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Major Arthur Clive Morrison-Bell M.P., POW

Undated letters by [Prisoner of war] Major Clive Morrison-Bell MP 7th Reserve Regt. of Cavalry written while in captivity to his wife from Friedberg in Hessen, and received 25 January 1915. In the Mavor Collection from which these letters were transcribed, they were incorrectly attributed to Arthur Clive Morrison-Bell's twin brother, Earnest T. Morrison-Bell. Clive Morrison-Bell, later Sir Arthur Clive Morrison-Bell, had a distinguished military career. During the period 1898 to 1899, he was ADC to Major-General Hutton in Canada and in charge of a Canadian contingent in South Africa, then ADC to Governor-General of Canada, Earl of Minto from 1900-1904 [source, The Times, April 17, 1956 obituary for Clive Morrison-Bell, page 13 (London)]. Grateful acknowledgement is made to Mrs David A.C. Moore of Denver, Colorado, for making this correction.

First letter

I hope long before you that this you may have got news of me. I have written to the red cross in Geneva asking them to wire, and a very nice officer Prince Lowenstein who came and had a long chat to us in Douai, said he thought he might met my name back to London through their secret service, so I have two strings in my bow to put you out of your anxiety. I suppose I am posted ‘missing’ with lots of others who fought that Monday, but alas, most of those will not be heard from again. Strange to say, except having my back nearly broken when the mines went off, and having my cap blown off later I got off in a most miraculous way.

I must tell you all about it and as we may only write two letters a month you must get type written copies and send them round, perhaps Mr. Market would like a copy.

I went up with my company, the right flank, into the trenches on Sunday afternoon, after being 24 hours in support in a place they call the ‘keep’. It was a lovely night and very mild. We had to improve some of the loopholes and the company worked splendidly. Meanwhile one third were on outpost, and kept up a lively sniping all night. I had three officers with me, two Grenadiers and an Artist, and two of them were on duty while the others rested, and I went up and down the trenches every two hours. It all seemed very peaceful and war might have been 100 miles away instead of being only 35 yards as it was opposite me platoon. The Coldstreams joined on to my left and I went to see Johnny Campbell there in his dugout. He had Thursday’s cop of the Times, so I was quite up to date with the news that night. I cannot say the same thing now, though there are lots of rumours which one has to discount. A young Armstrong, son of Sir George was with Johnny’s company. An hour before daylight, we stood to, that is, the whole company was in its place for firing, and at about 7 some tea came up for the men and was served out. News had come that there was a prisoner with the company to my right and I thought I would walk down the trench and see him before trying to get some breakfast. As I passed my dugout, the signaller said ‘there is a message just come in for you.’ It was to say that the Germans were expected to attack in 20 mins. Preceded by heavy bombardment, and that my trench had been mined, and to let the Coldstream know.

Here was a nice little bolt from the blue. I went back down the company, telling each man personally, told them to oil their bolts and served out the 3 extra boxes of ammunition which we found up there and let the Coldstreams know. The men were in splendid spirits and soon got everything ready, in fact they were a magnificent company. A couple of heavy shells came whispering over from our guns and plumped into their lines and then all was still. And suddenly inferno began! A mine exploded a few yards from where I stood but just round a bend in the trench. Tons of stuff seemed to come over my way and I remember bending my back to try and support the weight that I could see falling. It knocked me down, but I was not buried and still had hold of my revolver. Simultaneously with the mines their guns started shelling us, but chiefly the left end of the company think and the Coldstream. You cannot imagine the dine their high explosives make, the crack is deafening and of course bits fly about all over the place. But something worse happened. The explosion of the mines was a signal to the Germans who were not a hundred yards off to rush our trenches. They came across in hundreds and stopped on the edge of the trench shooting down into it. What could 130 men do against this? Anyhow they did all they could, and not a man left the trench. Against these crushing odds the Old Right Flank fought too wonderfully, and the men were real heroes. I am afraid at least a hundred of them were killed, there are 32 with Sergt. Young here. The three officers about whom there seems no bout will be a great loss as they were all real ‘good uns’. Thomson the artist was the greatest help and the two Grenadiers, Lang and Hamilton Fletcher fought like heroes, especially the latter, who, I hear, was wounded twice. The whole thing was over in ? hour, the Germans kneeling on the edge and just above me within 2 yards. I could hear them talking. They kept back as long as there was any firing and I managed to get off nine shots with my revolver and emptied the contents of a rifle I picked up. At last there were only 3 men left on my left and one by one they were picked off. The boy next me fought splendidly, he got so tired and stopped once and went on again, when I offered to take his rifle for a bit. Then he went down, shot by a German 5 yards off and suddenly I realized I was alone. What a feeling of loneliness too! I shall never forget it. I thought someone must be aiming at me from behind and anyhow that I should be bayoneted. I stepped down into the trench and squeezed up against a little alcove and waited, feeling in a nice funk I can tell you. Two men jumped down and covered me with revolves and I said, ‘ich bin offizier’. They were both very decent and I felt I should not be killed. The next hour was very unpleasant as we had to sit there and be shelled by our own side. They rained down on all sides. Then we crossed into the German trench, a shell bursting over us as we crossed the 100 yards, and started off down their communication trench. One man gave me a frightful crack on the jaw, I can feel it now, but that was the only unpleasantness, otherwise they were all very decent. I must stop now. Luckily I had plenty of clothing on when taken, it has been icy.

