Words of those who fought in the first battles of the First World War
In the early summer of 1914, apparently unconcerned by the gathering storm and the colossal building of military might in Germany, the British regular army, reduced in numbers and not having fought a major conflict for over a decade, was at peace in its garrisons. When German troops marched through Belgium and attacked France, the British Expeditionary Force was hastily created and for British soldiers the transition from peace to mobilisation and transportation to the battle line happened within a matter of days. It is astonishing that the ‘Contemptible Little Army’ was not instantly enveloped by the advancing Germans who outnumbered them—often by much more than five to one. Some are jingoistic about the British Army of the day being ‘the best army in the world,’ however, the battle fought at Mons, the retreat to the Marne, the skilful command of the British staff and the dogged resistance of troops, who inflicted causalities on the enemy totally disproportionate to their strength, speaks for itself. The outcome was inevitable though and by the early months of 1915 the B. E. F. had all but been destroyed. Its tenacity had, however, earned the British sufficient time to build a new army, defence and response. This unique Leonaur centenary volume includes two works that bring to life the lives of British soldiers who fought through the events of 1914. The first contains dozens of narratives from soldiers at the sharp end of war, while the second is specifically about the first hand experiences of one officer. This is an essential book for those wishing to understand the impact of the early days of war on those who experienced it.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Letter 49. From Corporal Sam Moorhouse, of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, to his wife at Birkby:
Our company were reserves, and came under fire about noon. We were in a ditch as we thought safe when “Ping! Ping!” came the bullets, and off we shot across the open, under a railway embankment. On the way we passed four artillery horses shot dead with shrapnel. Then we took up a position on a hillside, when round the corner, 700 yards away, came a German maxim gun. They were busy getting it ready for firing on us, and we were firing at them, when our artillery which was only half a mile away sent two shots and blew up the gun and all the men. Then we cleared off and marched till twelve midnight. Up again at two and off for what was called a rest camp. Still wet clothes, and filthy ; had no boots off for days.
Instead of “rest” camp we marched nearly thirty miles, arriving at 8 p.m. Here I had a good meal of jam, cheese, and bread first bite of bread for days.
Next day we were up before daylight and taking up position. We dug trenches, and were fired on before we had finished. We were at the back a sort of last firing line. So we lay down in the trench, and waited. Shrapnel and lyddite were flying round us like hail, and our gunners were firing too. Such a noise! Just like thunder! Well, we stuck out as long as we could when we got the order to retire. However I came safely away goodness knows.
I picked up my gun and ran up the hill and dropped on one side of the road to rest. Then I had to get across the road, so got up and was half-way across when a shell burst and knocked me flat on my face. It must have fused at the wrong time, as I got only a cut on my thumb from a fragment. Then I got across and dropped in a trench where a fellow was lying dead. I stayed there only a minute, and then ran off over the hill and safe. The bullets were flying in all directions and shells were bursting four at a time. South Africa was nothing compared to this.
I had had no sleep for nights, so decided to go back to a little village we had just passed, where I sat on a doorstep till I fell asleep, and woke up one hour later wet through and chilled to the bone. It was still dark when I got back to where I left our regiment, and they were off. So I trekked away alone, and got on the wrong road.
About nine in the morning I came across some transport, and rode along with stragglers of other regiments to a camp. There were about sixty of us, and we went to a large camp, about 2,000 of us—all lost. There I came across Guy Jessop of Huddersfield, who was also lost, and was glad to meet a pal. We had a walk in the town together, and called in a café. We had some coffee and rum (Guy paid, as I had no money). I played the piano and sang “Mrs. Hullaby.” Lucky job they could not understand English, or they would have been shocked.
Letter 50.—From Private E. W. Dyas, of the 11th Hussars, to his parents at Mountain Ash:
We landed at Havre, and travelled up country. We were under fire for about twenty minutes on the first day, and the shells were bursting like rain all around us. We got away with only one horse killed. It was marvellous. We are continually under fire by day and travelling by night. It is awful to hear the artillery booming death night and day. We were fighting day and night for three days. The slaughter was terrible. I took a dispatch across the battlefield when the Germans were retiring, and I passed their trenches. The dead were piled up in the trenches about ten deep, and there were trenches seven miles long. It was terrible to see. We are collecting the three cavalry brigades together at the present moment for a massive charge. I am writing this in the saddle. I may get through this again. One bullet penetrated my horse’s neck and another one went through the saddle. I have had a sword-thrust through my sleeve. So I am getting on well.