Putrid bodies and foul vapours: “I have really seen the horrors of war”

Sydney Langford Jones (nickname Jonah) was a young artist and conscientious objector with deep seated religious objections to war. He was to spend time in prison as a result of this. However, his close friend Reginald Pearson, another artist, did join up. His frank letter to Sydney gives some of the most graphic details of the horrors of war we have seen, things which may well have been omitted from letters to sisters and churches.

Postmarked 14 June 1915

B Company 1st Bat. Lincolnshire Regiment
British Exp. Force

My dear friend Jonah

How I wish I could have seen more of you and I even wanted to turn back that Saturday night and catch you up to say goodbye again.
Since then I have really seen the horrors of war such as I never dreamed possible, marching at midnight with a lovely moon through the famous old town you have heard so much of, flaming all over the place and not a single house untouched. Stones, bricks, paving stones in what was once the roads, putrid bodies under the heaps of broken bricks once houses, and furniture blown out of the windows.

The old Cathedral and Hall as big as the Doges’ Palace and once very fine I should think now but a skeleton of ragged bones rapidly growing less and less, and the cemetery, no longer sacred, is blown to atoms with holes in it 40 yards round without the slightest exaggeration, for I measured one, and hemispherical shape, and the whole town a collection of foul vapours, still being shelled, shelled, shelled.

From there we were marched to a wood full of dugouts where we remained all next day being shelled, losing many men.

About 4 o’clock the whole lot fixed bayonets and travelled through the wood arriving at a communication trench by dark, full of mud up to the men’s thighs, hundreds of shots fired over it to catch as many as possible who happened to get out.

Along this [wading?] trench about 6’ deep and so narrow the men struggled passing those who were coming out, and eventually I found myself in the most extraordinary position ever created, but which I must not mention though I could draw you a perfect map from memory.

Trenches scarcely 3’ deep, parapets and bullet proof, strobing over dead men, bullets, bullets everywhere and the next 3 days cannot be spoken of. Trenches blown in beyond all recognition, and the first thing I saw when down broke was a dragoon with a little cat on his lap, which he had been stroking, lying both dead right across the trench, horrible, horrible, horrible.

I lost 18 wounded, 3 killed and 1 officer seriously wounded and here was I for the 1st time in charge of nearly a Company in the worst position ever held. Strategically bad, too few men, and for every German shell which came intermittently, every 20 I ought to say, we acquired a little pill in return.

9 miles march 3 days – the trenches 9 miles out with no sleep, little food and small shot, would offend the nostrils of death himself, leave men a bit fatigued, and so my first experience of war is passed and as a matter of fact I did well.

So much for my troubles for at present I sit in an orchard where we are bivouacked, resting.

The God of all the men we love is with me, I know, and this wonderful help and guidance are seared on my brain.

I am too tired to write much and so I must say goodbye.
God bless you always
Your dear friend
RO

Letter from Reginald Oswald Pearson to Sydney Langford Jones (D/EX1795/1/5/2)

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