By 1917, Germany was beginning to experience a manpower shortage on the Western Front. The two salients formed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 between Arras and Noyon had created a line too long to defend with diminishing resources. In February 1917, Germany opted for a strategic withdrawal to the so-called Hindenburg Line, a much shorter defensive line east of the Somme battlefront constructed towards the end of 1916. The withdrawal took place between 10-16 March, gaining the Allies some 40 km of new territory in France. The withdrawal was a shrewd defensive move for the Germans, creating as it did a much stronger defensive position in a strategically important location. However, it was also a propaganda disaster as the retreating troops adopted a scorched earth policy, digging up roads, felling trees, polluting water sources and burning villages in their wake.
Monday 19 March
Heppie & Tom drove in to the town. Tom & I went down to the Dingle after breakfast. Then Muz & I went to see Mrs Feutril & Mrs Bayliss. After lunch I did some mending, & later Muz & Heppie walked in to the town. I did more mending, & we went to bed at about 11. Heppie & Janet came up & talked to Muz, till late.
Tuesday 20 March
Forty more villages taken, & the cavalry in pursuit. It snowed since six o’clock this morning, & everything was white when we woke up. But it thawed very quickly. Muz Tom & I went for a run. After lunch Feutril drove us over to Broseley,1 to the china shop, & Heppie bought things. It rained a bit on the way back. We had tea when we got back, & then Heppie & Janet went into the town. I wrote letters & sent the lists of the London postal districts to Ione & Pat etc. They have just come out, so they won’t have seen them.2 Did some mending, & then wrote more letters. Muz wrote letters all evening. We went to bed at about 11.
Scorched earth policy
Letter from Pat Armstrong to Mrs Armstrong
My dear wee Mus.
I went down & saw Bonny3 on Sunday and gave her lunch but had to come away about 4 o’c as we had a lecture at 6 o’c. She was looking very well and seemed very happy. We had a lovely day & thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We had a scheme dished out that night which had to be handed in this morning. Then yesterday we had lectures till 12 o’c & were then given a scheme to be handed in the morning. It was the devil of a rush to get them both done. The one yesterday was an outpost scheme & we had a good long ride which was rather nice. However we got them both done by about 1 AM so it wasn’t too bad. I got a V.G. for that long scheme I told you about. I was awfully pleased as I didn’t think it good. We get an Essay to write to-night, go to Etaples to-morrow then have two very bad days Thursday & Friday. Friday will be a bad day. One scheme at 10 to be shown up by 2 then another issued there to be shown up the next morning. Sat & Sunday will be quite good days. I must go off to a lecture now. I won’t have time to write to-night so have just scribbled this now. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Letter from Pat Armstrong to Mrs Armstrong
My dear wee Mus.
Just a brief line before I go & do a job of work. We have just been dished out with another essay “Principles of Command” d—d if I know what to say about it. I have just got your letter enclosing one from Rene. I see she tells you about clothes. She writes a dull letter doesn’t she. Doesn’t get at it the right way somehow. I don’t know what it is. I’ve seen Mrs Curteis is at the bottom of trying to shift the thing into the paper.4 It’s horrid & makes me very angry. She evidently wants to get rid of her, & why it’s difficult to know. I went over & saw the Regt once but they were all or nearly all away digging at Doullens. It’s awfully hard to get away, I won’t be able to go over there on Sunday, as we are going over to see the Tanks. I’ll try & get over again before this show ends. It ends a fortnight last Saturday. I think it’s about 1st. I must be off now. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Wednesday 21 March
The others stayed in, & Dus & I went for a lovely walk in the Dingle, up to the right, all along the river, & home by the fields, it was lovely. It snowed a wee bit later. After lunch, Muz, Heppie, Janet & Tom went to the town in the carriage to call for the wool at the station, & Muz & Heppie went to tea with Mrs Welch, & then walked back. Tom came back in the carriage. I read for a bit, & did some mending. Went to bed at about 9-30, & Muz didn’t come till later.
Consequences of the shortage of paper
Thursday 22 March
It snowed again, but melted fairly quickly. I stuck in photographs, then we settled some of the drawing room. After lunch we changed & went over to tea with the Miss Warrens, in the carriage, at Moreval Hall.5 There are five old ladies & an old brother.6 We got back at about 6-30, Janet had done quite a lot of the drawing room, when we got back, & it looked awfully nice, Bayliss had brought in a lot of plants too. We went to bed at about 11-30. The Allies occupy eleven more villages, & fifty villages cleared, & are now three miles from La Fere & about four miles from St Martin.
Friday 23 March
Mended all morning. Muz & Tom went in to the town. Heppie worked at the mats. I mended Muz’s stockings all afternoon, & got them all done. Mr Willis came to call, & Muz talked to him. We had a fire in the drawing room, as we thought they would be back by tea time, but we got a wire to say they wouldn’t be here till later. We had our dinner earlier, & they arrived at about 9, & we sat with them while they had dinner. Zooie is looking very well, but Jimmy a bit thin.
Saturday 24 March
Mrs Welch came up in the morning, & then Muz, Zooie, Heppie, Tom & I walked in to the market, & Jimmy & Mrs W. came to meet us, & the others went back with her, & Tom & I came back with Dus: after lunch I started a cap to send to Ione. Zooie & Jimmy went to tea with Mr W. & then went to church. I worked up in my room all afternoon, & again after dinner. Then they brought some of the wedding presents in to look at, & then I packed them away again. Muz & I had a bath, & went to bed at about 11-30. Janet gave Muz & Heppie tea, & came in & talked for a bit.
Sunday 25 March
We drove in to church, we went to St Mary’s, & Zooie & Jimmy to the other, then we walked out, & met Zooie & Jimmy on the hill, talking to some wee children. Boo caught a rabbit & Jimmy gave it to them. Heppie & Tom didn’t come. Mr Willis came here for tea. Muz & Heppie went in to church, & Zooie & Jimmy went to church too, & I wrote letters. We went to bed at about 10-30.
By 1917, some 70,000 postal workers had opted for military service, leaving the sorting of mail in unskilled hands. As a consequence, the notoriously complex postal system of the London area with 112 delivery offices had to be simplified, to which purpose a scheme for designating London postal districts by numerals (e.g. NW1, SW8, W11) was introduced in early 1917.⇑
Pat Armstrong’s nickname for his sister Ione Armstrong ⇑
Irene and her mother wanted to publish a notice of the couple’s engagement in the newspaper while Pat and his mother were opposed to the idea ⇑
Morville Hall, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire, now in the care of the National Trust ⇑
Morville Hall had become famous as the home of seven unmarried sisters, daughters of Joseph Loxdale Warren (1798-1888) and his wife Mary Anne. The daughters, who also had five brothers, were Lucy Ann (1837-1918), Mary Lisette (1838-1920), Henrietta Matilda Astley (1840-1925), Wilhelmina Christiana Jane (1841-1917), Julianna Frances Minton (1843-1928), Georgina Maria (1844-1926) and Martha Josephine (1847-1906).⇑