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

Somewhere in France – 18th March 1916

Lewis Gun

Just a line to keep you going, although I have none of your meantime to acknowledge. When we went up to the trenches last time, I was fortunate enough, after a couple of days there, to be sent on a course of machine gun instruction some seven miles behind the line. Here I have been for nearly a week, the course finishing tomorrow with an exam. It has been interesting work and I can take the gun to bits and put it together again in quick time. The Lewis gun is particularly adaptable for the firing line as it is light and can be shifted about easily and does not require the cumbersome platform and stand of the Vickers. We had a few nasty knocks during my sojourn in the line, one shell accounting or 9 men, 4 of whom were killed. Sim, one of the Company officers, was hit in the head but I learn that it is not very serious.

Vickers gun

The battalion has been out for three days while I have been here [I think he means on the training course], and we go up again the day after tomorrow. After that spell is completed we should go on Divisional rest for about three weeks, if the general position permits.

The weather has turned much better and spring seems to have arrived at last. There is an aeroplane base close at hand and it is a pleasant diversion to watch them at work. They go on patrols of about three hours duration, both forenoon and afternoon, and it is interesting to see them all trooping home at dusk – perhaps one of their number absent. Relatively speaking their casualties will be pretty heavy but I envy them their comfortable quarters and independence of the muddy trenches.

We are all very bucked at the stand the French are making at Verdun and this ought to go a long way to bring home to Fritz the futility of the struggle, but that is probably too much to expect.

How right he was – the war lasted more than two and a half years after this letter.


Somewhere in France – 2nd March 1916

It seems fitting to post one of Alexander Henry Tod’s letters to honour Remembrance Day and to give thanks to those who served and who serve in the cause of justice and freedom.

2nd March 1916

Just a line to acknowledge your letters of 7th February before going up to the trenches tonight. The snow has almost disappeared but our advance party reports the trenches to be knee-deep in mud and water, so it is going to be no picnic trudging up there tonight. We have had fairly comfortable billets this time and as permission had been given to the native population to return to this area we were able to get some washing done. They have become quite accustomed to shelling in the back area and the children spend their days looking for souvenirs in the form of fragments of shells bursting in the vicinity. We only get the odd one now and again, as the bulk were dropping beyond us seeking some of our batteries.

The children can all sing “Tipperary” and “Keep the home fires burning”. Although we get on well with the civilian population, we have a feeling that there are spies about us. I am certain I missed an opportunity of nabbing one and have been kicking myself ever since. I was taking a walk along a country road a little way out of the village and at one of the few places where you can get a sort of bird’s eye view of the enemy country in the distance. I overtook a fellow officer wearing a burberry [yes, the classic trench coat] and a Royal Scot glengarry [seems to be a cap with a badge on it]. I greeted him in passing and was inclined for a chat as we were going the same way. He was rather curt in his greeting and unmistakably allowed me to go on ahead.

At first I thought little of it and that he was just an ill-mannered youth and then I began to think that his appearance and behaviour were a little strange, apart from his rudeness. I decided to take some action to satisfy myself. I had meantime gotten some way ahead of him round a bend in the road and came on a motor lorry with two A.S.C. men [Army Service Corps] tinkering at the engine. I told them to stand by and be ready to help me if necessary and explained what was in the wind. They were to go on working while I accosted my friend. Next minute he whizzed by on a motor cycle before I could recognize him and looking back I could see a civilian running into a wood some way off the road. They were spies beyond a shadow of a doubt. [Sounds like something you’d read in a novel!]

Army Service Corps

Two of the enemy observation balloons broke away the day before yesterday and drifted over us and on the same day our anti-aircraft guns brought down two of their aeroplanes, which was quite a good day’s work. We are still awaiting the result of the German offensive at Verdun, which may have a considerable bearing on the rest of the line.

This is all for the present. I have sent you the Regimental Chronicle which you may find of interest.

Germany and France fought one another in the battle of Verdun from February to December 1916. Over 156,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers died. I wrote a scene or two about it in Lies Told in Silence. I’m sure Henry’s battalion saw a lot of action in their portion of the line before this battle was settled.

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