Walter: All smart as can be today for the Commanding Officers’ inspection. Just saw the Indian cavalry on the way. They stayed behind here in France when the rest of the Indian Army, like my mate Sidh, went to Mesopotamia. Some of the newer lads in our battalion had never seen Indians before so I had to stop them gawping and calling out. Hard to believe I was like that once. I told them how they charged near High Wood and Delville Wood two weeks ago and that soon shut them up. Everyone’s heard of ‘Devil’s Wood’ and what an awful place it is. Anyway, after the inspection we’ve got to get back and get some rest. Marching at 3.30am tonight to get to Averdoigt. Should take about 6 hours.
To read more about the Battle of Delville Wood, visit http://goo.gl/xHbUzc
and to read more about the Indian Army at the Somme, visit http://goo.gl/cFmg9j
Walter: Marched back to Ourton again – the place with all the orchards and gardens. And it’s just as peaceful as it was the last time. Trees still standing, with their leaves on. You don’t see much of that any more. It’s nice to be back, especially in this hot weather.
Rose: It’s so hot we’ve moved lots of the soldiers’ beds outside. It helps them to get a bit of fresh air, except our new Australian patients keep teasing us for getting so excited over a day’s sunshine! They reckon back home it’s like a furnace all year round but I’ve a feeling they’re pulling my leg.
Lily: I’m glad you’re out of the line and safe!
Mary: It’s blistering hot in London as well. I’d make Annie up a bed outside too but I’m worried about the poor mite’s lungs with all the street dust.
To locate Ourton, visit https://goo.gl/RnYb7g
Walter: Sounds like my brother’s managing to hold his tongue at Basic Training. Just don’t knock the army, Ed – it could be good for you.
Ed: What a strange life being in the military is. Every minute of the day is all laid out and if you ever find yourself not doing anything you can be sure someone will be along, quick as a flash, bellowing at you that you ought to be. I’ve been at Woolwich 2 weeks now and if I thought I might get used to it, I was wrong. How would you like someone you can’t stand telling you what’s what? These corporals and sergeants who think they’re just the thing, swanning about shouting orders. I’ve never done well with people like that. And I’ve not gone out of my way to make friends with the other men either. I’ve got mates at home, I don’t need no more. I have to spend every day and night with these lads though, doing physical training, drilling, marching, learning who to salute, more drilling, sweeping up, cleaning, painting anything that don’t move…
Mary: See if you can stick it out, love. With any luck the whole thing might be over before you’ve finished training -
To read about gunners in the war, visit http://goo.gl/LGBiJP
Walter: Finally back out of the line, in Villers au Bois. I managed to get a moment to track Fred down – felt like I hadn’t seen him for weeks. If you can believe it, he’s thinner than ever. I don’t like to say too much about it, and don’t pass it around, but he reminded me of what you said the other week, Rose. About the stuttering. It was taking him a while to get some of his words out. I tried to make a joke out of it, said he ought to put his teeth in, and he said he was just tired. I hope so. I don’t know what to do for the best – it worries the men to see someone struggling like that. If he loses his nerve he’ll be putting himself and the rest of his section in danger. Have you had any luck with the lads in your ward, Rosie?
Rose: Depends what you mean by ‘luck’. As far as the army’s concerned we’ve done alright – got quite a lot of the cases marked as ‘Shellshock S’ and sent back out to fight. Poor boys, I can’t help thinking they’ll end up straight back here again. Or worse. There’s some hope that specialist electric shock treatment might help some of the worst cases but we’ll have to wait and see. It’s horribly sad and seems to affect just about anyone – I’ve seen quite a few older men in with the same complaint. I hope dear Fred picks up. Anyway, today I’m off the shellshock ward and working with the amputations. With lots of the patients it’s a choice between double amputation and death and it’s my job to explain to the conscious ones that they have to make the choice themselves. You’d be surprised how many choose death. They don’t want to go home to their wives with both legs gone. Thank goodness we usually manage to talk them round.
