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

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

“The man we could least spare”

Harry Fisher, a Reading soldier, wrote to the vicar of St John’s Church with the bad news of the loss of a prominent young parishioner, Ronald Poulton-Palmer (1889-1915), who was isher’s commanding officer. Ronald was a rugby international for England. He was the grandson of George Palmer, a former MP for Reading and director of Huntley & Palmers’ biscuit factory. He was also very active in church life, and we will be hearing again about his loss. Sergeant Fisher also talks more generally about life at the front.

Belgium, 5.5.15.

My Dear Vicar,

At last I find an opportunity to write to you.

I regret that my first note to you should bear such sad tidings. Last night at 12.20 a.m. Lieut. Poulton-Palmer was killed while doing duty in the trenches. At the time he was superintending the work of improving the trenches and was standing on the parapet. The bullet entered his right side and passed through his body killing him instantly. He was, for some reason, taking the turn of another officer. His death has cast a gloom over the whole battalion. He was, I think, the most popular officer we had, loved by officers and men alike. The man we could least spare. He lived a clean life and died a noble death. The greatest tribute I can pay him is to say that in every sense of the word HE WAS A MAN. His was the third fatal casualty we have had besides six or seven wounded.

I really have very little news to tell you. We are not allowed to say anything about the military situation. We are all as happy as possible under the circumstances. We spend our time doing duty in the trenches for four days at a time and then come back into billets for four days. Our billet at the present time is a very large piggery. The pigs, of course, are removed, most of them having been stolen by the Germans when they were here. Last week we were billeted in huts in a wood and were sorry to leave them. The wood had just got on its first spring garment and was profuse with violets, cowslips and the like.

One of the most touching sights here are the tiny cemeteries dotted about. They are a testimony to the loving care with which our British Tommy lays to rest his fallen comrades. Each grave has its wooden cross and is well turfed and kept up. Where there are a number of graves together the ground has been fenced in and in some instances a gateway with a rustic arch has been built. The other day I passed two big graves each equally well-kept and bearing the inscription ‘To the memory of — men of the 108th Saxon Regiment. Killed in action. R.IP.’

On Monday the Bishop of Pretoria paid us a visit and spoke some very encouraging words to us.

I have had three opportunities of taking Communion since being here and have taken advantage of each. On each occasion the table was a biscuit box. Twice the Service was held in a barn to the accompaniment of cackling hens and the lowing of cattle, &c. The other was held in the wood to Nature’s own accompaniment. But on each occasion it was the same beautiful Service, making one feel how thoroughly unworthy one is to partake of the blessings it offers.

It is good to know that we have your prayers; we greatly need them. The temptations are very great and the means of grace seem so few out here.

One thing is very noticeable here, and that is the number of churches that have been shattered. I paid a visit to one recently and was astonished to find that, although the church was very badly battered, the altar and all the figures in the various shrines were intact. The same thing is noticeable about the shrines built by the roadside. The houses may be badly battered, but the crucifixes remain intact.

Most of us have had narrow escapes from flying bullets. My nearest one was one day when standing in a ruined cottage close by the trenches. I was in the doorway when a bullet came right through the opposite wall and shattered pieces of brick all round me. The bullet probably went on through the doorway in which I was standing.

I hope all my old friends at S. Stephen’s and S. John’s are well. Please give my kindest regards to them all.

The hardest thing to bear is the thought of those dear ones at home waiting anxiously for news of us. If it were not for that one could be quite cheerful even in the face of the greatest danger.

I must conclude now with very best wishes from
Yours very sincerely,

P.S.- My address is
No.17 C., Q.M. Sergt. H.W. Fisher,
‘A’ Company,
1/4 Royal Berks Regiment,
British Expeditionary Force.

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

“The Huns do not spare a thing”

The voice of ordinary working class soldiers is often hard to find, but here is a letter from a Stratfield Mortimer man to the vicar of his church at home:

A Letter from the Front
We are glad to print the following extracts from a letter to Canon Lovett Cameron from Private C. E. White, 73rd Co. A.S.C. M.T-

I am all right, and like it out here very much. I am very glad now that I joined the Army, as it must be awful for a man walking the roads of England knowing that this is a life and death struggle and doing nothing for their country, or I may put it for their own homes. They ought to see a few towns of Belgium, then they might realise the nature of this terrible war. The Huns do not spare a thing. There is a most lovely church not far from here; as I expect, you know the churches here are splendid; this church which I have seen myself they have reduced to ruins, and have torn up the graveyard by their shell fire. It is most wicked…

We get plenty of good food, also plenty of clothing… You ought to see some of the roads here, awful to drive over, holes in places 2 ft. deep, and with all this rain very slippery. We have about 180 lorries and over 700 men in this Company. We got through the retreat from Antwerp all right, and up to now have only lost 2 men killed and 3 injured, that was at Ypres, the Germans shelled us there.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, April 1915 (D/P120/28A/14)

“The desolation of war is complete”

Percy Spencer occasionally wrote directly to his sister’s friend John Maxwell Image, a Cambridge don. He painted a vivid picture of the devastation of the area he was fighting in:

April 10, 1915
Dear Mr Image

We’ve struck a quiet patch, so I’m snatching the opportunity to square my letter writing account as far as possible.

Three or four times I commenced letters to thank you for yours and for your presents, but cannot remember if I was ever successful in finishing one. So I’ll make sure by thanking you now for all the things you have sent me including the feathers and the aluminium cup. I think WF [Percy’s nickname for his sister Florence] is a marvel of ingenuity. I still have a few of the feathers; I’m not so extravagant as I was, but it’s been a difficult job to hang on to them with an unfledged staff always around.

Did I tell you I had been up close to the fighting? The misery of the villages I have seen there makes me boil at the similar plight poor Belgium must be in. The desolation of war is complete, but not the hopelessness of a restoration. A very short distance out of rifle fire, farmers are at work upon ground that has recently been fought over, and I felt grateful for this evidence that “hope springs eternal in the human breast”.

The night before I went up, we billeted 2 miles or so from the fighting, immediately behind the village church, which had been aimed at by enemy guns but not hit. I hear it has now been struck and demolished. Did I tell you of the fun we had there through the fear of our cook for shells? If a shell had arrived I’m sure I should have died laughing – his little precautions were too funny. He “kipped down” as far as possible from doors and windows, removed the candle from the window and always cast an anxious glance around if he had to go into the yard.

We manage to get plenty of fun. For instance, ten days ago we witnessed an enemy aeroplane run the gauntlet of our allies’ guns. At one time we hoped to see a fight in the air, but our allies’ aero was not up quick enough.

Well, here’s to an early peace, not on the terms I saw recently in the paper, and a greater appreciation of the privilege and pleasures of peace.

Ever yours
Percy J Spencer

Letter from Percy Spencer to John Maxwell Image (D/EZ177/7/10/9)

The churches are under fire

Percy Spencer wrote briefly to his sister Florence to report on his latest movements close behind the lines:

Apl 3. 1915
Dear Florrie

Yesterday I marched about 12 miles to this place by a circuitous route arriving about the time the enemy dropped a shell into a field nearby. They’re having a go at the church but haven’t found it yet, but the church in the last village is a ruin. Shell fire must be awful…

Yours ever

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/21)

Shock as Rheims Cathedral burnt!

Florence Vansittart Neale was horrified to learn that historic and beautiful Rheims Cathedral had been attacked.

21 September 1914
Rheims Cathedral burnt! List of casualties – fierce fighting.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)