Somewhere in France – 26th February 1916

Time for another letter from Henry Tod. Imagine, February in the trenches.

12th H.L.I – B.E.F. France

Your welcome letters of 28th January to hand. The cold wave from which you have been suffering has reached here and we are under several inches of snow with keen frost at nights. Luckily we were in the reserve trenches when this started and had good dug-outs. At the moment we are back in billets. These however have been so knocked about that they are, if anything, colder than the dug-outs. No windows, or rather no glass in them, and most of the houses are roofless. We ought to have been sent further back for our rest and got better billets, but the present position is touchy and the Hun is evidently determined to get through somewhere, so we have to remain close up.

They broke through the French close on our right and took a considerable slice of their front trenches. Some of our artillery was switched over to the rescue and altogether there was a tremendous racket all night but they seem to have held him [the Hun] up all right.

We were in for our usual 12 days and altogether had it fairly quiet, especially from their artillery fire, which seems to have been diverted elsewhere. There was a large mine crater in front of us somewhat nearer the enemy line than ours and he was trying to establish himself in it but it was too easy a target for our bombs and mortars and the best he could do was to plant a defiant flag on his lip of the crater. We sniped at this in vain and could not bring it down. I had a go at it myself.

It was a dangerous lure, as the man whose rifle I borrowed can testify. He has a hole in his tin hat to remember the occasion. He subsided quickly onto the fire step but had soon sufficiently recovered to tell me that his ‘head was fair bummin’. The impact of the bullet on his helmet had stunned him and no more. Otherwise our friends over the way were fairly sociable and sang to us of an evening some ancient music hall ditty like “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do”, which quite tickled our fancy. He knew to a minute when we “stood to” both morning and evening and would shout over “stand to, Jock”. We were quite incapable of returning the compliment in German.

The wind has gone round in their favour and gas alarms are the order of the day, which further complicates one’s existence in these parts. The mens’ gas helmets have to be inspected twice a day and all precautions taken against surprise. It’s a great war, I tell you and as I heard someone remark – it is an overrated pastime. Life in billets consists chiefly in sleeping and eating, inspecting the mens’ kit and burnishing up our armour generally. We provide working parties up to the line for repairing trenches or helping the engineers to bore tunnels and we each take our turn in conducting them. I often manage a ride on one of our transport mounts, but it is impossible to get very far afield and a game of cards occasionally and letter writing are our main diversions. [Hence these long letters?]

Well, I must go and get a bath as I booked my turn, so au revoir and love to all. I am sending you a book of Bairnsfather’s sketches, which hits it off very well.

Henry seems rather blasé about it all, doesn’t he? I wonder if he really felt that way or merely wrote like that to avoid alarming his family.

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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 – 26th February 1916 (2)

Source: http://battlefields1418.50megs.com/loos_photos.htm

Continuing Henry Tod’s lengthy letter … if you recall his battalion is in the vicinity of Loos. This photo shows Loos after the 1915 battle.

In the big attack [he’s referring to 1915] we captured Loos and Hill 70 which lies just beyond, but were unable to hold the latter, and today our trenches run round in front of Loos on the lower slopes of the Hill. The Germans on the higher slopes dominate the position and the village is a death trap [no mincing of words here]. Some of the buildings are still standing and the two famous towers, but only just, and they form a fine target for the German guns. If you scuttle across a street you are sniped at – not with a rifle or machine gun, although they are there in plenty, but with a small field gun, or whiz-bang as they are called.

We were just to the right of the village, with our headquarters in a cellar in the village itself. The day after my arrival it come in for a very heavy bombardment from early morning till night. The 5.9 shells (high explosive) were coming over at the rate of one every six seconds. [Remember, he’s writing to his parents!] As it was getting dark they fired a mine in front of the village which went off with a terrific rumble and a dull red flame. It was short of our trenches, so it didn’t count. We thought this was the prelude to an attack on the village, but as night fell things quieted down to the usual display of fireworks in the form of star shells (light rockets) and the spasmodic rattle of a machine gun. This is a touchy part of the line and one has the feeling that the Germans will sooner or later make an attempt to recover their lost ground.

One night, or rather early morning at 2 a.m., I went out on my first reconnoitring patrol to investigate a sap which ran out from the enemy lines towards ours. I took three men with a good supply of bombs, as you never know what you might run into, and started off with a vague idea of doing something. The Colonel wanted a live prisoner amongst other things, which of course is a mere trifle. [Great sense of humour, our Henry.]

The trenches here are about 150 yards apart but from the lie of the land it is difficult to make out the formation of the enemy line. We suspected they were digging in this sap, and I had to verify its existence. It was a nice dark night but it had been raining and the grass and everything else was very wet. As you have to crawl on your stomach all the time you are out, you can imagine the result; wet through and covered with mud.

It took us over an hour to reach their wire entanglements and I found myself in the angle formed by the sap with their main trench, the sap being on my left and also well wired. It was weird and every time their flares went rocketing up we lay perfectly still with our noses buried in the wet grass hoping we hadn’t been spotted. Anything unusual on the ground had to be very closely watched before proceeding further.

I wriggled up to the wire protecting their sap and waited for some sign of life. I might have done some damage here as I was only a few feet from their sap but I couldn’t hear or see anybody. I moved along towards their main trench and presently heard voices and men moving about there, but I couldn’t get within 30 years of them because of the wire.

I worked along for a bit hoping to catch some stray Jerry out working on the wire, but no luck. I took general stock of the situation and then headed back for our own trenches. It is quite easy to get lost in No Man’s Land and I had to consult my luminous compass more than once. The opposing trenches are never just parallel to each other and wind about in the most bewildering manner. When you are out reconnoitring the men of your company are warned to keep a specially sharp look-out as are those of the adjoining Companies and they do not throw up light rockets to your discomfiture. However, we got back to our own line in much quicker time than we took to go out, although I felt a little disappointed that it ended so tamely, considering the possibilities.

Well, I must get this letter to a close somehow. Nothing particular happened until the day we came out and we were congratulating ourselves on getting out of this spell with practically no casualties. About midday however we got a most awful hammering from their artillery, just our Company front which was fairly extended. Our trenches were badly knocked in and we had 15 casualties, 5 of whom killed, including the Irish captain aforementioned. He was a nephew of Sir Edward Carson. Considering the severity of the bombardment we got off lightly. Our telephone lines were broken and we were isolated for a time.

We are now out for 6 days and the weather is fine, but the roads are in a dreadful state owing to the heavy traffic.

As always, I find these first hand accounts amazing. Almost makes me want to write another novel set during WWI. And a reminder, I haven’t read ahead so I’m finding out what happens just as you are.

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.