Deadly Work of Trench Digging

Private Tom Stephenson, a private in the 20th County of London, eldest son of Mr and Mrs Stephenson of Murray Villa, 85 Courthill Road, who joined at the commencement of the war, sends home letters describing the work of the battalion at the front and the nature of the fighting in which the 20th London is taking part.

In a letter dated June 10, he writes: –

“We came out of the trenches three days ago, marched nine miles, rested 10 hours, marched back again and went into the trenches the same night as a working party. We had to go out in the open in front of our advanced trench and dig another trench. We had been at the operation for about ten minutes when the beggars started a machine gun at us. The two chaps on either side of me were hit. One of them yelled out that he was hit and this gave the show away to the Germans and the latter at once started shelling us. The other chap beside me was hit in seven places, twice in the stomach, twice in the chest as well as in the leg. That night we lost six men. Goodness knows how many of us got through. Last night we went out again to do the same job. I tell you we all had got the wind. Well, on this occasion the Huns left us alone for two hours then they let us have it, rifle fire, trench mortars, shells, bombs and rifle grenades came over one after the other. All at once the order came to get out of it back to the trenches and we got under cover as quick as lightening. It was a rush and it is a marvel no one was hurt. Somebody did hit me over the head with a rifle and I have got a nice eye. We have lost 18 men. It has been Hell this last two nights. Out of our platoon of 56, there are 22 left and I am one of the latter. I think it is about time our division went back for a rest; it has been on the go for about seven weeks”

The Lewisham Borough News, 25 June 1915

Thrilling Journey to Fetch Water

In previous issues we have published extracts from letters sent home to his parents, Mr and Mrs S Phillips of 2 Ringstead Road, Catford from their son, Stanley, who is a private in the 20th County of London Regiment, now serving in France. The following extracts from further letters which have been received from Private Phillips, who is acting as cook, will doubtless be read with interest; –

“We had a very wet journey to the trenches last night and to put the cap on things our wagon struck a shell or shell hole in crossing a field, which smashed the axle. We managed to drag the wagon to shelter and turned in at a house, which had lost half of its roof. We were soaked to the skin. We are billeted here at a house at the back of the firing line. Stray bullets hit the building, so that you can see it’s a lively spot. We think we shall be here in and out of the trenches for about 20 days. Our chief diet is now bully beef and biscuits. It is a change from steak and onions isn’t it? We have a French 75mm gun potting the Germans from our back garden. I hope they won’t return the compliment as we can well do without their shells. The mouth organ you sent us keeps us cool and cheerful; we wanted something to keep us alive; anything barring shells. “

In a subsequent letter Private Phillips writes; 

“Things have been pretty lively again and I have had one of the narrowest escapes I have yet experienced. It happened like this, Our senior cook, Hugh Andrews and I had to go out and draw water for the boys’ teas from a shell smashed village about one and a half miles from our billet. To get there we had to push a trolley, on which were the dixies, along a track right across a large corn field, which is in full view of the German lines. We got to pump without anything happening, got all our dixies filled and started on the return and what proved to be a most adventurous journey. We arrived at the corn field all right. Here we were spotted. The first shell would have caught us a good packet as it was coming straight for the trolley, but luckily it struck a pile of chalk first. On we went at the double, each shell striking places we had only just passed and they would have got us if we had not kept on running. This continued right along the track, the shells following us all the way. Things got so hot that it was just a matter of inches. We then left the truck on its own and bolted for the communication trench, which was about 50 yards distant. We stopped in the trench for about ten minutes. It was then just on three o’clock and tea had to be got ready by four in time for a fatigue party from the trenches. We got out of the trench and had just got to the truck again when the Germans started shelling us once more, but this time with shrapnel. How it was we not hit is a marvel, but we eventually managed to get across the field and behind some buildings for shelter. We were very much ‘puffed’ but had a whole skin. My other two companion cooks, Briggs and Curtis have just returned after going to the pump for water from tomorrow’s breakfast and they have also had a similarly exciting experience, being under shell fire, but going and returning quite safely. We were very thankful to see them return, I can tell you. Our company was put into a new trench last night and I am sorry to say the Germans have got the range of it, shelling it heavily. Result, one killed and five injured”

The Lewisham Borough News, 30 July 1915

Extract of a letter from a private in the 1/20th County of London Battalion (Blackheath and Woolwich), dated 01 October 1915.

“I am sure you must have been worrying about me not writing at all for just a week.

No doubt you know little about what we have been doing the last few days. We have known for some time that we were making a big advance all along the line, that was what all that digging and preparations were for.

Before I go any further, I think we ought to thank God for sparing me. Oh, it has been terrible. I will try to relate to you the whole programme during last week.

On Friday 24 September, we packed up our coats and capes and all small belongings to be carried to the transport. All we carried was a ground sheet, rations for 2 days and two hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition.

Then our Colonel spoke to us and told us what we had to do. The 18th Battalion were to take the first line of German trenches, then we were to advance over them and gain as much ground as possible.

