January 31st, 1916. With the 1st/7th London Regiment.[Battalion in support in MAROC sector] The snapshots you sent me recently of Sweetwaters make me wish I were back again amongst you all in the lovely sunshine instead of being cooped up underground here in a cellar under a shell-demolished house whilst our batteries send their whistling missiles over our heads en route for the Hun lines.
I joined the first battalion on Saturday evening and found them occupying cellars in the rear of the front line about half-a-mile away. The battalion is in reserve to two others holding the front-line trenches. Yesterday was Sunday and we thanked Heaven for sending us a misty day for it enabled us to walk about outside and get a little exercise; the Huns do not shell so heavily when the results cannot be observed owing to mist. Today however, they have dropped a few shells in our street and have knocked out some more bricks and sent bits of tile spinning and humming through the air.
I have been detailed to "B" Company and have been given command of No. 7 Platoon. Up to now I have met only the sergeant and my own servant, so I do not know anything of my men, but I soon will after we have been relieved tomorrow.
Our shells are squealing overhead and the big guns are booming behind us. I am quite fit but feeling the cold a little because of the difficulty of obtaining exercise.
February 5th, 1916. "As usual" [Les Brebis, but on this day the battalion returned to the line in the Loos sector] This means that we are still in the same old place, doing the same old things, seeing the same old faces day in and day out. This place is much the same as it has always been but since this very severe frost set in, everything has turned to ice. The ponds are covered. with ice to a depth of six inches, and the mud is so hard that it is impossible to drive a pick into it. This is said to be most unusual for this part of the country, and I am quite sure that it is the most unusual Winter I have ever spent.
Until the last two days I did not feel the cold too intensely, but a sore throat and partial loss of voice has made it more noticeable; luckily, it is now improving. It is pretty cold at nights when we go to the forward zone, and we look more like Eskimos in our winter outfits than British officers. There is one good point about this freezing weather - it is nice and dry underfoot; and although one's feet get cold, they remain dry, and one's boots can be kept clean.
We start for the trenches again tonight and expect to stay there for eight days after which we are to go to the `Divisional Rest' for a month.
February 11th, 1916. In the trenches [At LOOS Sector]. We have just done five days in the front line and have had a rather trying time as the weather was bad and in addition we blew up a mine in a snowstorm and gave the Hun a rough half hour. We expected to be here for three more days, but it looks as though it will be four as the whole Division is moving to the back areas for a month's `rest' that will be much appreciated by all.
I have recently heard from Mrs Thorne who has promised to send me a cake. All the other officers in my company get cakes etc. quite often, but as they are shared round impartially, I am not quite ‘out in the cold'.
The mud here is horrible and sticks like glue. I haven't taken off my boots for a week and my feet feel cold all the time except when trudging through the mud during my spells of duty.
February 16th, 1916 [Lillers]. Here we are in the back areas in comparative luxury. We have recently completed ten days in the trenches and are now `resting' in a town some distance from the firing line; we expect to remain here for a month. We now sleep in real beds with clean sheets and pyjamas once again and this is luxury indeed after our life in the trenches. There, we did not have a chance of shaving or washing all the time, and were forced to wear continuously our damp, cold boots clogged up with sticky, filthy mud.
We had an exciting time in the trenches. When our company was holding the front line of trenches, our engineers blew up a Hun mining gallery on our left. It was a fine sight to us but gave the Hun no end of a surprise. When the earth and debris of the explosion had subsided, we pumped lead into their area while our artillery plastered them with shell-fire. I believe we damaged the Hun considerably while suffering no casualties ourselves. Later on, however, while we were consolidating, two of our men were sniped.
The night before we left, the enemy exploded a mine on our right flank. They evidently thought to surprise us in turn, but before the debris had stopped falling our machine-guns and rifles were going strong. A storming party of the enemy was wiped out with the exception of one man who scrambled back to their front trench and disappeared. After that the Hun shelled us vigorously, and I and my men were standing in readiness in the support trenches enduring it all. Great heavy shells burst all round us covering us with mud and earth, but no one was hurt.
