“One of the most wicked things ever used in warfare”

Parishioners of St John’s parish in east Reading got an insight into life at the front when the young men from the parish who had joined up wrote to the vicar. They shared their experiences of the trenches, hospitals just behind the lines, and being gassed.

Letters From The Front.

My Dear Vicar,
I have just received the good old Parish Magazine, sent to me by my mother. Well, throughout the numerous hardships I have endured, I am pleased to say I am still quite well and happy. At the time of writing I am out of the trenches with my regiment resting, which I think we all honestly deserve; you cannot imagine the hardships and endless duties we have to perform.

While in the trenches you are working throughout the whole night and practically all day. At night the first duty commences at 8 o’clock, that is two hours’ sentry, which is very monotonous and tiring to the eyes, having to rivet them on a certain object the whole time while the booming of the enemy’s guns is deafening and bullets whistle over your head. After two hours you are relieved, feeling tired and sometimes wet through; you wish you could enter your dug-out and have minutes’ sleep. But no! you are at once detailed to join either a working party or a ration-carrying party, there you keep on hard at work till day break.

Sometimes we are given the job of repairing the barbed wire between ours and the Germans’ trenches; my job one wet night was to climb over the parapet of our trench and crawl up within a few yards of the enemy’s lines and to lie down for four hours listening for any signs of an advance by them; I could hear them singing and talking quite plain. I can assure you I was very pleased when I had finished. At about 4.30 a.m. we partake of breakfast consisting of a piece of salt bacon about four inches square, a small piece of bread, and a mess-tin of tea (?). This meal is looked forward to as much by us as the school treat is by the children.

After this you at once enter your dug-out and snatch a few minutes’ sleep; you generally settle down and are at once told to leave your dug-out and ‘stand to arms’ as Fritz is sending over a few more ‘Whistling Willies.’ You can imagine how very tiring and strenuous this sort of business is day after day, but still we keep a stout heart, trust in God and pray for the time when we can return home victorious, with the knowledge that we have performed our duty both to God and to the nation.

While I have been out here I am pleased to say I have had the opportunity of partaking of Holy Communion. Last Sunday my pals and I walked about four miles to attend a very rough and ready celebration held by our Chaplain in an old stable.

Well, I must now close, hoping you will please excuse this hurried letter and to receive a line from you whenever opportunity afford.

I remain, Rev. Sir,
Yours very respectfully,

With the R.A.M.C.

The Germans usually send a few shells into the town every day, and last Wednesday morning one of them burst on the roof of one of our wards. There were ten patients there at the time, beside the ward orderlies, but fortunately no one was killed. Four of the patients received wounds from the fragments of shell. A large portion of the roof came in and of course everything was covered with the debris. We had to remove all the patients to a place of safety as quickly as possible, but as it happened no more of the shells came near our quarters. It is really a miracle that more of us were not injured or even killed. I myself was standing within twenty yards of the spot where the shell burst at the time….

I should like to correct an error which appeared in my letter to you had inserted in the current number of the Parish Magazine. When I read the sentence which stated that we had opened another dressing station in a ‘backyard’ I was literally convulsed with laughter. It should have read ‘brickyard.’ To think of a dressing station, through which hundreds of wounded were being passed every day, being situated in a ‘backyard’ is really too ludicrous….

Since we have been here we have usually had some sort of service on Sunday. We have had several celebrations of Holy Communion. The poor Chaplains do have a hard time of it and no mistake. One of them told me yesterday that he had taken eleven services, all of them being at different places and extending over a radius of seven miles. While conducting one of them he had been shelled by the Germans.

Witnessing for Christ.
In my bedroom there eight beds, seven of which are occupied. One man from Canada (an old Bristolian) is a man whose creed practically consists of the fact hat ‘Every man is my brother and I must help him all I can.’ Yet he tells me that he has only been to church about six times in eight years. This looks black, but I assure you he is one of the best – a really good-hearted fellow. Last night I suggested that before we ‘turned in’ we should all cease pillow fighting and other frivolities for a couple of minutes for all to make their own devotions. They all agreed and thanked me for the suggestion. When I said ‘Come on boys,’ every man in the room got on his knees by his own bedside, and silently we lifted up our hearts in prayer for safety and strength.’

[The above comes from ‘somewhere’ at home but we include it here with other soldiers’ letters.]

The Terrible Gas.
It has been very lively out here lately. Where we are at present they are continually sending shells over, and when they send gas shells over it is awful, as the smell from the gas chokes one, and it is very difficult to get one’s breath – also the eyes smart and run with water. I can picture the poor fellows’ sufferings who have been gassed – it must have been awful. I think it is one of the most wicked things ever used in warfare. I shall be very thankful when it is all over.
A. Drake.

A Night Alarm.
We are just back from a rest from the trenches, and you are being ‘privileged’ with the first ink letter that I have written out here. It certainly does not make much difference if you are 15 or 50 yards from the enemy, except that in the former case you stand more chance of being rushed and are probably living on top of a German mine. The other night we were out putting up barbed wire in front of our line when we suddenly got and order to get back to our trenches and ‘stand to.’ We stood to and waited about 5 hours in darkness (as a thick fog came on at 1 a.m.) for the Germans to come, but in spite of the lines and lines of Germans who were reported in the long grass just in front of our wire (by two sentries who were a bit rattled) the Huns never attacked. Just before it got light I took two men out in front of our wire, but though we did not go out very far we heard nothing and saw no fresh tracks on the grass. Anything is better than sitting in the trench and waiting. We are now in a large house which has been deserted for some time. There is a lovely rose garden outside. I went to Communion in the garden this morning and we had a Church Parade later on.

Those left at home responded the best they could:

Further subscriptions for “cares and comforts”: Mrs White, 2/6; Anonymous, 2/6; Mrs P. Colebrook, 10/6.

The following additional articles have been sent to the depot: nightshirts, 23; pairs of bed socks, 9; many-tailed bandages, 37; operating coats, 3; locker cloths, 9; dressing gowns, 2; tray cloths, 8.
Total, 729.

Reading St John parish magazine, August 1915 (D/P172/28A/24)

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