During the First World War, Bull Street Quaker Meeting’s Social Union asked absent members of Bull Street Meeting to provide accounts of their war-time experiences which were then typed up by members of the Union and read out at its meetings as a way of sharing the experience with those who remained in Birmingham. Some Friends served in the armed forces, some, as conscientious objectors, were members of the Friends Ambulance Unit (an alternative to military service while still contributing to the war effort), others worked in hospitals, and some were imprisoned for their pacifist beliefs. Some letters were from wives about their husbands, some from mothers about their sons. Today, all of the letters provide us with a valuable insight into the varied experiences of those living during this period.
Roland Bevington Gibbins, partner in J.E. Sturge Ltd. was one of the Friends who responded to the Social Union’s request for an account of his war-time experiences. He joined the Artists Rifles C.T.C. in October 1915 and became 2nd. Lt. of Royal Warwickshire Regiment in July 1916. In August 1915 he went to France to the 8/8th Battalion and within a week he was in the trenches. These extracts were written in the period October – December 1916, although he continued writing in 1917.
16 October 1916
[…] We are reserve this tour so get considerably more peace. There is also the advantage that there are xxxxxx practically no rats – partly owing to the fact that there is a family of a cat & six grown kittens, all capable of tackling an ordinary rat. In the front line the rats are the very dickens. They go everywhere and eat everything. They trip you up at night and walk over you while you sleep. The men have an awful job with food, especially extra food, for if they put it up on a shelf the rats eat it and if they hang it up, ditto, and if they put it in their haversack or kit-bag as well, – which reminds me that in one of the letters I was censoring this afternoon the man said he’d pack up all his trouble in his old kit bag (as per song you know) but that the rats had eaten a hole in it, so that by the time he had got home to Blighty he wouldn’t have any [sic] trouble’s left. Not bad was it.
29 October 1916
We are back from the trenches in the town where I first joined the battalion. We shall probably be here for a day or two and it is very pleasant to be away from things for a bit.[…] I have got a very good billet with nice people and am looking forward to sleeping between sheets tonight. This afternoon I went across to the hospital and had a jolly good bath. My word it was good, for we had a particularly dirty and trying time in the trenches this last tour. As soon as we arrived we went to the hotel and had a very good dejeuner.
We are miles behind the firing line and are doing – ‘trek’. It is very good for us to have the marching and I, personally, am enjoying it – and one begins to know how to get settled in one’s new quarters every night after a day or two.
11 November 1916
We are in a pretty little village and the country is beautiful. We are looking forward to proper sort of Sunday – that is – Church Parade and no other Parades. I hope it will be fine so that everyone may enjoy themselves a little.
Later. Church Parade was rather a farce this morning as the Padre never turned up. However, the C.C. to took it more or less and we sang some hymns. Afterwards two or three of us went a jolly little walk across the valley and up on to the hills on the other side. It was awfully pretty especially through the lanes and woods and the views the whole time were fine.
29 November 1916
We are now all in tents pitched in a mud heap. The mud is beastly in itself, of course, as one is always covered with it, but far away the worst is the wet mud on ones’s boots keeps one’s feet so cold and of course fires are not very possible – still we get along very well considering and can find enough clothes to keep warm in bed. I am still keeping very fit and well and have not even a cold. The squelchy mud keeps on squelching. We were all out yesterday as a working party making and loading material for the front line. This is quite a jolly spot or it would be in peace time – now wherever you look are camps, huts, tents, wagons etc, and guns which keep on booming all day and night.
7 December 1916
We are out of line again and in a little wooded valley. We manage to keep a wood fire going, though as the chimney is a makeshift it is sometimes on the smoky side – but after all – what is a little smoke. Behind here we don’t do much in the way of training or parades as being in reserve and fresh we are used for all sorts of odd jobs – sometimes it is unloading trains of stores, sometimes wood cutting and sometimes road-making or cleaning. What we all say is, the great question of the future will not be ”Daddy what did you do in the great war?” but “what did you not do in the great war?”[…]
13 December 1916
Here there is no need or chance to speak French, as there are absolutely no French inhabitants whatsoever – they have all fled and the villages are all smashed up – but on the march I had to do a quite a fair amount settling into billets every night.
22 December 1916
We have had a pretty stiff time in the line, general conditions as much as fighting. All the water had to be carried up a couple of miles so you can imagine there wasn’t any spare for washing. You should have seen me after 5 days without a shave or a wash. my goodness I was a sight and my hands and clothes have not discovered yet – we were very fortunate and had no [sic] casualities and all managed to keep fit and well.
Roland Gibbins was killed in action in 1917. He and his wife, Edith Grace Ritchie (b. 1887), had married in 1916 and had 2 adopted daughters.
Further letters collected by the Bull Street Social Union can be viewed by appointment in the Wolfson Centre and are catalogued under the reference SF/3/4/5/3/5/2.
Eleanor Woodward, Archivist