Remembrance Day special: Letters from the trenches

JULY 1916: A British Grenadier Guardsman keeping watch on 'No-Man's land' as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench at Ovillers, near Albert, during the Battle of the Somme.
JULY 1916: A British Grenadier Guardsman keeping watch on 'No-Man's land' as his comrades sleep in a captured German trench at Ovillers, near Albert, during the Battle of the Somme.
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To commemorate armistice Day we are publishing some of the letters, which first appeared in the Leeds Mercury a century ago, written by those on the front line.

Sergeant A Hinderer, who is serving at the front with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light infantry, writes to his sister, Miss T Hinderer, in Dewsbury, giving a vivid account of the fighting in which his regiment has taken part.

“We are under heavy shell fire, and I am writing this in a trench. I have made it and you can bet it is pretty deep. As far as I can tell we are getting on A1. What you saw about our battalion losing heavily, was at the Battle of Le Cateau, on August 26. I lost all my chums. The total killed, wounded, and missing from our battalion was 600, three-fifths of our strength. Of my platoon, 58 strong, 18 of us got away.

Our battalion is the weakest in the brigade now. We were the last lot to leave the trenches and the general said he could not recommend anyone, in particular, for bravery, because he would have to recommend the whole battalion and he marvelled at some of us coming out at all. I won’t be sorry when it is all over because it is an awful sight the fight and, my word, how it shakes a man’s nerves. I have not had a shave for three weeks and a wash for ten days, so you can tell what a state I am in. I am glad that everything is going A1 at home.”

Jack Spencer, of the destroyer Lurcher, describing the action off Heligoland, in which he took part, to a friend in Bradford. “We met the Germans on Friday off Heligoland and we sank five, as far as we can make out, others being badly wrecked. We went up alongside the Mainz just before she sank, and it was an awful sight. We got 224 prisoners in a most terrible state, and many of them died.

You have not the slightest idea what a terrible thing modern warfare is. Some of the Germans were torn to pieces.

It is impossible to describe it all on paper. Our decks were red with blood, and you see we are only a destroyer, so you may tell what a mess we were in.

All the Germans seemed quite happy when we got them on board. The worst job of all was getting them out of the sea. Some of them had legs and arms shot away, battered to pieces. I was in our boat just before their vessel sank and there seemed to be many who were helpless on board her. I am pleased to say the English losses were small. So I think I shall have plenty to say when I arrive home.”

An account of a gallant act performed by a Leeds man is recorded in a letter written by rifleman W Sissons to his wife in Leeds. Mr Sissons says: “I saw a fine thing on the 18th.

We went out to take some German prisoners when the German artillery began to shell us. We got orders to retire and on the way poor Jack Anderson got hit in the neck. Billy Flaxington, one of our fellows, at once went out in front of a shower of bullets and brought him in. Even our officers cheered. It showed the Germans what Kirkstall Road lads are made of.”

The man rescued worked prior to the war at Leeds Forge with Flaxington, his rescuer. Both men are members of the 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifles.

Nurse Fox, of Halifax, who is on hospital duty near to the fighting line in France, writes home to her father in a letter dated October 3rd. “We have had a very busy day and the men want a lot doing for them. They have been in the trenches a fortnight and come in very tired, but soon buck up after a night or two’s rest and good food.

If only all of you knew how much the men want comforting. Woodbines and sweets cheer them wonderfully. Writing materials, papers, handkerchiefs and things like that are needed. When the men arrive they have lost everything except their uniform. They are good boys and deserve everything they are given. You never hear a murmur, except when the nerve has quite gone from them.”

Nurse Fox relates an amusing incident en route to the front.

She and her sister nurses were entertained by an old French Colonel to a champagne dinner “and didn’t we”, she says, “have a time”. “We sang Auld Lang Syne, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and the National Anthem.

Then, as I was the only one who knew the Marseillaise in English, I sang it with the old gentleman, who didn’t know a word of English.”

Lance Sergeant Alf Gearey, of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, a son of ex-Sergeant and Mrs Gearey, of Barton-on-Humber, has written a letter on board the hospital ship St David at Le Harve, which he posted in Southampton.

“Just a line to let you know I am A1. Now it’s over I must say the last few days have been real horror, fighting all the time since Sunday. Our last action was the worst.

We fell like corn before the reaper, I tell you truly, I never expected to get out alive.

The Germans must have lost thousands, but they were ten to one, so we had to retire. The shrapnel and hail of lead and bullets, I see it all now, and I was one of the last to leave the field. I won’t say any more, but I got a bullet through my right leg, but I still kept on twenty yards or thereabouts.

I got a great piece of shrapnel shell in my neck - laid me senseless. I came to again and as if possessed ran for my life through it all and made good. It’s wonderful how you can run with a bullet through your leg.

I have not been long at it but fellows say that they saw more in the last four days than they did in three years in Africa, that’s the truth.

Ah well, I am not grumbling. I’m not disfigured or maimed like so many poor fellows, so let’s rejoice over all. Some of our engagements lasted 13 hours and the last and worst, 10 hours. So tired, must sleep.”

We have received a letter from Colour Sergeant Clark, of the Scots Greys, who testifies to the gallantry of a Leeds soldier with whom he was taken prisoner in Belgium and helped him to make his escape.

“I am proud to write on behalf of a Leeds man who saved my life. We were at Mons, where, after fighting four days, we got the order to retire. I had my horse shot under me and was taken prisoner. The Leeds man was taken prisoner also. He was real company for me. We numbered nine altogether. Three of us were English, four were French, and two were Belgians. The Leeds man, who spoke French, asked if anyone had a knife.

It was a good job there was one. The Leeds man took the knife and stuck a German guard in the back with it. Then he gave the word to escape, and stopped behind until we were out of danger, when he made his escape himself. I think this was a very brave act.

We came in contact with the Belgian Army at Marche, and were supplied by them with rifles and ammunition. Afterwards I got wounded in the leg, and was taken to hospital at Namur, where I lost my Leeds friend.

When I got back to England I found the name of the Leeds man among those missing. But a day or two ago a soldier came to hospital who showed me the photograph of the man which he had sent to me.

I rejoiced as if the King had given me a VC, or as if the world were mine. But I was sorry when he told me the story of what happened to him. I thought my heart would break. I was told he had been taken prisoner, stripped of his clothes, and tied to a pole to be shot.

But just as it happened the Belgians came on the scene at that moment and in the thick smoke of the shells he managed to convey a message to a man on a motorbike for General French, who sent a release party. The name of that man from Leeds, who is at present in hospital suffering from fever, is Robert Barnes.”

Billy Bell, writing to his parents in Harrogate, describes how pheasant shooting became a diversion behind the firing line. Bell, who writes from the General Hospital, in Rouen, says: “An aeroplane dropped a bomb within forty yards of me when I was pheasant beating one day.

Sounds rather strange but fancy pheasant shooting just behind our big guns! Our four officers total bag was one pheasant, four hares, five pigeons and five partridges. Twenty of us volunteered for the beating and travelled in one of our lorries eight miles to the shoot. Quite a nice change, equipped with a big stick and a water bottle.”

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