When we think of the soldiers who died in the Great War, we tend to think (according to our politics, perhaps) in terms either of heroes or of victims. The film They Shall Not Grow Old casts a rather different light on that, with one veteran admitting that ‘it was terrible at times, but I wouldn’t have missed it’, and another declaring: ‘If I could have my time again, I’d go through it all again.’
Last year, I was given four letters my great-uncle Gerald wrote to his mother from the Ypres Salient in the summer of 1917. I found them eye-opening in many ways.
He was 18 years old, and the youngest of seven. He was a devout evangelical Christian. From France he sent his brother Don a ‘will’, which said: ‘I confess to Christ Jesus as my personal living Saviour and trust to the merits of His most precious blood to cleanse me from all my sin.’ The pocket book he asked all his friends and mentors to write in before he embarked was full of quotations from the Bible and other pieties.
He hoped he would ‘be spared to come back’, but seemed quite prepared to die. He was a chirpy soul, much given to telling everyone to ‘keep smiling!’ ‘Cheer up, dear old boy, and don’t worry over anything,’ he wrote to Don, ‘I’ve never known a thing yet that hasn’t a funny side to it.’ He had found it ‘most amusing’ when the army instructors bawled at him, and said: ‘The French seem such very funny people from what I’ve seen of them.’ His catchphrase seems to have been ‘I shall do my level best to do my little bit.’
On 14 July, he wrote to his mother about his first taste of the trenches near Ypres: ‘After a long march we came to what was once a town. It is an awful sight. The dead horses stunk something atrocious… We entered the trenches round a place called Hell Fire Corner, where horses and men and shells were heaped in profusion, then on through Shrapnel Alley… First job next day was to bury some of our dead – one with both legs and one arm off and his head all battered in etc.
‘One day, Fritz set an aeroplane of ours on fire and the pilot, though wounded, managed to bring his machine down 50 yards in front of our first line. The poor officer crawled out and started to crawl to our lines, and the dirty Germans turned a machine gun on him. It was a mean, dirty, cowardly act… However, we had our own back the next night: two of our companies went over and raided the Germans. They brought back only one prisoner, for information, and all the other Germans (about 40 or 50) had a bellyful of bayonet for supper. I wish my company had gone over. You do not know what a mean, dirty, cowardly lot the Germans are.
‘The first thing I got on coming back to rest was your parcel. After having no sleep for four days and nights and no food for 36 hours, you can guess what a Godsend it was. Thank you ever so much, Mother dear… The tea and chocolate… may be the means of saving my life one of these days. You never know what is going to happen.
‘Life here is very, very hard, but does you good and is more than worth it if we can keep England from becoming what Belgium is. I do so enjoy your cheery letters… Keep cheery ripe and smiling! Cheero!’
Gerald’s company finally went ‘over the top’ on 31 July in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. He wrote to his mother afterwards:
‘We had a horrible time… sinking down to our knees in mud. As we crossed the German lines, they were piled with dead and wounded. The pitiless rain of shrapnel and high explosive came down on us… I had 40lbs of grenades to carry besides all my equipment and rifle. There was a huge lake in a forest where dead Germans were floating about. Shellholes big enough to put our house in abounded everywhere. We came to two streams which we waded through, sinking over our waists… Nearly half my platoon got wiped out during the crossing of the second one by the German machine guns. The rain was coming down in torrents.
‘Then the Germans started counter-attacking… We could not use our rifles as they were caked and choked in mud, so the order came for support from the rifle grenadiers. Well, I was nearest, so I climbed out… and gave them five. My first grenade, which I aimed carefully… killed seven of them… I was as cheerful as could be during the whole attack, but collapsed directly we got out. The officer said to me, “Well, you take it very coolly for your first attack. You’re the most cheerful man in the platoon.” So I felt more than rewarded.
‘As long as I live, July 31, August 1 & 2 will live in my memory. God spared me when so many, many went down. It must have been your prayers. You may not believe what I say, but I can assure you the chief thought in my mind those two awful nights was the prayers of those at home. Why I kept so cool and cheerful I don’t know. All the time I was laughing and joking, pulling everyone’s leg, and got nicknamed “Happy Tom”. Yet directly I got to camp and found the hot feed they had for us and the warm welcome, I lay down and had a good cry quietly to myself – perhaps it was the memory of so many dear fellows lying cold and low.
‘We had been up to our knees in water for 60 hours or so. All our strength was gone and we were like a lot of old men. Next morning… it was agony to walk… They tell me I would pass for 25 now and I certainly feel it.’ (In a later letter, he told his mother that his hair was turning grey.)
Then he had a message for his father, who was a commander in the Royal Navy: ‘Well, Father, if I’m not like you in all your strong, fine character, I at least have your fighting spirit. I am so pleased and proud of myself. Seven Germans in my first fight! That’s one for you, one for Mother, one for Hilda, one for Jim, one for Bernard, one for Harold and one for Douglas! I only need two more (one for me and one for Don) and that will be one each all round, won’t it!’
