News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War

Winterbourne was built in 1904 for John and Margaret Nettlefold and bequeathed to the University of Birmingham 40 years later by John Macdonald Nicolson. Follow our dedicated team of archivists as they explore Winterbourne’s past and share with you the special objects, photographs and documents contained within the Winterbourne Archives.

Ken Nettlefold, the only surviving son of John and Margaret Nettlefold, was just 19 years old when he signed up to the Field Artillery Territorial Forces in 1916. When we think of the First World War, many of us tend to visualise the trench warfare of the Western Front. However, Ken’s experience demonstrates that this really was a ‘world war’. After a long period of training, he was sent to Salonika in Greece. His letters home give us a vivid impression of his life and the people and places he encountered.

Ken was initially sent to Topsham Barracks, near Exeter, Devon, to do his basic training with the 3B Reserve Brigade. He wrote to his sister from ‘Hut 4, 17th Battery’ on 10th October 1916:

Ken Nettlefold, News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Ken Nettlefold, aged 19, 2nd Lieutenant, Royal Field Artillery, 1916

“I had a most improving weekend, instead of getting leave. A lecture on Gogol on Friday, a lecture by A.L. Smith on Saturday, 2 sermons and another lecture on Sunday. Quite a record. Everyone is rushing into dinner so I will go too. The food is bad and the waiting is abominable, but we are made to polish our uniforms as if we were going on a full-dress parade. Such are the ways of the army!

We are at present the most childish hut in the Battery, and I think in the Brigade too. Most of us are men (or boys) fresh from Public Schools. There is one recognised game. Destroy every bed you see. A corporal of about 40, has just come in to our hut was flabagasted [sic] to find his bed in 4 pieces, each piece in a different corner of the hut!”

Ken Nettlefold, News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Letter from Ken Nettlefold to his sister, 10 October 1916

Following his training, Ken was sent to Salonika, northern Greece, in September 1917. Salonika, (also known now as Thessaloniki), is on the east side of Greece, near what was then the Serbian/Bulgarian border, and near the entrance to the Dardanelles.

The reasons behind British involvement in Greece were complex. Bulgaria declared war on Serbia in October 1915, and the Allies landed at Salonika to help Serbia, and to pressure Greece to declare war against the Central Powers. However, the pro-German King Constantine I sacked the pro-Allied government before the Allied expeditionary force arrived. Greece became divided by conflicting loyalties. After intense negotiations and an armed confrontation in Athens, Greece officially joined the war on the side of the Allies in June 1917.

Ken Nettlefold, News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Envelope containing Ken Nettlefold’s letter to his sister, labelled ‘On Active Service’, October 1916

By the time Ken arrived in Salonika the fighting in the area had died down, and he was frustrated by the inactivity.  He wrote on 11th September:

“…. even now I am not earning my 10/- daily pay. After 13 months I am still being trained! If I am still incompetent, I ought to be in a very humble frame of mind.

In a few weeks’ time the hot season will be over. Just now there is a pleasant breeze in the day, which makes us able to enjoy our long rest from 10 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon. It gives heaps of time for letter writing and reading…. This is the land of siestas. In Salonika you can see Greeks sleeping anywhere in the middle of the day. Streets, pavements, even gutters, are good enough for them.

One evening we walked 3 miles, a steep climb to the top of these hills, the last line of defence in front of Salonika, and looked up toward the line and the Bulgarian hills. The country is so mountainous that no great movement need be expected here. We have just to sit tight in our lines till peace is declared. For two armies with no quarrel or animosity to sit opposite each other for 2 years, when each is all the time longing to get home, is such a tiny military farce and so typical of this war and all wars.”

Most of the old city centre had been destroyed by the ‘Great Fire’, which was started accidentally in August 1917. The fire left nearly one quarter of the population, 72,000 people, homeless; many businesses were destroyed, and 70% of the population were unemployed. Two churches and many synagogues and mosques were lost.  Ken describes the town on 14th September 1917:

“We wandered over big rough stones, equally uneven whether on street or pavement, to Venizelos St. now almost destroyed. From there on to the long parade front. Almost every good shop or new building, of the pretentious Continental style, has been burnt down. I walked through endless streets of these ruins, seeing balconies, twisted into bedsteads & iron girders into letter boxes, steel joists & frameworks had taken these & many other fantastic shapes, making a comic – melancholy display.”

Finally, Ken heard on 2nd October 1917 that:

Unusual Partners by Ken Nettlefold, News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Unusual Partners by Ken Nettlefold

“We are all to go up the line this week. Good. Tired of doing nothing. I showed energy & spent a broiling morning in dismounting the breech mechanism. It is in about 30 or more pieces, and there is only one way to remove each…. The best point was that halfway through my instructor rode down on horseback by chance & saw me. Such zeal for knowledge outside parade house deserves to be rewarded. I like my virtue to be seen.”

By 8th October Ken knew where he was to go:

From a Country Rectory by Ken Nettlefold, News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

From a Country Rectory by Ken Nettlefold

“This evening we have heard the good news that we are posted to batteries, and shall be off to-morrow or the day after…. We are all so glad to be going that there is sure to be general uproar to-night. All are threatening to get drunk…. Think of me on the edge of a new life, in a real battery, firing real shells from real guns. I cannot write at real enemies, because the Bulgarians seem sick of the war. They say their quarrel is not with us, and according to rumour, they told Berlin they will retire to Sophia if they have not reinforcements by Xmas.”

Ken Nettlefold, News From the Archives: Ken Nettlefold and the First World War, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Ken Nettlefold’s graduation photo, Balliol College, Oxford, 1921

Ken’s last letter of June 1918 from Macedonia does not mention any fighting, and there are no more letters from him during the war in Winterbourne archives. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until the great Allied offensive in September 1918, which resulted in the capitulation of Bulgaria and the liberation of Serbia. Part of southern Bulgaria (West Thrace) became part of Greece.

Fortunately, Ken survived the war unscathed, and left the army in January 1919.  He went on to study at Oxford University from 1919-1921, taking a B.A. degree in Literature and Humanities in 1921 at Balliol College. Later he trained for the Unitarian ministry before he trained for the Church of England ministry and was ordained in 1937 in Birmingham.  He was rector at Bourton on the Water from 1948-1960, and wrote two books during this time. He died in 1969.

This article was written by Archive Volunteer Sue Tungate. The Archive Team lead free tours of the house at 2pm most Tuesdays where you can learn more about the history of Winterbourne. Please ask at reception for details.

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