Tobacco Funds in the First World War
From the Records of St Barnabas Church, Heigham and the Meade Family Records held at the Norfolk Record Office (ACC 2007/9 Box 20 and MEA 11/112, 663×6)
When you are privileged enough to read the personal letters shared between soldiers at the Front and family and friends back home, common threads reveal themselves. There is the need for news from home. There is the often unsaid appeal that, having been away for so long, the soldiers have not been forgotten. Then there is the gratitude for gifts sent which did much to not only alleviate physical discomforts but also bring some morale-boosting pleasure to the tedium and dangers of the battlefield. It is in this final context that cigarettes played such a huge role in boosting the morale of the troops during the First World War.
In October 2014 Lord Kitchener asked that a ‘Smokes for Soldiers and Sailors Fund’ be set up for those on active service as well as those in hospitals and convalescent homes. At the time there was no real awareness of the dangers of smoking and cigarettes were greatly enjoyed by many, as described in the correspondence of the Amherst sisters. The Post Office helped facilitate this by allowing cigarettes to be sent by the cheaper letter post instead of parcel post. Customs duty in France was also waived.
This blog looks at two sets of records held at the Norfolk Record Office. Each illustrates a different approach to Lord Kitchener’s request. The illustrations are all taken from the Meade collection.
The newspaper ‘The Weekly Dispatch’ set up ‘The Weekly Dispatch Tobacco Fund’. Their slogan was ‘Every 6d will gladden the heart of a HERO’. Subscribers would pay into the Fund. Cigarettes would then be sent out to the troops along with an addressed postcard for the recipients to reply to the donor. Some of the postcards asked that the returned card be subsequently sent on to the Tobacco Fund to stimulate more subscriptions. The postcards featured different cartoons on the front.
The soldiers’ replies were a mixture of gratitude and insight into life at the Front:
Just a line to thank you for your parcel of tobacco and cigarettes of which I was the lucky recipient. It is indeed a great source of comfort to have tobacco to smoke while in the trenches, for which we have to rely on the generosity of our kind friends at home. I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to you for your kindness, the packet arrived just at the time when I was wondering where the next smoke was coming from.
It comes a pleasure when you are in the trenches for that is all you can do except watch one another for the ground (is) very wet.
Just received cigarettes from the firm mentioned on the other side of card from you. I was very pleased and also some of my comrades who I have been sharing them with. These little comforts help to cheer us up a bit and it’s nice to know that we are not forgot in the old land.
Having just come out of the trenches we find it very refreshing to sit down and take a nice quiet smoke.
While the Meade family responded to a national appeal, Samuel Frederick Leighton Green set up his own tobacco fund within his parish of St Barnabas Church in Heigham, Norwich.
Green was an army chaplain from February 1916 to February 1919. He served with distinction throughout that time working alongside his London Regiment on the Front. Each month he would write a letter to his parishioners which would be published in the parish magazine and it was through this that the ‘Mag-Fag Fund’ was established. The collection of Green’s letter was put together in the booklet ‘The Happy Padre’ (NRO: ACC 2007/9 Box 20).
Almost every letter Green wrote made some reference to the ‘Mag-Fag Fund’ and how important cigarettes were to the troops. He was ably abetted by Mr Frazer from St Barnabas who ran the fund from the church. In his very first letter Green wrote:
March 1916. The Vicar has kindly consented to a fund at St Barnabas . . . There is one chronic complaint which you can all help to control. It is lack of cigarettes. True the Army rations include forty cigarettes on every Sunday morning. This kindly dole alleviates the complaint for some thirty-six hours, and then it breaks out vehemently again.
Green made sure his parishioners knew how important the cigarettes were to the soldiers and also how it aided his work as an army chaplain.
April 1916. Let me thank you for the first parcel of goods for this station from the “Mag-Fag” Fund. . . If you could only see the faces of the recipients, as I go round the ward with your cigarettes and magazines.. . . . He (the army chaplain) must needs be a good listener . . . . there is little need for him to talk when once the ice is broken. At this point your cigarettes and papers come in useful to cement the friendly relationship established.
When Green had leave he returned to St Barnabas and kept up his efforts to raise money for the ‘Mag-Fag Fund’. In March 1917 he visited families and collected for the fund and in August 1917, again on leave, a concert was held.
Maintaining the momentum of the Fund was a constant theme in Green’s letters. He did this by continually expressing his thanks to the parishioners and giving examples of how their funds made an impact on troop morale.
December 1916. I hope too that the Vicar will agree to the carrying on of our “Mag-Fag” Fund in the interest of my Battalions. In the trenches both run short from time to time and I shall always be glad to fill my pack with cigarettes and magazines as I go on my wandering in the trenches.
February 1917. A cigarette makes all the difference when you are cold, and have to stand about, and somehow or other we view a bombardment in a different light if we have a cigarette between our lips.
May 1917. During the battle a Company Commander sent me a message: “Not a single man in my Company has had a cigarette for two days. Can you help me?” Fortunately I had one of my parcels in the rear. I sent for it and took it up, and earned undying gratitude. Well carry on and buck up the Mag-Fag Fund and earn some more gratitude.
July 1917. Green wrote about receiving a note which read as follows: “Dear Padre. Can you help us? We have been in this first line five days, there is not a fag amongst my men. The Boche is shelling like blazes. Yours etc. A-B Capt. O.C.C.Co.”
Green became known as ‘Heigham Woodbine Willie’ because of his own, local tobacco fund. The original ‘Woodbine Willie’ was the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy who was well-known for handing out cigarettes in the trenches.
During the war Green was badly gassed and wounded. He was awarded the Military Cross and bar. After the war he returned to St Barnabas then moved to Mundesley in 1921. He died suddenly in 1929 and was accorded by the War Office a funeral with full military honours.
Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.