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Having a Go at the Kaiser: A Welsh Family at War is available in paperback and e-book formats.

Gethin Matthews introduces Having a Go at the Kaiser: A Welsh Family at War, which has been nominated for Wales Book of the Year 2019.

The book ‘Having a Go at the Kaiser’: A Welsh Family at War was launched at an event in Mynyddbach chapel, north Swansea, on 8 November 2018. It is based upon over a hundred letters written home by three brothers, Richard, Gabriel and Ivor Eustis, as they served in the First World War. The date was fortuitous, because it was exactly a century after one of the most joyful and evocative letters was written. On 8 November 1918, Ivor Eustis wrote home to his mother from the Wrexham barracks of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, where he was stationed after being wounded on the Western Front in October. Knowing that the war was just about to end, he wrote to say that Kaiser Bill was surely quaking in his boots – he actually used the Welsh phrase ‘yn crynu yn ei ’scydie’, and added that he and his two brothers ‘have each had a “go” at him, somewhere or other’. Thus the title of the book.

This letter of 8 November 1918 is possibly the most mischievous of all the letters written by the three brothers during the war. Ivor goes on to dream of inflicting a series of indignities upon the Kaiser, such as stringing him up to the nearest lamp-post, having a dentist extract one of his teeth every half hour, having him inoculated seven times a day, and putting him in one of the lice-infested shirts that Ivor had to wear while he was in the trenches in France. Although summarising the letter in this manner might make Ivor sound cruel, I hope that by the time the readers reach this letter on page 233, they will have come to know the three brothers and empathise with them.

Richard’s account of the Battle of Gaza.

The book is built around the collection of letters, most of which date from 1916 to 1918. Even though the three brothers were then serving in uniform (Richard in the Royal Army Medical Corps; Gabriel as a wireless operator in the Navy; Ivor in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers), the main focus of these letters is not the military side of life, but rather of keeping the family bonds strong. Thus I have given the subtitle ‘A Welsh Family at War’ to the book – I could have called it ‘A Mynyddbach Family at War’ but perhaps that wouldn’t have sold quite as well outside parts of north Swansea.

In all my years of trying to find material related to the First World War in family attics all over Wales, this was only the second time that I had seen a collection with more than a dozen letters in it – most often, families who have kept material will just have a few letters and postcards. Although the run of letters is not complete, taken as a whole we can see it as a family conversation. The letters received by the brothers from the folk back home have not survived, but it is possible to fill in many of the blanks because so many parts of the brothers’ letters respond directly to news from home.

Another resource which has been invaluable in completing the picture are the two diaries that were kept by Richard Eustis in 1916 and 1917, when he was serving in Egypt and Palestine. The entries here are really useful in highlighting the difference between what Richard told his mother and aunt, and what he wrote in his own personal journal. Whereas there is almost nothing in the letters that describes what might be called the dirty business of being a soldier or a sailor – of trying to kill and avoid being killed – there is a brief but emotive description in the diary of what it was like to be a stretcher-bearer in the First Battle of Gaza.

Richard and two comrades on camels in front of the Sphinx.

In addition to the letters home, the brothers sent photographs and postcards. Most of these did not survive down the decades, but those that did are worth a thousand words. My favourite is the picture of Richard and two comrades on camels in front of the Sphinx, with the Great Pyramid of Giza behind. Because of the existence of Richard’s diary, we know that this photo was taken on 15 January 1916.

One of the fundamental points that comes through when studying the letters en masse is how the brothers remained rooted in their home community wherever they travelled – and, of course, the letters themselves were key to this. In terms of identity, for example, I argue that whereas Richard was regarded by the army as 368053 Private R. R. Eustis, to his family he was always Richard or Dick.

Gabriel and Ivor having swapped uniforms.

My second favourite photograph is one that caused some head scratching until I worked out that it showed Gabriel and Ivor having swapped uniforms. It must have been taken in October 1916, when both were on home leave. I think that the fact that the two brothers felt comfortable posing in each other’s uniforms shows that their fraternal bond was stronger and more important than their position in the army or navy. Their civilian identity was never erased by the fact that they were temporarily in military uniform.

The war clearly did intrude upon the lives of family members in a number of ways. The language at home was Welsh, yet almost all of the correspondence is in English. They were staunch chapel-goers, but when the brothers were stationed in Egypt, Palestine, the Western Front or the North Atlantic, that tradition was clearly interrupted. Their careers were interrupted too, and their fates were changed irrevocably by the war and their experiences. So, by the time the readers reach November 1918 in the book, they will be aware of the brothers’ painful run-ins with dentists, inoculations and ‘inhabited shirts’, and will understand that the Kaiser is only getting pay-back in Ivor’s dreams for the indignities that he and his brothers had been through.

Dr Gethin Matthews is a Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol lecturer in History. He is responsible for the Welsh-medium tuition at Swansea.