British Expeditionary Force
28 March 1915
My dear Father
Unfortunately I have an off day: for the first time I have had to “go sick”. I have developed a boil that gives me great discomfort, though it does not incapacitate me. But it is impossible to treat a thing like that and to do a day’s work in addition; so I am off duty, spending my time fomenting the troubled spot; and I may as well fill in the intervals by writing, if possible, all the letters that I want to send. I am sitting in the kitchen of the house that owns the barn where I am billeted. The farmer is, I suppose, typical of a large class in the country: I don’t know whether he is a tenant or a proprietor. I don’t think he has many acres and I know his stock of beasts is small. His family, on the other hand is mighty; I cannot count it, for they all seem about the same age. The most I have seen in the room at the time is eight, but I am sure there are others. He is a bluff, hearty man; a mighty talker (too fast for me) and he is distinctly intelligent. Although the war has never actually touched this place, he takes a very active interest in the course of the war. He understands much more about it than the average tenant farmer of his position does in England. This must be due partly to his having served in the army: he is still of an age liable to be called for service, but he is near the limit and his class has not yet been called up. His eldest son is just under age, but he goes next week.
I am taking great delight in the local colour of my surroundings. The most ignorant man would know that he was in France directly he opened his eyes in the room. Red tiled floor, uncovered; black beamed ceiling; a wonderful and admirable stove projecting right out into the room, stock pot standing on it, as it always stands night 7 day. Bowls in lieu of cups standing on the big press, a crucifix rising in the midst of them; great flat round loaves of bread on a shelf; and finally a holder full of long taper sticks for obviating the use of the French match of which I had heard much before I came here, but the half was not told me.
I take up the letter again where I left off to have dinner with the family at the invitation of Madame, who does credit at the fame of her race as a nation of cooks. First of all, of course, la soupe: a delicious vegetable soup drawn from the depths of the pot that stands always on the stove; vegetable soup indeed not thin liquid with one slice of carrot floating in it. Mother can make quite good vegetable soup but even hers is almost commonplace compared with this. Then fresh pork boiled with potatoes, harvest beans and savoury herbs; and let not the French mustard therewith be forgot! To drink, Normandy cider; and finally “une pistole” – that being the local name for black coffee with a dash of rum. All share this meal from youngest to eldest, except the “pistole” which was reserved for the elders only. The children still sit round and one of the younger ones is invited to count up to ten in English for my benefit. The little one is shy and refuses to count: coaxing by Father, Mother and a cloud of sisters quite useless; the little girl is obstinate. Coaxing gives way to scolding – “vilaine”, “méchante”, “sauvage”. The epithets fly faster than I can collect them. Little girl’s face begins to pucker and hides itself in the pinafore of a slightly elder sister. At this, public opinion relents. Puckered face, pinny and all are allowed to effect a strategic retreat amid encouraging cries that “ç’est loin à Tipperarie”. Mighty the power of this new French rallying cry! “St Denis” of medieval France has been pushed quite from place; and even “Liberté”, “Egalité” et “Fraternité” is but small beer as a watchword compared to Tipperary.
When you write you may now address me as Corporal. The rank is only provisional at present, owing to the establishment being full at present. It will be confirmed at the first opportunity.
I hope Mother continues her progress.
Love to you all,
Your affectionate son
PS - It is doubtful whether we move from here for another week.
PPS - Tell Judy that I may possibly see Joyce Ashby’s brother.