On Remembrance Sunday: a commemoration of soldiers’ writing during the Great War

After 40 years of research Andrew Brooks has produced a wonderful book which is particularly timely to look at today: Postcard Messages from the Great War 1914-19.

book cover

It is a magnificent achievement and a unique and immensely touching book.  Brooks has not merely compiled and shared a huge collection of postcard messages, as interesting that would be, but has also gone to an immense effort to find out as much as he can about the soldiers and their circumstances.  His understanding of military postal history is immense, so he can interpret a great deal about from postmarks and censor marks.   The book is arranged loosely chronologically, and the reader is led from the optimism of the early volunteers through to terrible losses and some fortunate survivals.  The book is centred on postcards sent from and to British soldiers, often telling us a lot about their lives and families before and after their service.



From the Edwardian Postcard Project we know that many cards of the early twentieth century were commissioned from a photographer, to show a family, friendship or other group.   This is a ‘Pals’ battalion, volunteers recruited locally and promised they would serve with other men from the same region.  Here are men from  the 18th The King’s Liverpool Regiment, during their initial training while based at Hooton Park Racecourse.  The men are still in their civilian clothing.  The card is sent to Miss R Hazelwood, 126 Thornton Road, Bootle, Liverpool on Friday 6th November 1914.  The message reads,

“Dear Miss H,

Many thanks for Chocolate received this morning.  We are going for a 20 Mile Route March round Birkenhead tomorrow that is if I get my uniform

Best M”.

Another such group postcard from the 19th (‘Pals’) King’s Liverpool regiment was sent in 1915 by John Anderson Henry Downie to his mother at 67, Carisbroke Road, Walton, Liverpool.  The message reads:

“Dear Mother,

I duly received both parcels in good condition.  I thank you very much for them, they will provide extras for some time to come.  On the other side you will see some of competitors lined up for a 41/2 mile event at sports.  I am No. 231. In the background a large sports ground is seen.

Yours John.”


In this case Andrew Brooks has been able to trace his fate in the 19th King’s Liverpool War Diary.  The 22nd January 1916 entry describes an event near Carnoy: “Bombardment on both sides. Minnenwerfer wrecked a dug-out, with the following casualties.  17322 L. Cpl. Downie killed.  17496 Pte. Whitehead seriously wounded…..”  Brooks has also traced Downie’s grave at the Carnoy Military Cemetrery on the Somme, row H grave 11.

Evidence of losses at such major battles as the Somme is also shown in postcards by others involved, occasionally revealing some involvement by women.  This card was sent to Miss Robertson, Union Bank House, George Street, Perth, Scotland from a French Auxiliary hospital on 31st July 1916 (the year of “The Big Push”):P83

“Dear Mary, Are you still at Rosebank: We are leading a very strenuous existence here and do what we can.  Can hardly copy with the rush – at least this was so till the last two days.  Things have quietened a bit but we rather think it is the lull before the storm. I love the life and the work.

I heard from Willie two days ago.  He is in the thick of it but safe and well.  Are your folks alright? Much love from Norah.”

This card by the well known postcard artist Donald McGill was sent on 12th February 1917 from Farnham, Surrey, by Arthur to his father Pte. A. Blackman, 37706, 7th Battalion Queens R.W.S. ‘D’ Com. Machine Gun Section, BEF France. P112

The message reads:

“Dear Dad just a line to say I hope you are all right glad to say I am feeling a bit better but don’t go to school yet Floss and Eeyore better hope you will be able to come home heaps of love and tons of kisses your loving boy Arthur.”

Brooks writes: “Sadly Lance Corporal Arthur Blackman, aged 39, the husband of E. Blackman of 12 Red Lion Square, Farnham, Surrey was killed in action on Saturday 23rd March 1918. He is buried in Chaumy Communal Cemetery, British Extension on the Ham to Chaumy road, Plot 4, Row B, Grave 14.”

Finally, another touching card from a training camp, this one from the 1st (Service) Battalion of the Guernsey regiment.  This was sent to Mrs Sophia Durnmont, Grande Rue, St. Saviour’s, Guernsey from her grandson then, Brooks deduces from the marks, from a camp near Canterbury.  The message reads:

“Dear Grandmother,

I am dropping you these few lines to let you know we have arrived safely at our new camp after one day and one night’s travelling, and a very dirty camp Dear Gran compared to those we had in Guernsey, but we’ll get used to it little by little I suppose.  Cheer up my little wife dear Gran when she’ll come home and tell he since it’s the call of duty it must be the will of the Almighty, hoping you are keeping quite well, as I am at present.  God keep us all till we meet again

With love to all From Walter.”P119

Andrew Brooks’ beautifully produced book: Postcard Messages from the Great War 1914-1919 is available from ebay for £20 and £2.80 postage.

