This story has been provided by Sally Clark, Local Historian, Windlesham. Sally records her thanks to Bunty Richings for giving access to original papers in respect of her late husband’s family.
Sarah Boyce, wife of a “smallholder and village fishmonger, was invited in February 1916 to join a group of women organised by the Berkshire County Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. The group were to visit French agricultural areas where women were carrying on the cultivation of the land whilst their menfolk were at the front. Sarah was 53 years old and this was to be her first and only trip abroad. She kept a diary in the form of long letters home. Here are some of her jottings: –
” My Dear Cissi,
I thought you would like a little account of Mother’s doings so that you can read it to Daddy and Gran. I reached Charing Cross yesterday morning to find Miss Pott and some of our party already there. After we had been given our Passports we all had to go outside the station as several newspapers wanted our photos. At Folkestone we had to go to the Passport Offices to get them stamped, and we then had to answer a few questions. One was “had we any letters in our baggage?”. I said “No” ; then they asked if we had any gold – I said “Yes” and I had to change it into notes at the Bureau as NO gold is allowed to leave the country.
24th February 1916 We went to the Embassy this morning and found they would not permit us to go on today – so we have had to stay in Paris. We go on tomorrow, but under military escort. This was a good thing for us; we have had a day sightseeing – things I never expected to see in my life. We went and saw President Pointcares house – it is like Buckingham Palace. Then we went on to the Church St Madeleine, the scene of so much turmoil in the history of France. Then on to Notre Dame – the most wonderful cathedral in the world. We went to the bridge over the Seine and saw some wonderful places in passing – the Arc de Triomphe, the real Eiffel tower and many things I must tell you about. I must tell you a little about the people – Paris is a city in mourning; the crepe is awful, nearly every other woman is in black and as the French women all wear long veils varying in length according to the nearness of the relative who is dead, you will know the mourning dress is very black. Tell Dad we have to buy our stamps at the Tobacco shops ; all the tobacco shops sell stamps, salt and matches. They have to get a licence for these things, as the government owns the monopoly. We were talking to our courier – he said if they had found matches in our luggage we would have had to pay 1 franc(10 pence) for each match!!
25th February 1916 We woke up this morning to Paris snow. As we went on our journey the snow increased and that, and the troop trains, delayed us somewhat. As we came along the line we passed many places of interest. Not far from Paris we come to the little village of La Feste which was the nearest point the Germans got to Paris in the early stages of the war. The struggle for this little place swung to and from many times. Further on we came on a Red Cross train bringing wounded men back from Verdun (we are about 30 miles from there). Then we reached here – the place is very battered about – the shops everywhere are still smashed up. The hotel where we are staying suffered, and I am sleeping in a room with three holes in it, and a wardrobe stands smashed on a corner.
26th February 1916 We are about 20 miles from the firing line just below Verdun – we can hear the guns !! We are seeing two farms this morning and going on South today- this is rather a danger zone so I think the Professor is hustling a bit. We were stopped twice yesterday and had to produce the permits we were given in Paris – of course it is a little unfortunate for us that this battle of Verdun started as we came, as we cannot get to some places at all. Our party this morning visited the farms in the Chateau Thierry and Etampes. In Thierry we found much damage had been done to farm buildings and stock taken or destroyed, but in every case the people who were left had done well, not only in restoring places but in ‘carrying on’. We visited the farm of Madame Satot in Etampes. Monsieur Satot was called up at the outbreak of war and his wife has managed and worked with what help she can get: one old man and woman to work the land. When her husband left, they had 22 cows and 4 horses. During the German advance on Paris on August 1914, they came on to this particular valley of the Marne. Madame Satot, seeing the nearness of their approach, collected what she could, took her 2 children and joined the other people who were all fleeing South. At one farm 200 people took shelter. In about ten days, the Germans were swept back, and she returned to her farm only to find the Germans had taken 18 of her cows – from the house they had taken everything in the way of cotton goods, and had smashed and destroyed the furniture. In October 1915, she was again a victim of the Huns, when a zeppelin dropped five bombs within a radius of 200 yards, doing some considerable damage, though luckily not hurting anyone.
Sunday 27th February 1916 We have visited farms in the Chouilly district. We were received by the Mayor who accompanied us first to the farm, of Madame Coquart. At the time outbreak of war this farmr consisting of 60 acres, was worked by the owner and one man, but at the outbreak of the war they were both called up and since that time the farm has been worked by Mde. Coquart and her son Gaston, a boy of 12. The land all through Chouilly is worked by women – of course, a few old men and young boys, but the women are the managers and mainstay. The children(which in our country, under existing education laws, would prove a stumbling block to our women working away from home), are sent to school as early as the mother likes, with food for the day – and they stay at school till dark.
Monday 28th February 1916 Went on to Fere Champenoise and were received by the Mayor Monsieur Riddet. We visited several farms in the area, some entirely over the battlefield of Champenoise. The trenches and shell holes are all filled, all the debris removed and crops growing, and except for the many graves of soldiers which the villages have very carefully and neatly railed in, the countryside bears out the name ‘La Belle France’ to the uttermost. We visited the farm of Madame Robin-Brugnot. This I consider one of the best farms visited – it consisted of 120 acres, all arable. She, at the outbreak of war, had her husband, his brother, her sister and daughter(10) living there. When the men were mobilised she was faced with the difficulty of doing everything with the women. When the brother got leave a week after mobilisation, he gave Madame Robin a lesson in ploughing, and she set to work, but her work was interrupted by the oncoming battle! She, her sister and daughter took a few possessions and fled, they hid in the woods. Their old shepherd refused to leave, the Germans burned and broke the farm, killed the shepherd and drove off most of her cows, took away 60 turkeys and a great quantity of fodder.
5th March 1916 Our permits are cancelled in the Military Zone at midnight tonight – and we are leaving now 3 o’clock for Paris – all well