First World War: Mud and bullets, a year in the life of ‘an ordinary private in the trenches’
PUBLISHED: 13:30 29 December 2014
The diaries of Great War soldiers transport us straight to the Western Front. One can almost smell the mud and feel the cold.
Steven Russell reads about a signaller in the Suffolk Regiment, and hears stories of other men who served their country.
New Year’s Day, 1916, and Private 13060 Gardiner spends his time not in celebration and optimism but mending wire and moving sandbags amid the desolation of the Western Front. “Open ground [with no trenches]. Shell hole ditches everywhere,” he jots down with a pencil in his diary. Home in East Anglia must have seemed a long way off.
It had been a tough year. As he’d played football with his mates the previous January, the kickabout blessed short relief, Suffolk Regiment soldier Charles might have been able to guess at what lay ahead. But he probably couldn’t have imagined the details.
The next few days of 1915 had seen the teenager (he was born in 1896, one of three boys) move to the Givenchy trenches in France. There, he was “Nearly hit in foot by sniper”.
“Such an early brush with death must have been a chastening experience for the 18-year-old private, but worse was to follow in the coming months,” says Tim Gardiner of his great-uncle.
He knows what happened because Charles dutifully filled in his pocket-sized war diary for the first full calendar year of the conflict. Tim has collated those entries into a booklet. He’s added poetry he’s written, inspired loosely by the extracts.
“The evidence is a valuable testament to his courage and bravery, but also to the brutal experience of life… This book most importantly serves to mark the life and death of an ordinary private in the trenches, so that all he experienced is not forgotten one hundred years since the start of the Great War.”
In the February, the signaller moved to trenches six miles from Béthune. “He experienced another ‘Narrow escape’ on 20th February as ‘Shells bussted [sic] 6 yards away.’”
On March 3, an attack was made on a slag heap and “Two mines went up in front of us” – another lucky escape.
By the summer Charles and colleagues are in the Somme region. “Finally, the battalion was to experience trench warfare at its most deadly, when at 3.30am on Saturday 3rd July ‘Battalion goes over the top’, with some success, as they ‘Succeeded in getting to German front line.’
“Hostilities intensified as ‘Bombers went to storm village with grenades but most of them captured’, showing that the early success of getting to the German trenches was tempered with an unsuccessful raid.”
The following day, news came through of the cost: 600 casualties, 11 of them signallers – “therefore it seemed that Charles had been one of the lucky signallers to survive going over the top”.
At the start of August, a “traumatic month” that will mark the peak of hostilities for him in 1915, he enjoys a bath in the River Somme. A week later, waves of soldiers twice go over the top, though there’s no mention of Charles being among them or not.
In the middle of the month the troops have to march 20km. “Such a punishing march came just over a week after going over the top twice,” points out Tim. “We can only imagine how tired and jaded they must have been at this point.”
September dawns. He’s in the trenches at “Hope Street”. On the 11th, Charles notes “Private Beaton killed outside trench” by a “Mortar”.
Tim says: “In the Somme area the fragility of life in the trenches was brought home as the entry on 1st October read ‘Harry Morres killed.’ Whether friends or not, two soldiers’ deaths are noted in the diary. Times were hard for the battalion, reinforced by them having to ‘Bivoac [sic] (raining)’.”
He continues: “The first mention of ‘Fatigue’ on 8th October suggests that the war was starting to take its toll on his health… There was little rest from the constant demands of trench warfare, and on 10th October Charles noted the problem of fatigue once more. Events took a turn for the worse on 11th when ‘Hospital Fatigue’ was mentioned, suggesting a short stay to aid his recovery from the debilitating effects of more than a year in the army.”
Rest and relaxation was hardly possible, though. On the 12th, the battalion went over the top with soldiers from the Norfolk Regiment, “although it is unclear whether he was personally involved with this offensive.
“The ‘Suffolks [Regiment] get trench but driven out by counter attack, heavy losses.’ The conflict during 1915 was infamous as a war of attrition, with neither the Allies nor Germans making much progress.”
On October 17 the battalion arrived at Béthune before marching to Vermelles. “On the 19th Charles ‘Carried bombs to trenches, arrived back Vermelles 4.30, slept in open (felt cold).’
“This is the perfect illustration of the hardship of the war and how the autumn weather was starting to bite. He also ‘Lost gas helmet,’ a potentially life threatening state of affairs given the previous use of gas by the Germans in April.”
That week, Charles notes that the battalion “Loses 260 men” and a German ‘Trench taken and lost.’”
The month is grim. Tim says: “On 24th October in St Quentin he was nearly ‘Washed out by rain,’ and noted ‘Plenty of mud’ as he started out for the trenches on 26th October.
“He ‘Slept German dugout’ near Arras on the evening of the 26th, before mentioning the ‘Trenches in awful state, Casualties 7 killed’ on 31st October.
“The month ended with Charles describing the dreadful state of the trenches after what must have been heavy autumn rains: ‘Water over knees in places, had to wrap sandbags round my legs.’
“Worse was to follow.”
A new month brought “Heavy bombardment, several casualties” during a period of heavy artillery fire.
“Just before Christmas 1915, two gas attacks were noted, with one on the 22nd December occurring at ‘2.20 a.m.’ before a ‘Heavy bombardment.’
“Rather charmingly, the entry for 25th December reads ‘JOLLY XMAS, 6 bottles vin, raining?’” Unfortunately, there are no diaries for the rest of the war. But we do know the young man was killed in 1918.
“The War Office letter we have kept indicates that his death occurred on or after 28th April 1918 and that his isolated grave is located half a mile north of Monchy-le-Preux and five miles east of Arras,” explains Tim.
He says: “The family knows very little about Charles, his life, loves, or character. However, it is clear that he had a cheerful personality in the face of adversity, as his recollections of Christmas 1915 testify.
“He also presents his experiences in a pretty matter of fact way, perhaps partly due to the limited space in the pocket-sized diary, but also because of his stoical nature.”
Tim adds: “Charles certainly went through the awful cycle of events on the Western Front, including nearly been blown up, shot at, going over the top, losing fellow soldiers, treacherous conditions (particularly flooded trenches), and moving around northern France on an almost daily basis at times.”
His role was certainly a precarious one.
“Signallers were often in great danger themselves, as they were placed in forward positions on the front line, often isolated from the rest of the soldiers. This made them extremely susceptible to shelling and many lost their lives in the trenches.
“Charles managed to survive four years in the trenches as a signaller, a remarkable feat; the tragedy being his death in 1918 so close to the end of the conflict.”