GWL 25th January 1915

It is awfully cold.  Thank goodness we are not in the trenches.  This afternoon I am going to have a bath & clean underclothes, the first change for five weeks! I rather think I shall drink most of that cod liver oil.  It is supposed to be good for the inside, isn’t it?  We are all wondering what the Germans will do for the Kaiser’s Birthday, round our way.  I shall swear if he disturbs our rest.  Your letters of the 22nd & 23rd have just come.  Also the cake, shortbread and bulls eyes and the Baccy, vaseline & acid drops – I hate to think you are having bad weather.  What can we do about it?  It is pretty poisonous here.  As far as I can remember it snowed most of Thursday with us & rained all Friday”.

In the early hours of the 25th the Germans launched concerted assaults on Givenchy and Bethune, to the south of the Salient.  Sir John French’s Despatch gives a clear account of the events of the day:

“At 7.30 a.m. on the 25th January the enemy began to shell Bethune, and at 8 a.m. a strong hostile infantry attack developed south of the canal, preceded by a heavy bombardment of artillery, minenwerfers and, possibly, the explosion of mines, though the latter is doubtful. The British line south of the canal formed a pronounced salient from the canal on the left, thence running forward toward the railway triangle and back to the main La Bassee- Bethune Road, where it joined the French. This line was occupied by half a battalion of the Scots Guards, and half a battalion of the Coldstream Guards, of the 1st Infantry Brigade. The trenches in the salient were blown in almost at once; and the enemy’s attack penetrated this line. Our troops retired to a partially prepared second line, running approximately due north and south from the canal to the road, some 500 yards west of the railway triangle. This second line had been strengthened by the construction of a keep half way between the canal and the road. Here the other two half battalions of the above-mentioned regiments were in support. These supports held up the enemy who, however, managed to establish himself in the brick stacks and some communication trenches between the keep, the road and the canal and even beyond and west of the keep on either side of it. The London Scottish had in the meantime been sent up in support, and a counter-attack was organised with the 1st Royal Highlanders, part of the 1st Cameron Highlanders, and the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle’ Corps, the latter regiment having, been sent forward from the Divisional Reserve. The counter-attack was delayed in order to synchronise with a counter-attack north of the canal which was arranged for 1 p.m. At 1 p.m. these troops moved forward, their flanks making good progress near the road and the canal, but their centre being held up. The 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment was then sent forward, late in the afternoon, to reinforce. The result was that the Germans were driven back far enougli to enable a somewhat broken line to be taken up, running from, the culvert on the railway, almost due south to the keep, and thence south-east to the main road. The French left near the road had also been attacked and driven back a little, but not to so great an extent as the British right. Consequently, the French left was in advance of the British right and exposed to a possible flank attack from the north. The Germans did not, however, persevere further in their attack. The above-mentioned line was strengthened during the night; and the 1st Guards Brigade, which had suffered severely, was withdrawn into reserve and replaced by the 2nd Infantry Brigade.

While this was taking place another, and equally severe attack was delivered north of the canal against the village of Givenchy. At 8.15 a.m., after a heavy artillery bombardment with high explosive shells, the enemy’s infantry advanced under the effective fire of our artillery, which, however, was hampered by the constant interruption of telephonic communication between the observers and batteries. Nevertheless, our artillery fire, combined with that of the infantry in the fire trenches, had the effect, of driving the enemy from his original direction of advance, with the result that his troops crowded together on the north-east corner of the village and broke through into the centre of the village as far as the keep, which had been previously put in a state of defence. The Germans had lost heavily, and a well-timed local counter-attack, delivered by the reserves of the 2nd Welsh Regiment and 1st South Wales Borderers, and by a company of the 1st Royal Highlanders (lent by the 1st Brigade as a working party- this company was at work on the keep at the time), was completely successful, with the result that, after about an hour’s street fighting, all who had broken into the village were either captured or killed; and the original line round the village was re-established by noon. South of the village, however, and close to the canal, the right of the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers fell back in conformity with the troops south of the canal; but after dark that regiment moved forward and occupied the old line. During the course of the attack on Givenchy the enemy made five assaults on the salient at the north-east of the village about French Farm, but was repulsed every time with heavy loss.”

