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Extracts from letters of officers of the BEF

Kaiser Wilheim referred to the BEF as a ‘contemptible army’ from which the march ‘The Old Contemptibles’ takes its name. Recipients in England and Canada of letters from the front shared their news with one another. The sources of the letters from which these extracts are taken are unknown.

9 October 1914: I have read three very interesting letters from the front. The first was Bertie’s to his Mother, written on the 19th September. He was well, had been knocked flat on his face by a passing shell, or rather I suppose by the force of the air as it passed. When he got up he found it was a general slaughter. In the great 9th Lancer attack, he commanded a gun and came out all right, but 14 officers were laid low, 7 killed and 7 wounded, the colonel and adjutant among the wounded, and he as acting adjutant when he wrote. He says they were even doing infantry work digging trenches and shooting in them, and as it has been very wet some days they were soaked, and they had neither clothes nor boots off and quite unwashed and all mud, and no sleep beyond an hour or so at a time for ten days. They were then keeping off the Germans, who use great shells – and go up trees and shoot officers – and do every mean thing, but do not come out and fight face to face. He asks for matches, cigarettes and chocolate. Poor lad, he writes very cheerily, but they must feel awfully worn out and the shelling must make their nerves tingle. He says they get used to anything – and must just peg away at the ‘Devils’.

The other two letters were two from Kingston to Lisette, written on the 28 and 30 September. He says, “We had a bad night last night, in the trenches, as we are only 300 yards from the Germans and both sides are as jumpy as fleas, tossing off at any moment, and the guns are keeping up a terrific fire on us but doing little damage. We had two killed and two wounded yesterday. They have a large gun here that was meant for the siege of Paris. It throws a shell 32 in. long and makes a big hole, enough to bury 18 men in – and beastly noise. This battle has been on for the last ten days and as far as I can see we gained no advantage, and the men are getting tired out – but still we hope for the best. It is lovely at night, hundreds of shells bursting all round” and if it were not for the death they bring, they might be fireworks on a larger scale. I have lost my servant and all my kit. Please send me out some cigarettes, matches, tobacco. Poor old Tis (Capt. Tisdall) I’m afraid we shall never see again, also Berners, Lord Arthur Hay and Lord Guernsey.

30 Sept. We lost another man to-day – We are expecting a general attack today The Germans are getting reinforcements on our front. There are so many spies, the moment we go out to dig they start an infernal fusillade of shells and have the exact range. It is awfully cold in the trenches at night, and the men are so worn out they fall asleep. It’s so difficult to keep oneself awake. Teddie Mulholland (my captain) nearly got killed last night. We were in the same hole and a shot went through the bank 12 inches from his head, and a piece went through his British warm coat, but bar the shaking we were both all right. I must not give our position away, but if you knew, it is far from pleasant, though we are in the best of spirits outwardly, humming ‘Get out and get under’ as the shells come. They have started shelling the town today as well as the trenches. It is hard luck for the people who are left, but the Germans are very brutal, and it is the women and children who suffer most.’ The third letter (is from) MAJOR Throwbridge on Sir Smith-Dorien’s personal staff, to his wife, and typewritten extracts were sent to Peter from Mrs. Throwbridge. They are all very intimate friends.

He speaks of the war from the start, and how it seems years since he left home. It was begun on 30th August.

From the moment we got in touch with the enemy, it was obvious we were opposed by very superior numbers, probably 3 to 1, and their object was to wipe us absolutely off the face of the earth, probably on account of the moral effect it would have on England. The men have suffered what we could hardly have hoped them to stand. No food, weary with long marches, fighting by day, then another long march at night to get away – away before we were absolutely surrounded – then another fight and the same performance repeated the next day. It is a source of absolute wonderment to me how long columns of men and transport often 20 miles long could ever succeed in getting away. At one place (they) were absolutely surrounded, and Sir Horace (Smith-Dorien) had made up his mind to fight it out to the bitter end, possibly because our men fought so well. Towards evening the fight slackened and we slipped away in the dark. I can hardly realize what the men went through, and the horrors of each day, having to leave dead and wounded behind as we must do in retreat. Of course we do not yet know details of the wounded. Bertie Court and Campbell came through a rather desperate charge of the 9th Lancers untouched.

Today’s news is good. We have so knocked about and drawn on the large German force that was attacking us that I hope by now it is squeezed in between 2 French Armies. There is much that I hope to tell you some day, but just now it is difficult to say anything without saying too much. With luck we shall now get a few days’ rest and the men absolutely want it. There is a great deal of refitting to be done, so time and rest are necessary. I am so short of sleep, I don’t think I have averaged two hour a night during the last seven days. I am nearly asleep as I write.

6 September. Yesterday the situation changed and we are now hard on the heels of the German Army. I hope we shall be able to get some of our own back. I have seen a Times and I gather from it that you have some idea in England of the desperate fighting taking place these last ten days. Sir John French was over at our Headquarters yesterday and was most frightfully complimentary to Sir Horace Smith-Dorien as to the way in which he carried out the retreat of our Forces and save what would have been certain disaster. I might add that I saw the whole of Sir Horace’s Diary account of everything that had happened during the whole week, which was sent straight to the King, and of which Lady Horace Smith-Dorien has a copy.

On the morning of 26 August, the situation was so desperate, that Sir Horace sent word to Sir John French begging him not to come and join them, because said ‘somebody must be left to go back to England to tell the country what has happened,’ By some mistake on the part of the French they had retired instead of advanced, leaving the whole of our right and left flanks absolutely exposed and unprotected. Sir Horace realized at once that to retire under such conditions meant complete annihilation and promptly decided to take all responsibility on himself – disobey the orders to retired and to take the offensive, sending word to Sir Douglas Haig commanding the 1st Army to do the same. This we now know they did with such success and inflicting such fearful losses on the enemy that they were driven back sufficiently by night-fall to allow our Army once more to retire in order.

8 September. We are now in full pursuit of 4 German Army Corps. We should make a good bag. The fact that we are going forward has cheered every one up, and men who seemed too tired to march two days ago, are now pushing along like Trojans in the hope of getting a little of their own back. The 12th Army Corps are very pleased with the nice things said of them and Sir Horace is delighted.

20 September. There have been many gallant fights for days together, our advance trenches have bee within 150 yards of German trenches. It has been wet and men have had a hard time in the trenches, but to show you their spirit. Rolt’s brigade which has been fighting at close quarters for four days in rain and every discomfort, we asked if they would like to be replaced: they replied that would rather see the thing out and stay and fight it out where they were.

Antwerp in flames makes one weep. Surely Berlin will be crushed to atoms ere all is over.
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