Letters from the Trenches

Twelve and a half million letters were sent to the Western Front every week. In 1914 the Postal Section of the Royal Engineers had a staff of 250 men. By 1918 the Army Postal Service employed 4,000 soldiers. Letters only took two or three days to arrive from Britain. Even soldiers in the front line trenches received daily deliveries of letters.

Soldiers were also encouraged to write letters to friends and family in Britain. Most men decided it would be better to conceal the horrors of the trench warfare. As a result of the Defence of the Realm Act that was passed in 1914, all letters that the men wrote should have been read and censored by junior officers.

Some officers could not bring themselves to read their men's letters and these arrived in Britain unaltered. For example, Lieutenant John Reith later admitted in his autobiography, Wearing Spurs (1966): "I did my best to take an interest in the members of my platoon personally. In manual exercises and in extended order drill in a field I could take none; and they knew it. I was supposed to censor their letters home, but I informed them that they were on their honour not to say things they should not say, and I handed over the censor's stamp to the sergeant."

Primary Sources

(1) Private H. F. Leppard of East Grinstead wrote a letter to his mother on 19th December, 1914. The letter was not censored.

The soldiers at the front need more rest. While in the trenches the water is over our knees most of the time. The war is going to last some time yet, and might be another twelve months before it is over. The war has only just begun and its going to be a war of exhaustion. After the regular armies have done their work it means that all the young lads at home being trained and disciplined and will take our place in the field. The sooner people understand this, the better, it will be for the nation.

(2) Private Stanley Terry of 15 North End, East Grinstead, wrote a letter to his family in November, 1915. The letter was not censored.

We have just come out of the trenches after being in for six days and up to our waists in water. While we were in the trenches one of the Germans came over to our trench for a cigarette and then back again, and he was not fired at. We and the Germans started walking about in the open between the two trenches, repairing them, and there was no firing at all. I think they are all getting fed up with it.

(3) Private James Mitchell of 7 Church Lane, East Grinstead, wrote a letter to his father on 17th October, 1914.

We started away just after dawn from our camp and I think it was about an hour later that we encountered the enemy. They were on the opposite side of the valley and as we came over the brow of the hill they opened on us with rifle fire and shrapnel from about 900 yards. We lost three officers and about 100 men killed and wounded in that half hour. I do not want any more days like that one. (this section censored) Anyway we drove the Germans back and held them there for eight days. I cannot tell you all I should like to, as it would never reach you.

(4) Rudolf Binding, letter (April, 1915)

I have not written to you for a long time, but I have thought of you all the more as a silent creditor. But when one owes letters one suffers from them, so to speak, at the same time. It is, indeed, not so simple a matter to write from the war, really from the war; and what you read as Field Post letters in the papers usually have their origin in the lack of understanding that does not allow a man to get hold of the war, to breathe it in although he is living in the midst of it.

The further I penetrate its true inwardness the more I see the hopelessness of making it comprehensive for those who only understand life in the terms of peacetime, and apply these same ideas to war in spite of themselves. They only think that they understand it. It is as if fishes living in water would have a clear conception of what living in the air is like. When one is hauled out on to dry land and dies in the air, then he will know something about it.

So it is with the war. Feeling deeply about it, one becomes less able to talk about it every day. Not because one understands it less each day, but because one grasps it better. But it is a silent teacher, and he who learns becomes silent too.

(5) In the 1930s Guy Chapman wrote an account of his experiences during the First World War.

I have an old platoon roll before me; three pages of names, numbers, trades, next-of-kin, religions, rifle numbers, and so forth. Faces come back out of the past to answer to these barren details, the face of this man dead, of that vanished for ever. Here and there rise memories of their habits, their nicknames, the look of one as he spoke to you, the attitude of another shivering in the night air, as he leaned over the parapet, watching with tired bloodshot eyes. Some of the faces have disappeared. did I know you? I censored your letters, casually, hurriedly avoiding your personal messages, your poignant hopes.

(6) Charles Hudson, letter to his sister (undated, 1915)

We are now 150yd from Fritz and the moon is bright, so we bend and walk quietly onto the road running diagonally across the front into the Bosche line. There is a stream the far side of this - boards have been put across it at intervals but must have fallen in - about 20yd down we can cross. We stop and listen - swish - and down we plop (for a flare lights everything up) it goes out with a hiss and over the board we trundle on hands and knees. Still.

Apparently no one has seen so we proceed to crawl through a line of "French" wire. Now for 100yd dead flat weed-land with here and there a shell hole or old webbing equipment lying in little heaps! These we avoid. This means a slow, slow crawl head down, propelling ourselves by toes and forearm, body and legs flat on the ground, like it snake.

