Somewhere in France – 25th March 1916

Apparently there’s a song: When Verey Lights are Shining to the tun of When Irish Eyes are Smiling

Henry Tod is in the trenches once again …

25th March 1916

I am writing this from the trenches  in a fairly good dug-out, full at the moment with slumbering forms and they make a fine orchestra. We have had a lot more snow and things are as bad as ever. However, things are pretty quiet over the way, [I assume he means the German lines] except for rifle grenades. a comparatively new toy, which are always coming over and find a victim now and again. We of course retaliate in kind, but exact results unknown.

I was out last night with a party putting up a fresh belt of wire in advance of our existing wire, which is too near our trenches and in rather damaged condition. It was quite exciting while it lasted; it always is in the middle of no man’s land. [Henry is such an understated guy.] All went well for the first hour or so and we had done about 30 yards when they heard us and sent up one of their Verey lights [flares]. This was followed by a burst of rifle fire but we got down in time and the shooting moreover was pretty bad. We lay low until they shut up then resumed operations.

Again they spotted us and this time they opened on us with a couple of machine guns. We got down flat as pancakes and those who could rolled into the nearest shell-holes. There they kept us quite a long time while they played up and down our pitch and sending up plenty of flares.

They were firing a shade high and the bullets were splattering the sandbags of our parapet and pinging the wire just inches above us. As long as we didn’t move we were all right as it is difficult to spot immovable objects in the dark, and the light rockets give you some warning before bursting into light. There were fifteen of us and scattered all over the place and the next thing was to get them in when the chance offered.

When they [the Germans] had expended enough ammunition to wipe out an army corps, they ceased firing and after ascertaining we had no casualties, I gave the word to get back into the trench. It was a job in itself to get through our own barbed wire and as pants and puttees ripped the language was something dreadful. I am glad the damage was no worse and so was the captain who was anxiously awaiting us on the forested. I am now second in command of the company but suppose my second star (full loot) will arrive sometime after the war is over.

Our engineers have a mine ready to blow just in front of us and are only waiting for the Germans to resume work in their counter mine before doing the trick. Meantime we have been warned what to do when it does go bang, and that is to occupy the near lip of the crater [I wrote about an action like this in Time and Regret – wish I’d had these letters then]. This is quite an operation as the mine is in enemy territory. Three separate parties will rush out, the first being the bombing party to keep the crater clear of the enemy, followed by two digging parties, one to dig the bombers in and the other to make a communication trench out to the crater. I am to be in charge of the last lot. We are being relieved tomorrow and I think we are all rather hoping the job will be left to our successors! Well, I am for duty now in the cold dark night for a couple of hours, so will close with love to all.

Imagine how vulnerable they would feel working out in no man’s land with flares going up and rifles firing at them.

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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