Second letter

I should like to tell you what happened after the fight at La Bassee but first I must tell you a few things about the rules of this place. There seems no restrictions as to letters one may receive, also parcels. So write as often as you can and get others to do so too. But the letters must be short and very clearly written. A letter badly written would never survive the Censor. As to parcels, they will be equally welcome. Don’t put any war news in your letter. Out clothes came back today, they had been a long time washing and disinfecting them, so we came out of isolation. I am now in a room with a French Red X Officer, but unfortunately it is one of the few rooms in the building that looks north. There was a lovely sun today but it will never coming in here. It was nice getting out again, and walking round the square. How I should like to go for a good three hours’ walk. Homburg is not far off, and I can see Nanheim from my window. I think the Red X officers is shortly to be released. Hope by now you will have received news of me, a telegram from Geneva. It will have been an anxious ten days for you, but it might have been so much worse. Thinking over, one wonders how on earth one got out of it alive. I have the names of 32 of my company who were made prisoners, and about 25 of the left Flank. I will not put them in this letter. I think they may allow the names to go through in another letter. Besides the 32, there are three or four badly wounded men (not dangerously) who were collected in the mine hole, and these will be in hospital somewhere, and I should think will recover. There are rumours also of a wounded officer, taken that morning, but whether he is one of ours or a Coldstream it is impossible to say. I try to imagine what has happened to the other companies in read and the Headquarters, while we were sitting in the trenches being shelled by our own guns, but it is impossible to weave any decent theory. One can only hope that the rest of the Brigade had been brought up. Anyhow there was a fine rattle of musketry, with naturally a good many of the bullets coming our way. I told you I think, how the German soldier hit me in the face (a real good ‘un too) and how another gave me a balaclava cap and a drink out of his flask, and we then came to a village, where I was taken before an officer. He asked me various questions, some of which I had to decline to answer, and which he did not press, and then as I was walking rather groggy (as my back and neck were very sore from the mine_ he said he would drive me down to La Basses, about 2 miles. We skidded once rather badly, but there was some excuse as a shell had burst on the side of a house we were passing. After waiting about 10 minutes in a house, which was evidently their telephone exchange, (very well worked) we motored on to a larger building. There in the courtyard I saw about 100 men collected, about half and half Scots Gds and Coldstream, and recognized a good many of my men. I was glad to see so many had escaped, but I fear the roll in the company must be pretty near 100 killed. Not a mean as far as I know, left the trench, though of course it was 10 to 1 against them from the word ‘go’. There I was again examined, and my pockets turned out. I had 2 letters from you which they returned me. There was one thing I should have destroyed, a plan of our trenches. I said to the officer, ‘What a pity I hadn’t torn that up’. He laughed and said, ‘Never mind, we have a better one here, done by our Aeroplane. I t is more accurate.’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I know I saw it over your shoulder.’, and we both laughed. Hutchinson and I were then put in a small wagonette with a Uhlan as escort driver, for about 2 hours, to a place called Henin. My goodness, it was a cold drive. Sleeting all the time, and Hutch was wet up to his waist. It was then about 2 in the afternoon, and the attach had come just as we were thinking about breakfast, so we told our driver and he stopped at a pub, where they gave us some black bread and 2 eggs. They would not take any money. At Henin we were put into a school, on some straw, and passed quite a comfortable night. A Count Fitzhun came and did all he could for us, and brought me a yellow cap. I had nothing but the woollen one the German soldier gave me. The next afternoon we were all marched off to Dausi, about 12 kilometres, but about this I will tell you another time. My writing days are the 3rd and 17th.

