Many letters were published in the Press from soldiers serving at the Front. Few gave such a graphic picture in words of the horrors of the battlefield and seldom were the writers as thought-provoking as in this instance of a letter published in August 1915.
Mr James Hull, a bricklayer well known in the Luton building trade, has received a striking letter from his brother , who is serving at the Front with the Royal Engineers, in which branch of the regular service he has served for about two years.
Sapper Len Hull, who is in the 2nd Field Company of the Royal Engineers of the 21st Division, is a member of a family which has suffered heavily in the war, and the letter is one he has written to be shown to all his friends in Luton. It deals in the main with his experiences during three days recently.
We left our billet just as it was getting dark, he says, and we were in fighting order. That was enough to remind us that something was in store, but whatever we were in for we didn't seem to trouble. As we marched along to our dug-outs we were singing songs, and everyone was happy. After marching about five or six miles we eventually arrived at our dug-out, which was placed at the rear of some demolished houses.
That was Saturday evening, and eventually we settled down to try to get a sleep, but there was no sleep for me that night. There were about 25 of us huddled up together, and we seemed to be all arms and legs. There was room for about six of us comfortably, but 25 was a little too thick! Some of them slept, but after turning over about a dozen times I eventually gave it up. Perhaps you wonder why I never slept outside, but when shells and bullets are flying about you are glad of any cover you can find.
It was just getting light on Sunday morning when, all of a sudden, a terrible bombardment began. There seemed to be hundreds of guns, and the noise was a little more than I could stick for some time, but eventually I became acclimatised as it were. Still the bombardment continued, and shells began to fall around us, some striking the buildings, others just missing us, and all of a sudden a large shell burst about a yard from our dug-out. Of course, we could guess what had happened, and we all made a dash for the doorway, and the fellows in the dug-out opposite to us were all rushing out, some covered with blood and bleeding.
In a very short time we were marching a little farther away because, after the Germans had once got the range, it would have been suicide for us to remain there any longer. I learned after that one poor fellow who happened to be in the doorway was blown to pieces, and all they could find of him were his arms and legs. Several others were wounded.
I must consider myself lucky to be able to write about it, because the shell burst nearer our dug-out than any, but owing to us being at the back of the buildings the shell was localised through a traverse of earth. All we got was a severe shaking and plenty of loose earth, but as the other dug-out was facing ours the shrapnel burst full into it, and the very fact of the poor fellow standing there saved the lives of many inside, because he must have got the full shock of it. That was the death of one of our Engineers.
Well, we again got settled down, and as my chum and I got in the bottom of the trench. we tried to snatch a wink or two, but owing to the cold clay at the bottom of the trench we woke up, shivering all over. After having a wash and a breakfast of biscuits and cheese, we were still waiting orders.
Again the shells began to fall, and again we were missing the pieces of shrapnel. They were trying to knock one of our batteries of artillery out, but I don't think they could find it.
After again removing to a more secure place we settled down to waiting orders, and what I saw that night I shall never forget. Our orders were to go out and place a barbed wire entanglement in front of an advanced trench, and what met our eyes was sickening and would have made even a strong man weep, but, of course, soldiers must be fiends, and in such warfare as this you must not think of such a thing as nerves and, is possible, cease to possess such a thing as a heart.
As I walked along I could see hundreds of dead and wounded, and this is where I cannot speak too highly of our brave infantry and their bravery and self-sacrifice. The poor fellows lay there, just as they had dropped in the charge, and once I had to drop with the rest of the party owing to the Germans sending up one of their flares, which turned the whole darkness into daylight, and if you moved a bullet would whizz past you - that is, if you didn't happen to stop it.
What a sight I saw! I happened to be lying in between several fellows. One poor chap on my right was sitting on a plank - his rifle and fixed bayonet in his hands, and leaning against his shoulder, and he had two bandoliers of ammunition, one over each shoulder. I could not believe he was dead, but it was so. The fellow sat dead just where he had been shot!
There were dead and wounded everywhere, but we had to do our work. After creeping cautiously over the parapet, we crawled up to about five yards in front of the trench and began to fix our barbed wire entanglement. The bullets whizzed past us, and up would shoot a light, and down we dropped among the dead. As soon as the light was out we were up again, and carrying on with our work.
What impressed itself on me that night was the cry of our wounded. Every now and then you would hear a groan, and some poor fellow shouting as loud as his strength would let him, "Stretcher-bearers! Stretcher-bearers!" Put yourself in my place, and you would think the same as me, that this war is not war but murder.
It must have been hell for those poor fellows to lay there dying, and knowing well that if they were not removed that might they had got to stay there in the scorching sun of another day. Our stretcher-bearers were doing their best to bring in the wounded, and all the night the Germans kept up an unceasing fire. I can stick a good lot, but to think of poor fellows laying there, waiting and calling for stretcher-bearers. Oh, the horror of it all!
All the parties involved in this war are supposed to be civilised, but never in any time was such a cruel war as this carried on. I don't know what religion has one, but when people talk to me about sending missionaries to civilise the blacks, I shall tell them to civilise the white people first. From what I can see, the whole world must have gone mad. I myself am a fatalist, and believe it is as fate decrees, for we are the clay and chance is the potter, but I certainly think that this war might be a little less murderous.
I think I can say without hesitation that of all the soldiers our infantry are the best. Let the people of England always look after our infantry, both in times of peace and war. I seldom like to write about the war, but the people at home should know what their brave infantry are sacrificing for them. If you could only see what the Germans have done to France and Belgium you can then guess what it is that inspires our men to sacrifice their lives so nobly.
I myself would sooner die out here than have England and our homes destroyed as the French and Belgians' have been. God help England and the English people if ever the Germans invaded us, but thank God our soldiers out here will stop that, and perhaps lay them low for ever - at least I hope so.
In another letter the writer again emphasises that he is lucky to be alive.
I have had some narrow escapes, he says, but yesterday beat them all. A party of six were detailed to blow up the gable end of a house which was left standing after the fire had burnt the remainder down, and we had nearly completed the laying of the charge when some heavy guns fired and shook the whole lot down. As it fell I had the presence of mind to jump clear, and out of the six of us one was killed and three were taken to hospital.
The other fellow was almost as lucky as myself, for as the gable fell there was an opening where a window had been, and as it fell it sent over him, and he stood where the window opening happened to be. He escaped with a cut thumb and a few bruises.
I was not even scratched. All I remember was someone shouting, and as I looked up I could see the gable falling on me. I must have jumped farther than I have ever jumped before, and even now I cannot understand how I escaped.
Another little incident occurred recently. We were building up a parapet with sand-bags, and one of our fellows got shot through the stomach and through the wrist. I assisted to attend to his wounds and carry him away, and when I returned another fellow lay in the trench shot through the heart. Both of these men died, but still we have to carry on with the work. As we knelt on the bottom of the trench we lifted the sand-bags up and built the parapet. You should have seen us working like Trojans, the officer taking the lead.
As we threw sand-bag after sand-bag over the parapet the bullets were whizzing past us. As we placed them in position you could hear the bullets strike them. We kept our heads down, and placed bag after bag on top until the parapet was finished.
[Luton Reporter: Monday, August 2nd, 1915]