15th July 1916
I am sorry for not writing sooner, we have had a busy time in the trenches. It has been a tough couple of weeks, I can tell you. My battalion have been in middle of what I can only describe as ‘Hell,’ and although we are still up front, it has calmed enough for me to let you know I am safe.
I was very pleased to have another letter from you, even if it did come late. I have not heard from Mum and Dad, I think their letters must have gotten lost. Are they well? I hope mum is managing to get her medicine and that dad is keeping his chin up. Tell dad to keep watch on that bottom fence; Farmer Pilkington’s cattle like to push through to find shade under the big oaks.
I hope this letter finds you well. I suppose you have been reading the papers so have some idea of what’s been going on. I know it is hard for you love, but you must keep your spirits up; for me and for little Jack. You must remind him to be a good boy and tell him I pray every day that this will all end and I can come home. I still have the pressed flower you sent, tell him I keep it with me all the time and I think of him whenever I look at it.
I am pleased to hear that Margaret is fine and that you are helping each other through this hard time. She has always been a good neighbour. Little Jack seems fond of her too! I have not seen or heard word about Henry since we came here. I hope he is well. Please find out from Margaret if she has received a letter from him. I would like to know he is safe. Thank you for the candles and chocolate. Please send more when you can. The candles come in handy for light and for burning the lice from the seams of my clothes. They make me itch something awful. I don’t suppose I shall ever get used to it!
I am writing to you from a dug-out I am sharing with two others. It may just be a hole in the trench wall but it is a bit warmer and keeps the relentless rain off my head, and my feet out of the mud, which makes it a good place to be! We finally got a cup of tea this evening. It is as thick as the tar on the roof but it warms your insides and makes you feel normal, if only for a few minutes. Please don’t be disappointed when I tell you I have taken to smoking. There is a never ending supply of cigarettes and everyone does it. It is a comfort at times. You’ll be pleased to hear Cooper is still alive and well, save for a small shrapnel cut on his forehead. Sleep has not been easy so it is a comfort to hear him snoring beside me. The other lad, Toby, is new and a good fellow so far. He says he is eighteen but he has the face of a young boy and I have heard him calling for his mother in his dreams, I shall have to keep my eye on him.
The night is quieter of late and the sky is clear enough to see a few stars. It’s the most peaceful it has been in a fortnight. I can hear a sniper whistling above our trench on occasion and I hear the odd blast of a shell somewhere in the distance, but it is nothing compared to the roar of shellfire I heard before we got here. We rained tons and tons of artillery down on the Boche.
On July 1st my battalion, along with others were ordered to wait in the support trench for the shelling to end. Even if you imagine a dozen tractors trundling down the lane by Farmer Pilkington’s place, the noise would still not even come close. It went on for hours. It rattled my bones and I suffered with an awful high pitched ringing in my ears for days after. For all that noise, you would expect it had done some damage, but it was not as much as they hoped. Word came that the first wave had gone over the top. Gordie and his pals in ninth battalion were already up front and they went over with the first of them. ‘Lambs to the slaughter,’ I heard the officers call them. I think they were right. 270 men from ninth were mowed down like the harvest crop. Poor Gordie was killed. If you happen across Mrs Tanner, you must tell her he was brave. It was quick and painless as the bullet went right through his temple. I hope it brings her some comfort.
A few days later, the order came to move up and I am not ashamed to admit that if ever a fellow was afraid, absolutely frightened to death, it was me. My gut twisted, and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. I wasn’t the only one. A few of the lads vomited down their uniforms and a dark patch appeared at the front of another lads trousers. He hung his head and started to cry. I tried to face front and concentrate on keeping my own breakfast down but his cries turned into sobs, it was awful, love. I had no choice. I turned and slapped him hard around the face, I shouted at him to buck himself up. He was going to kill some Germans, fight for his country and should face forward with pride. The poor fellow was dumb struck, but it did the trick.
