In Clarence's Time - Knitting, the First World War, Bordighera and Bicknell

Skribita de Marcus Bicknell on .

By Helen Blanc-Francard and Marcus Bicknell

Research by Helen Blanc-Francard with additional material from Giselle Merello Folli

A cooperation of the Clarence Bicknell Association

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Clarence arrived at the twilight of his active life, 76 years old in 1914 as the Great War tore up Europe. He was a pacifist who had devoted himself to Esperanto, the universal language, which he thought could bring peace to all peoples. As his deception grew and old age crept on, Clarence continued to help the wounded soldiers convalescing in Bordighera alongside his regular work helping the poor and aged of the town. Clarence liked doing things with his hands, and knitting was one of them. Maybe handiwork is the characteristic of a man who enjoyed helping others in practical ways, especially in times of crisis (read Valerie Lester’s chapter Terremoto on the earthquake of 1887), working with Padre Giacomo Viale for the poor and sick of Bordighera and during the Great War. Valerie Lester devotes a chapter of MARVELS – The Life of Clarence Bicknell to Good Deeds and the War Years. She writes

“Clarence busied himself with philanthropy and volunteer aid. He worked for the Red Cross; he rolled bandages and made slippers – and presumably caught up with his knitting; he collected medicinal and aromatic plants to sell in benefit of the Red Cross; he made little bags that he filled with sphagnum, a moss, to apply to wounds – apparently one of the best cures – but complained that no one wanted to collect the moss without payment; and he visited the sick and comforted the weary. He described to Edward, not without a certain macabre humour, one of his visits to the sick: ‘Mrs Bonsignore had [her] finger poisoned by a white-thorn spine (probably other poison getting into wound) till at last the finger was cut off & we talked nearly all the time of this cheerful subject, but washed it down with some good wine, while we gazed at the relic of her finger & bone carefully preserved in her purse.’

“He turned his museum over to convalescing soldiers, and noted to Alberto Pelloux that there were army horses in the public garden, and that the Victoria Hall and the Casino were full of the wounded. ‘What a good thing it is to see useless or mischievous places being turned to good account’, he said censoriously. Ever since his first visit to the casino in Monte Carlo, he had loathed gambling and the harm it did.

“‘We have over 500 refugees! What are we to do to help them to live and be clothed and work, which is the most important, if they are not to follow the example of the Bordighotti and become thieves? I really do not know if our unpatriotic town will do its duty or is worthy to have these people . . . We shall all be glad when this night is over and the day breaks, as it must some day.’ Clarence had no patience with the dolce far niente attitude of the locals. In his opinion, everyone, man, woman, and child should pitch in.” When Clarence first arrived in Bordighera, in 1878, he was already a confirmed knitter.

“He moved away from church matters in his entry for 18 October: ‘I finished a pair of woollen baby’s boots & gave them to Imperiale – he is such a dear fellow.’ Clarence took his knitting seriously. He then embarked on a kettle-holder for Imperiale with his monogram in the centre. It was not entirely successful: ‘A “work of heart”: that is all I can say about it, for the design is weak & the execution worse.’ Parrett too was working away, making ‘carpet fringe at a fine rate’ and the Fanshawe ladies ‘beat Kidderminster, Brussels &c &c hollow, by their pretty & comfortable mats & carpets.’ A few weeks later, Clarence took crochet lessons from a Miss Stubberd.”

So it is hardly surprising, given Clarence’s interest in knitting and handiwork, that two researcher-friends, Helen Blanc-Francard and Gisella Merello, in the circle of the Clarence Bicknell Association have come together at the same place.

Nursing the wounded soldiers in Bordighera – Helen Blanc-Francard

In supporting Valerie Lester’s book research in 2016, Helen Blanc-Francard unearthed articles by Ferruccio Poggi drawn from the Journal de Bordighera about the efforts made for wounded soldiers convalescing in Bordighera. We reproduce below in full the three articles by Ferruccio Poggi, of which a typical entry is…"Rilevò l'atto munifico del Signor Bicknell, che lascia gratuitamente all'associazione ed ai soldati convalescenti l'uso dello splendido locale ad uso museo sulla Strada Romana coll'attiguo incantevole giardino".“He noted the bountiful activities of Mr. Bicknell, who gives to the association and the convalescing soldiers, free of charge, the use of the splendid museum room on the Via Romana with its charming garden .”

Helen aBordighera camp 1916lso found an article by Dorothea Matilda Taylor on nursing the wounded in 1918 in several parts of Italy and the Riviera, which we reproduce in full in Appendix 4 below.