The Huns have a particularly nasty form of hate in that sector in the form of trench mortars and rifle-grenades. Their trench mortar shells are like great canisters filled with high explosive and they explode with great noise and violence. The only good point about them is that they can be seen en route; one can therefore avoid them most of the time if an alert watch is kept. On the other hand rifle-grenades, although not so powerful, are a nuisance as they announce their presence only when they explode.
We feel now that our worries are over for a while, though we will be kept very busy at training. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that we will find time for amusement as well.
March 4th, 1916. [Battalion moved to Therouanne]. Still in Corps Reserve, we are engaged in performing ‘Brigade Manoeuvres'. For the last four days we have been billeted in a wretchedly poor village most of the houses of which are tumbling down through lack of attention. This period has been particularly strenuous; we had to attack an imaginary foe on a ridge of hills some three miles away advancing over newly plowed fields that were sodden with rain and melted snow. The mud clung to our boots and made movement very wearisome. The General was pleased with our efforts, however, and we were not sorry when the four days were over and were able to move to our present billets to which we marched this morning in a snowstorm. It was cold at first, but we soon became warm and finished up in fine style. These billets are very comfortable, and no one would mind if we stayed here the rest of the war. That, of course, is only a dream, for in a few weeks, I suppose, we shall be setting out again for the forward zone.
March 7th, l916 [Therouanne]. We are still on manoeuvres some miles behind the firing line and are having a strenuous though pleasant time. The weather has been rough but a good bed and a warm room instead of a clammy dug-out makes all the difference. I hope this lasts a long time.
March 11th, 1916 [Beugin]. Since I last wrote we have moved over quite a lot of France, staying in villages for one night, and sometimes for two or three. It has been snowing heavily ever since we started but apart from chilled feet, I have not felt it too much. When one is marching one keeps very warm. I think I felt the cold more when I first joined the Army last year at this time: I suppose I have become acclimatised and that my blood has become thicker. I will go back a week in my journeyings and tell you in detail how we have fared.
After leaving the town to which we originally came from the trenches, we marched all day to a small village some thirteen miles distant. We stayed there for four nights and during this period we tramped over snow-sodden plowed fields attacking imaginary Huns ensconced at points selected by the Brigadier. First of all we did this as a battalion, and afterwards in company with three other battalions, it was performed as a brigade operation. Our efforts seemed to meet with satisfaction as the lectures showed afterwards. They were delivered by the Brigadier and by the Divisional Commander in turn.
Photograph 5: La Grande Guerre 1914-15 Richebourg (P.- de - C.) L'Armee des Indes Vise Paris 26
On the fifth day we marched on to a much more prosperous village a mile or two away. Here we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The villagers had not seen many British soldiers and were very well-disposed towards us. I had a lovely featherbed in a little old-fashioned `auberge' or inn on the bank of a river overlooking the village water-mill. Our mess (of which I am President) was located in a doctor's house which was occupied by his rather elderly daughter and her ‘bonne' or house-keeper. We had a nice big room with a lovely fire and managed to live very well considering we were on active service. Our mess was so comfortable and inviting that most of the officers of the other companies used to call in and be entertained by us.
Five nights were spent in this delectable spot, and then much against our wishes, we marched off through snow ankle-deep to another village some fourteen miles away. This village was poor by comparison and luckily we spent but one night there.
Yesterday we completed the last stage of our present journey. We marched through village after village and through slushy snow, and it seemed that we would never reach our destination. The drum and fife band played bravely and cheered us on, and by dusk we reached the village where we are at present resting our weary bones. It was reached none too soon as some of the men were beginning to drag their feet and lose step even though the band was playing that inspiring tune "Keep the Home Fires Burning", the band's special selection for concluding a long tiresome march.