givenchy - Bethune 1915

{next post 26th January}

GWL 24th January 1915

First I must acknowledge the receipt of many parcels &letters.  The groceries have arrived with toffee, peppermints etc.  All very good indeed.  Also your letters of 19th-21st.  I think I have acknowledged all the others.  I got the cake, it was splendid.  I answered that on one of the postcards I think.  I am sorry if I did not.  The first pair of boots arrived just before we left for our last go in the trenches & along with my baccy & some other officers’ stuff, we sent them back to wait until we came back.  Some mean devil has looted the boots and baccy, so the problem as to what to do with them is solved.  We now await the arrival of the next pair!  The Bystander of the 20th has an excellent article called “Mud, blood and khaki” I think.  It hits off the particular kind of fighting in our bit anyhow, to a T.  If you have not read it, do so – it is the truest thing written for years – sordid from beginning to end; very little that is amusing, nothing romantic in this war!  At home you think of hardly anything but the war; at the war we think of very little but home.  Your letters & those from others at home are the only things that reassure us that some 50 miles away there is a land where all is not misery & mud.  This is rather an outburst, but it must come at times.  We are just back for a rest, badly needed.  My feet were awfully bad in spite of vaseline & numerous pairs of socks & waders and I could not go in the trenches the last night.  In addition Little Mary rose up in revolt at some insult imagined or real and so have been rather seedy, but am quite right again now.  Poor young Fitzpatrick (one of the drummers & son of the former Sergeant Drummer, MHP) was hit the other night very badly in the head.  His mother will be in an awful way……I certainly cannot imagine Graham B. wanting to come back to this, although I believe the 28th have got a better bit than we have.  C Company is the only one with a second captain now, (three captains were sent to the 28th, on landing in France, MHP)we all got on very merrily.  I am so glad to hear about Mrs Brown.  Tientsin wasn’t such a bad place; and we had a topping time in Japan too, didn’t we?”

Sir John French’s sixth despatch simply states:

“Weather conditions were abnormally bad, the snow and floods precluding any active operations during the first three weeks of January”.

Clearly the lack of active operations didn’t exclude the misery of war.  By all accounts the trenches at this stage of the war lacked the sophistication of later trenches and were often no more than interconnected shell holes filled with water.  Casualties were sustained at a steady low-level rate from sniper activity.

{next post 25th January}

GWL 19th January 1915

The underclothing sent off on December 18th has just arrived, also a box of chocolates from Tills in Winchester! Another box of chocolates sent off on January 13th and your letters of the 14th and 15th so there was great rejoicing when we came back from the trenches last night.  We had rather a nerve-shattering time – Not much damage done, but continual shelling & wondering where the next one was coming & unable to answer to it in any way – The weather is bitterly cold, yesterday and the previous night it snowed hard and sitting in a muddy trench with one foot on an ammunition box and the other on an empty rum jar is hardly Bolters Lock on Ascot Sunday – Thank goodness my boots are big.  Your feet swell and you lose all feeling in your legs right up to the knees so that when you come out you are continually falling down.  Some of the men have to be carried out they are so bad.  I am sure the boots will be all right & if they are not I can fix it all right by using the new ones to patch the old! I am afraid the goggles will not be much use – we are not near the dunes.  The waders are a perfect Godsend.  Tell Dad so, will you – I am going to write to him if I can, But cleaning up takes such a long time.  The groceries & papers turn up regularly, please make the alteration I asked you in my last letter.  In addition please do not send any more butter – we are getting a ration of it.  Could you send me another strap for my wrist watch?  That cooking gear you were speaking of is a very good thing& we have already ordered a set from Harrods – The Economical Cooker I think they call it.  Basdell was hit yesterday – I think he is all right though & can look forward to a pretty comfortable three months or so ……… You cannot think what a lot of difference these you send out from home make.  It means comparative comfort when we are not in the trenches & something to look forward to when we are……

life in the trenches 1

2nd Lt F C Basdell was the first officer casualty from the battalion, although the first tour in the line had resulted 12 men wounded and 5 missing.  The battalion had been relieved by the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.  The description of the foot problems is a classic description of “Trench Foot”.  On the 13th the Battalion marched 6 miles from Dickebusch to Mount Kokerelle but 54 soldiers had to be carried in carts because of their feet.

