Somewhere in France – 28th May 1916

27 Berkley Square today

Henry Tod writes to his family from London with what must have been a jarring update. He’s at 27 Berkley Square.

Here I have come to anchor at last, in hospital, after being a week on the way from the trenches. I sent you a card from Calais but I expect you heard before that from the War Office that I had been wounded. It is a slight affair and just sufficient to get me packed off here for a few weeks out of the turmoil. It was a bomb which got me, hip and thigh, and I am punctured in half-a-dozen places. They are all flesh wounds and I think they have all the metal out of me by now. Dressing the wounds is rather a painful process but I don’t think it will be very long before I am up. Otherwise I am quite fit and as you can imagine enjoying the change of surroundings to the full.

This is a big private house converted into a hospital and the extraordinary thing is that I know the owner, Mr Salisbury-Jones, who is what they call “something in the city.” I know of him in Russia where he has oil interests, and I met him when I was last over on leave at a dinner party at the Carlton with Mr Grabowsky and our London manager. When I discovered where I was, I sent word by one of the nurses and Mr and Mrs S-J came up to the ward to see me. Mrs S-J resplendent in the blue uniform and gold stripes of the commandant of the hospital, and we had a long confab, somewhat to the wonder and admiration of the other fellows.

27 Berkley Square dining room

There are twenty beds here of which eighteen are occupied, as are all six in my ward. We are very comfortable and the general contrast to the last eight months could not be more marked.

As to the manner of my wounding it is a sorry tale and I have little zest in the telling of it. I was taking out a patrol to discover and plot on the map a new crater, which was not visible from our lines owing to the other craters extending along our front and generally to find out what the Bosche was doing behind this miniature mountain range. It wasn’t really our company’s job, as we were in support at the time, but two attempts had been made by other companies, with negative results. The patrol that went out the previous night were spotted trying to get through our own wire and badly strafed by machine gun fire. The Colonel asked if I would take it on and advised me to take a strong patrol, say a bombing squad of seven men and an NCO. I thought it too many for reconnoitring purposes be he thought we might be able to cut of one of their patrols or working parties. Moreover, if we found the new crater occupied by the enemy we were to try and bomb them out of it.

Plaque commemorating WWI hospital

At about 1 a.m. we set out and left our trench at a point well to the left of our objective where the row of craters ended. There was an unfortunate moon shining but we could not wait any longer as it gets light soon after 2 a.m. We cut our way through our own wire and got clear of that and bore away to the right, wriggling on our stomachs Indian file. I was at the head of the line and had just got abreast of our old friend the Munster Crater when I saw trouble looming ahead in the form of a sap running out from the German lines and converging in the same direction I was going and which I would have to cut very fine if we were to make further headway. We could scarcely hope to get round it unobserved but there we were and something had to be attempted.

I moved on a bit and could hear the Germans talking and moving about in the sap, which I could now see was well protected with wire. There seemed to be a good number of them and I wondered what they were so busy about at that time of night. We wriggled on a bit further and I was within a yard or two of their wire, when we were spotted. I heard their excited “yah, yah” and one man started to count us. We could not have been caught in a worse place.

I passed down the word to throw our bombs and run for it, but where to run with a mountainous crater behind us? I had just got rid of my first bomb when their lights went up and a machine gun opened on us and bombs were flying in all directions, but we had no show [not sure what this means or if perhaps it’s a mistake] at all in the open and the chalky soil of the crater made a bad background for us. I had provided most of the men with revolvers, as a handy weapon in an emergency, and these were emptied at almost point blank range.

But they soon mopped us up. A bomb landed between me and the man next to me and I felt a burning sensation down my back and legs. He got it down the front and indicated he was through with it, pointing to his throat. I told him to stick it and we would try and get into the crater behind us. I hauled him up the bank of loose chalk somehow and how we ever got to the top I don’t know.

I wasn’t hit again except for a bullet which grazed the inside of my thigh but it is more than likely my friend stopped some more. From the top we simply rolled down anyhow into the bottom of the crater which had some water in it. I propped the man up but he was dead. I couldn’t make out what had happened too me; my breeches were in tatters and I could feel the warm blood on them, but I wasn’t waiting there any longer. I scrambled up the inside of the crater and was nearly blotted out by one of our own men at the top, who thought I was a German. I roared at him in pure Glaswegian, as there was a terrific racket going on from both sides, and he and some others soon had me back in the trench. I found three others had got in, all wounded. This left five unaccounted for and I could only take it the worst had happened.

I was taken into a dug-out and had first aid from the battalion doctor. When it was light, the stretcher bearers carried me to the dressing station where the doctor gave me an anti-tetanus injection and patched me up for the next stage to the village, where an ambulance took me to Bethune. It was during these operations I realized I had lost a good deal of blood, and of course I could not move – being all trussed up. At Bethune I was put under an anaesthetic, x-rayed, and the wounds thoroughly cleaned and after three days treatment here, I was put on a barge, fitted up like a hospital, and floated down the La Bassee Canal to Calais. [A distance of roughly 90KM or 56 miles.]

The case next to me was the adjutant of the Royal Scots whose headquarters dug-out I think I told you got a shell all to itself. He was hopelessly mauled and practically unconscious and died in Calais. I was three days in Calais before being shipped to Dover and thence to London.

This is a long winded effort and has taken days to write. I was glad to learn from the balloon that two others of my patrol got back to our lines the following night, after spending about 24 hours in a shell hole.

Will close now and duly report progress.

I can tell you I had no idea of Henry Tod’s wounds. He has such an understated way about him. My husband remembers from family stories that Henry Tod was connected with Russia in some business dealings, but the details are lost.

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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.

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.

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!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.