John Lee-Steere Letters

13th October. 8.30am. S.S. Normania
Letter to Mr. Lee-Steere. 

My dear Dad,

Here we are on a very comfortable boat. Jack Hughes and I sharing a cabin meant for 4, so we’ve nothing to complain of. We’ve slept on here and left Southampton at 6am, due at Havre 12.30. It’s been very nice going down the Solent but now we’re getting out into open water and she certainly does rock a bit, and I hope I shall be all right. This is a 1500 ton boat, which information I hope conveys more to you than to me.

Ivor Rose and others have had most tremendous fights to get their servants on board at Southampton but all to no avail. They even borrowed civilian clothes for them and got them on but the last I heard was the embarkation officer searching for them to turf them out; I suppose he was successful.

I rather think my 2 body belts have got mislaid and are among the kit that has gone home; if so please send them.

What a nice send off it was last night. How well are … came up to the … also the remainder of the regiment.

Love from John

Thursday October 15th 1914. No 2 Infantry Base Depot, British Expeditionary Force
Letter to Mr. Lee-Steere. 

My dear Dad,

Here we are at the base (St Nazaire) with the prospect of staying here a few weeks, possibly.

We landed at Havre at 1pm Tuesday, spent the afternoon there (it is a wretched town) and left at 5.30 that night for St Nazaire. A painfully slow train, stopped at every station, but we had comfortable carriages, were not crowded, and waits of 2 and 3 hours made meals in the various towns possible, so we did ourselves pretty well. The journey altogether took 38 hours, landing us here at 7.30am this morning. We arrived here to find our last draft (280 men under a Captain Ralph Cavendish) still here; they had been here about 3 weeks. He and the 4 senior of our ? are going up to the 2nd Bn immediately, probably to-night, while Tadway, Connie-Rowe and myself remain here with the men, we hope only for about a week, but possibly longer. Letters here please, I’ll wire when we leave. I expect before you get this you’ll have already written to me, and with the Battn, but that cant be helped.

This is a large camp. I believe Charlie is here and must look round for him.

Gordon H. Brown is in the town, wounded by doing well. The town is quite nice. Good shops etc. but we are about 3 miles out in tents and a sandy dry soil close to the sea.

It is very annoying having to mark time here, but can’t be helped; if you look on the map you will see we are further from the front now than the north of England. It seems like going from Ockley to Horsham via Guildford!

Gosselin (?) (from 2nd Batt) and Beckwith Smith (Coldstream) both wounded, have DSOs.

2 route marches a day will keep us fit – 6.45 and 2.45 with about 10 and 5 miles respectively.

I wonder how long the letter and card written on the boat took to get to you. They talked of keeping them a week but I hope the ships stamp for them passed quickly.

Most of mother’s shirts and all the socks and mufflers are going up to the front with our 4 to-night or to-morrow, the remainder I will take with me. They are made of such awfully good flannel that they couldn’t fail to be acceptable. They are better than anything we’ve any of us got, and I don’t wonder that the working parties have been costing a packet of money in consequence.

I’ve lived on coffee and eggs  ever since landing, and very nice too. Goodbye best love John

Saturday 17th October 1914. St Nazaire 
Letter to Mrs. Lee-Steere.

My dearest Mother

Though my last letter only got posted yesterday I am writing again as I feel I shall never have so much time again.

We are here till the 20th Tuesday, and will go up to the 2nd Batt either then or very soon after. They have applied for us, men and all, already.

If we don’t stay beyond Monday I shall quite have enjoyed my time here but anything longer will be monotonous. Life here is about half way between London soldiering and active service, so is very nice being able to accustom oneself to the new conditions gradually instead of going straight from all ones luxuries to great hardship. We are all 3 in the same tent and have the men’s rations (good and plentiful but tough) supplemented by what we buy in the town and from hawkers, and what we brought for the journey so we have altogether quite a nice little store of whisky, vin ordinaire, eggs, butter, fruit and jam. In fact one eats too much, as one always has dinner in the town, most excellent but badly served. Having now finished all about the food (it has occupied first place of course!) I will try and tell you about the camp.

