A Soldier’s Letters: Pendennis to the Western Front
How John Glasson Thomas's letters to Gertie Brooks offer a very special record of one man's Great War.
John Glasson Thomas was born in St Ives on the north coast of the Cornish peninsula in 1889. He grew up in Cornwall and left to pursue a teaching career in Exeter, then London, before returning in May 1915 to volunteer as a Territorial in the Royal Garrison Artillery at Hayle. He was soon posted to Pendennis Castle, in Falmouth on Cornwall’s south coast, for further training. Though he volunteered for service abroad, his abilities as a gun layer, instructor and administrator kept him at Pendennis for almost 15 months, in which time he rose from private soldier to battery quartermaster sergeant and refused a commission.
On leaving London for the army, he wrote to Gertrude Brooks, a friend he had met at his local Methodist church at Goodmayes, near Ilford. He continued to write regularly from Pendennis and after he went to France with 173 Siege Battery. The surviving letters end at the time of – and describe – the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
On the eve of going to France in August 1916, the letters begin ‘Dear Gertie’ instead of ‘Dear Miss Brooks’, as they had previously been addressed, and are signed with a nickname, ‘Tommy’ – a clear sign of a growing affection.
SNAPSHOT OF MILITARY LIFE
Tomm to Gertie reveal his remarkable personality; while they are full of his experience of military life, contemporary news and talk of friends they also reveal his faith – Tommy was a committed Methodist – and his irrepressible wit. He remained calm and proved to be a brave man in difficult times. He longed to serve abroad but accepted his long retention at Pendennis and made the best of it by proving to be an exceptional motivator of men – and all with a typically light touch:
1/7 Coy C.R.G.A
It is now 3.15am and as dark as a winter night. I’ve just posted the new sentry and one can hardly see the length of the gun … All sorts of wild rumours re German raiders have been floating about, but this I know – although the newspapers have said nothing about it – that during the Easter weekend, six ships were sunk in this vicinity. Every night now we have five rounds of lyddite on the gun platforms, so you see we are in for business if anything comes along …
The days passed along very well, until, after tea, and then the fellows began to get fidgety at being ‘cooped up’ on a fine Bank Holiday. I spent my evening in endeavouring to take them away from themselves, by organising a tug of war between the gun crews, skipping contests, kicking a football and gymnastics on parallel bars. Strange ‘goings on’ for a Good Friday, eh?
LEAVING FOR THE FRONT
Tommy’s letters also offer evocative insight into his growing excitement before leaving for the Western Front. ‘If all goes well this is the last letter you’ll get from me from the above address [Pendennis] … The 173rd Siege Battery is in process of formation,’ he wrote on the 25 June 1916.
However, he remained in England for another three months. Then, from Stockcross on the 2 October 1916: ‘At last! My last night in Blighty! … Good night & Good Bye for the time.’ He wrote again, soon after arriving in France:
Your letter of the 30th ulto arrived just before we marched out of Stockcross & I can asure you I was delighted to get it. It was like a ray of light on what had been a dull time of weary work for me…
I know of a surety that I do carry the best wishes & prayers of friends at Goodmayes … it’s just this that makes life liveable.
Shortly afterwards, on 22 October 1916, Tommy described his first experiences of battle. Though sanguine, his wry humour still shone through:
War! No one except those who participate can realise the conditions … Of course we took up our first position in the dark …Guns were booming all around us – the sky was vivid with the flashes, & the noise!
One evening I couldn’t help thinking of you & the girls at tennis who are so squeamish when insects are about.
Tommy continued to write to Gertie throughout his time in France, though many of the letters from 1917 are missing. The last surviving letter is a long one, written in two parts on 29 and 30 November 1916 – but there are several postcards from 1917, including one from Penzance on the 20th:
Roll on Tuesday!
Penzance today –
Evidently Tommy had some leave at home. We don’t know if he saw Gertie during that time. Three weeks later, back in France, he was killed by shellfire during the Battle of Passchendaele, on 11 August 1917.
Gertie lived until 1960 and though there had been no formal commitment to Tommy, she never married. Many years later she wrote to her niece that ‘nobody could take the place of the one I lost’.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Falmouth became the headquarters for coastal artillery training in west Cornwall from Land’s End to St Austell. It also commanded the heavy guns defending the port of Falmouth and its naval base, which in turn protected shipping off the coast in the vital western entrance to the Channel. The defended area of Falmouth also contained infantry training camps: at its height at least 7,000 – and perhaps as many as 14,000 – troops were stationed in Falmouth, many of them destined for the Western Front.
An exhibition at Pendennis Castle exploring Falmouth in the First World War examines the roles of the castle, port and town during the war and includes first-hand accounts of men and woman who served their country, including several of John Glasson Thomas’s letters.