7: The Pigeon Man
Exhibit label, attached to Exhibit 212, from the Military Intelligence Museum, Shefford.
Letter found amongst the kit of Private William Culley, Cape Cycling Corps, after he was killed in action on 18th April 1901.
Private Culley (1867 to 1901) was born in Ditchingham, Norfolk and married Mary White in 1866. They had two children: William Junior and Annie.
Private Culley was a career soldier. He saw two spells of action in the second Boer War. He was wounded in June 1900 at Diamond Hill whilst serving with the 10th Hussars. On recovering, he was transferred to the Cape Colony Cycling Corps in January 1901.
As can be gathered from Pte. Culley’s letter, the Cycling Corps was a vital part of the British Army’s developing Military Intelligence network. Due to the sensitive military nature of some of the content, the letter was retained in Intelligence archives and Private Culley’s wife never received or read it.
19th March 1901
My Dearest Mary,
How are you, my sweet Wife? I am so sorry that it has been over a month since my last letter, but it has been a particularly trying time here at Orange River (more of that anon).
What marvellous news you spoke of in your last letter about my darling little Annie. Although, I suspect she is not so little anymore. Curse this war for preventing me from seeing both my children grow up. My heart took kindly to the notion of my little girl learning to play the piano. Where does she get that rare talent from? I certainly cannot recall any person in my family having such a gift. In the dank, black nights here, I like to imagine Annie playing a soft melody to me when I eventually return home.
I was less overjoyed at the mention of Annie and young Billy spending time with the stable boys in the mews. These boys can be very rough, both in their actions and in their language, and I would hope that Billy is taking his responsibilities as the elder Brother with all the seriousness that we have tried to instill in him. I suppose it is the fecklessness of their age that sees them both drawn to the rougher parts of Kensington. Do you remember your Mother, boasting quite shamelessly to her neighbours when we first got our London home? I can hear her saying, “My Mary is going up in the world and no Cockney ragamuffin will ever sully her life”. I am chuckling as I write these words. Your family embraced our London move whilst my family feared that it would lead to us getting ideas above our station. How little do they understand you, my precious one?
What a stroke of good fortune it was for your Cousin to get that small flat in Thorpe Mews. It will mean good company for you. I hardly need to state the obvious, but I saw so little of our new London home before my posting, but I do believe that I remember Thorpe Mews. I have a remembrance of walking the children to the park one Sunday afternoon whilst you were ailing, and I was amused at little Annie’s questioning stares at the maidservants and the grooms, taking their Sunday constitutionals. And there, my dearest, is the essence of our new life. If we are to have the smart grooms; then we must also have the stable boys.
Oh Mary. I yearn to stroll with you along by the nice houses. Our hands held tightly together. Those thoughts can raise my spirits during this bleak, bloody war in Africa, where one day unfolds as tortuous as all the previous ones, as will surely do, the next.
I try, my darling, to keep my correspondence to you, light and positive. I do not want to fret you as I know how hard it is to be on your own with only your imagination raising terrible pictures of your husband’s war, many thousands of miles away.
Sometimes, my mood is very low, but I am cheered on a daily basis by the pigeons. Have you given any more thought to my suggestion of breeding pigeons when I return to London? It would be no trouble at all to build a small loft in the back yard. And I would tend to their every need, with no call upon your time for assistance.
You asked why the carrier pigeons have become the responsibility of the cycling corps, as it appears so unlikely. I jest not, Mary, but the answer is simple. The horses are intolerant of the pigeons and do not take kindly to their noise or movement whilst being carried on the saddle. So, transporting them between stations can be dangerous to the birds and can only be performed on bicycle. I am sure that Billy and Annie will be greatly amused by that piece of war news. It takes time for the pigeons to be ready to serve King and country, so it has become the job of Archie Anderson and I to train and tend to the birds before they commence active service.
Here is my little secret, Mary. I have taken a particular shine to two of the pigeons, who I have christened Job, after your admirable Father, and Esther, after my poor, late Sister. They make quite a pair, I can tell you. They have opened my eyes to the skies again. Much of the time at wartime, you are either looking straight down or straight ahead. Both in full concentration for any danger. One has no need to look up, so you don’t. But watching these two doughty birds as they take flight, my heart takes flight too and before I know it, my mind is back on the farm in Ditchingham and I can temporarily imagine that this blasted war is over. Excuse my coarse language, Mary. I must sound like one of the stable boys in Thorpe Mews. Archie jokes that I am better suited to the asylum than the bunker, because I like to talk to Job and Esther. I’ve told them about you, my precious dear, and I like to pretend that one day, I will set them free, and they will take the long journey to Kensington, carrying my love back to you. Do I sound the fool, Mary? When Archie is engaged with his ablutions and out of earshot, I like to tell the pigeons about my dreams for the future. I do not want anyone to hear what those dreams are, even you, dear Mary, because my greatest fear is that I will not live to see them being realised. I trust the birds though, and it is some comfort that there is someone that I can release the burden to.