We censor our own and our men’s letters, so I ought not to put too much. Numbers I must not mention but when I tell you that there is a detachment averaging 200 -PAGE REMOVED BY CENSOR FOR MENTIONING NUMBER AND DESCRIPTIONS OF TROOPS

men rejoining from hospital also come here, so we’ve herd a certain amount of lurid stories about what goes on there. Apparently if one is captured without a sword one is treated by the Germans as a private soldier, and protests are useless. So I’m keeping my sword but having a web equipment like the men, so as not to be easily picked out.

Its raining here.; as it usually does, though they had good weather before we arrived.

I went across to the 5th Fusiliers yesterday and could not find Charlie. I suppose he’s gone up to his battalion, as they told there was only one officer there, and he a captain.

My efforts at French would sometimes amuse you, though I get on pretty well on the whole. In fact I’m quite one of the star performers of our lot!

I saw Gordon Brown for a minute the other day. He’s nearly right, and seems to have been woken up by being wounded – less sleepy than usual, anyhow.

We get the Paris Daily Mail every evening. I was sorry to see about the ‘Hawke’. I also see that young Dr Buisson is wounded,

This morning I was on a fatigue for unloading things at the docks, which was very interesting giving one a good idea of the difficulties of supplies and transport. It felt quite like home when one saw a motor lorry with ‘Warings, Oxford Street’ on it.

I hear the discipline among officers at the front is tremendous. 2 line Colonels have been cashiered also others.

I had a bath yesterday at the public bath place in the town – dirty but acceptable. And my servant is boiling some water for a shave, so altogether I’m keeping civilized as long as possible.

I am looking forward to a letter or two when I get to the battalion. I hope those that have got there will not be lost before I arrive, but it is no use writing here as I expect to go before I should have time to get anything, and I don’t suppose one would get it forwarded from here.

There is only one road for route marches, the same every day, a shorter round in the afternoon, so a fatigue, be it never so hard, is a welcome relief. Roads are bad, too.

I hear that Lady Rosabelle Bingham and Mrs Percy Wyndle both of whom lost their husbands (in the Coldstream) are going out with a hospital; isn’t it splendid of them.

Lady Dudley has a hospital here, but most of the wounded down the way are at Nantes and Le Mans.

I’ve got ‘Bawdy’ Vivian as servant. It was him who returned home not with nerves (Dolly made a great story about him, you remember) but with dysentery, poor fellow. My shaving water has arrived, so I must stop now, after I hope to ? of the best.

Love to you both, from John

Tuesday October 20th 1914. Le Grand Hotel, Saint-Nazaire
Letter to Mrs. Lee-Steere.

My dearest Mother

Still at St Nazaire. I am writing this in the hotel, as it is more comfortable and will save you and the postman straining their eyes over rubbed out pencil.

We still imagine we may move from here any day, for two reasons – 1. We may soon go to the 2nd Batt. 2. I must not give, though I expect it will be sufficiently obvious to you, having regard to the course  events have recently taken.

We get here the Paris Daily Mail at 6pm published that morning. The Press Bureau seems to have bucked up some and really given good news. With regard to the names mentioned in Sir John French’s extremely interesting dispatch, Jilly’s (?) is represented by Jock Crabbe in the Greys, and there is also the elder (Alfold) Smith Household Cavalry. I’ve only had a short glance, so may have missed others.

This ? is without exception the very vilest that ever was put to ?

The route marches here get very wearisome. Same road every day, and heavy kit, which one is gradually getting used to. But it will be a different story going into action after a long march to returning to one’s tent and having a good meal. However one will have the interest then, so I’m not despondent. It would do us good!

But you know I always was a bad walker!

It is very warm here in the sun but little of it, very cold at night and tremendous dews although our tent is pitched more on sand than on grass. I’m just shaking off a bit of it now. Those woolly gloves I stole from you are the warmest things I’ve ever struck. Aunt Addies’s scarf too, is doing yeoman service.

