We haven’t heard from Henry Tod in a while. Today he’s writing to his parents after his first Christmas of the war.
Your welcome letters of 10th December to hand today and I received your Christmas box of good things two days ago, just in time to contribute to the feast we gave to the men on New Year’s day. I sampled the contents first and found them exceedingly good and have retained the sweets and tobacco for my personal consumption, also the socks. [Socks were destroyed by trench conditions and hard to come by.] My best thanks to all who contributed and you can rest assured they were most highly appreciated. Dad, you pay my letter writing a great compliment which, however flattering, means that I have got to live up to it. I should think I have inherited the art, if such it is, as you are no mean hand yourself with the pen, once you get going. With the advantage however of having something to write about I do not think there is any great merit in putting it down on paper.
I see you want to know a lot of state secrets about our strength, mode of relief, &c. and I don’t know how far I should go into the subject, although I suppose our friends the enemy know as much as we do ourselves. What both sides are always anxious to find out is the identity of their opposite number in the trenches. We are keeping well up to strength from the drafts which are always coming out. Nowadays battalions consist of 4 companies, a brigade of 4 battalions and a division of 3 brigades. Then there are Army Corps and Armies and I am not very sure which of these I am in. The Division goes into the line for a period of several months depending on the exigencies of the situation and is duly relieved by another division. Our division, the 15th, is a Scottish one and is composed entirely of Highland and Lowland regiments. We have been in the line for nearly six months and I may say it has earned a great reputation for itself, of which we are being continually reminded, for our future guidance! For the present, we have been taken out of the line, on Divisional rest, for about a month altogether.
When the Division is in the line, a battalion is in the trenches for twelve days, followed by six days in rest billets, just behind the line when we are acting as reserve to the battalion which has relieved us. When in the trenches, two companies of the battalion, sometimes three, are in the firing line, with the other two or one, as the case may be, in immediate support. Each company has its spell in the support trenches which when we are very close toe the enemy line and more uncomfortable the the firing line as regards shell fire. Now that we are bang up against each other [against the enemy], the firing line on both sides is generally more immune from heavy shell fire than the support and reserve trenches but that is about all you can say for it and it comes in for everything else that is going. However, as we are not there now we shall not talk about it.
I was away from the battalion for a week on a course of instruction, which taught me nothing very new, and I was back with the lads for Christmas and New Year, which were spent rather quietly in accordance with the general’s wishes. You see, we are living in other people’s houses and we are scattered all over the village. However, we managed to arrange accommodation for ‘platoon dinners’ on New Year’s day and the men enjoyed themselves in their own way. Afterwards we had a concert and we managed to pack most of the battalion into the local school room. It was a great success and the talent brought to light was really surprising. It was fine to hear the men join in the chorus of their favourite songs. To me there is great pathos in men’s voices singing in unison and in harmony. The Russian soldiers are great singers and to hear a thousand of them singing on the march is something to be remembered, and more moving than opera. [Now there’s a detail I wish I’d had for one of my novels.] We all got a Christmas box from the Glasgow Corporation, consisting of a cake, box of raisins and almonds and a comforter of sorts, some getting wooden gloves, others a sleeping helmet and so forth, together with the enclosed card which reads very nice.
Best love and wishes to all for the New Year.
The details of trench rotation and army strength are quite interesting to me. Back soon with another instalment.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.