In the Trenches – 20th April 1916 – Part 2

Continuing Henry Tod’s experiences on that day in the trenches.

At 5 a.m. to the second, a most intense bombardment broke out along our lines, and we had all that uneasy feeling it was a prelude to an attack. We had been sitting tight under this [I think he’s referring to the bombardment] for half an hour or so when – sniff! and the next moment we were struggling into our gas helmets. The gas gongs were beaten to raise the alarm for those in dug-outs (the worst place when gas is about) and to warn those in the rear. It was a horrible sensation to be tied up in these gas bags capped as they were of course by our shrapnel helmets. We looked fearsome enough, and everyone looked alike, but one’s sight hearing and breathing is so interfered with and to run around in these things to see the men were properly fixed up was the acme of discomfort. The men were splendid and there was no sign of panic which was a great relief.

The gas cloud came over thick and blotted everything out in a white mist and was supplemented by a shower of gas shells. You could not see more than a step or two but the helmets were effective and s long as they were well tucked in under the collar, nothing came through. I had got a mouthful or two in the early stages but beyond tickling up my inside a bit and a subsequent headache I was none the worse.

Of course our main concern was the possibility of a visit from our friends. [!!] We kept up a slow steady rifle fire into the mist just to show we were still there and our artillery was putting over heavy stuff good and hard. I think they had the wind up in the back regions. The Germans did not attempt an attack on our front, that we could see.

The bombardment lasted an hour and a half and the gas cloud was beginning to clear away when they had another surprise for us. They sprang a big mine just to the left of my crater and we came in for a deluge of earth and stones and mud, which completely buried one man and gave the others a proper dousing. I had just left the crater but was back in a jiffy to find my little band standing by, bombs in hand, ready for any emergency and covered from head to foot in mud. We got the submerged on excavated and he pulled round after a bit. The men were really splendid and I recommended the sergeant for a decoration.

The gas finally cleared away and we resumed our normal existence again, but the strain was telling and we were relieved that afternoon, i.e. a day before time and we went into the reserve trenches.

One of the company officers, Bethune, whom I think I’ve mentioned, was very seriously wounded and also gassed, and an officer of A company was killed and two others wounded. Our casualties were pretty stiff but I have a feeling we gas more than we got, as our artillery kept up a very hot fire all the time and we succeeded in pinning him [the Germans] down on our front. He attempted an attack on other parts of the line but at no place did he gain a footing. The Irish division on our right lost some ground, but regained it before the end of the day.

We had comparatively few cases of “gassing”, the only fatal one being a little white terrier which had adopted us and followed us into the trenches. Poor little chap: no one thought of a gas helmet for him. He had his day and the rats he has killed are countless.

We go up to the same spot tomorrow for a couple of days to complete our spell and are hoping things will not be quite so lively. Our friends are very restless now and no doubt our time is coming.

My first three novels pictured below feature WWI and drew inspiration from letters like these.

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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 www.mktod.com.

7 thoughts on “In the Trenches – 20th April 1916 – Part 2”

  1. Mary:

    That he twice made the comment, “the men were splendid,” touches me deeply, as having not served in the military myself I have no idea how I would respond to similar terror. You have such wonderful inspiration here for your own writing: this deeply personal insight into human emotions at their most dramatic, exactly what Robert McKee describes as “the negation of the negation.” Powerful.

  2. Did a lot of research into gas warfare for my WWI trilogy–an important character gets gassed in Book 1 with phosgene. I’m a retired Air Force officer and when I was flying B-52s, we had to do a lot of work in chemical warfare ensembles (as they’re now called) as part of exercises and regular training. It’s exactly as your granddad describes it–“the acme of discomfort.” So hot and sweaty and claustrophobic. And try flying in a full chem suit, including charcoal-lined overalls. Black dust got in and on everything.

    I was fascinated and horrified by the WWI solider’s experience. The capriciousness of gas, so dependent on topography and wind. I chose phosgene for my character’s gassing because I discovered it smells like fresh-mown hay. (I also grew up in farm country in the US Midwest.)

  3. Amazing insights in these posts about what it was really like “in the trenches” (literally). I also noticed the “splendid” references, and of course, the poor little terrier.

  4. I’m working on a book that takes place in WWI. It was a truly terrible war and I can’t imagine what it must have been like. Thanks for the great share. (I’ve downloaded a couple of your books -can’t wait to get started!)

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