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Fishy tail of request from the trenches

PUBLISHED: 10:43 31 May 2009 | UPDATED: 14:02 03 July 2010

IT must be one of the weirdest requests from a Norfolk soldier in the first world war to the folks back home.

“We would be very obliged,” said Pte John Balls and behalf of him and his pals, “if some kind person would send me a box of good old Yarmouth kippers.

IT must be one of the weirdest requests from a Norfolk soldier in the first world war to the folks back home.

“We would be very obliged,” said Pte John Balls and behalf of him and his pals, “if some kind person would send me a box of good old Yarmouth kippers.”

Pte Balls was a sniper in the 8th Battalion Norfolk Regiment, and he sent the letter to the Yarmouth Mercury from the British trenches at La Boiselle on the Somme. It was published on January 22, 1916, six months before the start of the battle in which he would die.

John said: “We have the good old Yarmouth Mercury sent out to us every week, and see other chums have luxuries sent out to them... I think a little gift like this would help us along, and also a real Yarmouth kipper would help a dry biscuit down.”

The letter was uncovered by Dick Rayner, a historian at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum in Norwich, to help Pte Balls' granddaughter, Elizabeth Cook, trace the story of his service in the war.

Elizabeth, from Long Road, Framingham Earl, knew that her grandfather lived at Manby Road in Yarmouth and sold chips from a stall in the market place before he joined up. She knew he died on October 31, 1916, at the age of 28, and she's seen his name on the huge memorial to the missing at Thiepval.

Elizabeth also has an extremely moving letter from her grandfather's commanding officer to his wife Ada back in Norfolk, explaining how Pte Balls died - crushed by a beam when a shell hit a reserve trench.

Capt William Bunting MC told Ada: “We have known and loved him long... He was a good comrade and a soldier who never shirked his duty, and we shall all miss him very much.”

“Your husband has often told me about his longing to see the end of the war so that he might return to his wife and child in dear old Yarmouth.”

The child was Elizabeth's mother, Jennie, then aged two.

Dick Rayner has been able to tell Elizabeth what her grandfather's battalion were doing, from their Channel crossing in July, 1915, to the fatal shelling 15 months later. Almost all this time, Pte Balls was in the front line on the Somme, which was a relatively quiet sector until the all-out attack on July 1, 1916, when 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day alone.

Elizabeth and her family are now planning a trip to trace her grandfather's route from Boulogne to places on the Somme like Albert, La Boiselle, Delville Wood, Mametz and Corcelette - where Pte Balls met his death and was hastily buried in a grave which disappeared as the battlefield was fought over again and again.

Elizabeth said: “We can now reach back more than 90 years and appreciate what he and others went through. It's the closest we'll ever get to him.”

But at least one mystery remains. Nobody knows if Pte Balls and his chums

ever got their “good old kippers” from “dear old Yarmouth”.

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