A working party of Huns are in their lair. We can just see dark shadows and hear the Sergeant, who is sitting down. He's got a bad cold! We must wait a bit, the moon's getting low but it's too bright now 5 a.m. They will stop soon and if we go on we may meet a covering party lying low. 5.10. 5.15. 5.25. 5.30. And the moon's gone.

"Cot the bombs, Sergeant?"

"'No. Sir, I forgot them!"

"Huns" and the last crawl starts.

The Bosch is moving and we crawl quickly on to the wire - past two huge shell holes to the first row. A potent row of standards are the first with a nut at the top and strand upon strand of barbed wire. The nut holds the two iron pieces at the top and the ends are driven into the ground 3ft apart. Evidently this line is made behind the parapet and brought out, the legs of the standard falling together. All the joins where the strands cross are neatly done with a separate piece of plain wire. Out comes the wire cutter. I hold the strands to prevent them jumping apart when cut and Stafford cuts. Twenty-five strands are cut and the standard pulled out. Two or three tins are cut off as we go. (These tins are hung on to give warning and one must beware of them.) Next a space 4ft then low wire entanglements as we cut on through to a line of iron spikes and thick, heavy barbed wire.

The standard has three furls to hold the wire up and strive as we can, it won't come out. "By love, it's a corkscrew, twist it round" and then, wonder of wonders, up it goes and out it comes! It is getting light, a long streak has already appeared and so we just make a line of "knife rests" (wire on wooden X-X) against the German parapet and proceed to return. I take the corkscrew and Stafford the iron double standard. My corkscrew keeps on catching and Stafford has to extract me twice from the wire, his standard is smooth and only 3ft so he travels lighter. He leads back down a bit of ditch. Suddenly a sentry fires 2 shots which spit on the ground a few yards in front. We lie absolutely flat, scarcely daring to breathe - has he seen? Then we go on with our trophies, the ditch gets a little deeper, giving cover! My heart is beating nineteen to the dozen - will it mean a machine gun, Stafford is gaining and leads by 10yd. "My God," I think, "it is a listening post ahead and this the ditch to it. I must stop him." I whisper, "Stafford, Stafford" and feel I am shouting. He stops, thinking I have got it. "Do you think it's a listening post?" There! By the mound - listen."

"Perhaps we had better cut across to the left Sir."

"Are you all right Sir," from Stafford.

I laugh, "Forgot that damned wire." (Our own wire outside our listening post). The LP occupants have gone in. Soon we are behind the friendly parapet and it is day. We are ourselves again, but there's a subtle cord between us, stronger than barbed wire, that will take a lot of cutting. Twenty to seven, 2 hrs 10 minutes of life - war at its best. But shelling, no, that's death at its worst. And I can't go again, it's a vice. Immediately after I swear I'll never do it again, the next night I find myself aching after "No Man's Land".

(7) John Reith, Wearing Spurs (1966)

I did my best to take an interest in the members of my platoon personally. In manual exercises and in extended order drill in a field I could take none; and they knew it. I was supposed to censor their letters home, but I informed them that they were on their honour not to say things they should not say, and I handed over the censor's stamp to the sergeant. I was thankful when our three days in billets were over and we were back in trenches again. I was still dreaming about Sailaway and Transport, still bewildered almost every time I woke, but there was at least a chance of something happening in the trenches and one was clear of CO and Adjutant.

(8) Harold Chapin, a self-censored letter to Calypso Chapin (23rd May 1915)

I have been up to my eyes in work (at the main dressing station in " ----- ") since Sunday morning when the British and French attack began (or rather when its fruits in wounded began to reach us. The actual attack began on Saturday night). Nominally I have been on night duty in the operating tent, but naturally with wounded and wounded and wounded flowing in neither night nor day duty means anything. I had had eight hours sleep in three days, when heavy fighting out here developed and the message came down for more bearers, so out I came with a dozen others by horse ambulance (time two a.m.) and going on on foot just as day was breaking, found a Regimental M.O. in a room in a gutted house with some half dozen wounded and two or three dead on the floor about him. His own regimental stretcher bearers were carrying and carrying the long mile down to a spot where an ambulance could meet them, in comparative safety. I gave a hand with my party of six and between us we carried down two: you have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve stone blessé a thousand odd yards across muddy fields. Oh this cruel mud! Back in " ----- " we hate it (the poor fellows come in absolutely clayed up), but out here, it is infernal.