He wished all the best of luck and said were backed up by the best troops. We had a brigade of Guards and Cavalry behind us to carry on when we had done our work. The whole British and French line was going to advance together over a front of 400 miles. It would be the biggest battle ever fought in history.

After that, we marched to a small place just behind the line where we rested for two hours. We had a grand dinner consisting of stew with carrots and onions and potatoes in it – the best we have ever had. Then we had tea and rum – plenty of it. This was about 9 o’clock at night. It was pouring with rain all the time and we were out in an open field, so we got wet through. All the time we were bombarding the Germans. Our Artillery did the work splendidly – they bombarded the German lines and positions for four days before the attack. They said we were short of ammunition; we must have sent millions of shells over.

Well, after our repast, we went into the trenches and took up our positions ready for the attack. This was about midnight. It was raining all the time and we got wet through to the skin.

Five hours waiting in the rain, all of us uncertain if we should come out alive. I shall never forget it till my dying days.

Then at 5.30 in the morning we sent our gas to the German trenches. We were ordered to put on our respirators. They are like big helmets with goggles and a valve for breathing through.

Soon after the 18th Batt went over the top and charged the first line trench at the point of the bayonet. They took it easily.

Now our time had come

We had to advance beyond them as far as possible

We climbed over the top at 5.30. Oh! My God. I can hardly describe what we had to go through. We were met with a hail of machine gun fire and shrapnel. It is a marvel that we were not hit at all.

It must have been here that poor Alf was hit.

I saw the poor beggars beside me, some would be hit in the leg and as they stumbled, they would be riddled with bullets right up to their heads.

I advanced about 50 yards and was overcome with the gas. I was nearly choked. There I did a silly thing, but didn’t think of it at the time. I took my respirator off. Fortunately the gas had thinned somewhat there, else I should have been killed.

I laid there for about 5 minutes. I had completely recovered after that time. I got up and found that my company was a good way ahead. I ran for all I was worth and soon caught them up.

After we pressed over the German first line, which the 18th were occupying, we were in the thick of it.

We were still being fired at by machine guns concealed in houses in the village we now had to take. The name of the place is Loos. Several made a stubborn resistance. But quite a lot of the Germans threw down their rifles and put up their hands for mercy. These we captured, the other we made short work of.

It took us a long time to capture the town of Loos, but with perseverance and a big loss of our men, we at last captured it. The German losses were far greater than ours. Hundreds and hundreds had been killed by our bombardment.

We advanced further still till we came to a huge chalk pit with two guns in it. This took a lot of taking as, of course, they did not want to lose two guns without making some resistance. Some of the gunners gave themselves up, others we killed.

Then we got to the top of the hill and found it impossible to advance further. We had advanced two and a half miles and captured two guns. What a grand achievement!

The capture of the guns goes to the credit of A Company, my company. We have had them taken back and they are being sent to Blackheath. When you see them, you will know that your soldier boy helped to capture them.

Well, to resume, as I said before, we were unable to advance any further, as there was a lot of barbed wire in front of another German line of defense. Here we had to dig ourselves in. we dug for our lives. Every man tried to get down deep so as to form cover from the murderous machine gun fire. Here we lost a good many men, but still we held on. By the afternoon, we got fairly well established, but the Germans started a counter attack. Thanks to our machine gunners we were able to drive them off.

That done, we worked like devils to make our position as string as possible. To make things worse, it was pouring with rain and we had nothing to cover ourselves with. As the night set in we got as cold as ice, till we could hardly use our rifles. We cheered one another up by saying we should be relieved the next day and my word wouldn’t we have a feed and something hot to drink, but we were disappointed for no relief came. Men were wanted elsewhere.

All the new troops as they passed over us, cheered us and said “Bravo! Three cheers for the Territorials”.

We didn’t get relieved until Wednesday (the 29th) morning at about 2 o’clock. Five days fierce fighting and very little to eat and drink. All we had was biscuits and cheese and I went two days without anything to drink. Oh! It was awful.

We marched back some way behind the line to a billet on the Wednesday morning. Oh, what a treat to get into an old battered down house. I have never enjoyed a meal so much in all my life. Then we turned in and slept for about 12 hours. Of course when we got back, we were wet through and had to take everything off. We had our coats given out and I captured a German ground sheet that I made into a sleeping valise. I was very glad that I had it. Our colonel thanked us each one for the good work we had done. I saw him go up to our Captain and take him by the hand and said, “ Thank God, you have done wonderfully well” and our Captain said, “Don’t thank me, thank my men.” All our officers in our company had been killed and our Captain was the only one left.

I have some five souvenirs from the Germans. I have a fine helmet, but I have unfortunately lost it since. I have got box of fine cigars too. I have one or two other little things also.

I hope to God we don’t have to go through another experience like this one again. I thank God again and again for sparing me to you. I am more than grieved about poor old Alf. He was such a jolly good fellow. He died a hero, doing his duty. He went over the top next to me, but I didn’t see him fall, perhaps it is just as well. I should have had to stop with him and that would not have done when there was work to do.

We are about 10 miles behind the lines now having a rest and being re-equipped.”