Besides tending to the pigeons, our other main duty is to service and repair the bicycles. My goodness, Mary, you would not believe the toll this African terrain takes on the old bicycles. I had to cycle with a message to the Corporal’s base last week. It could have been no more than forty miles. I half expected never to arrive as the wretched bicycle kept buckling and falling into disrepair. For the final, couple of miles, I ended up carrying the thing, instead of it carrying me. With the bike, my kit and my weapons, I was weighed down a ton. My back was playing me up so much; I must have looked like I walk as an ostrich does. To make our tasks even harder, the tools we have been equipped with to carry out the repairs are of very poor quality. If I was a betting man, I would be loath to gamble the odds on what might fail the troops first: the bicycle frame or the spanners needed to repair the frames.
Whilst cycling to Calvinia last week, I was bolstered heartily by a fond memory. It was a memory I hadn’t recalled for many years. I presume that it was the bicycle, the vast open spaces and the roasting sun, but I was taken back to the time when I was stationed in Dorchester. Those many times that I would cycle with as much vigour as I could muster, along the coastal roads, to spend a precious Sunday afternoon with you in Kilmington. The ride never took any physical toll, because I always had the joy of your beautiful face with its crown of shining, black hair to look forward to. The anticipation of seeing you, dearest Mary, was all the energy a man needed to undertake such a rambling journey. I must remember to use that same energy to boost me the next time I am given a mission to bicycle the pigeons across the fields to base.
I have some sad news to report. You may recall in one of my earlier letters to you, I told you about the wonderful cakes that young Albert Jackson used to receive from home. Like a lot of Albert’s, he was referred to as Nobby, and what a card he was. He had high hopes of making his living as a footballer when this war is over, and in my humble, and probably ignorant opinion, I am sure that he would have succeeded. When we had an occasional kick about, there was not a single soldier in the corps who could get the ball off him. You would have sworn that he had magnets in his boots. To be frank, it became quite tiresome after a while, but it wasn’t just me who could see that Nobby had potential. He had some stories of his life back in Newcastle that would have us clutching our sides with laughter. Archie never found them funny and would call them “tall stories”, but Nobby had a way about him, that you never really bothered whether the tales were true or not. The reward was in the laughter.
Anyway, the sad news is that Nobby died last Thursday. He set out with a couple of the other lads to provide cover for the medical corps. There had been several injuries during the last push and Nobby was amongst those sent to their aid. I was excused for the day as I had work to do with Esther. From the stories that I’ve heard, Nobby became separated from the rest of the boys. They found him three hours later. He was barely conscious and one of his legs was missing. But do you know, Mary? The cheeky bounder survived for another four days. The pain must have been excruciating. It was the fever that got him in the end. One sees life very differently out here, Mary. Not so long ago, I would have been saddened beyond words by such a happening to one of my friends. I still feel sad for Nobby, and his poor mother but I feel cheered too. It was for the best that the tropics did for him in the final count. He wouldn’t have liked not being able to play football anymore. A man must be able to have his dreams. Taking those dreams away is cruelty itself.
We have got a few more days here and then we are being moved to Pretoria to provide reinforcements to protect the railway line. I know that you find this hard to hear, my wonderful wife, but I am pleased that we will finally be seeing some proper action, after such a long spell of never-ending boredom. To fight, was the reason that I signed up all those years ago and every one of us men relishes the day when we put everything on the line for victory. I pray to God that Job and Esther are ready for their part in the action before we have to leave. I could not bear to have to wring their necks if the officers deem them to be unready.
I will sign off now, my sweet. Give Annie a big soldier hug from me. And try your hardest to persuade Billy to reconsider his ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps. After this war, the world will open up for young men like Billy and he won’t need the army to give him his sense of purpose. I want both my children to live long, happy lives, without the sword of war hanging over them.
Do not worry Mary. I will be home in your arms before you know it. My army days will soon be over and we can look forward to our golden future, with or without a pigeon loft. I trust you’ll appreciate my little joke to end on. It is a poor substitute for the kiss that I so want to give you.
Yours, today and forever.
Private William Culley (23899)