I am looking forward to a batch of letters when I eventually get to the Batt. I hope they wont have lost them. Don’t send chocolate, I can buy it here, nor clothes as I can get them washed here.

On our route marches we pass some kennels with what look like pure bred beagles and a few cross bred small otter-hounds, they look like. I wonder what they hunt. I’ve never seen or heard of game (though it looks a good partridge country). Very rich soil and good cover.

The French people interest me vastly. They put me in mind of the days at Oestdun (Ostend?), which seems to be having its share of fun now.

If this pen and my handwriting combined make this illegible you must practise on Isobel’s first. I suppose they’re both with you now.

Sunday we had a church parade but the chaplain got mislaid so an officer had to officiate.

If my letters get fewer and shorter it will be because I’ve not the time for more, and if I stop mentioning names you’ll be able to conclude that I’m with the Batt. I wonder how the 1st Batt are getting on. I see none of their names yet on casualties. Send me news of Phil or any of them, as I’ve  heard nothing here.

I forget if I told you to tell Grace if you should see her that though I’m still here Simeo’s Lancel went to him last Friday by Jack Hughes.

It is a nuisance not hearing any news from home, but by the time you get this letter and then write we shall be sure to have gone, and it would never get forwarded , so I must console myself by expecting a packet of letters at the 2nd Batt

News does not grow apace here, so I must close.

Oh, you would be amused by the local St Nazaire rag, published daily and translated into very indifferent English for our benefit. It gives English news 5 days late!

I’m wearing one of those shirts of yours now. Its far better than anything I’ve got. I shall give my own away. But don’t tell your working party this.

Best love to both from John

23rd October 1914. St Nazaire, France 
Letter to Mr. Lee-Steere.

My dear Dad,

You will be interested to hear of my latest job. I am now living in the town, in a real house with a real roof over my head, in command of the ‘town piquet’ of about 100 men, with Connie-Rowe to assist me. (It does seem absurd – he is 34, and if he had stayed on he would be a fairly senior Captain!) We find guards over stores etc. at the docks and have got 6 German prisoners (taken in action) to look after, as well as English private soldiers who are ? in here at night when found drunk.

A very nice town, though rather dirty, but absolute luxury after a tent. Hot water available, and an excellent cafe for one’s meals, exactly opposite of course. One is rather tied down to it, so cant get away, and it may go on for the rest of our stay in the town. It means that we 2 have a very idle time of it and I expect we shall get bored in a few days, so I hope we are soon for the front. But it makes a change, which is nice. The great ? is the inferiority of the sanitary arrangements. The house is really a shipping office, close to the docks.

For mattresses we have stretchers – quite comfortable. The men are in a large shed attached half full of stores and infested with rats, but they seem quite happy.

The fact that they only do 1 route march in 3 days hopefully accounts for this!

It has rather broken up our little party of 3 in the camp but that can’t be helped.

There is no difficulty here about getting money.

The French does amuse me. You would laugh at them, such mongrels as never were seen I’m sure. Did you see that Lonsdale, in the 4th Huss who you probably remember as a great friend of mine at Wixenford ? and Sandhurst has been wounded? I hope not badly.

I’ve discovered a place close here where I can get a Times only 2 days late, which is quite good

Still no 1st Batt casualties, though they’ve been out well over a fortnight. I wonder if you’ve heard of any, before they’ve been published. Awfully warm here for nearly November. the men bathe in the sea, but  I’m not indulging as I’m recovering from a slight chill and was bad inside one day. Otherwise all well. Love from John

27th October 1914 
Postcard to Mrs. Lee-Steere. 

Delighted to get your unexpected PC last night 26th – took 5 days, same as my no2 did apparently. Hope to find the 1st 3 body belts and the ‘Chronicle’ cutting about Jack, in time. No news about moving. So Kennie is clamouring for news of me. How nice of him. Please keep him supplied. Love from John

Thursday October 29th 1914. St Nazaire, France
Letter to Mrs. Lee-Steere. 

