My grandfather Cowen was too old to fight in the Great War but his oldest sons, Alan and Willie, were not. When I was a child in the 1950’s, my Aunt Janet, their sister, was clearing out junk and gave me a number of postcards Willie had sent from the Front and I've treasured them as historical artefacts ever since. It’s only recently that I’ve thought about them differently. As we’ve researched our family history I’ve come to realize that these are very human documents which tell not only about the war but also about the relationship between Willie and his family back in Liverpool.
When the first of these cards was sent in 1917, Alan was the oldest at 20 and Willie second at 19 with sisters Bella(16), Janet(14), Emily(13) and Nellie(12). The baby of the family was Sidney(7); between Bella and Janet came Walter(15), sick with tuberculosis, who died soon after the War’s end. Knowing this, I find his postcard particularly poignant.
We don’t yet know where Willie was stationed (nor Alan) but from the cards he sent, Willie seems to have been in northern France, probably on the Somme in the second half of 1917 and the first part of 1918. The cards appear to be from two sets, one showing places in Amiens and the other picturing a number of French cathedrals. As well as the postcards he sent back, I have the remains of the pack of Amiens scenes. Despite the censorship officer’s purple indelible pencil, it’s still possible to read the placenames beneath the scribble.
The cathedral pack includes Clermont-Ferrand as well as the Normandy town of Lisieux so doesn’t tell us anything about where he was. It seems unlikely that the Amiens pack would be bought anywhere but Amiens. On one of these cards, Willie writes that he has been inside this cathedral. The postcard to his Mother, sent in April 1918, when an attack by the German army was expected, is the only one to say "On active service". I think we can place him in the Somme area at the time of the Spring Offensive of 1918, Germany’s last desperate attempt to win the war or, at any rate, not to lose it.
On March 21 1918, Ludendorff launched an attack, codenamed Michael, to seize the strategically important city of Amiens with its railhead and other communications along the Somme. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Germans who captured only a large area of ruined, shell-pocked land but failed to take the town, thanks to the Anzacs who held them at a village north of the river. This battle lasted 15 days and the Allies lost nearly 255,000 men while German troop losses were 239,000. By June 12, when the last battle of the Offensive ended, another half million had died.
No wonder Uncle Willie never talked about the War!