Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Firing Line Experiences

From the North Wales Chronicle, 1st April 1915.


March 21st, 1915.

The following are extracts from a letter written by an officer to his parents at Bangor describing his first experience in the trenches:—

About 4 o'clock on the afternoon, of the 8th, I was just sitting down in my little hut at --- to make a cup of tea on my Primus stove, when I was handed an order to be on parade with 25 men for the front at 4.20.  Picture to yourself the chaos which reigned for that 20 minutes when I was getting everything ready at such short notice!  However, in company with many others, we eventually pushed off, marched about five miles, and entrained at ---- at 7 o'clock.  We travelled all that night and the next day, and about 5 o'clock on the 9th we arrived at M---.  Here we had a meal at the station, and marched away about 6.30, a dull wet night.  We did about six miles and arrived at our destination, and into the first billets we could find, as we were all dead tired.  We were away again early next morning (the 10th), and up into the firing line that evening.

Before daybreak we moved out of the village, and silently got to the trenches, which the rest of the battalion had dug during the night, waiting for dawn and ready to attack.  The dawn, however, showed us a counter-attack by the Germans, so we were otherwise employed for a bit.  They were eventually beaten off, and we got behind what trench we had to rest and await orders.  They came at last, and we were told we were to attack at 8.30.  I can’t describe to you what one’s feelings are while you are waiting go attack; they are not up to much anyhow.  Before 8.30 our orders had been altered, and we were not to attack till 10.30, so more waiting.  This attack we began, but it was sheer suicide to push it, and we were told again to wait till 4.30 that evening; here again we were almost wiped out, and went back to our trenches, where we dug and delved all night to make as good a job of them as possible, and the next morning saw us with a fairly decent parapet, but only about a foot of protection from the back.  At 7.30 they started to shell us again, and continued to do so for eight hours on end without a single breather; the less said about it the better, for one simply can’t put it on paper.

Night brought a certain amount of peace and more digging, and a little reflection as to why all these terrible things must be.  That was March 12th, a day I shall never forget,  Since then we have snatched a little sleep during the day when they were shelling us, and have dug all night, never knowing until to-day what it was to have a couple of hours’ rest at a time.  We started on the 10th with nothing but our greatcoats and arms.  They even took our packs away from us on the morning of the 10th, so that we should travel as light as possible.  Bitterly cold at night in the trenches, with sleet and snow, followed by frost and a biting East wind, and we had not even a waterproof or a blanket, how thankful I was for my two woolley helmets, my long scarf, and my Burberry, all of which I had stuck to.

Now, I’ll try to give you a few impressions of one suddenly plunged from peace into chaos.  You read in the newspapers that out here the Jack Johnsons, etc., are laughed at, but don’t you believe it, perhaps it might have been the case during the last few winter months, when one hardly ever saw more than two or three shells in a day, and some days none, but if anything like these last few days, No.  The small field gun generally chooses a moment when a certain number of men are a little in the open; there is a bark, a fizz and a bang, followed by a whizz of the shrapnel as it burst a few feet above; all over in a second, and no time to think.  Then, there is the heavy shell, which burst where it lands.  First you hear something buzzing like a bee; you get up as close to the parapet of your trench as possible, the buzzing gets louder and ends in a shriek.  It lands at a safe distance, you take a deep breath and wait, listening for the next; if it lands near you, you feel yourself all over, clear the fumes of the shell out of your mouth, eyes and ears, bury your head below the parapet, and again wait for the next one.  Another shell contains shrapnel which partly burst in the air, and the remainder of the shell carries on and bursts on landing.  Then above you comes the whirr of an aeroplane, you know quite well what he is there for, and you can imagine him saying, “There are some of these fellows down there, I’ll just go back and tell my people!”  In the meantime we fire hard at them, but most shots go wide; miles away to the right or left you see little white puffs, and long afterwards you hear the burst of the little shrapnel shell, with which they are shooting at them.  I have seen each side firing pretty hard at each other’s machines the last two days, but I can’t say I have ever seen a shot go very near.

My impression of war, in general, I cannot find fitting language to describe in.  Many thanks for all your letters and parcels, which have arrived here and there at odd times.  It’s wonderful how they have brought them up at all.  The following is a list of things that are really necessary, and you need hardly vary the list each week.  Send by parcel post and put on the label, the date they are sent off on.  No newspapers required :—1 tin condensed milk, 1 tin butter, tabloid tea (China), cigarettes, matches, 1 tin Bourneville Cocoa, 1 tin spiritine, Lemco or Oxo Tabloids, chocolate, cake, indelible pencil, carriage candles.  No potted meat, etc., and no tobacco required.

We have just heard the news that we are not going to have our much needed rest, after all, which is very sad, but it can't be helped.  Anyhow, we shall have one night in billets when we can get a change and our kit, and have one whole night’s rest.  I wish some great move could be made which would shift these Germans right back.

Am finishing this in billets, and we move on to-morrow.  Have no idea where to, but letters will reach the same.  All is peaceful to-day, and I am going into — to try and get a bath.  It's over a fortnight since I have been able to have my boots off.

March 26th.
Only just a line this time. We have been on trek, ever since I last wrote, to another part of the line, where I believe we are to be given another shot at breaking through, having worked the other show rather well.  We go into billets to-morrow for a day or two's rest, I believe.  I am keeping pretty fit except for a touch of flue which I hope to get rid of soon.

[I don't usually include anything about the front line - this blog is about how the war affected people at home. But I've put this in because it appeared in a newspaper, and so it shows what the people at home were being told about what it was like to be in the trenches under fire.  It describes a terrifying experience - but of course there must be a lot left out.  There is no mention of any casualties, although there must have been some.

I don't know what spiritine was - some sort of fuel for a primus stove?] 


  1. Spiritine is in fact a combustible fuel for a small burner or pocket stove, capable of boiling a cup of water. Here's it's 1900/1901 Canadian patent:

    1. Thanks very much for that information.