My dearest Mother

I was shocked to see about poor Charlie in last night’s paper. I am sorry for Aunt Gracie and all of them, and just when he really seemed to have got properly started in what was for him the profession. It does seem extraordinarily hard. One can only hope that Phil will keep all right, also the other two, who I suppose will be going out fairly soon.

We still expect to move from here any day; when one sees these great casualty lists still, it makes one want to get there from feelings of revenge, if for no other reason.

I found those 2 body belts after all; they were packed away in an obscure corner of my kit. Still, I expect they’ll be useful to someone or other. I expect all parcels arriving for people who aren’t there are made common property of, and quite rightly too. All I hope is that they keep the letters safe for us.

I enclose cover of one of my electric batteries. I wish you’d get some more like it and keep them by you. Don’t send anything yet, please. I think any big shop in London would get the exact size. They came from Wilkinson in Pall Mall, just opposite Marlborough House Gate.

The German prisoners here are mostly of poor physique, possibly only transport drivers and so on.

The French people are a marvel the way they talk and gesticulate. How they ever get anything done at all, beats me.

Well, I am sorry for poor Aunt Gracie and all of them. Please tell her so; I’ve written to Letty.

No more now, Best love from John

Ps I see Evelyn Broadwood and Raymond Heath are both wounded; the ? is suffering rather. Wonder if it will be my turn next.

Wonder if you are getting all my letters. This is no.8

PS Leaving here to-morrow 30th for the front. 2 off. 5 men.

2nd November 1914
Postcard to H.C. Lee-Steere. 

May not mention any names now. Got out of train this morning after 50 hours very fairly comfortable journey. Long march before as to-morrow to get to the 2nd Batt. and shall probably be in the thick of it to-morrow night, close to that town we made the long excursion to about a dozen years ago. Heard on the way up that 1st Batt. had been heavily engaged. This you probably know. 4 killed, 3 wounded. Flick in England shrapnel in face, not serious. Phil all right. Merk Maitland v. badly hit in the head within 10 minutes of reaching 2nd Batt. Billeted to-night in lovely vinery, very comfortable, grapes and pears excellent. Very fit. Love

P.S. Got 2nd P.C. before leaving base.

[the following letter is copied from a transcript by the Lee Steere family]

4th November 1914. In the trenches. Belguim
Letter to Mrs. Lee-Steere.

My Dearest Mother,

Just a hurried note, no time for more. I’ve reached the battalion. I may mention no places. Having my first experience of the horrors of assault shelling, they are giving us pretty fair hell today. Saw Warren yesterday and heard from him the awful tale of the way the 1st Battalion has been cut up. You’ve heard of course of poor Phil [Lieutenant Phillip van Neck] being killed. How awful for Aunt Grace and all of them… forgive disjointed letter, but I must confess to being rather jumpy at the moment. Hope it will pass off. Don’t know when I shall get this posted as one can’t move from the trenches. There are forward trenches ahead of us, sounds if they are pretty badly hit.

[the following postcard is copied from a transcript by the Lee Steere family]

November 7th 1914
Postcard

All well still. We had it very hard yesterday, in fact we’re at it night and day without much stop. I am in Bernard Gordon Lennox’ company. He and I are the only two officers now with the company. Please don’t send any smokes yet, we’ve got stacks, but socks and chocolate regularly please, refills for electric light and a good knife with all useful things on it, as I lent mine yesterday to Dowling [Lieutenant C. Dowling] who got wounded. So I shan’t see it now. Parcels should be small and often, big ones can’t be brought to us in the trenches. Did you see Raymond Lonsdale [Lieutenant James Raymond Lonsdale. 4th Hussars wounded 13/10/1914. DOW. 29/10/1914] has died of his wounds?

[the following letter is copied from a transcript by the Lee Steere family]

12th November 1914
Letter to Mr. Lee-Steere.

My dear Dad,

We have been having some very stiff fighting lately which has taken a good toll of officers and men, but I’m glad to say I’m still fit and well. We’re detached from our division and are being sent on any jobs which require doing, and doing well, and though the men have been splendid, they are feeling the strain now rather….