New literacy studies at the end of the world: a ground-controlled approach from Chile.

When I first arrived to Lancaster I felt as a practitioner that needed more tools to improve the communities I was working with as an educational assessor that assessed children’s reading and writing skills. Through my path in the research, I was able to read and meet people that chanSociocultural context

Roberto's drawing

Roberto’s drawing

ged completely my views about assessment and literacy, I thought I had something great to support students and teachers. NLS became a tool to provide solutions around the educational problems that have been haunting the Chilean classrooms for decades.

However, when I landed in Chile, I had a quick encounter with the Chilean reality. I started working in an academic environment where all the discussion should be always contextualized and grounded on teachers’ and schools’ resources and classrooms. This shocked me at the beginning, I was not aware of talking about the concepts and theory in plain language, furthermore, I was not able to talk about it in Spanish.

All the theoretical problems I faced when working on the PhD were now part of a distant past. Here the problem has to be translated into a solution. There is no time to lose, we are creating tools that teachers and students need to use ASAP. It is amazing to know that our work will reach the classroom but in order to produce this transfer from academia to classroom I had to think again about some of the dilemmas that I addressed in the thesis. Although I tried to keep my practitioner’s heart, I was caught in academia and the practical implications I had developed in the thesis needed to be grounded again into practice.

In Chile I was faced with the question of practice instead of implication and I quickly realized that there was such a difference between the two terms. One of the main issues that my thesis addressed is that school literacy practices have to emerge in partnership between families, schools and communities. This slogan challenged my own understanding when I was invited to represent the Research Center for Advanced Research in Education in a stakeholders meeting that aimed at establishing a reviewed public policy on parents’ involvement into the school system. At that meeting I had to transfer the findings of my thesis to support the argument towards certain ways of community participation. It was until this invaluable opportunity that I came to realize that I needed to translate this knowledge that I have acquired, otherwise my PhD and the tools I identified would become irrelevant.

In this ‘ground-controlled approach’ the solution has to land safely at schools and the teachers or students cannot crash with obscure dilemmas that they cannot understand. Transparency is key to achieve impact. I am at that process now, trying to translate this academic piece of writing into practices that I can teach to teachers and transfer to students.

Margarita Calderón

Lecturer in childhood literacy at Universidad de Chile

Research Assistant at Centro de Investigación Avanzada en Educación, Universidad de Chile (Center for Advanced Research in Education).

It’s not a hobby

The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre is currently home to the ESRC-funded project, ‘Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics’ writing practices in the contemporary university workplace’, led by Karin Tusting.

This project aims to understand how knowledge is created, shaped and distributed through the writing practices of academics. We are working with academics at different stages of their career, in three main disciplinary areas, and in three different types of English HE institution. The first phase of the project involves interviewing these academics about the range of writing practices they engage in.  We have asked what different types of writing they do, who they do it with, which tools they use, and the physical spaces in which it gets done.

Even though we are interested in all types of writing, including teaching-, impact- and admin-related writing, what our participants most want to talk about is scholarly writing. When asked what they enjoy most about their work, perhaps unsurprisingly, they talk about their research rather than their admin. Some participants differentiated between scholarly and other types of writing by referring to the former as “proper” or “serious” writing. When prompted to tell us about other types of writing, one professor said, “I can’t think of other types of writing” before pausing and adding, “I mean, there are other types of writing, aren’t there, like when you produce documentation, say, for courses you’re teaching.”

So far so obvious. But here’s the rub: When we looked at their calendars and asked about their typical day, what they considered the “proper” writing scarcely featured during their allocated working hours. Instead, days were swallowed up by exactly the types of writing they did not consider central.  One professor began, “If I have a work day…” When I asked what this meant, she described a day when she came to the office and had meetings, dealt with emails and did admin.  I was reminded of Rowena Murray’s article about academic writing, entitled, “It’s not a hobby”, in which she explores the place of scholarly writing in academic work.  Almost every participant in the Academics Writing project, has said that they do little, if any, scholarly writing in the office, and that they struggle to find time for it.

The next phase of the project will shed more light on any patterns associated with this, to do with, for example, discipline or type of institution, but it paints a compelling picture of the challenges facing academics, particularly in an era when research output is assessed as never before.

by Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Murray, R. (2013). ‘It’s not a hobby’: reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), pp. 79–91.

