First World War Poetry Digital Archive

John B Nicholson's Letter Home

Support Trenches, FLANDERS, July 9th 1915.

My Dear Pater,

Last night we moved up here from the reserve trenches in which we’d been for five days. We’re in support to two companies of our own Battalion who are in the firing line. Rumour suggests we shall be here for five days, but rumour is always suggesting things which seldom come true.

Tonight there is to be a big working party (I hear it is to place barbed wire in front of the Fire trench) and probably there will he work of some sort or other every night we’re here. Trench warfare creates an undreamt of amount of labour and one might call any infantry battalion sappers or miners or Royal Engineers as well as fighters!

The conditions of modern war are altogether different from anything that even military minds predicted. There is little romance about it. At home I see you’re being treated to pretty recruiting, posters and rosily-worded advertisements calling, on the men who haven’t yet enlisted to “Join the Army Today and win the V.C.”. - like Sergeant O'Leary or Warneford…. I can’t help thinking they cheapen recruiting by offering, such - one might almost call them – bribes; instead of demanding sacrifice for the Motherland.

In any case this sort of appeal certainly gives an entirely erroneous idea of this world war. They suggest Romance; they picture Knight Errantry. Involuntarily one thinks of the War of the Roses or the Battle of Bannock-burn, or oven the field of Waterloo.

This modern warfare as seen by the man at the Front: You are ordered to take up a certain position. For an hour, or two hours, or three hours, you march. All your wardrobe, all your kitchen, all your library, are in a pack on your back. Round your body is your arsenal; slung on your shoulder is a weapon with which you may kill your enemy over a mile away. In a haversack at your side lies your commissariat. Your clothes are the colour of the earth. – There you are, a complete soldier!

Marching to your position, the predominant impression in your mind is that you are Atlas carrying the World, for… in addition to your own kit you find yourself laden with a pick or shovel, or both.

Eventually you reach the burrow that leads to your destination, or rather, it does not lead! You have to be very careful or you find yourself lost in a maze far excelling that at Hampton Court. The burrow twists and twines and sometimes seems to double back on itself. Everywhere other burrows cross and re-cross it. Missing one signpost you may find yourself at the Back of Beyond.

At last, your back well-nigh broken, your feet like fires, you are emitted into the Firing Line. Perhaps the part allotted to your regiment, is named the Strand, perhaps not: irony has almost certainly christened this super-ditch after some famous street at home. On the map it is known as “sub-section so-and-so”. But painted in mocking black letters on the sign-board it obtrudes itself - THE STRAND!

You find another regiment in the place. They greet you with welcoming smiles; you are their relief. They warn you there’s an enemy rifle set on such and such a spot. They tell you you get 12 lb shells for breakfast, 8 inches for dinner, and mortar bombs for tea, with extra courses of rifle grenades, air darts and snacks from snipers. And they state with comparative indifference that so many men who came into the trench will be left behind.

Then they leave you to your own salvation. So many men are picked as sentries. The rest squeeze themselves into roofed-in holes called “dug-outs”, and sleep – if mosquitoes, flies, ants and vermin will allow them.

The sentries keep their eyes on the enemy’s ditch just opposite. You see no expectation in their gaze: they peer through the darkness like policemen regarding a suspected house, but anticipating no trouble and desiring none. At intervals “No Man’s Land” is lit up by the fierce white glare of a star shell. Occasionally an enemy patrol or working party is spotted and fired upon. But more often than not one sees only blasted tree stumps, shell holes and the corpses that are between the lines. At the first sign of dawn you stand to arms. The enemy is also “standing-to”. And being cold, and sleepy, and annoyed both sides snipe away at the tops of each other’s parapets. Sighting and aiming is impossible, but blind bullets find many human billets…

Sometimes your regiment lets loose five, ten, or fifteen rounds, rapid. This is supposed to get on the foe’s nerves. It lets him know what to expect if he attempts to come over.

The gunners belch their morning salutes of shrapnel or high explosives. Some of the shells make harmless holes in the ground; some kill a dozen men and blow great gaps in the parapets.

