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 – 26th February 1916 (2)


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

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.