The present village is none too inviting, and the inhabitants although unused to British troops are not too enthusiastic at the prospect. It appears that they are used to having French troops billeted on them, and since a French soldier gets such poor pay, he isn't of much use to a money-making village population. I dare say that their attitude will change after our boys have been in amongst them buying things. Some French villages have never seen such prosperity as of late. A battalion quartered in a village means quite a lot of money in circulation. Our men are usually billeted in barns and sleep on straw if it is available: in consequence the chance of accidental fires is ever present. About nine o'clock last night the alarm sounded and we turned out hurriedly to deal with a fire in one of the barns. Luckily, none of our men or equipment was lost, but the barn was gutted and I believe a cow was incinerated.
Today we are having an easy time. The snow is still very thick and my feet are cold and the fire in the room is pretty poor. I must stoke it up.
March 19th, 1916. [Villers-au-Bois]. We have moved nearer the firing line and are now billeted in a partially demolished village. We are occupying an entirely new part of the line and already disquieting rumours are circulating regarding the poor condition of the trenches. However, we will soon know by personal inspection how true these rumours are.
Our month's rest soon passed and on the whole we had a good time although the latter part was rough as it snowed very heavily. Luckily, it was not so very cold. Wallace Mileman has joined us and is posted to the same company so we see a lot of one another. It is good to have someone to talk to about old times in Sunny South Africa. I see that Gen. Smuts is hurrying things up in East Africa, and the Huns are getting it in the neck at Verdun so I hope the business will soon be over as I'm longing to return to good old South Africa.
I received some shamrock from Dublin for St. Patrick's day, and also heard from Maud Bird.
March 24th, 1916 [Villers-au-Bois]. We are at present in a deep dug-out about one hundred yards behind the front line and in an awful locality lately taken over from the French. The Hun is not as yet too spiteful and indeed, the weather is by far our worst foe. This sector was recently the scene of a Hun `push' in which the French had to retire to the position we now hold. Both sides are too busy consolidating to strafe, and as for us, we work all night and lie doggo by day. The mud is cruel; it is so sticky that men have had their boots pulled right off. The ground is scarred with shell-holes, and at night it is possible to sink into them up to one's waist. Snow is falling at present and is already six inches deep, which does not augur well for our front line job tonight, to reach which we will have to cross a snow-clad hillside: thereafter we will stand or sit about on the firestep while daylight lasts and stay there for twenty four hours.
March 28th 1916 [Verdrel]. Since I last wrote we have returned from the trenches where for six days we had a pretty trying time. I was in charge of an isolated post which had once been a trench but was now just a swamp. My men and I stood on the firestep all night and dared not move about for fear of sinking thigh-deep in the mud. Several men lost their boots accidentally, and some lost even the waders they were wearing. These are waist-high rubber boots. To add to our discomfort it snowed early in the night and froze hard by morning. By daylight my wet mackintosh was frozen stiff like a crinoline. No one was sorry to see the first streaks of dawn when we commenced to move back towards a more protected position.
April 4th, 1916. Just a few lines from amongst the ruins of a former pretty place. (Notre Dame de Lorette) We are occupying some reserve trenches situated about three-quarters of a mile from the enemy who does not worry us much. Our trenches need a lot of repairing so we are kept busy on repair work by night. By day we rest in places that are not under observation, for the enemy shells us if we expose ourselves too freely. Today, as it was misty, we went exploring on the slopes above our trenches. I collected several souvenirs from dead Huns who have been lying exposed to the four winds for months. The French must have done much slaughter here when they cleared the hill of enemy. The ground is densely pitted with shell holes, and we have found numbers of' shrapnel shells and also some unexploded shells and bombs. There is quite an improvement in the weather which has been quite like Summer for the last two days. Yesterday we had afternoon tea in the trench. Our mess waiters preferred this to carrying hot cups of tea down slippery dug-out steps.
France. Good Friday 1916. What a queer way to spend Good Friday? It has been, up to now a bright day, but is clouding over again. My horse-lines are very muddy but luckily I have a pair of rubber top-boots so I keep fairly dry and clean. The enclosed souvenir is a shoulder-strap of a German soldier of some good regiment. It represents a crown over the cipher of that particular regiment. I picked it up from its former owner on the slopes of Notre Dame de Lorette where a year ago the French had cleared out the Hun. The dead soldier had had little else about him in the form of souvenirs: the French before us had cleared out everything of value. There are dozens and dozens of dried out corpses dotted about but are too old and weathered to be offensive.
