The Staniforth Letters

JHM Staniforth,

edited by Richard S Grayson

Pen & Sword Military, Barnsley, with the Imperial War Museum

2012, £25, xv, 251pp, ills, photos

ISBN 978-1-84884-634-0

This book is much wider than its title suggests and is well worth reading from various angles.  John “Max” Staniforth was a highly educated man whose writing style is both lucid and amusing.  The book consists of his edited letters which he sent, on at least a weekly basis, to his parents during his service in WWI from 1914 to 1918.  He rediscovered them during a house removal in the 1970s, later typed them up and tried to have them published.  Unfortunately, interest in WWI was at a low ebb, and he could not find a publisher for them.  He died in 1985, and so never lived to see them in print, which is clearly a great shame. 

Some of the letters succumbed to the effects of 50 years of mould and mice but most did in fact survive.  Professor Richard Grayson has edited them, adding footnotes and much other material to help explain the context to the reader.  In particular, he explains where on the Western Front, or elsewhere, each letter was written, as Staniforth was unable to do so at the time they were originally written, for obvious reasons.  Indeed, I gather from the WFA’s own expert on the 16th Irish, Denis McCarthy, that the original letters are difficult to decipher, so Richard Grayson’s input on many fronts should not go unnoticed.

Staniforth was, in truth, a very English chap.  His father was a GP in Yorkshire and Staniforth junior was at school at Charterhouse before going up to Christ Church, Oxford where he was when war broke out in August 1914.  He enlisted in October in the Connaught Rangers as a private.  His mother was originally from County Cavan and his maternal great grandfather had served in the forerunner of the Connaughts.  Enlisting in Whitby and opting for the Connaughts caused some considerable confusion in the local recruiting office!

The account of the rough and ready recruits, and the training at the depot in Fermoy is certainly illuminating.  This includes a brawl involving drunk prisoners breaking out of the guardhouse and the ensuing fracas, resulting in two of them dying of their injuries. He describes the daily routine and the various activities of the training camp, which were rather more subdued and constructive.

He was made a corporal by the end of October, not long after he had reached the Fermoy depot.  A few weeks later, he was encouraged to apply for a commission by a young Dublin lieutenant who had joined the Dublin Fusiliers as a ranker “to see what the life was like” and had then applied for a commission.  Staniforth did likewise, having been assured by the Dublin lieutenant that he could live on a subaltern’s pay.  Before signing his application, his colonel gave Staniforth the task of drilling the company in “practicing skirmishing and extended order” on the local race course.  Clearly it all met with the colonel’s approval. He was commissioned into the 7th Leinsters where he remained, more or less, for much of his service, though he was in the 2nd Leinsters toward the end of the war.

Staniforth’s first “job” was as a signals officer and he was sent off for signals training in April 1915.  It would be a further 8 months before the division was sent to France, as high command felt that it needed much further training to make it effective.  During his time as a signals officer, he describes scavenging cable on the battlefield and on one occasion, having rolled up a 2000 yard length of it, discovering that he had just disconnected a French artillery unit from its HQ.  So, profound apologies all round and he had to re-lay the cable, but he said that the French were very nice about it.

Later in the war, he acted at various times as an adjutant, quartermaster, and officer in charge of a troop train, amongst other tasks such as “just” being an officer of the regiment.  He describes his varied roles in some detail and in an amusing turn of phrase.  In particular, the sheer level of organisation and effort involved in supplying a front line unit with its various requirements for a 24 hour period makes for educational reading.  It also helped me realise what an adjutant actually did in WWI.

He describes his journey back to the UK as a gas casualty in 1918 which gives a lucid insight into the fate of the wounded.  He had periods of sick leave when he suffered from scabies (a nasty skin infection) and from severe dental problems.

In another letter, he comments on censoring the men’s letters.  In particular, he mentions a Private Galvin whom Staniforth says is “an honest soul who invariably concludes his laborious epistles to the wife of his bosom with the parting words ‘God protect you from your lovin husbin [sic]’”.

Staniforth’s letters are a very interesting read.  They are of course from a son at the front to his parents, so are possibly made cheery so as not to worry them at the time, and certainly glossing over some of the things that he saw.  As regards his soldiers, certainly, he was fond of the men of the Leinsters (and Connaughts) and they were clearly fond of him.

After the war, Max Staniforth worked on railways in Argentina, drawing on his WWI experiences with train transport, then as a radio announcer in France and finally as a Church of England clergyman.  I do wish I had met him.

Trevor Adams