More ‘signs in cities’ – returning to Prenzlauer Berg

Last Friday, I spent a day walking through the neighbourhood that was the site of my research on linguistic landscapes (LL) in 2010/11.

Walking through the same streets again – which I had visited last in 2012 – I looked for what had or hadn’t changed in the area’s LL. I also tried to find the shops and cafes whose owners I had interviewed. Luckily, most were still there. I also wanted to know whether English was still as strongly present as it had been in 2011/12. Indeed, it was, maybe even more than I remembered it. German outdoor advertising seems to be full of English words and slogans. Here are two examples of new signs I found:

little shop of flowersPure properties Helmholtzplatz

‘Pure’ is a property agent. I looked at the offers in their window: large flats, renovated lofts, town houses, etc., all (to rent or buy). Prices seemed high, at least for Berlin’s standards.

When I carried out my original study, gentrification was the issue I found most interesting. Then and now, the effects of gentrification are clearly reflected in the linguistic landscape, in particular in the prevalence of commercial signs. These are mostly signs of cafes, bars, restaurants, and what I would think of as luxury shops: boutiques, gifts shops, delicatessen, organic stores, etc.

Returning to the area last week, I am still amazed by the way this part of Berlin has come to represent a lifestyle and culture that are strongly connected with commercialisation. Of course, other parts of the city are not all that different. Just that P-Berg seems pretty posh to me these days! The flats on offer in Pure’s window certainly were at the high end of Berlin rents and property prices. Affordable housing  and rent control, I have been reading in the local papers, remains a much debated issue.

So I walked through the Kiez (the neighbourhood) to see if I could find any signs of gentrification still being contested. My  impression was though that this part of Berlin is now firmly in the hands of the gentrifiers – and not the first generation of gentrifiers probably. It is also known as an area where many foreigners live, Brits, Americans, French…. So I wasn’t all that surprised not to find any signs of opposition to the changes. In 2010/11 some of these were still part of the LL: slogans asking property speculators to leave the area, graffiti placed on newly painted facades, posters inviting residents whose rents had been increased to seek support and advice from a local advice group.

My path led me to Dunckerstrasse and to the ‘Kiezladen’ that I remembered from 2010. It had been – and still is – a ‘Nachbarschaftsladen’ – a small community centre, offering among other things legal advice to tenants. The Kiezladen is still there:kiezladen bleibt

The banner ‘Kiezladen bleibt’ (Kiezladen stays) invites residents to join a campaign to save this self-organised local advice centre. For 20 years, it had received financial support from the local district. This was ended in April 2015 and the centre now has to pay a monthly rent of 1000 Euros for their premises.

‘Kiezladen bleibt’ – the choice of the verb ‘bleiben’ (stay)  is no doubt a recontextualisation of the old anti-gentrification slogan used in the 1990s by local activists who protested again increased rents and buildings being sold to speculators. The prominent slogan and logo ‘Wir bleiben alle’ (we all stay) which I wrote about in my 2012 paper, is still in use: it was reprinted on the left side of banner in the above photograph. But do today’s residents remember this slogan and the movement it stood for?

Near the Kiezladen,  I found other remnants of the earlier local protest, slogans and graffiti. No longer easily visible: half hidden underneath new layers of graffiti and street art. In the photograph below, underneath the street art, you can see parts of an older protest slogan, which in 2010 was much more prominently displayed on several facades and house entries.

street art Dunckerstrasse

It seems then that the area and its LL have changed since 2010, albeit not significantly. And the direction that this change took seems to indicate an even more firmly accomplished process of gentrification than I observed in 2011 and 2012. What happened to the local anti-gentrification activists, I don’t know. My guess is they have lost their battles and had no choice but to move away from the area.

Reading (on) a postcard

I’m finding this Edwardian postcard fascinating in so many ways.

actress reading

Connie Ediss postcard

Its format is that of the very beginning of the twentieth century, when the whole of one side had to be taken for the address so people only had the small amount of space around a picture to write on.  Nevertheless it was a hugely popular communications technology.  It’s not at all far-fetched to compare this with something like Instagram today, especially as the postal system meant it could have arrived within hours of being sent.

Connie Ediss was an extraordinarily popular musical comedy actress and comedienne in her own day, gaining fame on the stages of London, Broadway, Australia and South Africa.  She particularly portrayed a witty Cockney persona and her choice of book fits with this: it’s Tony Drum (subtitled A Cockney Boy) by Edwin Pugh, published in 1898. Continue reading