When day breaks you “stand down”. Rifles are cleaned. Day sentries are posted. Men not on duty go back to “bed”.

A bullet through the brain is usually the penalty for putting one’s head above the parapet in daylight. Sentries observe their front through periscopes. Frequently, even these are smashed by vigilant snipers or machine gunners. An hour’s survey seldom reveals any sign of life, except here and there the smoke of a fire in the opposing lines. You can’t tell whether the trench is held by two men or a thousand.

At eight o’clock or thereabout, hunger wakens the sleepers and they crawl from the dug-outs and shake themselves into a state of sufficient energy to collect scraps of wood and make fires to boil tea. You at home would not recognise the trench variety of beverage, but it is as dear to the British soldier as it is to the proverbial maiden ladies. Black and tannin-tasted, it is tea in the morning with bread, ham and jam; tea at midday with bully beef; tea at night with what bully beef remains.

You are lucky if your only duties during the day are your turns of sentry-go. The wear and tear on trenches is great, and they have to be continually strengthened with sandbags. And filling sandbags, under a boiling sun is no picnic; especially when the trench is a new one and you are certain to have a lot of this to do.

When dusk falls you stand to arms again, every man at his post, ready for the enemy should he come. At this time, of course, the enemy is similarly prepared. Then, an hour or so later, you “stand down” and await the work of the night.

A party goes out for the next day’s rations. At several points of the line there are …(censored here)…

Going over the parapet to build it up from the outside, or to fix up barbed wire, or cut the long grass in front, is attended by considerable risk. But when you’ve been on “t’other side” once or twice it has no terror for you; you become absolutely indifferent to the bullets, although you’ve no cover whatever. People at home will scarcely be able to credit this, but I assure you it is the experience of most men here. When the star shells flare you crouch low and keep still, and the chances are you wont be distinguished from the parapet at your back. There is one happy circumstance which often assures your safety; it may happen that the enemy has a working party out in front also and so can’t fire in case of hitting them.

There can be no firing when your patrol is out. Patrolling sounds exciting, but in the vast majority of cases it really consists of approaching within a certain distance of the enemy’s lines, lying in a shell hole and listening for working parties and any sign of an attack.

Of course, men have had exciting times on this duty. A corporal of a regular Highland battalion won’t forget one night’s experience. While in a trench only sixty yards from the Germans this corporal was astounded to hear a Teutonic voice shout in English; “Is Corporal So-and-So there”? This curious Hun proved to be a barber from the Corporal’s native town, a man named Karl Schultz.
Frequent conversations followed, not always polite and complimentary. One night this Corporal went out on patrol, accompanied by a private. They both got well over-towards the German lines when they spied three figures moving quietly towards them. “Who is that”? the H.C.O. demanded. “Friends -British patrol”, came the reply. “You’re a damned liar, Schultz”, returned the Corporal, recognising the voice. And at that the three Huns ran for it to their own lines, while the Highlanders also ran to safety. Had either patrol fired on the other it might have brought bullet’s from both trenches and caused the death of all five.

This is a perfectly genuine incident and it is certainly of quite remarkable interest.

But Romance comes very seldom into the drab, hum-drum routine of the trenches. Day by day the programme varies little, except, of course, when an engagement takes place. And then, if an advance is made, a new trench is dug and the old programme continued as before. I doubt whether the Germans will ever be got “on the run”, but when our new armies and an inexhaustible supply of shells come, there is one thing you may be sure of - Tommy Atkin’s heart has not been made less stout by the soul-sickening trenches; and when the time for the advance arrives the Germans will be driven back at a rate which will give them no time to establish themselves in cemented-trenches, from which no amount of shelling could budge them without the sacrifice of thousands of splendid infantrymen’s lives. (resumed on 11 th July)

Well, pater, there’s a picture of the war such as you wanted, and it’s so long I’ll have to close right away!!

Love to mater, Your son, JOHN.

A few days later, in the earliest hours of July 13th, as he was reinforcing the parapet of a trench, John was shot through the heart by a German sniper. He died immediately and his body joined the grim parade in the military cemetery of Richebourg St.Vaast.

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