Heavy rain had been falling for days and we were more than ankle deep in mud. It was so thick it sucked my boots down every time I took a step, and it took all my effort to put one foot in front of the other. They made us carry more equipment than normal. I suppose they thought the shelling had wiped out most of the Boche, and carrying more would be safe enough. The rain and mud soaked into my pack and it felt heavier than a nursing Sal. The march to the front felt impossible but we got there in the end. I wish we hadn’t.
Death is a terrible thing, but when you see it all around you become numb and it no longer affects you like it used to. I know it must sound strange for me to talk of death so easily but when you are here, it is the only way to keep you sane. I have seen men lose their marbles and cry for their mothers. It is a terrible sight and I am frightened that it may happen to me. The thought of you all over there, my wife, son, and my parents praying for me is enough to make me stick at it. Thank you for your support and love and I ask only for you to write whenever you can.
It reminds me what we are fighting for.
Please tell Mum and Dad that I am well and will write to them soon. I know we are hoping to push forward soon.. Remember me to little Jack and tell him to be a good boy for his mum.
Your own loving
1st July 1916
Support trench East of Gommecourt. 1 mile from the front.
Heavy shelling since dawn, never heard noise like it. Even the cotton wool in my ears doesn’t block out the high-pitched whizz of thousands of shells screaming over my head. They are coming from the tree line about a mile back, and disappear over the hill in between our position and the front line. The thunder of their impact sends thick mushrooms of black cloud into the grey sky. There are so many, it almost turns day into night. The rain has been falling hard for hours and has flooded the trench. I am knee deep in muddy water that clings to everything and tries to suck me down into the earth. I was sent out with a maintenance group to repair parts of the trench that had collapsed. If the rain doesn’t stop, I might have to back out again. Keeps me busy I suppose.
We are packed in pretty tight. Men crammed in side by side, back to back, with nothing to do but wait. A young lad, a Scot I think, with wide eyes and a trembling chin is at my side. His hands are always balled into fists and I can feel his body shaking from his boots up. He can’t be any older than seventeen. I think of his mother and wonder if she is proud or if she wishes for nothing but to have her son home again. The older men look more relaxed. Even with the rain, there is cheeriness about the trench – a sense of excited anticipation for what lies ahead. The shelling is set to carry on through the night; we are certainly giving the Boche a good fight. I hope the men upfront are enjoying the show, at least they are seeing the action. I want the rain to stop; I could do with having dry feet when we march up that hill.
4th July 1916
The cold is as unbearable as the constant waiting. I even look forward to a mug of bitter tea but it does nothing to warm the chill in my bones. I’m not sure what is going on but there is whispering and a strange uneasiness amongst the men. The whispers travel from one end of the trench to the other and talk of a failed bombardment is on everyone’s lips. We have been held back because of the rain but the longer we stay, the more nervous we get. It’s too much time to think about home, about beautiful wives and small boys you once carried on your shoulders. We hold our position in the battered trench and hang on every word that filters back from the front line. Word floods in with the relentless rain that the heavy artillery didn’t cause as much damage as we hoped. For the thousands of shells we bombarded them with, few penetrated deep enough to break the enemy line. The first wave went over, their rifles casually thrown across their chests. Unprepared and exposed, they all made for a small section of damaged wire, and were mowed down in seconds. Gordie, a fellow Yorkshire lad that enlisted with me and Cooper are on the front line. I’m not really a believer, but I pray he is safe. I pray he was not one of the thousands of men who walked out onto no-man’s-land convinced there was no threat. The officers haven’t said much, but their faces give it away.
We failed them.
