Monday, 8 January 2018

'Battles are merely breaks in the general monotony of the life'

The monotony of war: a typical trench scene from 1918
As 1918 dawned with no sign of an end to the conflict, soldiers' letters began reflecting an acceptance of life at war. Miserable conditions, hard physical labour, and the inevitability of loss of life were borne with little complaint, as was the tedium that coloured service the Front during the early months of 1918.

Below are extracts from three New Year letters written by Canadian medical officer Harold McGill to his wife Emma, which illustrate this. 'The battles are merely breaks in the general monotony of life,' wrote a resigned McGill. He had enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914 and was serving in France. His wife, also Canadian, was working as a nurse at Bramshott Military Hospital in Sussex. Theirs was a touching love story that you can read in my book Letters from the Trenches.

January 1st, 1918
Henry McGill, 1914
This has been a very quiet New Year's Day for me. We stayed up last night playing bridge until the old year 1917 had finished its course. We then pledged each other our good wishes for the year 1918 and went to bed. As I left the mess to go to my billet I could hear in the distance the constant bellow of our guns sending New Year’s greetings to Fritz. This morning was bright and sunny and with the snow & frost reminded one of a New Year’s Day in Alberta. I wonder how long it will be before we have a chance to commence a New Year together in Canada...We are all going out to town for dinner to-night, not as invited guests but simply to hold our New Year's dinner in a cafĂ© of a fair sized town a few miles away. We sent in our own turkey to get it cooked and will take our mess waiters along with us.
January 7th
The weather turned much warmer last night and there are pools of water every where to day. It is a very welcome change for the continued cold was becoming tiresome and the houses in this country are not built with any idea apparently that it may ever be necessary to keep them warm. I went to church yesterday but purely in a military capacity, ie I was in charge of the church parade of the unit. The Padre kept us standing out in the freezing cold for nearly half an hour, and the men had no greatcoats on as we had expected to be indoors. The padres as a class are extraordinarily lacking in common sense. Certainly I doubt very much if any of our men really “Got religion” from that service.
January 12th
All week we have been preparing for an inspection by the GOC [General Officer Commanding] Division which took place this afternoon. It meant a lot of work and driving the men, but was worth it for our unit looked quite smart on parade. The GOC seemed quite pleased with our turnout. During the week we have had the men parade time after time in full kit until we got them into a fairly presentable state of dress and general bearing. The idea of the duty of a military officer possessed by the people at home is one depicting him leading a bunch of heroes up the line under a rain of shells, whereas actually nine tenths of his work consists in hammering at his men to make them shine their buttons, keep their equipment clean and in order, and to prevent them throwing food on the floors of their billets. Besides these things he has a hundred and one other little details to look after, all trivial perhaps, but all necessary for the maintenance of discipline and efficiency. The battles are merely breaks in the general monotony of the life.
Harold McGill (in tie) treating a soldier at the Battle of Amiens, 1918

Harold McGill's letters (and the photos of McGill above) are archived at the Glenbow Museum in Alberta, Canada, and can be viewed online at

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