Tuesday, 1 November 2016

'If this should be my last letter you will find everything in order'

Sgt George Smith
'We are going to have a big dust up'
“Very soon now I along with many others will be going into very great danger and I am taking this opportunity of letting you know so that you will not be surprised at whatever may happen. You will understand Dad that I am not allowed to say too much so I must leave it to you to read between the lines and use your own discretion as to how you tell them at home.”

These words were written by Private Stanley Goodhead on 28 June 1916 from the trenches of France, just three days before the launch of the Battle of the Somme. All winter troops had been preparing for ‘the big push’, as it was known, and as the day drew near soldiers like Goodhead prepared their families for the worst:

 “I wish to thank you Dad for the way you have looked after me whilst out here also when at home and you have my very best wishes. If this should be my last letter you will find everything in order and it is my wish that Mother and Jinny [Goodhead’s sister] have every care and attention. Watch the papers.”

Elsewhere on the Western Front, Sergeant George Smith, of the London Scottish Battalion, was writing a similar message to his sister Maimie on two scraps of paper torn from a notebook. Headed simply ‘In the field’, he gave as much detail as the Censors would allow:

“We are going to have a big dust up so this is to tell you to look out for things & to hope for the best. I have nothing to tell you but will drop another line as soon as poss to let you know all’s well. I have very little time and so would ask you to let the rest of our little family know what I have written. Good bye just now and may God look after you all.”

For months troops had been training for the Battle of the Somme which was intended to end the stalemate on the Western Front. With fighting mired in the trenches and neither side making any significant gains, the Allied generals were planning a joint Franco-British attack on a front which straddled the River Somme in northern France. The aim was to make a decisive breakthrough and bring the war to a swift conclusion.

'We will remember them'
Tragically, however, this was not achieved. The offensive would become a byword for wasted human life, with wave after wave of soldiers marching across No Man’s Land, only to be mown down by German machine guns and shells. The battle would go down as one of the bloodiest in history, with almost 20,000 British men killed on the first day alone.

The men mentioned at the beginning of this post both survived the Great War. You can read their stories and more of their letters in my book Letters from the Trenches. The Somme was the first big offensive to rely on volunteer soldiers, rather than regulars, and as we prepare for Remembrance Sunday this year - the Centenary of the Somme - it will be a poignant time for many of us whose families lost young men who answered the call of duty and lost their lives on the Somme battlefield. 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.