It’s now been three months since I left home to take my part in this awful war. I’m writing this letter from a miserable cold trench in the middle of France. I think the place is called Ypres. I cannot explain to you how much I am missing home, you and the rest of my dear family. I miss walking around our town, walking down to the bakers to get our bread each morning. I miss the delightful smell which I used to love and now I cannot stop thinking about it. Oh how I long to be home. I miss looking out of my bedroom window in the morning looking at the scruffy sheep in the field next door. I remember the days when we used to go for a walk through the fields, breathing in the clean pure air; it’s a pity the same can not be said here with the disgusting smell and sight of decaying and rotting bodies.
Since I have been in France I have not been in combat, all the time. For a month and a half I was involved in basic training. We have all been getting our frayed, threadbare clothing and equipment ready. Our combat skills such as using a bayonet have improved tremendously. On the journey across to France I became extremely nervous and apprehensive about the job that lay ahead of me as did most of the other lads with me. The journey was not a pleasant one; the sea was rough caused by windy swirling conditions. I wondered did God want us to go?
Nevertheless we arrived in France a day after setting off. The atmosphere between the crew and the troops was good and friendly. We had heard of the good news coming out of France that we are winning the war. I remember thinking that I would be back home in a couple of weeks. This encouraged us all, no end. We all thought that we’ll show the Germans that we won’t stand for it, right?
The basic training that we participated in was tough and brutal. Having said that though, it was still not enough to prepare us for what was to come later on in the trenches. I’ve seen now what tough and brutal really means. In training we had to be as agile as a monkey and as tough as leather. The training they subjected us to was intense and strenuous. As a result of this I felt as sick as a dog. I was desperate to be at home and to feel all those home comforts I once took for granted. I didn’t know whether this feeling was caused by the sickness from the training or whether I was just feeling homesick.
We had to train for eight hours a day; we were made to march for 6 hours, then we had to sort out our equipment for the following weeks. Even when we were given new shirts, they contained lice eggs in the seams of them, most pleasant! As I mentioned earlier, the training lasted for just over a month, after which we were ordered to march into the middle of France to engage in the war. At this point I got very excited as this was my chance to engage in my first fire fight. All the other lads felt the same. I can tell you that if we knew what was coming then we would not have felt that way.
We were sent as reinforcements for the troops who had already been fighting in combat for some months. I did not think about it at the time but I should have realised that the men we were replacing would mostly be already dead or injured. So instead of being excited I should have been nervous, extremely nervous.
The march into the middle of France took us two weeks. I can remember reflecting about my life and how it could have been different whilst marching. I reminisce how peaceful, beautiful and reassured life was before this war. I often recollect how you used to rock back and forth on your murmuring rocking chair and how the front door used to creak shut, just as my bones groan now.
We arrived at the trenches of the battlefield at 6:06 am on the 19th November. I can remember thinking how vast the trenches were. The backs of them were neat whilst the front looked like many bombs had exploded in it. Bodies were splattered everywhere and the water was red, full of blood. The smell of the decaying bodies was unbearable and I will never forget how the other soldiers cheered when we reinforcements arrived.
Whilst marching to the trenches I had made friends with a man called Tom Finnely. He had ginger hair and wore a shiny silver chain round his neck which contained an embroidered message. He often explained to me that this tag was for luck. Just as we had settled down in the trench the German’s opened fire on us. I can recall thinking thanks for the welcome. We retaliated straight away and I think back how excited I felt when I pulled the trigger of my rifle for the first time. This fire fight lasted for days; however it often dulled at night to give us some rest.
While in battle Tom and I stuck together until one day he was brutally mowed down by the side of me whilst we were advancing to the next trench. I did not realise until afterwards when I saw him lying in the middle of “no mans zone,” covered in bullet holes. His head was sliced open. My emotions at that point were full of complete sadness. It made me reflect how much my life means to me and just how easily that man lying there could have been me. I felt so sorry for his wife who Tom had told me all about.
However, my view point changed the night Tom died. It was a dark and wet night when myself and three comrades went out into the “no mans” zone to drag Tom’s body into our trench. I can remember how heavy and full of mud his uniform was. Eventually we managed to drag Tom into the trench and I searched him for valuable objects. I took off his silver chain and it read something in German. Assuming he had taken it from a German I took it to our superior officer who could translate German. He told me that Tom Finnely was in fact a German spy. I was truly disgusted; a man who I once trusted was in fact plotting against me. I could not believe it. My emotions at that point turned from sadness to complete and utter anger. I wanted to kill him myself. However one of my fellow soldier’s managed to see the irony of it, saying “born by a German, killed by a German.”
At night we are commonly awakened by rats crawling over us and frogs splashing in the water. The rats frequently run over my body and as I lie on my back I wait for the rats to linger on my legs. I then heave my legs upwards sending the rat flying hopefully killing the vermin. Occasionally I hear a grunt when the rat lands on someone else.
The days and weeks seem to merge into one and as the fighting carries on I see more and more people die. At this moment in time there are more people dying each day than ever. I can recollect vividly a nightmare seeing bullets entering people’s bodies and then seeing them dropping down dead. It is sickening! To make matters worse bodies are just left to rot causing a vile stale smell which does not go away. Each day the fighting becomes more intense with the gun fights becoming more vicious and deadly. The horror of these fights is untrue; you have to be here to see how bad it is. You see bullets ripping through people’s bones and skin on a daily basis. I don’t think any side is winning – even if one was at the beginning. It is torture for us and the German’s.
The food that we are given to eat in the trenches is truly revolting and nauseating. Each man is given his own rations. A days rations sometimes has to last us two or three days and even a week. Our rations consist of a can of bully beef, biscuits and a sealed can of tea and sugar. Normally each night we have bully beef, but now that is only once a week. We now have to endure having pea soup or even nettle soup. I have never tasted food so bad, they prepare the food in petrol cans and by the time it reaches us front troops it’s stone cold. Oh how I dream of those delicious lunches you used to prepare for the family on Sundays.
I try to put all my wonderful memories of home out of my mind and I keep thinking to myself that I am lucky to be still alive. I’m sorry, I am not trying to worry you, but I think you would prefer to know the truth so that at least you can pray for us all out here. At this moment we are just being moved back from the front line. At least we will have a bit of a breather before we’re pushed forward on the attack again.
I am healthy apart from a problem with my feet. The doctors think I have a mild case of trench foot, another day could have made me lose them. I have heard men screaming and crying when the swelling has gone down from their feet. Luckily for me, the worst of it is over. At one point I could not feel my feet at all, you could have stabbed a knife into them and I would not have felt it. Any way I have recovered good enough now. Everyone seems to be suffering with some disease or another.
Enough about me for now, are you all right? Is the town still the same? I can not wait to be home seeing the beautiful countryside and our house. I am praying that the war is over quickly so I can see you soon.
I know I have been selfish not writing to you as often as I should have. As you can tell though, I have been very busy. From now on I will try to write to you every two weeks if possible.
I have just been told whilst writing this letter that we are going to be moving on to more trenches to fight so much for the break in action promised to us. This could last anything from weeks, maybe even months. This will mean that I wont be home for Christmas. Give all my love to our relatives, I will thinking of you.
Hope you receive this letter
All my love and I miss all the family so much