Jamie: It’s hard enough having to get used to one leg gone, let alone two. But the fellows here with a double amputation are looked after alright and get about in their wheelchairs quicker than I can on my false leg! And we have visitors at the hospital to teach us new skills that might be therapeutic, or even earn a bit of money by and by. Embroidery and the like. Anyway, I’m so sorry you’re having such a tough time, Rosie. I realised you must be busy as I hadn’t had a letter from you!
To hear a podcast about shellshock during the Great War, visit http://goo.gl/ODSwpw
Mary: How sad to see all the casualty lists today. So many local boys. I read to the end as best I could and came across the name of one of Mr and Mrs Wiggin’s boys. Made me realise I ain’t seen Margaret the past few days. I must have missed a lad coming round with the bad news. So I cooked her a casserole and took it over. Knowing her husband, he’ll still expect his evening meal on the table, no matter what the news is. Got no answer, so I put a note on it and left it on the front step. I hope they’re doing alright.
Walter: Sorry to hear about Mrs Wiggins – was it Ernest or Cyril? No matter how much I can’t stand the old bat, you never want something like that to happen to someone.
Mary: It was Cyril, love. I know you weren’t too fond of him but what a shame for the family.
To read about the London Regiment, visit https://goo.gl/V0EQE3
Walter: Seeing more and more Australian troops out here. I swear they’re all at least half a foot taller than we are. By all accounts they’ve been having a nightmare at Fromelles the past couple of days, though. Same as on the first day of the advance – machine guns everywhere and no chance of getting through. Still, the Daily Mirror keeps praising them up for their artillery work, and going on about how “they always wear the minimum of clothing”…
Mary: Sorry to hear they’ve been suffering. I’ve had a couple of letters from Rose’s Australian from King Edward’s Horse but no visit as yet. He says he’s mending up well at Weymouth. I cut him out this article to send, about an ANZAC raid.
To read about the Battle of Fromelles, visit http://goo.gl/A8WZVB
and to read more about ANZACs on the Western Front, visit http://goo.gl/PjMrl6
Walter: In the Souchez sector. Rotten. Constant rain but still boiling hot. Mosquitos everywhere and we’ve all got blisters from the new boots. And the worst news – we’ve had 7 killed and 8 wounded already. The enemy aren’t letting us off the hook, even away from the main advance. Snipers are out in force and we’re getting heavily shelled. Some days you don’t think you can stand the noise of it a second longer.
Oh to top it all I’ve just had word that one of the men killed was Jack Winwood, my best corporal and a really nice bloke. His lance corporal will have to step up. What a rotten shame, I’ll miss him.
Rose: Very sorry to hear about Corporal Winwood. Try not to let it all get the better of you – we’ll come through this alright, you’ll see.
Fred: Not Jack Winwood? As if a lousy day couldn’t get any worse. I remember him doing that, ‘I’ve Never Been Married Before’ song at the concert. He was a good lad.
Walter: Just seen this from Mabel about the bank holidays … that won’t be popular! But we need as many supplies as we can get so I can see Haig’s point. We don’t get bank holidays out here, that’s for sure. Though a small bit of good news, finally – we’ve got refitting parades for boots and clothing tomorrow. About time. I’ll be glad to get shot of this old gear, though I’m not looking forward to wearing in the new boots.
Mabel: We’re not getting no bank holidays! Well, at least not us munitions workers. What a cheek. I know the boys out the front need shells but we’re all shattered from the work. Not to mention wheezy from the powders and chemicals. Still, Asquith says they’ll be given back in full once the need for supplies is over… all together, girls, do we believe him?
Lily: I don’t get one either! And I’m not even making shells…
To read about the cancellation of bank holidays in 1916, visit: https://goo.gl/0udDpy
Walter: Mr Haskell’s back! He’s got stitches under his eye but he reckons it wasn’t as bad as it looked, just bled a lot. I’d have thought he’d still be resting up but he reckons he was keen to get back. I just hope he really is alright and won’t go down with an infection or something – we’re back in the line at Sains-en-Gohelle tomorrow so he’ll need all his strength. We’ll be relieving sailors from the Howe Battalion, the Royal Naval Division. The word from them and everyone in the line is there’s a high chance of a gas attack in retaliation for the advance. Glad to hear more helmets are being made -
Lily: Good news for all you soldiers – my mum’s got herself a new job stitching gas helmets. There was a poster up in town saying they needed more people so she applied. It ain’t far from home and brings in a bit of extra money. It’s the first work she’s had outside the house since I was born so she was a bit anxious about it but I think she’s starting to enjoy herself now.
