Saturday, February 22, 2014

William Laurie Field's War - Part 8

The letters continue through the first winter.

“Thanks for the parcel which I received all right. The knife with the marlin spike is exactly what I wanted, and the eatables are always most acceptable. … We do get paid sometimes, but we are generally limited to 15 francs and only get paid occasionally: about four or five times since we landed. I spend most of mine in buying bread, as I can’t get on with the biscuit: - sort of goes against the grain. Our issue of bread is never very great … usually a loaf about equal to a small “Hovis” between three of us, but of course plenty of biscuit. For dinner, if we are not in the trenches, we have meat in a sort of soup, and it is very nice, except for the fact that it is always the same, but I never mind that we also have potatoes. If we are in the trenches we have tins of meat and vegetables, which are very nice warmed. We call them “Maconachies,” because, I believe a man of that name invented them. We also have plenty of jam, and an issue of cheese daily; sometimes we get tinned butter, and for breakfast we usually have a little cold bacon. I have charge of a section of nine men, and every night the next day’s rations are issued to me and I cut them up and issue them to the men, of course with the exception of a hot dinner; we all wish more bread could be issued, but I suppose it must be impossible. I am glad to say the trenches we are now occupying are fairly dry so far, but we are not allowed fires either night or day. Still I was not to be done for my hot cocoa, so I, with my pal, heated a dixie over a tin of vaseline. We put a piece of rag in it, screwed up the end and lit it, and this burns without smoke. We also managed to heat our “Maconachies” over the same fire. I wonder if people in England would feel very much hurt if they new the vaseline they sent for the soldiers’ poor tender feet was used to warm up their food in the trenches. I sometimes wish you could see how we live in the trenches. If I get cold during the night, I go for a ramble round, as where we are now, there is a perfect maze of trenches; one night I was lucky enough to get a “dug out,” but it’s quite a luxury to have one, that is worth calling a “dug out.” During the day we do odd jobs and dig to improve the trenches. I generally see that I am in the digging party because hanging about makes one cold, but after a quarter of an hour’s digging you are as warm as toast. Whilst it remains dry the trenches here are very good, but it is surprising how beastly muddy and wet they get with only quite a little rain; of course it is only natural, as they act as a sort of drain. At night we always talk about home, and think how lovely a nice cosy, warm bed must be - which does pass the time away. Of course a look-out is kept all day and night, either one in two or two in three. … The French have some fine “star shells” now; they are like rockets, and shoot up into the air with a trail of sparks behind, then burst and out comes a flare; I should imagine it acts on a kind of parachute arrangement, as they float in the air for two or three minutes, lighting up the country like day. We have had most exciting times lately, in fact we have had it thicker than at any time since we landed, but Mr. Censor won’t let me tell you for a month, so you will have to wait. … The tobacco you sent is good, we have some served out here but I do not like it, and we cannot buy much here, unless we go right back for a rest. Sunday, for a wonder, we are not to be in the trenches (that is tomorrow). Last Sunday things happened, so we were not so quiet.” Wolverton Express 1915 Feb. 26th

