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First World War centenary: Letters from the trenches reveal horror faced by our boys


Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches

Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches

Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches

Letters home from the Western Front in the First World War gave a snapshot of the horrendous conditions suffered by Ulster soldiers in the trenches. On today's 100th anniversary of the declaration of war by Britain, we highlight some of the messages sent back to anxious friends and family.

Name: Corporal Eric Bradshaw

From: Ballymena

Served with: Royal Engineers

Written: from Rouen, France, to his father in 1915

About eight o'clock I reached a field ambulance and was brought to a clearing hospital further back. I stopped there for a day and was shifted back further to a general hospital which, after our arrival, was converted into a clearing station so we had to go back further still.

We stayed in that hospital for about two days and then were transferred to trains and brought here to Rouen. It was an awful journey and lasted over six hours. The train was not an ambulance train, just an ordinary French 3rd class 'crawler'. I am writing this in the YMCA Hall. It is a grand place with books and papers and games. There are concerts occasionally and paper is provided for writing letters.

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You will have seen in the papers that our attack was a great success. I saw them bringing in the prisoners – hundreds of them. Just opposite to where I was in the trench we captured 17 machine guns on a 22 yard front. It was a regular fort with bomb-proof shelters etc. The Germans thought it was impregnable.

  • Courtesy of www.ballymenaworld warone.com

Name: Gordon Dill Long Smyth

From: Belfast

Written: 1916 to his mother in University Street

My Dear Mother – Just a few lines to let you know that I am quite well. I have recovered. I've received three letters from you since I came out. The post is very bad and sometimes one does not get a letter for two or three days. The weather here at present is rather showery but after rain the ground dries up quickly and in a few hours the dust is flying again. I hope that you are not working too hard and are taking good care of yourself.

  • Courtesy of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church website

Name: Ross Carton

From: Ballymoney

Written: November 1914

The Germans came up in crowds again and pushed us back once more. It was terrible to see their advance.

They came in columns four abreast, with the columns at intervals of about 10 yards. Our shells simply ripped through them but still they came on. Their losses must have been appalling. They were simply driven to their death.

  • See more at "In Time of War – Ballymoney 1914" exhibition, Ballymoney Museum.

Name: Corporal Robert Platt

From: Portglenone

Served with: 2nd Royal Irish Rifles

Written: from Flanders in June 1915 to his father John

Since last I wrote to you we were in a charge and it was awful. We started out the night before and marched 13 miles. We arrived at the place about half past one in the morning so that we were put into an old trench and told to await orders so you can have an idea that our nerves were strung to the highest pitch. So, the Germans started to rain shells into us but then our artillery opened fire on the German trenches. The row was awful. The whole sky was just in one great blaze with bursting shells.

Sharp at three o'clock the order came down our lines to fix bayonets and to load our rifles and 10 minutes later down came the order to charge so we rushed over the trench but a good few of our boys fell on the parapet as the Germans had their machine-guns trained on us but on we went and as one fell, another took his place.

We arrived at the German trench and when it came to the steel they could not match us and I am proud to say that I put a few out with the bayonet myself. Although one does not think of it at the time, one does think of it after the excitement is over. We took over 200 prisoners and a couple of machine-guns. I sent home a German sword.

But we were not satisfied with one trench. We went on and took two more lines of them. They shelled us the whole day after we took them and they eventually sent loads of gas but we stuck on for what we had so dearly won.

I was to be recommended for the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for fetching in wounded under fire but the officer that took my name was killed shortly afterwards and I do not know how it will go now but I was promoted on the field by our own officer to Corporal. I was buried three times by shells and had to be dug out and I got a slight bullet wound in the thigh but I am out of hospital again and expect to go into action in a couple of days' time.

The battle took place on 16th June. It was even worse than the charge we made at Hill 60. The Germans lost a good deal more than we did. The Brigade officer says the Rifles have made a name for themselves out here that will go down in history. All the English Regiments out here are very fond of the Rifles since we came out of the charge.

  • Courtesy of www.ballymenaworld warone.com

Name: Hugh Carton

From: Ballymoney

If all the chaps who are at home could get one glimpse of the wasting and pillaging which has been committed by these Huns, K Of K's (Kitchener of Khartoum) army would be a success right away. The army we've got here has done well – magnificently.

