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 – 8th February 1916

Henry Tod has been on leave and now he’s heading back for action in the vicinity of Loos. Loos was the biggest British attack of 1915 and the first time that the British used poison gas.

12th HLI – BEF France

… initially Henry makes a few comments about family members he’s seen in London

I left London on the Saturday morning and a few friends saw me off at Victoria. The departure of the leave train is a great occasion and the station is full of relatives and friends. Everybody is cheerful but there are many tears with the laughter. Got down to Folkestone about 11 a.m. and after we all had got on board, were informed that the boat would not cross that day. It seems that a submarine had made its appearance and rumour as usual was rife but I don’t know if anything really happened. A lot of shipping was hanging about near the coast and they had evidently been warned. Very willingly we disembarked and we put in quite a pleasant day at Folkestone, despite the inky darkness at night as of course all lights are forbidden.

We crossed next morning and the day was fine and calm. We were again hung up at Boulogne – at least some of us – as the train for my bit of the line was not starting until next day, and we cheerfully accepted our fate and made no complaints. The train left at mid-day and after the usual slow journey we got to rail-head pretty late in the evening where I spent the night.

Next morning got onto a branch line a little further on my way and then had to tramp it until I had tracked down our battalion transport base. Here I donned my war gear and learned that the battalion had gone up to the line the previous evening, in the vicinity of Loos, which I had noticed in the papers has been coming in for special attention from the enemy. The Division is now back on the ground over which they attacked in the great battle which started on 25th September, and resulted in the capture of Loos.

I went up that night with the ration party to guide me and eventually got to our “little clay home in the west” in time for the evening meal. I was glad to see my mess mates alive and kicking and of course we had lots to tell each other. It seems in my absence the Germans made a night attack on our bit of front. Our fellows were in reserve and were called from their billets to double up over the open, but services were not required as the Bosche had been driven back. In the bombardment preceding the attack a heavy toll was taken in the Division and several officers I knew have been killed, including three in Cockburn’s old regiment.

We had now our own trouble to think about and were in for an eight day spell – straight from leave! An Irish division had just been sent out but before going into the line as a division it was getting its baptism in small doses and detachments were scattered throughout our division, who are old timers by comparison. A company and six officers of the Connaught Rangers were with our battalion, a platoon and two officers of which were with out company. This access to the strength was very welcome, especially as their officers were able to take their spells of duty and give us longer reliefs. Our two guests were a typically Irish pair, with a brogue you could cut, full of fun and good spirits. One, alas, is no more, being killed yesterday afternoon by a shell, just before we were relieved, but of this later.

I think we’ll leave the rest of Henry’s long letter for another post.

 

Somewhere in France – 4th December 1915

I missed posting on Thursday – my regular day. Here is another letter from Alexander Henry Tod to his parents in Scotland.

source: www.firstworldwar.com
source: http://www.firstworldwar.com

Here I am safely back in billets again, for three days. We got back late this afternoon in a downpour and it had been raining since last night. This following on the frost has made the trenches practically uninhabitable and I don’t know [how] our relieving battalion are going to stick it if the weather doesn’t improve immediately. They are mere ditches full of water. Most of the dug-outs have collapsed and there were many narrow escapes of being tried alive both from that and the miniature landslides caused by the trenches falling in. How we are going to get through the winter in them is a mystery. The long communication trenches are not much better and it is one of the things in the war I shall never forget – these interminable struggles to and from the line. You may not believe it, but several of the men had to leave their boots in the mud – it was so deep and sticky.

We had the usual exchange of compliments, with the addition of rifle grenades and trench mortars, which latter are thrown up almost perpendicular to a great height from the opposite trenches and land with a terrific thud and blow everything to smithereens. They are great lumps of things (called rum jars) and you can follow their flight in the air, which gives you a chance to scuttle for cover.  Otherwise things were fairly quiet [!!] as evidently the conformation [he might mean formation] of the line did not permit the Bosche to shell us. We had very few casualties and only one fatal. This followed on a most unusual incident. The German line was not 50 yards from ours and we had saps running out from our respective trenches to almost touching point. We had just had breakfast when a German got out of his trench and with his hands above his head came over no man’s land towards our line. I may say that prior to this they had been shouting over to us that they wanted to surrender and we thought this was the first move. He stopped half way and waited and we sent out a corporal to see what it was all about. The German gave him a note and that seemed the end of his mission. Our ambassador tried to steal his cap, as a souvenir, but didn’t succeed and after grinning at each other for a bit they returned to their respective trenches.

Meantime the men on both sides had been showing themselves pretty freely, and for a time being there was no war. The note said, “Don’t shoot; come over; we are very comfortable.” A queer sort of message and I suppose referred, ironically, to the state of their trenches. H.Q. got wind of it and the major came round the firing line and put an end to the tomfoolery. Immediately afterwards, one of our men put his head over the parapet for a last wave and was immediately shot for his trouble. The whole thing was probably a ruse on their part to find out who was opposite them and anything else they could find out.

I am glad to hear you are all keeping well. I am beginning to revive too in front of a coke brasier and looking forward to a good sleep.

The first letter from Alexander Henry Tod  somewhere in France can be found here.