and it won't be half so bad fighting there as it is in France." Little did any of them know the horrors of war that Gallipoli was to hold for them, only a few short weeks later.

On 23rd April 1915 - two days before the dawn landing on the Gallipoli peninsular - he had written home from the troop ship approaching their destination through the Dardanelles Straits: "Well, Mother, I am still alright myself, and all the Boys from HalesOwen are."

In June, now in Malta convalescing from injury received at the Front, he mentions to his father that whilst out walking he had met with someone called Smith, from Halesowen. No Christian name is given, but presumably his father would know this man. Apparently, they had both been pleased to bump into each other, as both had heard that the other had been killed.

Throughout the letters, there are constant references to his friends Charlie Grainger, Charles Fox and George Williams. Until George was called up, or enlisted (I'm not sure which), he was sending my grandfather a copy of the "County Express" each week, to keep him up to date with local news from home. There were later references to Charlie Tomkins, Basil Harper and Harry Bagley.

Several references to local pubs crop up, The Globe and the Star and Garter being two. In recent conversation with Bill Hazlehurst, the local artist renowned for his black and white sketches and scenic views of this area, he explained to me that The Globe had been located in Peckingham Street, and the Star and Garter in Birmingham Street, both now long gone in the subsequent changes to the town. Tom Benfield was another friend at The Globe, but whether as customer or licensee I do not know.

Over a series of weeks there is a flow of news regarding Chris Hulston, a local man who was killed in battle (and who was a relation to my future grandmother, although she did not marry my grandfather until after the war), and there was varying information regarding this man's situation flowing back and forth between Malta and Halesowen before my grandfather was able to confirm the sad news.

Later letters comment on Charlie Grainger's wedding, and a Tom Hardwick and his uncle Moses Hardwick are also mentioned. Grandfather was trying to find out if Moses Hardwick was in Malta, but I have found no solution to that in subsequent letters. Hopefully, grandfather would have found an answer at the time.

There were also two local women, a Miss Inston, who I think lived in Red Leasowes at that time, and a Mrs Brittain (or Britton), who kept the sweet shop at the corner of New Street and Cross Street, who were constantly thanked for the parcels and sweets that were sent out to grandfather at regular intervals. In fact, there is constant reference to the generosity of family, local friends and neighbours for the cigarettes, chocolate, shillings and half crowns that were sent out. Half crowns would have been very generous gifts at that time, as grandfather frequently commented that the soldiers were only being paid 3/- a week whilst convalescing. However, he seemed able to make that 3/- a week spread to almost miraculous lengths according to the steady flow of little gifts he was sending home to his family from Malta.

Of course, there was little else to spend money on, as all the pubs on the island were barred to servicemen. This apparently was due to some "high spirited activities" on the part of the Australian soldiers also on the island, who had a well-earned reputation for "enjoying themselves." However, that enjoyment resulted in no social life in the local pubs for the duration of the campaign for any of the soldiers stationed there to convalesce.

Other local men who never came home included C. Coley from New Hawne, who was killed in action, and G. Smith from the Star and Garter. Fred Hart from Short Cross was also killed in the fighting. In his letter dated 2nd January 1916 grandfather tells his mother that he had met up with another of the "HalesOwen Boys", a lad by the name of Stevenson. This lad lived across Birmingham Street apparently, and had arrived in Malta from the Dardanelles, suffering with dysentery. Grandfather expresses concern to his mother that "I don't think he has written home for a long time according to what he said." Perhaps this was a little hint to let this lad's mother know that he was alright at this time?

On 12th March 1916 Malta was evacuated as the Gallipoli Campaign collapsed. This letter gave a base camp address in Egypt, to where they all thought they were being sent, but whether they actually went there is unknown. By 29th March he was back at base camp in Devonport, and on 4th April the Battalion was at the base camp in Rouen, France.

Further letters then came from France until he was injured again, and this time sent to Scotland to convalesce. Whilst at Rouen, and the dates are just prior to the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, he was in the company of Bill Cotton, Harry Dingley and Charlie Hackett. Charlie crops up frequently in news over the following year, and amongst these letters I found a postcard to grandfather from Charlie, which had Charlie's military number on it. I have since discovered that Charlie was killed in action in Belgium in 1917.

My research has shown that the 4th Battalion Worcester Regiment was one of the vanguard battalions into battle at each of the three major fronts: Gallipoli in 1915, the Somme in 1916, and Ypres in 1917. Another two Halesowen "sons" also died in 1917 that grandfather mentions in his letters, one belonging to a James family who lived at the bottom of New Street, and another to a Brettle family in Wall Well.

Also during 1917 he mentions another local friend, an Albert Hackett, who survived these battles. Whilst I understand that there were several families called Hackett in Halesowen at that time, and still are, I think I may now, only recently, have met the son and daughter-in-law of this Albert mentioned in the letters, as a Mrs Clarice Hackett contacted me, having heard of my research, to let me know that her father-in-law had also served with the 4th Worcesters, and had lived in Halesowen at that time.

It also seems to be a well-established fact that virtually all the men who came back from the horrors of trench warfare rarely spoke of their experiences in future years. My grandfather certainly made little comment following the war, but from his letters I have discovered two observations that he made, which I think probably sums it all up very succinctly -

"It doesn't do to say much, but I shall never forget the 25th April" (letter dated 31st October 1915) and "...there will never be another day like that as long as the World stands" (letter dated 14th June 1915).

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