Feb. 19th “To Censor, a description of bath only … Things are still all right, and we still occasionally have excitements, but of course, familiarity breeds contempt, to a great extent, but it takes a tremendous amount of shell fire before contempt is bred in that direction … We had quite a different sort of adventure this morning. We were all marched to B ----, and there we indulged in a bath. It was fine, and the system absolutely perfect. First of all, we (60 of us) went into a large room and discarded , great coat, boots, hat; next we were rushed along a passage and into another room, where we left our tunics, trousers and cardigans, in charge of an orderly, next we were rushed into another room and took off all our underclothing, and then we were dashed down another passage (with only Nature’s clothing) to the baths. Here we indulged in an exquisite hot shower bath, but I wsas lucky enough to have a good long ordinary bath to myself. At the end of 10 minutes a whistle blows, and everybody dashes down another passage where an attendant stands at the door throwing towels, which hit you quite unexpectedly, but which you just manage to catch as you dash into a room at the end. Here a complete change of underclothing awaited everyone, and after a hurried dry, with a few remarks from the sergeant in charge, such as: “Now then, bust about, ten more fellows standing naked, waiting to come in.” You rush down another passage, and into another room. Here you find your tunic and trousers under your number, which have been ironed during your absence, then after going to the first room and putting on overcoat and boots, you pass downstairs and find a nice basin of hot bovril, also cigarettes and tobacco awaiting you. It was a real treat, and I still have visions of white figures rushing down passages from one place to another, as though it were the “Garden of Eden.” The arrangement was perfect, and a “Red” man told me they get through five and six hundred a day, and I believe they only have ten baths. I seem to remember, rushing at one end, and being rushed and pushed about, from one place to another, until finally, I was kicked out at the end and given a cup of “Bovril.” Have missed all war news this time, as we are not resting yet, still I feel like a new man … One of the letters sent to me out here was returned marked “Hospital,” and I found another letter, mud-stained and marked similarly, so I imagine, the other fellow in the Battalion named Field, has been wounded, so don’t be alarmed if you hear anything or have a letter. Glad to say, so far, am still alive and kicking, and enjoying life, as far as possible under the circumstances. I have seen loads of French soldiers, and we generally give our too strong tobacco to them. I believe the people at home think we are all the “Woodbine sort,” but your little gift of “Chairman,” was so welcome as I never get anything half so good.” “We had quite an interesting hour with a French soldier to-day, he had lived in America, and could speak English quite well. I tried on his pack and also unpacked it. They take a blanket into the trenches (we don’t), and he told me they have hot soups twice a day. We generally get what we are able to warm up ourselves; they get plenty of bread too, in fact more than they can eat, lucky bounders. Did I tell you, we had some German bread? It was like brown bread, but very close - quite palatable, but with a slight “twang.” The French don’t like our tea, but they generally have coffee beans and carry a grinder between 9 or 10 men, and if they rest for quarter of an hour, it is not long before they have some hot coffee ready. There is one difference, you never see young sporty boys, like our soldiers. When the French hear us sing, they seem to get quite excited, and don’t seem to understand our singing when on the march, they usually march along in silence.”

Feb. 21st “The parcel reached me safely and I was glad of the saccharine tablets, my own were almost used up. The underclothing also is beautifully warm. We go into the trenches again to-morrow night, when I hope to feel the benefit of them … Do you know, I receive on an average, three letters a day, which I reckon to answer, and I often give up a lot of time, I might spend enjoying myself and seeing things, in order to write my letters … I am sorry so much of my letters are cut out. I often wish you could “guess” things in your letters to me, because I am convinced you know where we are … I believe we are getting hardened a little. We came through a trench the night before last, up to our knees in mud, owing to the rain, but we went up next day and cleared it out. We were supposed to be relieved at 9.30p.m., but owing to something going wrong, we finally got to billet about 2a.m., and in a fine, wet, and muddy state. However, we soon got happy, although at the time, a few remarks were made about foreign service, etc. It does make us wish some of the stay-at-homes had to endure the same. I believe this life either makes or breaks a man. Yesterday I met a fellow in the Irish Guards, related to Mr. Hodgson, of the “Loco,” Old Wolverton. He said his people had told him to enquire after me … We are not allowed to keep diaries, so last Sunday was a lovely day, bright, warm, and just lovely for a walk. I did wish myself miles away from this abominable war. The shells were bursting, and rifles banging all around us, whilst we were digging trenches, and war seemed a positive sin, on so peaceful a Sunday afternoon. Could you please send me a strong leather belt? I wore a German belt some days, and I miss the support, but I did not want to be captured by the enemy wearing a German belt.”

Feb. 26th I am still all right. The weather has been bad just lately, we have had frost and snow, and are still doing time in the trenches. The Sergeant O’Leary who so greatly distinguished himself, is in our brigade (4th Guards). Of course a Brigade always keeps together, so you will understand what we have been in. I shall be glad when we have a rest as we have had it thick since Christmas. When our Colour Sergeant went home, he took a souvenir for me, let me know when you receive it, I hope you will like it too, it is German. We have done an enormous amount of trench-digging lately, I enjoy digging now I am used to it. I can keep on two or three hours without getting too tired, and it keeps one warm, which is no small matter out here. I shall try and get work as a navvy when I get home, after serving such a good apprenticeship. What makes my blood boil sometimes, is when we see accounts of Temperance Societies, trying to stop our issue of rum. I wish those same people had to stand in a trench all night, especially when it rains, and it is not as if we have a pint of the stuff, it is generally about a couple of tablespoonsful (sic) per man; that sort of people only want one night in the trenches, and I guess they would soon dry up, but our fellows have to stick it for weeks, they don’t know what they are talking about. Well, I am tired, so good night.” Wolverton Express 1915 Mar. 5th

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