Rose: No sign of the casualties easing up, the fighting’s still going on at the Somme and I have so many men to look after that I hardly have time to sleep, not to mention eat, wash and all the rest. I’ve had 40 deaths just today. There are some wounds and infections that you just can’t do anything for, not matter how hard you try, and the men fade away right in front of you. When that happens, it’s my job to write to their mothers and tell them. It’s so hard, finding something comforting to say. When the men have been conscious for a while you can at least get an idea of who they are and maybe ask for a little message for home, but when they’ve been out for the count since they came in, there’s not much I can find to put in those awful letters. I get such heartbreaking notes back. Then there’s the puzzle of what to write to the families of patients who are still alive but not long for this world. The men, most of them half-crazed and riddled with gas gangrene, tell me that I mustn’t worry their mothers – I must say that they are ‘in the pink’ and likely to come home soon! It’s a sad charade but very sweet of them all the same.
Mary: It’s good of you to write to them, love. It must be a strain on top of all your other work but it will be such a comfort to the people at home. I wish we had had a letter about Charlie or that a nurse like you had been able to look after him in his last moments. Oh it’s too much.
Rose: I’m sorry for bringing it up, Ma. I do try to take care of each man here as if it was him. Keep your chin up – perhaps one day we’ll get news of what happened.
To read an example of a letter from a nurse to a bereaved family, visit http://goo.gl/Tk6fqK
Walter: What an awful day. Being relieved now by the 21st Londons and they couldn’t have come too soon. We’ve had 11 men wounded and 1 killed in the past few hours. 2/Lt. Haskell was doing a grand job keeping everyone’s morale up and then got hit himself by flying shrapnel. We’ve packaged him off to the Regimental Aid Post with a great gash through his cheek. He should be alright in time but he’ll have a hell of a scar. I’ve taken over for now, until either Mr Haskell gets back or a new platoon commander is sent to me. Speaking of, we had some bad news about 2/Lt Bennett – you remember the useless platoon commander we had, who turned out to have that lovely singing voice? They reckon he was killed almost as soon as he got his platoon over the top on the 1st July. Horrible. I wish he had got shifted into a concert troupe after all. The casualty lists from the battle so far are brutal. I saw Terence’s regiment listed in this from the Express… and I haven’t heard from him since the 2nd so it’s hard not to think the worst. A good mate and someone with his experience – of all people it’s tough to think of him not making it through.
Lily: It sounds rotten, sweetheart. I’m so sorry. Perhaps your friend will get in touch soon? I’m glad you’re alright yourself – it’s such a worry. Two girls at the motorbicycle centre, Alice and Winnie, both heard yesterday that their young men were killed in the advance. And Mrs Evans’s son from down the road who was in the 56th (London) Division. They’re all heartbroken, it’s awful. Take care of yourself, please?
Ed: The more news like this comes out, the more I can’t hold my tongue at training. I’ve managed to keep quiet so far but I swear I can’t keep this up.
To read about the shock of the disaster at the Somme and lessons learnt, visit http://goo.gl/RTkOKN
Walter: You’d never believe it, but my brother has shown up for military training! Good luck, Ed. I know it wasn’t your choice but you might find you enjoy it after all.
Ed: I feel like a right scab. Sick as it makes me, here I am at Woolwich, as ordered, for Basic Training. What choice do I have? If I hadn’t turned up today I’d have ended up in prison or a work camp. Evan’s even more fed up with me than I am. I left him back at his house today, after a bit of a set-to. As far as he’s concerned they can drag him to prison a thousand times. I wish I was more like him. Anyway, it ain’t like I thought it’d be here. Horses as far as you can see. That’s how they lug the guns about. Then, just as I was watching them, this ‘sergeant’ or god-knows-what comes over and starts shouting at me to get out of the way. I had to stop myself knocking his block off. I have a feeling I’m going to have to bite my tongue here.
Mary: You might not think it, Edward, but I’m very proud of you for what you’ve done today. Keep at it.
