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On Tuesday, we left Alexander Henry Tod – known as Henry – announcing his baptism of fire in the trenches …

trench-layoutIt was in the afternoon and we had just relieved another company, who had complete their two days in this spot. The Germans must have got wind of the change for just as we were trying to settle down a shower of hand grenades came over us from our front, apart from the spasmodic efforts which came from our neighbours in the same trench. The Bosche was out in the open in the tangle of grass and wire in front of our parapet. Bombs are most demoralizing things at close quarters [an understatement at best]. Our bombers got most of the first fusillade and I thought they were going to stampede down the trench. A few of them rushed round the traverse into my trench but I chased them back again. The bombers are under the bomber officer (Drury-Lowe) but he was at one of the other bombing posts. Meantime I had my hands full with my own men. The snipers kept us off our own fire-step to a great extent owing to the exposed position but we kept up a fire of sorts with rifles and bombs and kept our friends [!!] at a distance. Atkinson, the machine gun officer, tried to get his Lewis gun into position on the parapet but he was killed, by a sniper’s bullet I think, before firing a shot and he and his gun came crashing down at my feet.

The bombers were my chief worry as some of them kept leaving their post on some pretext or other – like carrying away their dead and wounded – and I had to order them to put down their burdens and carry on. I had a long stretch of trench to look after and I felt as if I were the only responsible being on the whole British front. I went into the bombing post and told them the stretcher bearers would be up in a few minutes and shied [threw] a few bombs just to keep our end up. Meantime the Bosche turned his artillery on to us, together with machine gun fire and rifle fire which played along our parapet and kept mounting up the casualties. I was certain they were going to follow up with an attack in force, but thank goodness they didn’t.

The men behaved very well and obeyed orders, which were simply to sit tight and be ready for anything. To know our machine gun was out of action was not very comforting. I was glad to see Drury-Lowe come along eventually and take charge of his bombers. He had his head in a bandage. Gradually the whole thing fizzled out and left things pretty much as they were. The C.O. phoned up from somewhere to know how I was getting on, and I told him it was all over for the present.

There is a large quarry just in front of where we were and it is here the Germans could concentrate a large force without being seen, except from the air. Our artillery, however, keeps on shelling the place and I am sure they don’t like that. To make matters worse for the two days in question we had to go short on grub as two ration parties and one ammunition party were severely strafed coming up the communication trench. The most trying of all is lack of shelter, either from the shelling or the elements, specially now that the weather has broken. There were no dug-outs and when you were not “standing to” on duty, you were trying to get some shelter under a waterproof sheet stretched over a recess in the trench. Sleep and rest were out of the question and you simply dozed off occasionally without knowing, why, when or how.We had a break of two days in the support line where we pulled ourselves together a bit.

Getting back to billets was the crowning act. Getting up to the line was bad enough – a 10 mile tramp with more than full pack and most of the way wriggling through trenches. Coming home was infinitely worse. It had rained heavily for hours on end, before we were relieved, and the trenches had become practically impassable. Wet to the skin and absolutely tired out, it was only the blessed thought of relief that kept us going. We had to squelch our way through feet of mud and water most of the way. Every step was a labour and our sodden packs weighed a ton. It took us 8 hours to get back and after seeing the men stowed away somewhere, I was absolutely done. However, a bath, a change, a square meal and a sleep for a round of the clock did wonders and today I am in grand fettle. We are here for 5 or 6 days and then go up again.

It doesn’t matter how often I read about WWI, letters and diaries like these add another shocking and poignant layer to the information I’ve amassed over the past seven or eight years.

These letters began on October 9th, 1915. You can find the rest of them by searching the tag or category ‘Somewhere in France’. I plan to create a chronological list of them in the future.

Next letter 10th November 1915 can be found here.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.