5th July 1916
3.a.m. The rain has eased. Corporal Jenkins has given the order that we will move forward at dawn. It’s hard to ignore the panic building up around me. The excitement and eagerness I saw when we first arrived has gone from the faces of the men. I see in their eyes what I am feeling – a helpless kind of fear that twists and knots your insides so you can’t breathe. A few cry out from time to time, they call the names of their wives and mothers. I want to cry for my Kate, for little Jack, but to say their names brings them into my world – a world where I don’t want them to be. I hear men choking as they puke up their last meal. It stains the front of their uniform. The young lad next to me has pissed himself. He cried at first but it soon turned into sobs. It started to affect the other men so I turned and slapped him hard around the face. He stared at me, his eyes watery and wild. I faced forward, my hand still stinging and prayed that he would make it through the day.
6th July 1916
My relief leaving the flooded trench didn’t last long. The march up the hill with my boots caked in mud and my pack soaked with days of rainfall was exhausting. The hill was sloped and uneven. We had no life in us, we hadn’t fought and yet all our fight was gone. We reached the top of the hill at first light and veered right towards the front line. We reached the bottom and met with a barrage of machine guns as we made our way down the main fire trench. What I saw was the closest I have ever been to Hell. The mangled remains of our boys were scattered like rag dolls on the floor of the trench. Some hadn’t made it over the top before a bullet caught them and threw them backwards to land in unnatural positions. As we made our way along the trench, faces of the dead stared up at us in the morning light. Their eyes were wide and their mouths were frozen open like they were still screaming. The mud was thick and congealed with blood and chunks of body; and the smell of burning flesh and hair made me vomit. A young lad, lent up against the side of the trench, called out to me as I walked by. His face was blackened except for the streaks on his cheeks. He leaned forward to give me something but as I bent down to take it I realised he was giving me his leg. ‘Do you think it’ll be ok?’ he asked me. I knew I was staring at him but I couldn’t find any words of comfort to give him, what could I have said? I lit a cigarette and put it in his mouth. I turned my back and walked on. The artillery bombed the line for four days trying to smash the German wire entanglement but the truth is, they haven’t done nearly enough damage. The Boche must have dug themselves down deep and waited ‘til our boys were on their way before heading up and gunning them down. No-one stood a chance.
We have been ordered to go out on patrol in no-man’s-land tonight. Shell holes make for perfect shelter for injured men. We have to check them all; it’s the right thing to do. I am on second patrol and I am terrified of what I might find. I see the young lad with the detached leg when I close my eyes. I don’t think I’ll sleep.
10th July 1916
I have been out on patrol for the last three nights. We wait for the word from comms and then head over; crawling on our fronts whilst sniper bullets skim passed our heads. We slither into the huge shell holes and check the bodies. The rain took up again yesterday and the holes are starting to flood. The skin on the dead bodies feels slimy in the water, but I have to search for belongings. We aren’t supposed to, but how can I not? These are men from my country, maybe even my town; their families deserve to put their dead to rest. We work for hours searching the craters for any signs of life, only to find chalk and body parts. It is amazing what men can do when they don’t think about it too much. You find you no longer turn your face from the man with a hole in his head; your stomach doesn’t churn and shake with the smell of sulphur and blood and charred skin.
12th July 1916
On patrol again and going further and further out. Tonight I chose to veer off to the left as I didn’t remember going over that way. The first hole had two men, both dead. I collected a photo and a pocket watch and made my way to the next. Just one body, on his front but his face turned to the side. I got up close and saw he had been hit in the head and the bullet had blown through his cheek. I turned him over. It was Gordie.
15th July 1916
We have reached some kind of stalemate. A sea of sludge lies between us and the Germans, and neither of us want to risk an attack. The day is quiet now the rain and the cries of the injured have died down. The men are grabbing some time to rest or pump water from the trench. After I found Gordie, I went looking for the lad with the leg. I wanted to tell him he would be alright, to offer him the comfort I couldn’t give Gordie, but he was gone. I should have given him hope even when there was none to give. I will have to live with that.
Cooper lies next to me. He has a cut to his head but otherwise he is healthy. I am thankful for that. I will write to Kate and let her know I am safe. I will then try to sleep. The stalemate won’t last long.
By Joanne Jones