Ed: Wouldn’t you have been proud of me if I’d stuck to what’s right?
To read more about the Royal Artillery, visit http://goo.gl/B3REcK
Walter: Hope things have settled down a bit now, Rosie. You alright? I don’t suppose you’ve had a sergeant through by the name of Terence Smith, have you? I haven’t heard from him since the 2nd.
Rose: Sorry, Walt, I wouldn’t know the names of all the fellows I’ve had through. Hope you hear from him. It hasn’t let up for a minute here. We’ll have no men left in the army at this rate. One of the most awful things is the amount of men who seem to be injured in their minds, sometimes without a scratch on their bodies. One of the sisters here showed me the special ward for them and it’s full to bursting, with more being admitted by the hour. They all have such odd symptoms – shaking, stuttering, the exact same stare. Some are paralysed with no injury that could have caused it. And then there was the man who answered all of my questions very clearly and I wondered why he was in the ward until he quietly told me his dead pals were waiting for him in a black cloud above his bed. It turns out he was the only one to survive a shell blast in a crater that he and his mates had sheltered in.
The difficult thing for the medical officers is to decide if they should mark the mental cases down as ‘Shellshock W’ or ‘Shellshock S’. They’re the new terms the army wants us to use. ‘W’ means ‘wounded’ – if you can prove the patient’s been under heavy shelling and might have a physical ‘molecular commotion in the brain’ then he gets treatment and maybe a wound stripe, but ‘S’ means ‘sick’, the same as with dysentery or the flu, and you use that if you think they have a nervous disorder rather than something physical. If they’re marked ‘sick’ then we have to fix them up as soon as possible and get them back to the front. I wouldn’t have any idea which way to go with it, especially when they all have the same symptoms, whether they’ve been near a shell blast or not.
Margaret Wiggins: What a worry for the army. I should imagine if you nurses send too many men home with ‘shellshock’ they’ll end up with all sorts of malingerers claiming to have the same thing. I was glad to see this report in the Express – it sounds like this ‘nervous illness’ business is quite rare after all -
To read more about ‘shell shock’, as it was known at the time, visit http://goo.gl/FrrIaI
and to find out more about care for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today, visit http://goo.gl/ycvVQc
Walter: Relieved the 20th Londons in the front line at Angres. Had a draft of 270 men sent to us from Base so there’s plenty of new fellows getting a baptism of fire. Thought things might be quieter up here while Fritz is dealing with the advance down at the Somme but no such luck. One killed already. Not a patch on what’s happening further south though. I haven’t heard anything from Terence for a couple of days. Keep your chin up, Rose -
Rose: Writing from the new Casualty Clearing Station. Lots of us nurses and medical officers have been transferred here, close to the Somme, to try and deal with all the unexpected wounded from the advance. If you’d told me what I’d find when I got here though, I wouldn’t have believed you. Even with all the things I’ve seen the past two years, I’ve never known anything like this. The whole of the CCS camp, 5 or 6 acres I reckon, is full of stretchers laid side by side. They’re so close the lice swarm from one to the next. And every man is in a desperate state. I stopped by one poor lad with his teeth grinding from fighting so hard not to cry out. He spotted me and managed to say, “I’m sorry, nurse, I don’t like to bother you… I think it’s bad…” and he nodded at the mess of blood on his tunic. I held his hand and promised I’d try my best to get him some help, but when I caught up with the surgeon walking up and down the rows, picking patients to treat, he just looked over, sighed and said, “I’m so sorry, Miss, he’s an abdominal.” With as many wounded as there are, it’s a numbers game. Amputations can be done in a few minutes, so they’re picked out for treatment. Surgery on the abdomen takes a long time, so they’re left to die. That poor boy. And there are more and more arriving, British and German, thinking they’re finally safe…
Mary: Rosie, love, this sounds awful. Are you safe where you are, so close to the advance?
Rose: Sorry to worry you, Ma. I’ll be alright. We’re a bit behind the line so it shouldn’t be too bad. Our worst threat is the German aeroplanes that fly over. The orderlies here have had to paint all the tents to camouflage them.