I received a parcel from Mrs Thorne the other day. It contained rock-cakes, chocolate, cream cheese and sweets and was very acceptable.
I'm getting the hang of my new command, the Transport Section, a bit better now and like it very much and am quite contented and well. Love to all enquirers and to all at Home.
Palm Sunday. 1916. As usual my luck is in! I have been appointed Battalion Transport Officer, and so from today I am to draw 2/- a day extra, and to have a separate command. This means that I am my own boss and am responsible to the Colonel alone. I have 58 horses under my care, and also wagons and water-carts. It appears that I am considered a bit of an authority on horseflesh on account of my nine months training as a cavalryman.
I now do not do a tour of duty in the trenches, but take a convoy of wagons at night to selected points near the firing line. These convoys contain supplies of food, ammunition and Tommy's all-important letters from Home. So long as the front line is fairly stationary, this job should be easy, but when we get the Hun retreating, I shall have to work twenty-four hours a day. May that day soon come so that we can finish this job and set sail for Home. Yesterday I heard from Toly Holgate who is at present at a Base Camp.
(Letter from Maude Bird, Harry's sister to Mother dated May 2nd, 1916.) It fills a gap in these notes.)
My Dear Mrs Wade,
I am so sorry to have kept you waiting all this time for a reply to your letter but I did not want to write before I had gone through the papers at the Library. They had the December copies from the 10th of that month and the whole of the month of January, but I found no mention of Brian's name. I am going to go down again to look through the copies of the first week in December, and will send you a copy of the one in which Brian's name is mentioned.. I wonder if your friend saw his name in the `Times'?
We had no news from Harry by this weeks mail; in his last letter he mentioned he was going into the trenches, so he probably had no time to write. He has been keeping very well in spite of all the hardships and rough living. During the very cold weather he was troubled with chilblains, but that was hardly surprising considering that they very rarely had dry feet. When Brian was in Ireland he wrote and said that the Irish at Curragh Camp seemed to look upon the soldiers with great suspicion and treated them as though they were foreigners! One is not surprised to hear this after what has happened recently but at the time I could hardly understand their attitude.
We are having very cold weather and our usual winter rains. Mother is very much better for her change to the seaside. She spends quite a lot of her time doing crochet-work. A friend has shown her a very easy pattern for toilet mats, so she is kept busy without straining either her eyes or her nerves.
I shall have another good look for your son's name, and hope I shall come across it. None of us noticed it in the "Times".
With kindest regards from us all. (Maude Bird.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: During the period during which no letters were obtainable, the `Shiny Seventh' were actively involved at Vimy in May, and Brian's friend Wallace Mileman was injured.
7th London Regiment. B.E.F. 15th June 1916. [Bois De Noulette] We've moved again and the Battalion is in the line again and our transport lines are in a mining town near by. My leave is due on Sunday, 18th. so I haven't much longer to wait. I am enclosing the programme of sports we held in the last town when we were "resting". They were rather spoilt by the rain. I am also enclosing a photo of Mr Cross, Dad's friend. He sent me two photos of himself by mistake. I am in excellent health and hope you are also. Love Brian.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Most of the units in the vicinity of the Somme were involved in a major offensive on 1st July 1916.
7th London Regt. - B.E.F. 17th July 1916. [Camblain L'Abbe]. Very many thanks for your bag of tobacco and also the pair of socks wrapped round it. My stock of tobacco was getting low so yours arrived just in time. We have moved since I last wrote to a much smaller village near to the old village we were in in April. The village where we had the little garden. We are back now in the agricultural districts and it is better in many ways for the horses though the mud is worse. My horses are not too well off being picketed out in the open and as the last few days have been wet it is pretty miserable for them.
