Vivid Description of 1915 Trench Life – Part 1

Wednesday, July 28, 1915

Divisional Reserve

The Battalion War Diarist wrote nothing for this day. [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: On July 28th, 1915 The Quebec Chronicle published this lengthy letter from a Quebec soldier written from ‘the front.’   While it is not attributed to a specific soldier it could well have been written by any one of several soldiers of the 14th Battalion from the Quebec City area.  The locations mentioned in the letter  and the circumstances described, would have been experienced by all battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, of which the 14th Battalion was a part. Due to the length of this letter the second part will appear in tomorrow’s posting.

28 July 15“(Special Correspondence) France, July 10. – Have just come out of the trenches, and for the first time for quite a while have had a really enjoyable time, that is, of course, in comparison to what we have hitherto had.

Previous to coming to this part of the line, we were at Festubert and Givenchy; this, of course, is at the discretion of the censor, and as it has been stated in several of the English newspapers, I think it quite permissible to mention the above places.

At Festubert, we had quite an interesting time and occupied trenches only recently vacated by our friend Fritz – and there were quite a number of souvenirs in memory of their occupation, left in the trenches, such as helmets, etc., but the best of these had already been taken and those remaining were badly damaged – I wonder how this happened, and I think will have to ask some of the Irish or Scotch Guards who took these trenches from Fritz.

For about five days we were in reserve trenches and then moved up to the firing line – the enemy being about 350 yards away from the trench we occupied and although they did an awful lot of shelling, they did not bother us very much. We were ordered not to light any fires, as it was supposed to be a concealed trench – of course, such a thing as a concealed trench is practically impossible, unless it should be in a wood, and wooded country is rather unhealthy as a rule, as artillery generally search the woods constantly with shrapnel on the possibility that a trench may be concealed therein. However, the reason for keeping low in daytime and not showing any signs of life, was, I presume, to have the enemy entertain the impression that it served merely as a communication trench.

Ordinarily, the aeroplanes find the location of trenches and communicate this information to the artillery, and if there are no signs of life they would not waste ammunition on what they consider merely a communication trench.

The first night in the front line I was sent out in charge of a patrol consisting of five men. It was a beautiful moonlight night; we could plainly see the enemy’s trench. We moved out to about 100 yards from their trench where we took up our position. The duty of a post such as this is principally to keep an eye on Fritz & Company – and to see that they do not try any ‘funny business’ – and if anybody needs watching, well I think that Fritz is the boy. However, he does not worry us any, and none of the boys have any grey hairs as a result of undue anxiety, as to the movements of the enemy. I have often heard chaps saying that they really wished he would attack so as to enliven things up a bit. Personally, I am not particularly keen on it, as the artillery preparation for an attack is by far much more trying on one’s nerves, and when the infantry do come it relieves the suspense at last. It is not at all a pink tea by any means when artillery concentrate upon a particular portion of trench which is the objective of their fierce attack. They do not attack along an extended front in this trench warfare, but endeavor to break through on a small front as deeply as possible, extending their flanks by bombing along the trenches taken, this being, of course, the duty of the bomb throwers, supported by the attacking party. It is imperative that a strong bombing party go forward with the attack as it would be almost impossible to hold trenches which had been taken, without the support of bombs, for the enemy would simply organize a counter-attack and drive assailants out again by bomb throwing and then make their retreat to their own trenches a very hazardous undertaking by using machine guns on them, and as a rule their aim would be more accurate then, if they were being attacked, due to the difference in morale.

However, this particular night was a glorious one and from where we were we could plainly see the Germans, who were evidently repairing their trench and barbed wire and I am sure that they must have seen us also, but they did not bother us, nor did we attempt to fire on them, as we were not there for that purpose.

Hazardous Work: Word came to us to find out what the enemy were doing – and one of our chaps was detailed for this purpose. He was new at the game, and I told him to keep an eye open for a German patrol or ‘listening post,’ as he might be cut off by one of these parties. He succeeded in getting to within fifteen yards from their trench, the grass being very long, and he lay there some little time. On his return, he came upon us rather suddenly and did not know whether we were his party or some of the enemy’s patrol, and he stopped and lay very still as though to avoid detection. We had moved up a bit closer and his uncertainty was very easily understood although it was somewhat amusing. He gave quite a sigh of relief when he found we were his own party, and he reported that it was only a strong working party engaged in trench repairing.

Scattered throughout the field were all kinds of German equipment and a great number of empty bottles. They must have looted some ‘estaminet,’ as I do not think the Germans are a wine-drinking race as a whole – and one cannot blame them for not drinking the vile stuff that is sold as wine all along the line. Further south wine is very cheap, and is of a fairly decent quality compared to what is sold in the ‘Pas-de-Calais’ – of course, good wine is doubtless available anywhere in France, but not in most of the ‘estaminets,’ which represent the Canadian bar-room. However, I am not a connoisseur in such matters, but Fritz evidently had an awful lot of wine with him. The bottles were, needless to say, empty.

Shortly after the return of the chap above referred to, three explosions occurred just about where the Germans were working, and there was a wild scramble for their trench – but they returned again in about five minutes, after having dropped a few bullets from their ever-present machine gun. They had just about returned when a series of explosions right in their midst, and those that could do so, climbed into their trench with no little speed. I found out shortly afterwards that it was a party of Canadian bomb throwers who had crept up past their listening post and had thrown their bombs at the working party. This is a very dangerous undertaking, and very often those bomb throwing parties do not return, or are among the ‘missing.’ Later early in the morning when they had once more resumed work, a shell from one of our trench mortars burst over their heads and the working party retired to the seclusion of their trench, which I am sure they must have considered much more comfortable than attempting repairs when those nasty Canadians were about. But please do not consider for a moment that they do not attempt anything of this sort themselves. They were the first to use hand grenades in this war, and use them on every possible occasion. Those hand grenades, or ‘bombs,’ as they are commonly called, kill at thirty yards, and have a very demoralizing effect on the enemy – they are used very extensively and every company has their allotted number of bombers.” [3]

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, July 28, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa
[2]    “Vivid Description Of Trench Life In France,” The Quebec Chronicle, Quebec City, Wednesday, July 28, 1915, pg. 3, col.1, and pg. 2, col.2.
[3]    Ibid