Image, right: Piccoli ospedali da campo furono attendati nell'area pianeggiante, ora occupata dai campi da tennis, e dietro la Casa Bianca.

As well as donations of items like sheets and bandages, war hospitals needed food supplies for the wounded soldiers. British Red Cross V.A.D. members worked as cooks in British Military Hospitals in places like Genoa, Bordighera, Cremona, Arquata Scrivia and Taranto. On average they prepared and served 40,000 meals per month. Dishes for the recovering soldiers included jellies, broth, custard and chicken soufflé.

Photos of convalescing military personnel in Cannes also confirm that if you didn’t actually die, the Cote d’Azur and Bordighera’s luxuriously equipped hotels were a great place to be sent to for re-booting after the horrors of battle and much better that some cold, dismal Scottish stately home. Helen also recorded information on the soldiers who did not make it and who are buried in the Bordighera British Cemetery, and we reproduce a complete list at The Italians entered the war on the Allied side, declaring war on Austria, in May 1915. Commonwealth forces were at the Italian front between November 1917 and November 1918, and rest camps and medical units were established at various locations in northern Italy behind the front, some of them remaining until 1919. From the Summer of 1917 until late 1918, the Mediterranean lines of communication for the British Salonika Force ran the length of Italy from Taranto in the south-east, to Turin in the north-west. The 62nd General Hospital was posted at Bordighera from January 1918 to January 1919, and the 66th from January to March 1918. The British cemetery is opposite the town cemetery and was used from November 1917 to January 1919. It contains 72 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, and 12 Austrian war graves.

You can download the complete list of personnel buried at Bordighera British Cemetery in Excel format

The Kitchener Stitch – Gisella Merello

Gisella Merello sent me a copy of the slides she had prepared for a presentation to school children in Bordighera on 4 December 2018. One of the slides caught my eye because of the autocratic moustachioed soldier. What’s he doing there?

To see the images referred to please download the pdf version.

Gisella’s caption reads “He knitted socks for the children of his friends, socks and bandages for the soldiers and the wounded”. Gisella sent me the quote which gave her the reason to include this soldier, who turns out to be Lord Kitchener, whose face dominated the British recruitment poster of 1914 “Your Country Needs You”.

Gisella writes

“Lord Kitchener era un appassionato di lavoro a maglia, si fece ritirare durante la guerra boera con in mano i ferri e un calzino in lavorazione (il ritratto (attualmente esposto alla National Portrait Gallery di Londra). Gli si attribuisce l'invenzione della chiusura a punto calza (in inglese Kitchener stitch)”

which translates as

“Lord Kitchener was a knitting enthusiast. He retired during the Boer war. Here he is holding irons and a sock being worked on (the portrait is currently on display at the London National Portrait Gallery). He is credited with the invention of the Kitchener stitch, a way of mending socks”. The Kitchener Stitch is a way of sewing together two pieces of knitting so that they look like a continuous piece of knitting without any seam at all, also called weaving and grafting.

I found more about Kitchener in articles about knitting:

As many knitters know, British, Canadian and American knitters were exhorted by their governments and officially sanctioned organizations such as the Red Cross to knit for the war effort during both World Wars, and the call was readily answered. Knitting was a way for those at home to feel they were actively and materially helping their loved ones at the front, and also helped to soothe the knitters’ anxieties over the dangers faced by their men at the front as well as cope with more generalized worries over the progress of the war.Not only did knitted socks play a role in World War I, but conversely, World War I has had a lasting impact on the knitted sock. Until World War I socks typically had seamed toes, and these seams caused great discomfort for soldiers on forced marches and in the wet and muddy trenches, where those seams rubbed the men’s toes raw, which in turn could result in dangerous infections. The British Secretary of State for War, Horatio Herbert Kitchener, associated himself with the Red Cross drive to urge women to knit “comforts” or items for the men in the military, particularly mittens, socks and scarves. He was concerned about the foot problems the sock seams caused and personally contributed a pattern for socks which included a seamless grafting technique that would come to be known as the “Kitchener stitch”.

The Kitchener stitch is still widely used today. has a tutorial on how to work the Kitchener stitch, and there are a number of YouTube videos that demonstrate it, such as this one. Lord Kitchener is credited with inventing this technique himself, but I’m skeptical as to whether he actually did. Apparently there is no real evidence of it, and I think it much more likely that, at most, he recognized the need for a seamless sock toe, asked a knitter of his acquaintance to figure out a way to create one, and then took the credit in order to use his famous (and, at the time, revered) name to promote it.

So it turns out that knitting was a vital part of the war effort, of activities in Bordighera and of Bicknell’s contribution.


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