The guns fell silent 90 years ago today but the voices of the men who fought in the war to end all wars still clamour to be heard.
First-hand accounts of life in the trenches – of the slaughter, the stench, the unexpected acts of kindness and humanity – have become a fertile ground for historians over the past decade. Indeed the First World War occupies a unique place in the modern psyche and continues to exert a tremendous emotional pull on generations far removed from the horror of bayonet charges, tunnel warfare and flooded, mud-soaked dugouts.
Many theories have been put forward to explain this enduring fascination – the relative youthfulness and nativity of the raw recruits; the notion that these young lions, some of them only boys, were led by donkeys; and the brutalising scope of the world’s first industrialised war, which pitted men armed with revolvers against the might of heavy artillery and the emergence of the new weapons of mass destruction, like poison gas and tanks.
Whatever the explanation, one might justifiably assume that there was nothing “new” to learn about the experiences of the men who camped out along hundreds’ of miles of the Western Front, that their stories – at times thrilling, entertaining and heart-breaking – had been told.
Then along comes a new collection of newly discovered diaries and letters in which the ghosts of 1914-1918 once more speak to us from the past, throwing a new light on the day-to-day realities of lives lived under the constant shadow of death.
The Soldier’s War, The Great War Through Veterans’ Eyes, collects together a treasure trove of previously unpublished photographs and correspondence detailing the gamut of emotions experienced by troops. The conflict has been far from sanitised by author Richard van Emden, who has included gut-wrenching accounts of warfare that we have come to expect from oral histories of the Great War.
However, Van Emden has chosen a path less travelled and also features stories of bizarre fishing expeditions, enjoyed within earshot of the frontline, tips on sending food parcels from home, and the adoption of pets by infantrymen, adding a whole new meaning to the phrase “dogs of war.”
Servicemen from the Midlands are featured, as is a vicar attending the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment, whose despairing tone is, in its way, as surprising as anything contained in The Soldier’s War.
It is left to Pte Reginald Wilkes, of the 16th Royal Warwickshire Regiment – popularly known as 3rd Birmingham Pals – to tell of fishing for tiddlers in the run-up to the Battle of the Somme in 1916. On the first day of the ill-fated offensive, Britain would suffer 57,470 casualties but Wilkes writes: “We were just a crowd of happy boys for the time, deaf to the sound of the guns.”
The stories are illustrated with a selection of photographs taken by soldiers themselves using VPKs (short for Vest Pocket Kodak). Marketed as “the Soldier’s Camera,” the VPK – banned by the War Office in 1915 lest the pictures fall into enemy hands – could be easily stashed inside a tunic or greatcoat, ideal for snapshots in the trenches.
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. However, the stories uncovered by Van Emden may well be the exception to the rule. At times embittered, compassionate and humorous, but always compelling, the accounts speak for themselves. The words of old soldiers, it seems, don’t die, and neither do they fade away in impact.
Pte James Racine, 1/5th Seaforth Highlanders
We obtained water for washing and shaving purposes from shell holes which the rain had filled. I daily adjourned to one to carry out my toilet and it was situated behind the parados of the trench; the water, on which a green scum floated, was rank but had to serve its purpose for ablution requirements. The water receded, as the days passed, until one morning I discerned the body of a man at the bottom when I knelt down to wash; it occurred to me that the time had arrived when I should seek a more savoury position.
Pte Reginald Wilkes, 16th Royal Warwickshire (3rd Birmingham Pals)
I have just received your parcels and papers. The cake was a bit squashed, due probably to the parcel being on the way a day or two longer than usual. The cheese came all right and went down well. We happened to be in the firing line when it came, so it added a little to our rations. Any time you send me something, can you put in a slice or raw ham or a rasher of bacon? We can always cook such things and the very fact that they come from Blighty adds extra flavour to them. Tinned fruits (pears, peaches and apricots) we can get very easily, and we eat a lot of them. You will think that this letter is all on one subject but I know that both of you are often at a loss what to send. The cream crackers Ernie sends go down well with cheese.
Rev Edward Tanner, attending 2nd Worcestershire Regiment
An incident occurred when my battalion was engaged on Working Parties outside the Menin Gate at Ypres. The Boche were at the time sending over time-bombs, ie bombs which did not explode immediately upon impact but which were timed to go off at unexpected intervals afterwards.
On this occasion, one of our lads, only a boy, was in a temporary latrine when one of these bombs exploded and blew both him and the latrine to pieces. Later I saw one of the sergeants coming towards me carrying a sandbag.
“This is all we could find, sir, of Pte ...” he said. “Never mind, Sergeant, we’ll give him a Christian burial.” So a small grave was dug, the sandbag reverentially laid in it and the committal words spoken. Afterwards I wrote to the lad’s mother and told her that her boy had been given a Christian burial, and later recovered a most grateful letter in a rather large hand, thanking me and adding, “I’m so glad my dear boy was buried ‘comfortable’!” It was pathetic.
Lt Denis Barnett, 2nd Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment
There is a little grave about 2ft by 3ft in the middle of a bust-up farm, and on the cross there is this: “Here lies Tim, a little brown dog, killed by a shell during the bombardment of this house by the Germans on April 23, 1915. R.I.P.” That was the end of our mascot. He went out of the trench into the farm to see why the bricks kept jumping about. The Rifle Brigade had a kitten, but she was shot by a sniper while walking on the parapet with her tail straight up in the air ... Please send a bullet-proof tortoise.
Pte Reginald Wilkes
Although only a matter of 1200 yards or so from the Hun lines, we are living in a basement room of a cottage. Of course it is hidden from view by a fold in the ground and well screened by trees. The roof has been blown away, but the ceiling of the ground floor still remains intact. At the back many of our English garden flowers are blooming amidst weeds. I have a bunch of flowers by me as I write. The young fruit has set on the trees – apple and cherry trees at the back – while the gooseberry and the currant bushes are laden with fruit.
At the far end of the garden runs a river for us to bathe in and catch fish. Major Deakin took a photo of half a dozen of us fishing with sticks, cotton and worms for ‘tiddlers’, which were pulled out by the dozen. We were just a crowd of happy boys for the time, deaf to the sound of the guns. If the weather keeps like this, we shall be as brown as berries soon.
Pte William McNeil, 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment
I was with a party filling sandbags which we usually kept in readiness for repairing our trenches and parapets during the night. Suddenly, one of our field batteries behind us opened fire, and a shell came straight through our Royal Engineer officer’s legs, taking away his two kneecaps, through the body of a machine-gunner who was lying asleep in the dugout, through the parapet and burst into no-man’s land. I’ll never forget that officer as he lay on the stretcher, just asking for a cigarette. What a fine example to put in front of the men!
The Soldier’s War, The Great War Through Veterans’ Eyes, by Richard van Emden is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20.