GREAT WAR CENTENARY: Letters from the battlefront
THERE are no better words to describe the reality of life in the trenches than those of the men who were there. Here we print some of the letters sent by two who perished and excerpts from the unpublished autobiography of a third who survived into old age...but was never the same again.
An ordinary life...but one not wasted
AT the end of August 1914, GWR coppersmith Ronald Percival Clack and colleagues Walter Loveday and Jesse Hollick volunteered to serve their country. All joined the Royal Field Artillery. A signaller with C battery 62nd Brigade 12 Division RFA, he saw action at Loos and won the Military medal for action in early July. Shelled and gassed in September of 1918, he remained in hospital until the following year. Mr Clack, of Guppy Street in Rodbourne, lived until the mid-1980s and wrote an unpublished autobiography. Here are some excerpts:
I feel drawn to write my memoirs for three reasons.
Firstly – having been approached by one or two friends to write it. Secondly – to present a picture of my life as lived by an ordinary individual, and Thirdly – a little self satisfaction (without boast) that it’s been a life not wasted.
If anyone finds comfort and help in anything they read in the following then I have not used my time in vain.
During the period up to 1914, I always went to Cornwall for my holidays, staying with distant relatives. I was rather keen on Ida Stephens of Hayle. Unfortunately the First World War was declared on 4th August 1914 and this upset all my plans.
I wrestled with all my faults but felt it was a just cause and at the end of August 1914, I volunteered to join Kitchener’s Army. We apprentices were promised that should we have the good fortune to return, our jobs would be waiting. So it was on these conditions that I enlisted, along with Walter Loveday and Jesse Hollick in the Royal Field Artillery.
You never saw such a motley collection of people. Some from Universities, other from respectful homes (from the clothes they wore) and some were the scum of the earth.
It is not my intention to convey to you the horrors of war, suffice to say that as I sit and pen these lines, at 84 years of age, I am still feeling the effects. You may think, well you haven’t done badly, all I would say is that I have many, many nightmares over it.
On the 1st July 1916, my division was one in support and in the early hours of 1st July, we moved forward under cover of terrific bombardment and we advanced through Albert – a town which was now a heap of rubble. We took up positions between sausage and mash valleys [nicknames given by the troops]. We came under heavy shell fire losing quite a number of men.
As I was first linesman on our signalling staff, I took along gunner Bruce Norman to connect our ‘C’ Battery with telephone lines to the headquarters to keep communications going between the two stations. We did this for two days, living off iron rations – bully beef and biscuits.
On the third day, I lost my linesman, Bruce, by a piece of shrapnel from a shell which struck him in the face.
As soon as I had repaired the line, I took him to the casualty station then contacted our battery commander, asking for a replacement but was told to come back to the battery so that I could be relieved.
Some weeks later there was parade of the 12th Division, the commander, Major General Scott, took the parade, formed eight of us up and pinned on the breast of our tunics, the ribbon of the Military Medal.
It is impossible to put into words, the Battle of the Somme, the severity and conditions were appalling. In my three years in France, I only came home twice. I most honestly admit, I remember [I] looked forward to returning to the front.
I was put out of action on the 13th September 1918 when I was wounded in my legs and temporarily blinded by a gas shell. I was in a VAD [Voluntary Aid Detachment] hospital in Darwin near Blackburn when the Armistice was announced on 11th November.
I returned home in March 1919.
Words fail me to express my feelings at being free again! I later contacted GWR officials about my job. They gave me a month off before re-commencing my job in K shop. I spent that month with Ida in Hayle.
- Ronald Clark
My Dear Mother...
BY the 1944s Charles Macpherson was a prosperous optician, councillor and mayor of Swindon. He lived until 1977, and a sheltered housing complex in Eldene is named after him. In 1916, though, he was conscripted to serve in the Wiltshire Yeomanry and went on to serve all over France, and often wrote home to his mother.
Sunday 2.6.18 [from hospital]
Received your letter and parcel today, I am very tired today owing to a small dose of gas I got in the line. I got out quite alright again although we had quite a warm time in this time. Did not see any Jerrys, though, as usual.
I reported sick this morning and the doctor gave me some quinine pills and I have to report again tomorrow. This is the first time I have reported sick since I joined up.
I don’t feel up to anything much today except lying down so I will close now and write you a good letter tomorrow or the day after.
Love to Dad and You,
Your Affectionate Son,
Charles kept his promise to write the next day
I am feeling better today as I have stayed in bed, my head aches, that is about all.
We had a good spell in this time, again, spending some time in support, the rest in the front line. I had a ripping swim in a canal in our first place.
We had one barrage which we were in, we sat tight in our dugout [...] it was quite an experience. [...] the details were trench digging most of the time.
One night, in fact the night I got the gas, we had about 12 breaks on our 2 lines, in one place about 10 feet of wire was blown clean away and I had to go to the nearest station to get some to put in.
We are in a small camp now, I would much sooner be in a farm although it is not too bad where we are. [...] the lungs etc are quite alright, not even slightly gassed like the rest of me, so I suppose they won’t give me a rest, that’s the worst of having such good lungs isn’t it.
I am feeling much better this evening, I got out of bed just before tea. I went to a concert in the grounds of a chateau, it was very good. I went with a chap named Cohen, a Jewish member of our section. A decent chap he is [...] a good worker in the hive.
Afterwards we went down to a French shop in the village. I got a large tin of peaches. Coming back I heard a pipe band playing, it was fine to listen to.
- Charles Macpherson
BENJAMIN Hayward was 19 when he was killed at Courcelette near the Somme on February 20, 1917. He served with the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. Benjamin was from Winstone near Cirencester and had been called up the previous year. He had written many letters to friends and loved ones. One was to a brother, Ted, while Benjamin waited to hear about deployment:
We have not heard anything about going, but am expecting to hear any day. I don’t want to go to France, but I am afraid that is where we shall be sent, so you must look after mother well [...]
Hope you will soon finish getting up the spuds, as it is getting on in the year, and also they will be very dear this winter [...]
I am very sorry that I forgot our Gladys’ birthday but we have been pushed about so, that I don’t know what we are at.
After Ben’s death, three of his friends wrote to his mother:
Dear Mrs Hayward...
This is the first opportunity we have had since we lost poor Ben of sending to you our deepest sympathy. We miss him very much because he was always so bright and cheerful. He was an example to everyone in his good living and uprightness.
I can assure you his end was painless. I was about 10 yards away from him when he was hit by a piece of shell and he was dead before we could get to him.
If God spares us we shall make it our Duty to come and see you when we get out of this, but life is very uncertain out here.
Trusting God will give you help and comfort in your great loss.
We remain yours in sorrow,
E Burrows, H Heaven
- This picture of Ben and his mother was found on his body and returned to her with his belongings