This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and with more than a million troops killed on both sides of the fighting, nothing encapsulates the mud, misery, hell, and horror of the Great War of 1914-18 more than the devastating four-month long battle fought on the Western Front.
Throughout the horror of the first world war, correspondence through letters was, for millions of troops, a much-needed and life-affirming link to the home and loved ones they were sacrificing their time and selves to protect.
In a different era devoid of the internet and e-mails, with no communications satellites and limited telephone access, the art of putting pen to paper was a vital ingredient of wartime life at home and abroad.
Those on the front-line longed for news from home, while those at home anxiously awaited the comfort of a familiar handwritten scrawl that guaranteed their sweethearts, sons, and fathers remained safe and sound.
Thankfully, many letters written during that period have survived the ravages of time, and serve as important historical documents and poignant testaments to the many men whose humor, humility, and continued hope was vividly captured for posterity in thoughts which became words, and words which became sentences, and sentences which became stories, and stories that made a home forever in the heart of their intended listener.
Letters written in the cauldron of uncertainty and insecurity that define such times transcend their basic components of ink, paper, grammar, and dictionary definitions, and conspire to conjure forth the unwavering light of humanity that refused to be snuffed out by the monstrous shadow which threatened to engulf the entire world and drag it down into a despair and darkness without equal.
War in the trenches did not just involve fighting the Germans, it was a constant war against both nervous and physical exhaustion, disease, the elements, boredom, and vermin.
Dysentery, nephritis, tuberculosis, and frostbite were all commonplace, as was lack of food and sleep deprivation.
Although life in the trenches, surrounded by the filth, feces, and rotting corpses was appalling, its horror paled into comparison when faced with going over the top and into the carnage that awaited in the ravaged and bleak landscape of no-man’s land.
So dreaded was the moment of making the final “big push” into the great unknown that when hearing the news that his brother was considering enlisting, Second Lieutenant Ernest Routley wrote telling him that, “You probably think it’s a very fine thing to come out here and be killed.”
“Well just wait. It isn’t being killed that worries you; it’s the waiting for it. Just wait until you hear you have got to attack, and then as you are waiting your turn to go over the top, you see your pal get cut down by machine gun fire, and then see if you think it’s a glorious thing to die. It would be glorious if you could have a fair fight, but it’s absolute murder here and you don’t get a sporting chance. If only I could get home out of it.”
[Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]
Others who went over the top and survived, lost their faith in both God, and the cause, as Lieutenant Peter Layard, Suffolk Regiment, wrote in 1916.
“I rather hate watching these strafes in a way, because you think of all the poor men being broken and killed — and for what? I don’t believe even God knows.
“Any faith in religion I ever had is most frightfully shaken by things I’ve seen, and it’s incredible that if God could make a 17-inch shell not explode — it seems incredible that he lets them explode… We kill them (the Germans) because they’d kill us if we didn’t and vice versa, and if only we could come to an ordinary agreement — But we can’t.”
The harrowing tragedy and fragments of humanity that linger long after the falling of the last shell, firing of the last bullet, and thrust of the last bayonet is best encapsulated by Lieutenant Angel of the Royal Fusiliers who when writing about his time waiting to lead the troops over the top revealed.
“Everyone was on edge and as I crawled up to one shell-hole I could hear a boy sobbing and crying. He was crying for his mother. It was pathetic really, he just kept saying over and over and again, ‘Oh Mum! Oh Mum!’ Nothing would make him shut up, and while it wasn’t likely that the Germans could hear, it was quite obvious that when there were lulls in the shell-fire the men in shell-holes on either side would hear this lad and possibly be affected.
“Depression, even panic can spread quite easily in a situation like that. So I crawled into the shell-hole and asked Corporal Merton what was going on. He said, ‘It’s his first time in the line, sir. I can’t keep him quiet, and he’s making the other boys jittery.’
“I tried to reason with the boy, but the more I talked to him the more distraught he became, until he was almost screaming. ‘I can’t stay here! Let me go! I want my Mum!’ So I switched my tactics, called him a coward, threatened him with court-martial and slapped his face as hard as I could, several times. It had an extraordinary effect.
“There was absolute silence in the shell-hole and then the corporal, who was a much older man, said, ‘I think I can manage him now, sir.’ Well, he took that boy in his arms, just as if he was a small child, and when I crawled back a little later to see if all was well, they were both lying there asleep and the corporal still had his arms around the boy. At zero hour they went over together.”
[Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]