In a former life I worked for Lancashire County Council as a Librarian and Community Heritage Manager and was based at Lancashire Archives for several years. One of the most fascinating documents I came across during this time was a simple letter sent by Ben Carbis, from Newton-le-Willows, who at the time was serving on the Western Front during the Great War with his brother Tom. Their wartime letters are held at the Archives.
This affectionate letter, dated 1st May , provides assurances to his parents and sister that he and his brother are in good spirits in spite of the difficulties of having to dodge German artillery fire. He plays this down as an ‘exciting week’, possibly in an effort to reassure. However, it was the details of a chance encounter which forms the bulk of the letter that caught my eye.
Ben writes of a meeting with a group of Bengal Lancers who were billeted in nearby fields. He was clearly fascinated by them and, as he ‘stood watching their ways’, he was invited to join them and share a meal. He described one dish as ‘like Xmas pudding without the fruit’. A sergeant major did the lance and sword drill for Ben. He reciprocated by playing the mouth organ and they danced to his music. This meeting clearly made a great impression on Ben who depicted the encounter as a ’dream’. He was also impressed and surprised that the group of soldiers included sergeants, sergeant majors and a lieutenant. As he, a signaller with the 1/4th South Lancashire Regiment, put it: ‘Catch our officers eating with us!’.
He hoped God would guard him & I through this bad war & bring me safe back to you.
You cannot avoid the colonial context of course, and this highlights the presence of soldiers from the wider empire fighting for Britain with the Allied Powers – a subject which has thankfully received more attention in recent years. The letter also states the soldiers referred to Ben as ‘sahib’. This title may have indicated deference in a colonial context, but equally it might have just been used as a considerate yet friendly form of address. Indeed, he reports that the soldier who had invited him over to join them remarked, ‘You smoke with me – you eat with me, and you eat my food…you are my brother’. This letter eloquently captures the sharing of a meal and companionship as a powerful acknowledgement of common humanity across a cultural divide in a remarkable wartime setting.
We should be thankful to Tom and Ben’s sister, who donated this letter and the whole fascinating collection to Lancashire Archives. Thankful also, perhaps, that we have a place where documents can be preserved to provide us with such remarkable testimony across time.
You can read the full letter by downloading the document below. And if you would like to read the rest, you’ll find them on the Lancashire Archives catalogue DDX 872/2 Letters of Ben and Tom Carbis
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