One of the first Old Dragons to volunteer was George Fletcher, an older brother of Regie, whose death we recently reported. He is known to some young Old Dragons as a ‘beak’ at Eton. He was summoned to join the Intelligence Corps, as he is a fluent German-speaker. He was last seen departing London for Southampton on a motorbike! He has somehow now found his way into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
This letter was written by George Fletcher to colleagues on the staff at Eton and has been passed on to us. It describes life in the trenches and his experiences in the battle still being waged at Ypres:
2/11/14. “The rule of existence in trenches is, on the whole, this: – 5.30 a.m., daybreak – nothing much visible in front – except certain groups of grey-clad figures and a few spades appearing and re-appearing above the earth 300 yards away. When the grey figures are moving about I am at a loophole in the trench with field-glasses.
‘No. 15 section! Three hundred yards! At the Germans moving three fingers right of sloping apple tree! Five rounds! Fire!’
Then a shindy, and the grey figures either squat or fall down.
‘Now, you silly asses, don’t waste ammunition when you can’t see them!’ – and so on.
Probably now for the rest of the morning the Germans do not appear again, but they dig and dig, sticking out snipers and Maxim guns in houses or on haystacks, so that they sweep the trenches and plough the brain of anyone who puts his head above the trench the whole day.
About 7 I go off down the trench to a little hole where the Captain is, and eat anything there is. There is probably some bread and jam or sardines, and very likely some rum. The rations are procured at dusk, when sniping has ceased and the attack is not going on.
Then are seen figures flitting to our rear with great biscuit tins on their backs, or mackintosh sheets full of water bottles. Sometimes, however, these loads never get into the lines, for the store where they are kept has been shelled and the rations wiped out – once, anyhow, for forty-eight hours the men had to exist on what they carried in their pockets. The ration party also bring back our letters, and the reception of letters in the trench was the one thing that kept us alive…
Sniping till evening, then there is a hush; then just after dusk a Maxim rings out and a great fusillade starts from the enemy’s side. There are attacks every night, but there was one particularly big one when, as a wounded German told me, they hoped to take the trenches but failed.
There began on this occasion, soon after dark, a terrible musketry outburst on our right. It rolled along, and soon the enemy began firing from in front of us. There was a continual rattle of pellets on our parapet, and on looking out, or rather, bobbing the head up for a moment, one could see the flashes from their rifles. Then we got the order to answer it, and we did so. All through the night this went on, fiercer and fiercer, and the artillery took it up from both sides, the flash after the exploding shrapnel lighting up the battlefield at intervals. Not only that, but the enemy, who had hidden some bold spirits in rifle pits thirty yards ahead of us, with wire cutters, began by means of these to throw up bright green flashlights to illuminate our trenches – also illuminating themselves for our benefit. All this time I was crawling about among the men and saying, “Don’t fire in the air, you ass. Fire occasionally. Rapid fire. Slow fire,” etc., etc.
At about 2 a.m., the fire slackened, and there were rustlings in the turnips ahead, and callings, and rallyings among the Deutschers.
‘The rally for the charge,’ said I to myself. And it was.
There were hoarse captains crying,
‘Erste Compagnie, hierber! Wurst! Schweinhund! Einhundertzweiundzwanzigstes Regiment!’ and so on.
Then a pause again, and suddenly, ‘Alle Fertig! Vorwarrts! – Los!!’ and they came on. They got as far as the open ground and near our wire, thirty yards away, and then fell face-forward on the ground with heads to the enemy like the good men they are. Of course, it is a terrible thing to attack a strong entrenchment full of thoroughly armed defenders, and they never got nearer than thirty yards.
One poor devil did, however, and I pointed him out to my next man, who shot him. Unfortunately the poor devil had wanted to give himself up – being sick of the war (of course he deserved to be shot for this). We took him into the trench, and he lay till 4 p.m. next day in my dug-out, when he died. Only yesterday did I wipe his blood off my hands – which were a crust of this and of mud!
Well, this attack waned again at dawn, and ‘in the morning they were all dead corpses,’ like Sennacherib. We saw 200 in front of our Company. Add to those the number of dead in the turnips which we did not see, perhaps 200 more = 400. Add to these the number of wounded which must have been removed (six wounded to one dead) = 2,400 + 400 dead = nearly 3,000 out of action in front of our Company, if such calculations are worth anything…
Imagine the conditions: trench just wide enough for two men to squeeze by: parapet just high enough to fire over comfortably, and so necessitates continual crouching while walking along. Perfect quagmire whenever rain falls, as it did in torrents for several hours one or two nights, drenching wet clothes, of course, and covering you with a perfect plaster layer of yellow mud, especially about the hands. Squashed frogs underfoot, and all around stinks. Let me enumerate the (printable) stinks.
(a) of cows which were killed in an early morning attack the first day I got there. They came browsing within thirty yards of us, and the Germans fired at them on purpose, as I believe, to leave them there and stink us out.
(b) Of men; after every attack more dead men, some within thirty yards of the trench, and some of these, by now, a week or more old. Of course, whenever we attempt to remove them they fire on the parties, even those bearing the Red Cross, so I believe it is also part of their object to stink us out with the dead bodies of their own brothers and comrades.
(c) Of sheep; same case as the cows.
(d) Tins of old beef, sardines etc.”