In the first of 2 posts we look at the life of Kenneth William Base, seen through the letters sent to him from friends and family…
“That little beggar won’t live”. Those were the words spoken by a friend of Kenneth’s brother Frank when Kenneth was born on 26th August 1899 and recorded in Kenneth’s later diaries.
Kenneth Base was born in Norwich to Sidney and Alice Base. He was one of five children with three older siblings and one younger. The 1911 census records Kenneth living at 78 Barrack Street in Norwich with his parents and siblings Margaret Alice (known as Madge) age 20, Reginald Charles (known as Charlie) age 16, and Olive Mary age 7. The oldest child Frank had, by this time, left for a life in Canada.
Kenneth probably agreed with his brother’s friend’s comment about his life expectancy as he himself, in his journals, writes that he was a sickly infant, probably born prematurely, who was not expected to live into adulthood. He also records that this also probably led to preferential treatment from his parents as a child.
In civilian life Kenneth worked in banking. When war broke out he would have been too young to enlist. The first indication of involvement is recorded in three letters written by his employers during 1917:
The V.T.C was probably the Voluntary Training Corps but there is no record of Kenneth joining. In October 1917, shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Kenneth enlisted with the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. Letters between Kenneth and his parents make reference to training in firing and live bombing. At the end of his training, in February 1918, Kenneth transferred to the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles as 44545 Rifleman K W Base. This was one of 22 battalions of the Rifle Corps which saw action on the Western Front, Macedonia and Italy.
Correspondence between Kenneth and his family was frequent. His parents wrote often and he also received letters from his brother Charlie and sister Madge. The letters kept by Kenneth reveal the depth of affection and concern for his welfare and also a mutual anxiety for news. Their arrival was clearly haphazard as the letter below shows.
News from home was clearly important to Kenneth no matter what the subject matter. On 11th July 1918 his father wrote of being unwell with two carbuncles and a bad attack of piles feeling “altogether very weak & dicky. I should not think of bothering you with a recital of my small grievances only that you seem to be anxious to hear how we all are. Mother is not very grand but Madge and Olive appear to be much as usual”.
Around June/July of 1918 Kenneth contracted diphtheria. On 1st July 1918 his mother wrote that she had heard from his regiment at Winchester “telling us you were in the 25 Hospital Rouen for diphtheria”. Shortly after this Kenneth returned to England to the Bermondsey Military Hospital in Lewisham. The family were given a pass for two to visit him there but there is no record of any visit from the letters. On 21st July 1918 his father wrote to say how delighted he was to hear Kenneth was back from France and how keen he was to see him. “I feel very anxious about you. Would you like one to come & see you at Lewisham?” However, in a later letter written 25th August 1918 his father wrote: “It has occurred to me several times that it seems rather unkind of us not to turn up to London & see you & one or two people seem to have commented on it. It is only because you appear to be getting on so nicely & are able to get about & in all probability will be home shortly on leave but if you would like to see one of us I could run up next weekend or even another as you know nothing is further from our thoughts than to let you feel neglected in any way”.
Kenneth’s daughter records that he also caught Spanish flu during the summer of 1918. While this is not referred to directly in the letters there are references that he became quite poorly in late August.
In sister Madge’s letter of 25th July 1918 she refers to the suits worn in the military hospitals. “Aren’t you looking forward to wearing one of those lovely blue uniforms? Some of the men here are wearing very smart hospital suits now. They look as if they were tailor made”.
Wounded soldiers arriving in England were sent to specialist hospitals or convalescent homes throughout the UK. They were issued with a special hospital uniform consisting of a blue jacket worn open at the neck, blue trousers, a white shirt and a red tie. The soldier would wear his own service cap with regimental badge. The uniform usually had no pockets. It was also known as a ‘hospital suit’, ‘blue invalid uniform’ and ‘hospital blues’.
Complied by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger