Somewhere in France – 7th and 17th May 1916

Henry Tod was in the thick of the action in his last letter. Let’s see what happens next. I haven’t read any of these before I share them with you.

Farm near Bethune

7th May 1916

Just a line to acknowledge your letters of 10th April and to report all well. We completed our tour without any further untoward happenings, but were jolly glad to get out of the place. [Now there’s an understatement.] Our next visit to the line will be a little to the right [this would be south], in the vicinity of my first visit to the trenches, likewise of bad memory. We are spending out six days out in the quite big town of Bethune, by way of change, where it is possible to do some useful shopping. This time the whole battalion is billeted together under one roof in a disused factory and we had a very successful concert last night. Some of our later drafts have provided excellent talent in this respect, including a professional comedian. The Colonel passed on a message from the Divisional Commander complimenting us on our stout behaviour in the trenches recently and we were all very pleased with ourselves.

17th May 1916

Your letters of 25th April are just to hand and glad to see you are all well, and I can likewise report “all present and correct”. As you will have seen from the papers, our part of the line is coming in for the attentions of the enemy. The Germans again attacked at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, of which we hold a part, and this time succeeded in establishing themselves in a section of our front line. We were in reserve and the Royal Scots were the unfortunate ones in possession. They are in the same Division.

It was after the usual terrible bombardment, against which infantry have no chance. The K.O.S.B [Kings Own Scottish Borderers] and the Scottish Rifles made the counter attack and managed to contract the enemy’s new line a bit, but failed to drive them out. The part taken is of little account as it formed a pocket in the enemy line and the result has merely been to straighten the line, but it is not pleasant to be treated thus.

Countryside near Bethune

We were brought up as support and provided digging parties, ammunition carriers, etc, etc, and to consolidate if the attack were successful. The Huns however, had already got their machine guns up and kept up a heavy shell fire on our lines, and our colleagues were unable to get through despite two valiant attempts. Owing to the contour of the ground our artillery is twice as far back from the line as the German guns and consequently could not make such good practice, and that made a big difference.

The brigade casualties were pretty heavy. A 5.9 shell found the headquarters dug-out of the Royal Scots killing two field officers, two company officers, and a host of others. Tomorrow we relieve the Irish on our right, who had a bad time of it in the last gas attack, for the simple reason that they were not nearly so well disciplined in gat drill and a number of the men had thrown away their helmets. We do eight days there. My leave is due but officers are scarce at the moment and I will have to wait.

Officers are scarce … sounds ominous, don’t you think. Although, I’m reminded of looking at Canadian battalion reports where casualties for officers were listed by name and casualties for regular troops were listed by numbers along with horses.

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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

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.

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

Somewhere in France – 1st November 1915

Alexander Henry Tod records his first experience in the line …

loos-la-basseeHere I am back in billets and comparative comfort after my first spell in the firing line. We had twelve days of it altogether and had a rather tough time. The weather broke badly and it was very cold and wet. Otherwise it was warm enough – the battalion suffering 100 casualties with 20 killed including one officer. We occupied a section of the trenches officially known as the “hairpin” which is right at the apex of a big salient penetrating into the German line, with Loos on our right and La Bassee on the left. Our trenches were of course those recently occupied by the Germans, before the big attack, and were in a terrible state of disrepair. They were practically blown to bits by the artillery of both sides.

We were not 30 yards from the Germans at places and as it had not been possible since the advance to get out working parties to put things to rights, the place had remained just as it was after the big fight; the dead lying everywhere both inside and outside the trenches. Our comparatively heavy casualties were solely due to our exposed position, as, except for a bombing raid by the Germans which accounted for about 10 of us before they were driven off, we were not in open action. The shallow trenches gave us no protection and we were subjected to very heavy fire of all sorts – artillery, rifle, machine guns and bombs, from the front and both flanks. Their snipers took a heavy toll as there were stretches of our trenches open to enfilade fire and from the lie of the land they could look down on us. Our periscopes were smashed by the dozen and it was most wearing work keeping a proper lookout, as we were liable to be rushed at any moment. At this point we are purely on a defensive position and as far as I can see neither side can afford to let the line remain as it is and it will have to be straightened out somehow.

The “line” here is very irregular and broken and in places looks more like an octopus than anything else. In fact at two points the Germans and ourselves are in the same trench, and the short intervening section, of just bombing range, is barricaded off with sandbags and unopened coils of barbed wire. I was at one of these points with my platoon and had a squad of bombers up against the barricade. It was here they tried to rush our trench by open bomb attack and it was here I got a real baptism of fire.

to be continued on Thursday … the continuation of November 1st 1915 can be found here.

These letters began on October 9th, 1915. You can find the rest of them by searching the tag or category ‘Somewhere in France’.