Sunday, 2 March 2014

'I have seen a school blown all to the ground'

Destruction became the new 'normality' at the Front 
It is often thought that, when writing home, soldiers spared their families the more difficult details of life at the Front, preferring to concentrate on 'safer' matters like food parcels and the weather. But from what I have read, this was certainly not always the case.

Indeed, some of the things described in letters made me flinch and feel quite sorry for the women and children who would have read them.

Each man had his own reason for revealing all, of course, but perhaps one of the most pervading was simply that life under fire in trenches had become normal. Describing infestations of rats and lice probably seemed no worse that talking about the cat's fleas at home. And destruction and shell-fire was part of everyday life that simply had to accepted and got on with.

Below are extracts from two letters written by Private Philip Luxton, of Abertillery in South Wales, whose story is told in my book. Although he was loving husband and a father of two daughters, the letters he sent home from France in 1915 were matter-of-fact and pulled no punches.

22 March

'Dear Wife, you can tell the children that I have seen a school as big as theirs blown all to the ground and it seems as if they had to leave it all in a hurry for they left their little coats and hats. The Germans did not leave one single house standing for they are all blown to the ground. I went through a public house and there was the beer barrels in the cellar but the beer out here is not worth drinking, one pint of our beer is worth a barrel of this out here.'

23 March

'This is the fourth day for me to go without washing my face and hands for it is very dangerous to get about here at night and I have been sleeping under God's skies for this last five nights without no shelter from the cold and I may say it is very frosty here this last week but it is not so bad in the day.

'The sights where I am at present is most awful to witness for there are hundreds of dead Germans all round us chaps, for there was a terrible battle fought here last week and you will see by the papers we have captured a French village from the Germans and they were trying their best to get the village back.

'Dear Wife, while writing this letter the Johnsons [a type of shell] are flying over our heads and they make a awfull [sic] noise when they explode but I may say they are like a dog, for their bark is worse than their bite without you get too near them.'

With thanks to Anne Holland for the letter extracts, and David Clark for the postcard illustration.

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