{next post 24th January}

GWL 14th January 1915

I have not had time to write for a day or two.  We have just finished our first whack of trench work.  It is not pleasant by any means.  Our trench is an old French one and thoroughly bad.  I have already told you about the mud.  The day is the worst time and you sit and watch the blighters burst and have nothing to do.  The shrapnel does not worry one a bit in a trench, but the high explosive is pretty bad.  We were very heavily shelled all our first day, but they were all about 100 yards over so nobody was hurt.  Thank you for your letters of the 2nd-9th, also for the 4 parcels of groceries which arrived last Monday.  My underclothing has not arrived.  Will you please stop sending rice in the parcels of groceries and substitute a pound of the Harrods chocolate – it is awfully good.  We are all very fit, but rather tired.  It is a sort of game that requires a good deal of getting used to!  We are worried a good deal at night round our part by snipers.  They seem to get all round the farm and pot everybody – so far we have not been able to catch them.  I don’t think you would have recognised your husband when we came out that bally trench.  Caked in mud up to his thighs – hands and arms thick with it; in a sou’wester with a cap on top, a muddy Burberry over a goatskin coat and a long willow staff! [see photo below] and last but not least, a beautiful beard.  It is the pride of the company.  We all use those staffs, they are very useful for sounding the mud in the trenches and spotting shell holes in the road at night.  We have not seen any Zeppelins and only a few aeroplanes! I am going to try to write to Mother to-day, but in case I cannot, please thank her awfully for the sweets – They are most welcome especially the acid drops which are good when you are thirsty – Funnily enough, drinking water is scarce here……

EGHPjan15

A picture paints a thousand words!  George as photographed in January 2015

{next post 19th January}

GWL 10th January 1915 (Belgium)

I wish I had time to write a decent letter, but since leaving our last resting place five days ago there has not been time really to collect one’s thoughts.  We had an awful march of 16 miles over pavé – very trying to the feet.  The Belgian roads are worse than the French a good deal.  We are at present in a farmer’s cottage.  The kitchen, where we all feed is very small and the whole thing very amusing, the place swarms with children, who howl all day long……. Please send me a complete change of underclothing – The ones you have sent have not turned up and are urgently needed!  also get me another pair of boots from the Stores – The chocolate has not arrived, I think that too has gone astray – Shelling goes on pretty well all day.  Yesterday we watched them potting at a German aeroplane – Awfully interesting.  Our trench is a perfect brute.  Over our knees everywhere in mud and in some places nearly to your thighs!  Tell Dad that the waterproof trousers he gave me are simply splendid and that I should like a pair of waders if he can manage it.  Please send me another bottle of Mars oil, will you?……

The Battalion moved up to the front line near St Eloi to the south of the Ypres Salient to relieve the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry, part of the 80th Brigade.

ypsalient0115

The Front in January 1915.

The description of the march to the front, as well as the description of the trenches give a good idea of the miserable conditions.  As an officer George could alleviate the discomfort to an extent with comforts from home.

From the Battalion Diary of January 11th:

“Artillery fire carried on all day, particularly heavy between the hours of 2pm and 4pm.  From observation our artillery fire seemed good.  Artillery fire ceased at nightfall.  At 6.30pm there was very heavy rifle-fire which lasted about twenty minutes: after that there was continual sniping all night.  Snipers between our fore trench and Battalion Headquarters were very annoying.  Great difficulty about water and rations which had to be fetched from Kruisstraartoek, a mile in rear of Headquarters.  Rations were eventually man-handled to Headquarters and issued there, this took from 9pm to 3am.  Platoons sent men direct to Kruisstraathoek for water”.

{next post January 14th}

GWL 3rd January 1915

…..Your letters 28th-30th have arrived and the parcel with the socks and re-fill for lamp.  But I think that the groceries with the Quaker Oats & my half pound of chocolate & the change of underclothing you sent have got delayed somehow.  We are still en l’air and shall be anyhow for the next day or two…. Very wet here.  I expect Ion will be home soon.  We are all very fit here and doing a lot of work, chiefly horticultural……”

The battalion were at this stage preparing to move to the Front Line.  The comments on the weather and the “horticultural” work give an indicator of the months to come.  Trench digging at this stage of the war was an entirely manual exercise.

digging-trenches-1915

{next post January 10th}

GWL 29th December 1914

Just a very,very short letter, as there is no news and I have a pile of the Company’s letters to censor; drat them!  I should like any news of people I know as the papers are irregular.  I have received your letters of the 19th-25th and one later one.  Also the first tin of groceries and a tin of baccy.  Also heaps of papers and the Bystander and Punch.  Thank you very much…..”

This post highlights the role of the junior officers in the censorship process.  All communications home where censored by one means or other.  No reference to place names was allowed and graphic detail of the unpleasantness of war was censored for fear of reducing morale back home.  It is also interesting to note that letters arrived on the Front within 3-4 days.  The Bystander was a tabloid magazine which ran from 1903 until 1940 (when it merged with Tatler).  It carried cartoons, short stories and what would now be described as celebrity news.

{next post 3rd January}

The First World War seen through the letters of George Power