Hardships and narrow escapes at the front

Lucky escapes and hardships at the front were increasingly the main topics of letters sent from the front as the winter of 1914-15 drew on.

Cpl F. Laird, of the 1st Bedfords, revealed that his life had been saved by a tin and as result he sustained only a slight wound to the ankle that allowed him to carry on his duty without hospital treatment.

Pte T. Weston, of the 1st Herts, also had a lucky escape when he was buried alive by a "Jack Johnson" that exploded above the trench he was in, throwing earth on top of him. He lost consciousness and knew nothing more he came round in hospital. Two officers were pulled out with him.

Cpl J. Mullett, of the 1st Bedfords, wrote that he never thought he would have the nerve to bayonet enemy soldiers. But when Germans overran British trenches to their left he and his C Company comrades were ordered to fix bayonets and save the line.

"I have a hazy recollection of what happened," he wrote. "C Company charged the Germans from our own trenches, which they occupied. It seemed as if not a man of our company would reach the trenches again, but British cold steel prevailed and those avenging bayonets did their work. It was too much for a German to stand against.

"I was mad I think for about a couple of hours. I always thought I could not have enough nerve to stick a man with a bayonet, but in times like that one goes mad... When we got to them their promptly laid their arms down and up went their mitts. Some of them were glad and said, 'Now we shall be alive for Christmas,' and gave us some souvenirs."

Former Slip End policeman Bombardier Harold Wiltshire, with the Royal Garrison Artillery, said his battery had suffered a hard time in frost and snow on the firing line."By Jove, it was terrible there, what with fires and shells," he wrote.

Another Bedfordshire police officer, Sidney W. Hall, a reservist with the Horse Guards, described "the narrowest escape I have had". A shell killed a horse ten yards in front of him but he thankfully escaped injury. The enemy seem to be doing all the damage to property they can. Of course, a large number of civilians get blown up - particularly little children - from bombs.

Lance Cpl Herbert Bryce Saunders, of the 2nd Bedfords, was recuperating at home at 21 Boyle Street, Luton, from wounds to the fingers received at Ypres. During one period in the trenches he and his fellow soldiers had been unable to get a wash or shave for three weeks. The mud was terrible and their clothes, hands and faces were fearfully dirty.

Lance-Cpl Saunders told of earlier experiences such as an encounter with a German cavalry patrol in which 13 enemy were killed and others captured; a bayonet charge in which he stayed with a severely wounded Luton comrade for three hours; a scouting patrol in which 14 men were lost in as many minutes to snipers; and of being one of 20,000 British troops confronting and holding 75,000 Germans by rapid firing.

He also had two encounters with German spies - one an interpreter who released pigeons to let the enemy know which way British troops were going, the other a windmill owner who set the mill's sails in motion as they moved off. Both were shot on the spot.

In the air, Second-Lieutenant B. C. Hucks, of the Royal Flying Corps, wrote about a reconnaissance flight in which he was hit by a shell at 6,000 ft above German lines. In a 50 mph-60 mph headwind his aircraft was virtually stationary and a big hole was torn in the plane's fabric.

"However, I managed to get back and found that the machine was so badly damaged that it had to be sent back to the base to be rebuilt," he wrote. "A piece of shell had passed through the plane, carrying away two ribs, a main strut and petrol pipes. It passed just between my passenger and myself. Taking all this into consideration, one may call it a miraculous escape."

[Beds and Herts Saturday Telegraph, December 5th, 1914]