To read extracts from a nurse’s diary during the Battle of the Somme, visit: http://goo.gl/GHhAlk
Walter: Divine Service today, led by our padre, Captain ‘Charlie’ Barley. He had us all praying for success in the Somme advance. Sounds like a nightmare and poor Terence is right in the thick of it -
Terence: Beyond German front line. Just. Only a few of us left. Hardly any officers made it through. Trying to hold a place called Lozenge Alley under heavy shellfire. Had a hell of a time yesterday. Artillery barrage had done just about bloody nothing. Enemy wire was still good as new and so was the enemy – turns out they’ve got deep, concrete dugouts so it’s no wonder they were all still there, alive. Blind luck that I got through. Backup from the 8th Lincolns nearly didn’t come soon enough. Thank God they got here. I just don’t know how long we can hold this position. The Lincolns have been ordered go ahead and we’re trying to clear the bodies from this trench before they start to stink in the heat. Hundreds of dead and dying back in what was No Man’s Land. You can hear them. Shells bursting constantly. I’m just lucky one hasn’t had my name on it yet. God, was that James down? A sniper
Lily: How awful! I hope your friend’s alright, Walt. Perhaps it was just his part of the line that had such bad luck though? And it sounds like even they’re advancing! All the news over here is good -
Rose: I don’t know, Lily. I got word this afternoon that I’m being moved to a CCS closer to the Somme to cope with the extra casualties. They had enough prepared to deal with 10,000 wounded yesterday but they reckon they got nearly 40,000. Still getting word of an advance though so fingers crossed.
Walter: Sounds like a setback. Hope it’s not true about the wire. Keep at it, mate – good luck.
Terence: Back in the damn trench! You wouldn’t believe it. Got forward quick as we could but their bloody machine guns started up! They’re still manned! Even flat to the ground we were easy prey. Shouted to the boys to fall back but half of them couldn’t hear me over the noise. Now I’ve lost nearly half my platoon and we’re back where we started. Just time to catch our breath and we’ll be off at the whistle for the real thing. No head start now. Probably best not to have time to think about it… what the hell were those machine guns doing, still active? My mate James just looked at me, white-faced, and said through the periscopes they can see the Hun wire still intact after all. God, there’s the whistle a minute early -
To read how the 4th Middlesex attack was recorded in their War Diary, plus letters, plans and a map, visit: http://goo.gl/U8frPW
Walter: Sounds like the ‘Big Push’ is underway. Even out here at Bouvigny everyone’s feeling the ‘spirit of the advance’, especially the younger ones. Most of them are wishing they were there with my mate Terence and the lads in the 4th Middlesex. Freddy Neale said this morning, “What will we say if this wins us the war and the girls at home ask us, ‘Were you there, in the Big Push?’ I reckon I’ll just say we was.” Best of luck, Terence mate. Give Fritz hell on behalf of the boys from Battersea.
Terence: ‘Z Day’. Standing with pals in the assault trench, about to go over. Everyone’s edgy. Our orders are different from the rest of the line: they’ve been told to march over No Man’s Land, shoulder to shoulder, all the way from our line to theirs. Shouldn’t be a problem if the artillery’s done its job, and from the racket it’s been making for the last hour there should be nothing left of the wire or the enemy or their trenches. But our Commanding Officer reckons there won’t be so many casualties if we get a head start, so two of our platoons are going forward 5 minutes early. Should be able to take the enemy by surprise and pick off their machine gunners, then it’ll be a walkover for our lads following on. I hope to God the old man’s got this one right. Not looking forward to doing it in broad daylight but at least we don’t have heavy packs to carry. Most of the other battalions are carrying 70lb packs as well as sandbags, barbed wire coils, grenades, gas helmets and all the rest. Right, got to keep the boys quiet and get on with it. Wish us luck, this could be the end of the whole damn war -
Rose: I hope he’s got over all right. By the sounds of things, he could well have – the rumours coming back to our CCS are all about how our boys are advancing and the Boche are on the run! I almost daren’t believe it, after a while you learn not to, but wouldn’t it be wonderful? Lily and Ma ‘like’
To hear first-hand accounts of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, visit: http://goo.gl/b3SL9r
and to read about the equipment carried on the day, visit: http://goo.gl/DEAMSP