Four days in the trenches and never saw a German until they got him

Elderly Cambridge don John Maxwell Image (a friend of the Spencer family of Cookham) wrote to a friend with an insight into life in a university town almost taken over by the army. He had visited a wounded former student in London: William Cary Dobbs, a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, was no youngster, in his 40s. He had been wounded in February 1915 at the Battle of Ypres, and was later killed in action.

[17 March 1915]

Wednesday, St Patrick’s Day 1915

VDB [his friend’s nickname]

This letter, in reply to yours received just a fortnight ago, would have been written long ago, but I am only just convalescing from a brutal cold and cough… I attribute it to the bitter North wind that met me on Westminster Bridge and on every open space on my return afoot from a visit to Willie Dobbs in St Thomas’s Hospital. He had been but 4 days in the trenches when they got him. He suggested in a letter how much he would like to see me: and feeling how lonely he might be, I came up from C[ambridge], I may say on purpose. I went to him on Sat, and Sund. Ha, ha! lonely!! At the first visit (he has a room to himself and one other officer – somewhat dirty, but very snug. But to me the long corridor where the men are berthed in two rows seemed the more cheerful). Well, on Saturday I found 2 young ladies – a cousin and a pretty sister – and two or three men in attendance. On Sunday a different sister and, counting one after another, I should guess about six men – nearly all of whom professed to remember me at Trinity, and two had the audacity to improvise (which they called “quoting”) remarks made by me to them on various occasions. Such subtle flattery there was no resisting: although I could swear to having never set eyes on any one of them before. We had loads of stimulating War-gup from the London Clubs. All has perished from my memory. Had I felt equal to writing when your letter came, I could have ladled out to you some prime yarns. Willie, in a long grey dressing gown, looked utterly unchanged from what I saw last June. His wound was in the left upper arm, just above the elbow – a compound fracture, worse luck, but from a rifle bullet, not shell. He doesn’t seem troubled by it. He has to sleep on his back, somewhat tiring, and they had begun to massage the hand and fingers.

Four days only in the trenches – and he told me that he never saw a German! The way they fed him up on his journey to the sea was most hospitable – beef tea and champagne at every town. No sooner had he touched old England’s hospitable shore than every comfort had to be paid for. In France all was free.

C is still lampless at night, our Courts and Streets: and in the present moonless nights, to get anywhere unharmed is problematical, unless you are saved by yours or your confronter’s flash-light. This is the first morning that I have not heard the military hoof-tramp in the Gt Court and looked out from my window on hundreds of warriors drawn up underneath. We can just hold a battalion of a thousand men. The rifle practice too is comically indecorous. What would you say to a squad of 15 to 16 men – flat upon their bellies – taking aim? “At 700 yards”, I heard the non-com’s voice, “rapid – fire” – and then a rattle kept up, the muzzles quivering (Goodness knows where those bullets would go!) but some aimed steadily and dummy cartridges jerked out on the cobbles. This delightful pastime going on simultaneously from half a dozen squads in the Gt Court.

On each Sunday morning at 9.30 the 2nd Monmouths are marched with side arms, into the Gt Court – hundreds of men. Mumbo issues, solemnly, and solitary, from the Lodge – a dignified and amiable white figure – abundant white hair, white surplice, picked out with scarlet Doctor’s hood. The chapel (so “Queenie” Fletcher told me – I don’t think she’s ever been there – nor have I) is chockablock – and the way these Welshmen sing, the rolling, melodious voices, is quite affecting.

Letter from John Maxwell Image, Cambridge don, to W F Smith (D/EX801/1)

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