Our Mess isn't half so nice as in the last village. We have to feed in my sleeping quarters, but still we manage somehow. The Chaplain is busy playing the gramophone which brightens things up immensely. Things are pretty quiet on our front now for a bit. Raids are still fashionable with us, and we worry the Hun as much as we can.
France. 25th July 1916 [Berthonval]. Just a short note now that I've got the time. We are moving tomorrow and may not stop trekking for some time. Things are very quiet here but the village we are in is not too nice so we shall not be sorry to leave it. The weather has been glorious for the last week and the crops round about are looking grand; the wheat is getting a golden tint and looks very gay with poppies and cornflowers etc. I'm keeping very fit and hope you all at Home are O.K.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Brian makes no mention of a cricket match in the first days of August 1916 between headquarters staff and transport, at which `Maj. Green led his staff to victory.' Maybe it was `nothing to write home about'?
7th London Regt. B.E.F. 26th August 1916 [Franvillers: Battalion training and musketry] (A letter to Dad.) By the time you receive this note it ought to be very near your birthday, so now while I think of it I will wish you very many happy returns of the day. We've been trekking for a long time and have covered roughly 100 miles and are now at or near our journey's end - as far as marching is concerned. We shall soon be at the old game again, in the line - and rations in the limber wagons at night for me. At present I am having quite a soft time, but the Battalion is training hard.
France. 22nd September l916 [Henencourt Wood]. Just a line or two to let you know that I am well after the somewhat trying time we have just gone through. Our Division, the 47th, has done remarkably well, and although we have lost some good pals and others have been wounded we pushed the Hun back a good mile. We captured his rear defences and caused him many casualties.
For my part, although I can't claim to have had the same rough time as the others, it was a most difficult and trying time, and to add to our difficulties and discomfort it rained after we gained our objectives and we moved our horse-lines about a mile nearer into worse mud and pitched our tent in mud as well. The roads too, soon got bad and the last night up there while we were being relieved was perfectly awful. Several wagons got stuck in the mud and one artillery limber went into a shell-hole in the middle of the road and capsized and blocked up the traffic.
I was in the saddle all that night and only got to bed at 6 a.m. the next morning. The Battalion is reorganising in huts in a wood and we are more or less comfy although the nights are getting a bit chilly.
I had a letter from Mrs Thorne this morning. Harold has left England for France and is now doing a bit (of campaigning). Give my love to all at Home and tons of it for your dear self.
October, 2nd. l916 [Chester St, Bazentin: B.H.Q was at Mill St.] Many thanks for your letters of 28th August. I haven't much I can tell you although things are busy enough. Our Battalion is again in the line, and we are camped (or rather cramped) on a hillside full of old shellholes and mud. It is raining now and we all feel very gloomy as inclement weather depresses the spirit and makes further progress rather difficult. Cyril Hosken joined the Battalion last week, and yesterday Victor Hosken turned up. They both joined this Regiment about four months ago. There was an excellent account of our `scrapping' in the `Chronicle' of 23rd September. It referred to our Colonel with the grizzled eyebrows etc. I have the cutting but have lent it to the Colonel of another battalion in our Brigade. You've no idea how difficult it is to get news here where history is in the making. We all know so little. I certainly think we are all on the up-grade now. Hope you are all well.
October, 6th. 1916. [Chester St, Mill St.] (A letter to Irish Cousin Connie Cushing.) Many thanks for letter received today. I also received a parcel some days ago and was in doubt as to who had sent it as I could discover nothing on the label or inside. Your letter has now cleared up the doubt, and thanks very much for it. The cake was very much enjoyed - It makes such a change from bread and jam at afternoon tea. What Division or Brigade is Sam Wade in? He may be situated quite close to me, but it is very hard to find anyone unless one knows the number of the Division or Brigade etc.
Our Battalion is in the line now, and I have just returned with my wagons after delivering the rations. We are camped near an historic wood, and it is very muddy and uncomfortable; but one must put up with that so long as we are beating the blighters and pushing them back.
Published: 1 October 2007.
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