When thinking of First World War writers of poetry and prose we often think of people such as Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Charles Blunden. However, Norfolk has a man who wrote letters home full of warmth, courage and humour to rival the finest of his generation.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Edmund Henderson Neville (1897-1982), of the Neville family of Sloley, served in France and Russia during the Great War with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He wrote and received regular letters to and from his family at their home at Sloley Hall, not far from Worstead in north Norfolk.
In a book entitled The War Letters of a Light Infantryman, published in 1931, Neville recalls:
We are under fire. The only time I felt funny was at 6.30am on 17th…. The strafe lasted three quarters of an hour, we got no sleep all night, and I had a terrible shivery feeling and could not control the shaking.
This was in January 1916 in Bouzincourt, France. He and his friend Harry agreed they were shaking because of the cold. Neither wanted to admit to feeling scared.
There were funnier moments:
The Hun always relieves the front line by day and saunters along with his hands in his pockets from post to post. On the 18th (January, 1916) a party of them waved to us and invited us over for a beer. They are never armed. I simply longed to have a shot at some of them to pay off a few scores.
It was of course very cold. Their accommodation was just a piece of canvas nailed to upright posts, not waterproof, with nails for hooks. Mud was his constant companion. Nevertheless, he says he enjoyed some of the marches through the woods at Fontaine-sur-Mer. But at night:
The sky and inky trees were lit up every other second by yellow flashes coming from far away, yet not a single sound to disturb the stillness of the night. And I realised that probably each one of those flashes might mean that some poor man, friend or foe, was being blown to bits.
The book is available at Norwich Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library in Norwich. The Norfolk Record Office also has a short story written by Neville entitled ‘Boots and Shoes’ (Catalogue Reference: NEV 7/74, 589×9), accompanied by a rejection letter from a publisher in Edinburgh.
Told in the first person, the story tells of a murder, where the guilty party is identified by the gumboots he was wearing, rather than the brown canvas shoes of the author.
Neville finally made it home on 4 October 1919 by ship to Liverpool in the middle of a strike. He says:
A good many hoots and jeers from the strikers though some people seemed pleased to see us. And we have eaten abnormally, making up for the bully beef and sardines we ate with a rusty penknife. The next thing is leave, aye, LEAVE!