He ended by predicting that ‘next year we shall see the general advance sounded and we shall push the tyrant back onto his own ground. Then German people will learn the truth and turn round on the German military elite and revolutionise. The soldiers will come home to dear old Blighty. All the present government will be turned out. [Conservative] and Liberal alike are detested by all the men, who vow the war would have been over if they had acted squarely and put their back to it… Out of the old will rise a new England. I shall come home a new man, with a new vision.’
In an earlier letter, he had expanded on that vision: ‘One sees a message in the sky: Everything must become new – old things are passed away. If there’s anything that men here are looking forward to after war, it’s a new world. They often talk about it and discuss it of a night. They want to see a new system of voting – a new House of Commons, and they want new justice, new labour methods and a new church. Anything old seems dead and newness must rise out of it all.’
He ended the letter with a PS: ‘Would you please send me out another handkerchief?’
A fortnight later, after marching through the night, Gerald’s battalion went over the top again, just before dawn, in the Battle of Langemarck.
Their commander, a 25-year-old acting lieutenant-colonel, noted in his diary: ‘Cataract of steel… roaring deluge in which the acrid air throbbed, pulsed, and vibrated, and in which men shook and shuddered. Flashes lost in the greying dawn! Black smoke, red smoke, grey smoke, white smoke, mustard gas and tear shell! Cascades of leaping earth, clods and shards. A tension of nerves strained taut to ecstasy.’
A pal of Gerald later told Don: ‘I saw your brother when I got about 100 yards over and he shouted, “Hallo, old boy!” He was looking so brave… Well, we had not gone much further when I got hit and fell in a shell hole. Almost instantly your brother fell into the same shell hole two yards away from me. His glasses knocked off his head, which fell close by my side… He was hit in the head [by a shell burst] and killed instantly.’
Don wrote to his mother: ‘The shock seems to me to be the roughness of dear Gerald’s end and yet really, Mother dear, the cruel shot was kindest, for his translation was instantaneous, without pain, wasn’t it? And I am sure his “exodus” was as he would have wished it. I know he felt the exacting trial of living and desired to die young. Then, too, he felt it a privilege to die for England, facing fearful odds. And, Mother dear, we know he did his full duty and did it unflinchingly with that amazing, unrivalled courage that only the bravest of the brave possess. And to us will it not be a hallowed memory that dear Gerald, young as he was, was one of that glorious band who leaped into the breach to uphold the greatest of all causes and to make the supreme sacrifice without which England would have lost her soul?’
In fact, owing to a mistake by the general staff, the attack in which Gerald died was a costly failure that almost turned into a disaster. By the end of the day, the battalion’s strength had been reduced from over 400 to only three officers and 115 other ranks. Read all about it here.
Gerald’s family first heard of his fate on 27 August from his ‘great pal’ Private Mullins, who told them: ‘He was wounded and I am not sure where he went to after… I have not seen or heard anything of him since.’ On 7 September, they were informed that he was ‘officially reported wounded’. Two days later, Mullins wrote again to say that he thought it most likely that ‘Gerry’ had been taken prisoner. On 13 September, a captain confirmed that he was ‘last seen by his comrades making his way back to the dressing station’.
It was not until January 1918 that Don received from another ‘pal’, a Private Marshall, the eye-witness account of his death quoted above.
It was finally confirmed by the War Office (with ‘the sympathy of the Army Council’) on 10 April 2018, and it was not until 6 July that his family received a message of sympathy from Their Gracious Majesties the King and Queen (and ‘the regret of the Army Council at the soldier’s death in his Country’s service’) and a note signed by the Secretary of State for War: ‘He whose loss you mourn died in the noblest of causes. His Country will be ever grateful to him for the sacrifice he has made for Freedom and Justice.’
The final tally of casualties in the Battle of Passchendaele, which lasted from 31 July to 10 November 1917, was 238,313 British (35,831 killed, 172,994 wounded and 29,488 missing) and approximately 230,000 Germans. One website says: ‘Hardly any ground was gained… and eventually the actions ground to a halt.’
Last August, I went out to Ypres with my son to find Gerald’s name in Tyne Cot Cemetery and to hear the Last Post and Réveille at the Menin Gate on the centenary of his death. A motorway now runs within a few hundred metres of the slope where they think he died, and the infamous nearby wood from which the Germans kept up a ferocious machine-gun fire is now a nature reserve. I didn’t like all the guff on the various memorials, but one thing I found moving: the sombre stone sculpture in the German war cemetery (pictured above), where I went to remember also the seven men my 18-year-old great-uncle believed he had killed.
Photos of the Battles of Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck: Wikimedia Commons