Somewhere in France – In the Trenches 20th April 1916

German stick-grenade
Source – Wikipedia

Diving right in with the latest letter from Henry Tod, ominously titled ‘In the Trenches’.

I have rather a big budget this time [I think he means lots to tell] and if I don’t get it off quick I will never remember all what has happened. We have just moved back to the reserve trenches after a most exciting spell in the firing line, including bomb attacks, gas and mines and every other abomination the war has brought to light. We went up to the line on Easter Monday into a section of the HohenZollern Redoubt, of bad repute. We had got warning of an impending attack from a deserter who evidently didn’t want to be in it. The bit of line we are holding is absolutely unique, being a mere conglomeration of craters, as mining has been going on for months from both sides.

There is really no “firing line” in the ordinary sense, our company front for instance being three craters, of which we occupied one and the near lips of the other two. On the second night the Germans tried to bomb their way into our crater, but although they kept it up for over two hours we managed to keep them out. Meantime it had developed into a first-rate artillery duel, as these local scraps [!!!] usually do, in which trench mortar batteries and everything else chipped in.

I was in charge of the crater and could give little heed to what was happening elsewhere. We had about a dozen casualties although I had never more than ten men in the crater at one time. I was kept busy seeing the supply of bombs was kept up and the casualties replaced with fresh men. [I have this image of bombs in – men out] We had built a trench of sorts high up round the inside, which provided some protection and most of their bombs exploded harmlessly at the bottom of the crater. Anyway we gave as good as we got and eventually things quietened down but we had to keep a sharp lookout all night.

At dawn about 3am, the sentries reported figures moving round the crater, but a few bombs sent them scuttling for cover. It was here I got my first German, at least one I can vouch for. A few of them were returning bombs at us but we were keeping them at a safe distance, about 40 yards. I had taken a rifle and was on one of the little sentry platforms at the top, waiting for a decent target in the gathering light. One unfortunate Bosch, a huge fellow, suddenly rose clear of his cover quite close in with a stick-bomb and made to throw it, but I was on him at once and bowled him over like a ninepin before he parted with his missile. This helped to quench their ardour and peace reigned again – but not for long …

The sequel to this episode on the next blog post.

I’m struck by how readily Henry’s letter transports the reader in time and place: explosions at the bottom of the crater, the little sentry platform, the line being a mere conglomeration of craters, men scuttling for cover, bombs in men out. Great inspiration for someone writing about WWI – and to think that I had no access to these letters until after writing my first three novels!

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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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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7 Responses

  1. Marvelous post! In my research for my own WWI trilogy, I ran across a British Army manual on how to occupy and fortify a crater in order to incorporate them into your own trench line. I never cease to be amazed at how these men endured—some for all 51 months of the War.

  2. “Meantime it had developed into a first-rate artillery duel, as these local scraps [!!!] usually do, in which trench mortar batteries and everything else chipped in.”

    Your !!! is wonderfully apt, Mary. The tone of the letter (so far) is a soldier’s excitement, perhaps feeling lucky to have survived the artillery duel or proud to have killed his first enemy soldier. I sense a kind of affirmation he has experienced–something he wants to tell–unlike earlier letters when he wanted more to reassure the family at home.

    Thanks so much for sharing along the way. C

    1. I wish I had known of these when writing my first three novels. Great fodder for research as well as a touching piece of family history.

  3. Mary: These letters are as captivating to me as those written by young soldiers in the Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War. But there’s another dimension here that fascinates me: I picture a man surrounded by death and destruction who must spare his loved ones the terror of it all through his wit and sensitivity. He must have been an extraordinary person.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jim. Henry Tod was my husband’s great uncle – and unfortunately, I never met him. Hard to imagine his parents receiving letters like this, isn’t it?

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