Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women

I’m delighted to have had three poems accepted for publication as part of the Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women project. The first poem is here, the second is here and the third is here.

The project aims to give a voice to the ordinary women of history who, for so long, have been assumed, as if by default, to have nothing interesting to say. It does so by using their own documents, whether that be public records or private writings, such as letters and diaries, and using them to make poetry. It’s a wonderful idea and the more you look at these apparently unassuming primary sources, the more apparent it is that some of the best poetry hides in the everyday and the ordinary.

The woman behind my poems is my great grandmother, Dorothy. Separated from her husband for almost four years when he was sent to fight in the Mesopotamian campaign in WWI, the pair of them wrote hundreds of letters to each other. Most of his survive; very much fewer of hers do, perhaps because of the difficulty he faced in keeping and transporting large volumes of papers.

Dorothy died relatively young, when still in her fifties, and in notes written by her son, David, the Sonny of the poems, was described as a mild-mannered woman who had a great deal to put up with.

I first “met” Dorothy through the prism of her brother-in-law, William Faulkner Taylor (see here, here, here and here). She corresponded with him for more than a year until he was killed at Passchendaele and, judging by his letters to her (to my knowledge, none of hers to him survive), was variously helpful (she had his watch fixed for him and sent him tobacco and cakes), supportive (obvious by the way he thanks her for her advice and counsel) and, purely platonically, indulgent of his need to use her as proxy girlfriend when he despaired of ever finding a real one (“Say, I hope you’re right and there is someone waiting for me and that she’s just like you.”) Nowhere, though, had I seen her voice tell her own story until I chanced on these letters.

Dorothy: it’s over to you.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 4

“I haven’t heard from Maud lately, she doesn’t write to me half as often as you do. Say I believe if you had your own way you would be quite a matchmaker, go ahead, hop to it……”

This is a quotation from one of William’s earlier letters. And, until recently, I thought that was where William’s friendship with Maud had ended.

But no. As this letter hints at, there was more to come.

France,

June 8th ’17

“Dear Dorothy,

I received your letter a few days ago with the badges in. Thanks very much, they were alright.

I am back with the Battalion again. I got back last Friday, the Battn was in the line when we got back so we were sent up to them & we stayed in the line for three days. We just arrived in time for quite a lively time, perhaps you read about it in the papers. We took a trench from Fritz but he came back at us pretty strong & we were short of men so couldn’t hold it & had to withdraw to our old position but we gave him quite a wallop for we hear now that the Germans have retired from the position altogether.

We took quite a few prisoners, some of them were just boys, I felt sorry for some of the poor little beggars. We had them carrying out wounded & they were just all in. You could see the tears in their eyes as they worked.

Well I had quite a good time at the Corps school, I did pretty well. There was sixty of us in the sniper class & I was seventh from the top in shooting & ninth in general knowledge, map reading & such like so I think that’s pretty good for me.

I have got two stripes now, so when you write to me please address my mail Cpl Taylor [indecipherable]. If this war keeps on another fifteen or twenty years I’ll be a Colonel or something like that.

I got a letter from Maud two or three days ago, & what do you think she sent me a photo. That’s going some, eh. I am going to write to her just as soon as I finish this. I have your photo & Maud’s tucked away in my pay book  together.

I got a letter the other day from Laura, with the usual amount of snapshots, of things around home in it. This time it’s the new colts & all the school kids. She sends me some photos of something or other nearly every week so that I can see for myself how things are coming along. In her last letter she said that Dad had just arrived home with a motor car. He has been talking of buying one for a long time & at last he has done gone & did it. He got half way home & got stuck in a mud hole on the trail & had to walk home & get a team to go & pull it out so he made a bad start. The lord only knows what the finish will be. I am expecting daily to hear that some of them have got a Blighty or something like that.

Well they are sending some of our boys away on leave. I don’t know when I shall get mine now. That three weeks at the school will put me back some & taking stripes will too. If I had still been a private I should have been about first but NCOs will go in seniority. Some of the fellows are also being sent to a rest camp on the coast for about three weeks rest. We were talking about leave this evening & I asked the Sg major whereabouts I stood on the list & he said oh you had better go with the next bunch to the rest camp & I said to hell with that stuff I want to go to England. So I don’t know what will happen but there’s going to be a row if I don’t get my Blighty leave. I think I can get it alright when my turn comes for I have a pretty good stand in with the powers that be, so if I don’t stop a whizz bang before long you may see me around Leicester soon.

Say what do you know about Marian Beaumont, anyway. She is only a school kid or at least she was when I saw her last. I seem to have got you & the folks at home guessing now. Laura wanted to know the other day what that ring was on my finger. She seems to think some French girl gave me that. “Nothing doing”.

Well I think this is all this time so good by, give my love to Harold when you write. With love

Bill

P.S. I don’t know about addressing letters to Mesop[otamia] but I fancy it should be addressed to Army P.O. London and not to Mesop. I think that is the trouble.

Did I tell you some of my letters came back marked “contrary to W.O orders. I asked Bill if he knew how the letters to Meso were usually addressed.”