Third letter

17th February 1915

Today is letter day and as far as I can judge, you ought to be receiving one from me either today or perhaps yesterday. I wonder when it arrived and if you were pleased to get it. By the 26th of this month I ought to get one from you, and then I hope they will come frequently. There is a rumour here that they are going to alter the regulations about letters and make them easier, but nothing has been said yet. They certainly ought to. I believe in England they can write as often as they like. I t will make a great difference getting your letters, this month without hearing from you will have been the hardest. We have now been here nearly three weeks, and one day is extraordinarily like the other. So perhaps before I describe the life here I had better tell you how we got here. But one or two things even before that. Find out the regulations about parcels, Cox probably knows them. Then the more the merrier. Don’t send expensive things, jam from the P. O. at Newton Apple for even would taste heavenly: Biscuits, shortbread, cake, chocolate, etc. all will be welcome here. They may after tomorrow no more bread is to be sold at the Canteen so our little 5 o’clock will be knocked on the head, or rather we shall have to save from the meal time, (dinner and supper) a portion of the black bread we get then, I generally present one piece to the Russian servants I shall have to keep it now. Though rather wooly and sour it is not half bad when toasted and tea has always been a feature of the day. Hutchinson and four Frenchmen come to have tea in my room, so one must hope the bread-ending is not true but merely a rumour. I am longing to hear how you have been getting on the last month. Have you kept quite fit and is Shelagh all right again? I hope, too, your mother has got rid of her cold. And how is the acrostic competition [see note below] going? Well, I hope. Your rotten luck ought to change soon and then you will win the prize. My sister Evelyn would gladly help you. She used to be very good a spotting a light. The flags are up here again today, reports of a great victory over the Russians in East Prussia. I take in the ‘Frankfutur Nachrichter’, and usually spend about an hour or more going through it with a dictionary. I think I have always seen everything with a critical eye rather, and this faculty comes in useful now. Occasional reports of the House of Commons, short summaries, are put in, and there is a speech of Churchill’s on the Navy blockade which I must read later. Great things are to happen tomorrow, the 18th of February and I trust that this letter will find poor old England still there. The French officers talk so fast it is hard to follow them, but we have tremendous arguments about all sorts of things. In fact one day I carried on an animated discussion with three German officers. It was a Douai, they came in to see us and were quite friendly and before long I and two of them started on the causes of the war, and who was to blame. For about three-quarters of an hour we discreetly put our respective cases, partly in German, partly in French and though we could none of us accept the others point of view, we ended on very friendly terms. Another afternoon there, was spent as I told you, in a long talk with another German officer, Prince Lowenstein, and he said he might be able to get my name through to you. There were some very nice French women at Douai who used to bring us our meals. One of these days, we must motor through that way, on our way to La Bassee, and go and thank them in a substantial manner. Some French Red Cross women also brought us socks, handkerchiefs, etc. and did all they could. The summons to leave Douai came about 6 o'clock and we were all marched to the station. Hutchinson and I were put in a 2nd class carriage with two soldiers and a Feld-Wbel in charge. (This is a rank I think somewhere between a sergeant and an Under-officer, or it may be senior to any under officer, and next to an officer). This place is practically run by a Feld-Weber, as there is only the commandant and the Ritt-Meister, who is what might be termed the adjt. And with whom we chiefly have to deal if we want anything.

It wasn’t a bad journey, though neither of us slept. About 8 a.m. we got to the frontier and had to wait an hour. It was bitterly cold, but at last someone came along and put us in a room where there was a stove. One of the soldiers who was a very decent little chap and talked English well, got us some coffee which was very welcome before we started again. We then travelled 3rd class, no cushions, to Cologne, where we had another hour’s wait and two pieces of bread each. At first we were all put together in one small room, about 100 men, Hutch and I, while they were getting the key of another room. I took the opportunity of calling for silence, and I spoke to the men. ‘They must take the first opportunity of cleaning themselves (they were all filthy of course, just as they came out of the trenches the second day) and keep themselves neat and tidy. Keep up their self respect, nothing to be ashamed of, done their duty., remember they were Guardsmen, etc.’ They gave a little cheer and I hope they will do it. I expect they will, though of course without any supervision the tendency is to let oneself go.

Just as we were beginning to ask them for details, unfortunately they put us two in another room. At 7 we got to Coblentz, and here we had to wait till 5.30 the next morning. Hutch and I were put in a little wooden shed on the platform, used as a guard room, where there were about 20 men. They were very decent and tried to make us come up nearer the stove. But it was quite hot enough so we sat in the corner. It was a long night. Before starting, our Feld-Webel, who could talk English, got us some coffee and some bread. We had to change at a place called Gissing, and here we saw the last of the men but no further opportunity to speak to them. I hear they have rather a poor time of it. Then we got here, just beyond Nauheim, which I can see from my window. It was a lovely bright morning and I enjoyed the walk up from the station, about three-quarters mile. The barracks overlook the town and at present two blocks are up two sides of a square. They are quite new and therefore quite clean. , while our clothes were being disinfected. They do this on account of the cholera, I believe, and we have been inoculated twice against the cholera during the last ten days. With so many Russians about it is a useful precaution. And now good bye till my next letter, but before that I shall hope to get one or two from you, it will make such a difference. I wonder if my servant got away from the trenches, he had about 10 mins start. He was carrying my great coat and rucksack. I remember there was a letter I wrote Mr. Lay during the night, in the envelope case. I wonder if he spotted it and sent it. Perhaps he got caught by the shell fire in the village behind, it was very severe.

[The reference to ‘acrostic competition’ mystified the writer's wife for a while, but she concluded that it was his code way of asking for war news and his hope that if she did not understand his sister Evelyn would understand his meaning. She conjectured that ‘one might be able to answer him in the same way by reference to the ‘acrostic competition. She appends her initials LMB.]
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