First World War: Talk of Great War anniversary reawakens memories of box of postcards sent from the front line
- Credit: Archant
The faces of so many young men from the past peer out from an old wooden box. But what happened to them, Ernie Broom found himself wondering. Chances are a lot of them didn’t make it back, he tells Steven Russell.
There was once a tearoom, run by a woman and her teenage niece, Maggie, offering a warm welcome to young men in uniform as they waited to go to war. In their hearts it became a home from home. When they found themselves at the sharp end – in battle-scarred France, for instance – they sent back postcards to the place they’d felt happy and safe. The messages were put up on the wall of the tearoom, like pictures in an art gallery.
Nearly a century later, a wooden box is found on top of an old wardrobe by Ernie Broom and his wife, Deirdre, and piles of beautifully preserved postcards spill out...
The box, and the postcards, belonged to Ernie Broom’s in-laws – his mother-in-law, Margaret Wakley, was the Maggie from the tea room. Ernie never met her because she died young, probably of breast cancer, but the box was kept on top of a wardrobe by Ernie’s father-in-law, Albert, and Ernie and Deirdre, found it after Albert died in 1991.
As a former RAF man during the 1950s, Ernie felt for the young men in the photographs, thrown into a world of confusion 100 years ago.
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“You make friends, close friends, and to go somewhere and lose them when you’re under attack…” he reflects at his home in Bury St Edmunds.
“I was very fortunate as ground crew. I never saw any action. Mend the planes and off they go. But if you were out in a situation like that” – the First World War – “you do bond with people and it must make the bond even stronger when you’re under fire and you look after each other. And then to go and lose them… it’s terrible.”
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After Ernie and Deirdre found the postcards in the box, Ernie’s plan had been to take the pictures up to Alnwick, Northumberland, where Maggie’s tea room had been, to see if a museum wanted them. Some of the images might well relate to local families, he reasoned. But then Deirdre became ill and there was no time for speculative trips north. She died in 2001, of pancreatic cancer, and the box and its contents slipped from memory – until all the talk of The Great War anniversary brought it back to Ernie’s mind.
It’s a fascinating collection. There are pictures of anonymous servicemen – like a fresh-faced sailor from HMS Pembroke, photographed in a Blackpool studio – and poignant notes on the backs of the postcards.
They’re invariably addressed to “Miss Thomas”, Margaret’s aunt, who ran the tearoom. (“Big tearoom – and fancy, with tongs!” grins Ernie.)
“Wishing you a Very Happy Xmas & Health and Prosperity during the coming New Year,” writes a soldier on active service in France during 1916.
The box also contains a few souvenirs of Albert’s own wartime career, including a photograph of him in naval uniform, posing with three mates in Chatham, and his RAF “dog-tag”.
There are also his two wartime medals: The British War Medal and The British Victory Medal. Ernie’s planning to have them properly adorned with ribbons.
“There were three medals, I believe, known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. He’s got two of them.” (The nickname came from a long-running cartoon in the Daily Mirror.)
According to the 1911 census, Albert Wakley was born in 1900. He volunteered for service – probably in 1915, thinks his son-in-law – and fibbed about his age in order to do his bit. That wasn’t something his daughter and Ernie knew about until after he died.
Alby, as he was known, was a Londoner. Oddly enough, it seems he served in three branches of the military: the navy first, followed by the army and then the air force.
The widower was a regular visitor to Ernie and Deirdre’s home, but never dwelled on the past. “He never spoke about anything: never spoke about his wife; he never spoke about the past. A lot of old people don’t do that. It wasn’t until he passed away that we found these bits and pieces.”
When the First World War ended, Alby became head porter at Moorfields Eye Hospital in High Holborn.
“In those days the head porter was someone who’d stand at the door and welcome people. They were nearly all lords and ladies that came. There wasn’t the National Health Service then, so it was private. He was there in his shirt and tie. And that’s where he met Margaret.”
Margaret was born in Alnwick, and Ernie understands she was “almost adopted” by her relative, Miss Thomas.
Margaret became a nurse – going, at some point, down to London for training where she met Alby.