 

So, a letter from Maud and her picture in his paybook…..  He’s been dead almost one hundred years but I am quite ridiculously pleased for him. And, thanks to the recent discovery of two enormous and fascinating packets of letters between Dorothy and her husband Harold (William’s brother) while Harold was posted in Mesopotamia and Persia, I also know the story was not yet finished.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 2

Born in 1890 in Leicester, William Faulkner Taylor was the second son of William and Emilie. In 1906, the whole family apart from the eldest son, George (usually known by his middle name of Harold), emigrated to Canada. They settled in the prairie town of Senlac, Saskatchewan and established themselves as farmers. Ten years’ later in 1916, William Faulkner Taylor, now 26 years’ old, enlisted with the 46th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry (Saskatchewan Regiment) and set sail for England. By August, after a few weeks in a training camp in Hampshire, he was on his way across the Channel. I’ve already posted one of the first letters he sent “home”, to his brother, Harold, in England. However Harold was soon also to enlist – in the Royal Engineers – and William began writing instead to Dorothy, his sister-in-law.

Belgium, August 29th

“Dear Dorothy,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am alright, we came out of the trenches last night, after an eight days [sic] stay there, we have been to the trenches twice now the first time we were only there for two days, we are out behind the lines now in a rest camp for a little while. It was fairly quiet while we were in the trenches all but one day & then it was rather interesting for a while. Fritz kept us busy dodging a few things that the boys call rum jars but I didn’t think there was much rum about them. I got a letter from Sis the other day & one from her intended & I got one from Laura since I have been over here. Tell granddad I will write to him soon & tell Harold to send me his address will you, well I think this is all now so good by

Will”

 

Sis, more properly known as Frances, and Laura, were Bill’s sisters, back home in Canada. This is the only letter, at least that I have, in which Bill signs himself “Will”. Maybe I’m being fanciful but it’s tempting to imagine the young man who had so recently exchanged the green prairies of Canada for the devastated, shell-swept farmland of northern Europe trying out a new nickname to fit his new reality.

France, Sep 25/16

“Dear Dorothy,

                        I received your welcome letter last week, just about half an hour after I posted that last letter to you. Well we are in a different part of the country now, we were on the march the last three days of last week & we are away from the trenches now, we are billeted in a little village, this is a fine country & all the people around here are fine, different altogether to where we were before. You were pretty lucky to be able to go & stay close to Harold it would be quite a holiday. Well Dorothy I want you to do something for me if you will please, I am enclosing a ten shilling note & I would like you to get me two dozen Gillett safety razor blades & send them to me as soon as you can, we never get into a big enough place to be able to get them over here. I think this is all now so good bye

                                                                                                                        Bill

PS You asked me what kind of tobacco I smoke so that you could send me some, thanks very much but I get all the smokes that I can use mother sent me some & we get issued every week with tobacco [sic] & cigarettes, but I wouldn’t mind if you would send me a cake or something like that.”

 

France,

Dec 6 / 16

“Dear Dorothy,

This is the first time I have had a chance to write to thank you for the pipe  & watch. I got them about ten days ago. When we got them we were living up to our knees in mud, but we are alright now, we have been on the march for eight days & we are billeted now in a small town quite a way from the trenches & believe me it’s great to be back in something like civilisation again. We were just seven weeks on the Somme & I don’t want to go there again.

Well Dorothy, that pipe you sent me is a dandy, I couldn’t have got one to suit me better if I had picked it myself & the watch is doing fine, so I am very much obliged to you. I am going around town tonight to see if I can’t get you an Xmas present.

We were all going to get leave, we heard, about a week ago. One man out of our section did go, & now we hear today that it is cancelled, so I am afraid I won’t be able to see those three girls, that’s tough luck, eh what.

Tell Harold when you write to him that he hasn’t reached the limit yet by a long way, sleeping in a wagon under a tarpaulin is quite comfortable to what he will get when he gets over here.

I don’t know what’s happened to the mail. I haven’t heard from home for three weeks, but I might get some letters any time now that we are settled for a few days.

My chum got badly wounded the last afternoon we were in the trenches, he was only about two yards from me when a bullet hit him, went in his shoulder & out through his back. It broke his collar bone & his lungs were touched. I haven’t heard anything about him yet whether he lived or not. He was a Sheffield boy.

Well I think this is all this time so I will close with love

Bill

PS A merry Xmas & a happy new year.

I have just been around town trying to find something to send to you & I couldn’t find anything just to suit me. I wanted to get a silk apron but they were all sold out so I decided to buy you enough silk goods to make a blouse. I hope you will like it, I had some time around town in the shops. I went into quite a few before I got suited. You ought to have seen some of the things those girls fetched out for me to look at. At last I found a place where the girl could sling a little English& there was a fellow with me that could sling a little French so we got on fine & this silk is what she persuaded me to buy.

I have just had a letter from Harold & one from mother. All the folks at home are quite well. Mother says she hasn’t heard from you for a long time. Well this is all now. Good by dear.

Bill” 

 

France Dec 11/16

“Dear Dorothy,

Got your letter yesterday, & posted one to you the day before, as usual. Some lecture you gave me, but don’t worry dear I’ll be good. Say I hope you are right about someone waiting for me & I hope she is just like you.

Bill”

The short note above was written inside a hand-stitched Christmas card. I can’t imagine where he got it from or how he kept it safe. And I wish I knew the history behind these three sentences.