Had an awful shelling 3 days ago, Bernard Gordon Lennox, who commands my company, was killed. I am sorry, as though I had only seen him for a week, I thought him absolutely splendid and the men all liked him awfully. Simeo [Captain Cholmeley Symes-Thompson] now commands the company. We have a Captain and a subaltern in each company that’s all. Recent casualties among officers are; Killed: Gordon Bernard Lennox, Tufnell, Stocks, Congleton. Wounded: Pike, Powell, Tudway (came up with me) [had already died from his wounds], Rose.

By the way I’ve killed a German or two, not with revolver, rifle of course.

[the following letter is copied from a transcript by the Lee Steere family]

14th November 1914.
Letter to Mrs. Lee-Steere.

My Dearest Mother,

Though my last letter only went today I must write again to say I got the letter and body belt. We are still having a well earned rest, but only just behind the firing line and ready to move in at any moment to any part of the line which wants support….

The Germoids, as we call them, have a nasty way of finding out where the reserves are and shelling them, so we’ve been hard at work this morning making dugouts to keep out splinters. I hear it was put in Divisional Orders and even in 1st Army Corps Orders that this battalion was to be given a rest at all costs, but we are frightfully outnumbered that little rest is possible for any troops. They all say this last 10 days or so (since I’ve been out here) have been the worst of all, as bad as the retreat from Mons for hard fighting and little rest. All the brigade and divisions are frightfully mixed up…..

they [the German] must be getting short [of shells] by now, their ammunition supply is marvellous, artillery wonderfully accurate. They had our trenches absolutely to the yard the other day. Their infantry very plucky but fire badly, except snipers. [Their] machine guns vastly outnumber ours….

Gilbert Hamillton’s [Major Gilbert Hamilton, OC. No. 1 Company] dug out has just fallen in and he is gone back to hospital having been half buried, so you see we have other dangers to face than bullets and shells. This leaves us with enough officers for two per company (full strength 5is each). Men [are] proportionally low and yet we are comparatively strong, as battalions go out there.

Just had to read out to the men the King’s message to the troops, dated 9th November, felt like a town crier at it!

17th November 1914 
Letter to Mr Lee-Steere.

John Lee-Steere LetterMy dear Dad

Yesterday was red letter day for me, 4 letters and a parcel in all. Jelly’s list was of much interest as 20 ran,  how he must have loved compiling it. How I wish I was with you for the shooting. You seem to have plenty of pheasants, but guns must be a difficulty.

It rains here most days so trenches are not very comfortable. My feet have not been dry for a week, washed my face once in the last fortnight, and not shaved since I Left St Nazaire – quite a nice beard, I assure you.

I got Mother’s letter no.2 I think it was, yesterday. We only know the same as you about Phil. I do hope he’s alright.

Some chocolate and a  thick oil sheet yesterday from Aunt Gracie. Both very acceptable. Do thank her. I’ve not had time yet.

Kennie and the Windsor ? seem in great form. He wont be fit to come out yet.

I looted this pencil off a German dead man; it writes better than my own!

Pullen seems to have done well for himself, how do you do for a chauffeur?

To-day we’re in some very exposed trenches: can’t show a finger above ground till it gets dark.

A little toilet paper in all letters would be a grand thing.

Simeo very pleased with Mother’s gloves.

Tell Mother I’m afraid I can never look on fighting quite as a ?, as she hoped I should but its certainly quite passable provided the weather is good and the shells don’t come too close.

If you want me to write on better paper than this, you must send some; Its the ordinary field service note book, all I have on me.

I’ve written so often lately that I fear I’ve no ore news to interest.

Maj Gordon Colman and Batt w/life get on well together.

I fear this will be a long business. These Germans have so many fresh troops they keep flinging in, while we have only just enough to keep them off. All Batt I’ve seen or heard off are at very low strength.

No more now, as it is lunch time, and I must creep along the trench to Simeo and the food!

Love to both from John

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