They had a son, and Deirdre. But Margaret died when Deirdre was just seven. “She said the memories of her mum were hearing her screaming, in agony.”
Deirdre spoke highly of her mother but said she was “very strict. But, then, so was father-in-law. “Heck, was he!” says Ernie.
“When I went to ask him about getting engaged, he said ‘You’d better come and see me at four o’clock on Sunday.’
“I went up at quarter to and knocked at the door. No answer. I knew he was in; I could see!”
Ernie tried again, at intervals. “He would not answer. Bang on four o’clock, he opened the door. ‘When I say four, I mean four. Not quarter to, 10 to, five to or three minutes to. Come in. Sit you down.’
“He said ‘Can you keep her in the manner she’s accustomed to?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re on about!’ ‘Well, what’s your prospects?’ ‘I don’t really know, because I’m in the air force at the moment…’
“‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Her mother would never have allowed this, I’ll tell you now!’
“Then he reluctantly said, ‘Yes, OK,’ and from then on he backed us all the way.”
Albert visited Suffolk often.
“He was a character. The first thing he’d do was put his bottle of whisky down. In the evening he’d sit there with his tipple – and in tea in the morning. That kept him going. He really was very active.
“He was a Chelsea football supporter and, when he came down here, he absolutely loved Ipswich Town. He said it was like Chelsea used to be years earlier. He said they’re friendly, no trouble, no fighting. Nothing like that.”
Deirdre had grown up in the capital, though was evacuated to the West Country during the Second World War. After returning to London, she met Ernie.
“We went out one night to the pictures and that was it. We were together ever since.”
They married in 1958.
Ernie was an apprentice electrician when he was called up at seventeen-and-a-half, enjoying his five years in the RAF from 1954 and working as an aircraft electrician with a fighter squadron.
Back in Civvy Street he joined the Post Office as an engineer on the telephone side. “There was a real hot July day,” he remembers. “I was working in Buckingham Palace Road and my boss came. It was sweltering. He said, ‘Where’s your tie?’ I said, ‘At home.’ ‘Go home and get it.’ ‘I’ve got to go right across London to get it. It’s going to take all day!’ ‘I don’t care if it takes two days; go home and get it. You’re bringing the Post Office into disrepute.’
“That’s how it was in those days. And I’ve always worn a tie since! My grandkids take the mickey. If we’re going out somewhere, they’ll say, ‘Bet granddad comes with his tie on.’ And I do.”
When Britain began its new town expansion, the Brooms were keen to get out of London. Ernie lined up a job in Thetford, but during a stop for tea at Newmarket got chatting to a Post Office worker who reckoned the organisation would welcome his skills in Bury St Edmunds.
He was taken on. That was in 1965.
The Post Office was later privatised, reborn as BT. When Ernie was made redundant, he got a job as an ambulance driver and thoroughly enjoyed his 11 years there. “Cracking bunch of people. All paid peanuts – £5 an hour in those days.”
He still lives in the same house on the Howard estate. “Deirdre knew everybody. She was so lovely; such a kind person.”
Ernie says he’s thrown himself into community work since she died – “I poke my nose into anything!” He’s chairman of the Howard Estate Association of Residents and Tenants, started a club for the over-60s, and there’s an inter-generational Arts Council project with local schoolchildren, talking about life years ago. “The kids are quite shocked. We didn’t have toys like they do. We didn’t have toys!”
Ernie is also involved with the RAF Association’s Wings Appeal, which helps people get their lives back on track. “It’s my way of coping,” he says. “It’s so easy to sit down and mope.”
He has three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Looking back, he’s sad we haven’t learned lessons about conflict. When he was young, differences were usually resolved without tragic consequences.
“‘Man’s inhumanity to man/Makes countless thousands mourn!’ I think that was Rabbie Burns. That’s true, isn’t it? We haven’t learned a thing from it.
“When I went to Ypres a few years back and saw all those graves – just acres and acres of fields full of monuments one after another, all closely packed – it chokes you up. You think to yourself, ‘Young lads… 18… 19. It’s really, really sad.”