The only thing that delays complete victory is our lack of numbers ...

It is only a matter of time, not a very long time either, I believe, when Herr German's 'trespassing' will be heavily punished, when they shall be made to know their masters.

  • See more at "In Time of War – Ballymoney 1914" exhibition, Ballymoney Museum.

Name: Bombardier Samuel Kirgan

From: Ballymoney

In your last letter you asked me to let you know something of what I have come through ... I had made up my mind to keep it from you until I returned.

However, seeing that I am going into the firing line once again, I will let you know a little.

I left Ballymoney on 6th August and arrived in France on 15th. (At the Battle of Mons, 23 August) the Germans appeared to be in overwhelming numbers against us.

It was murder but our retreat was a very good move ... I joined the No.1 Siege Battery RGA and fought around Aisne, Antwerp, Dixmunde, and Ypres.

We had a horrible time. I would not like to mention all.

Well, I was 57 days there when I was hit by a 'coal box' (high explosive German artillery shell).

The shell hit burst about 30 yards from my detachment, killing the officer, a sergeant and a gunner, while I was wounded in the right leg by a piece of shrapnel, which hit the gun wheel first, afterwards going into my leg.

When it struck the wheel it broke the axle, so I escaped luckily from more serious damage.

I was removed to a farm until night set in, when I was conveyed to hospital.

It was three days before I got my wound dressed by a doctor.

  • See more at "In Time of War – Ballymoney 1914" exhibition, Ballymoney Museum.

Name: Bugler C Lynes

From: County Antrim

Served with: 'D' Company, 11th Battalion RIR.

Dear Robbie, Just a few lines to let you know that I am keeping well and I hope that you are keeping well also. I received your parcel of cigs and I thank you very much for them.

Tell Francie Mallon I got his photo and it was very nice. How is all the boys getting on? I suppose you have a notion of listing on the Army. We have good sport here, we have plenty of football, 'A' company beat us 5-1 and we got knocked out of the 66 Francs.

Are you still in the Machine Room? How does Hugh Turley like the Irish Guards?

I think this is all at present, from your old chum.. Tell all at home I was asking for them.'

  • Courtesy of 'Road to the Somme' by Philip Orr

Name: CSM Adams

From: County Armagh

Written: To his mother

We are up here in the trenches these last few days. I am writing this letter on the side of the trench.

No less than five shells have burst beside me since I started to write.

One may get used to rifle bullets and does, but you can never get used to the shells, they make such an awful noise ... the German bullet is not made yet that is to kill me.

I must thank you for what you sent me in your parcel. You are so awful good to me. I do not know how I will ever repay you.

All in the parcel was alright...you must have spent some in packing it.

  • Courtesy of Philip Orr

Name: Officer Montgomery

Served with: Ulster 36th Division.

Written: Bernaville, 1916

Dear Father and Mother, I feel it is more than time that I wrote and told you something of the war. 'The wee war' as your dear sweet wee grandson called it... I am still writing to Mr Gaffikin about his son George. He got his death wound when fighting desperately side by side with me in the wildest hand grenade and machine-gun fight man could live or die in. I am said to have absolutely no nerves. I saw over a hundred of our men blown to fragments by a big shell about 200 yards from where I was lying. It's turned midnight and I think I will sleep now.

  • Courtesy of Philip Orr

Name: Corporal William Hill

From: Shankill, Belfast.

Written: To sister.

Just a few lines in reply to your kind and ever welcome letter and glad to see by it that you are all well at home. Here is a bit of poetry I made up in the trenches to my mother so don't laugh as it is my first attempt:

Dear Mother though I am in France, I often think of thee;

And wonder what you're doing,

So far away from me.

For although the seas divide us,

And keep us far apart;

There's a good time coming Mother,

When we'll meet no more to part.

And when I do get back again,

I'll think more of home and thee;

For I've learnt the want of a mother's care,

When there is any thing wrong with me.

I hope my father is keeping well,

My brothers and sisters too,

So I'll close by sending my love to them,

And also the same to you.

So I'll just say goodbye for the present,

And I pray that this war will soon end;

Then I'll return to old Ireland,

To my one and only true friend.

  • Courtesy of Philip Orr

Name: Richard Palmer

From: Belfast

Written: Christmas 1917 to Rev Arthur Barton, St Mark's Parish to say thanks for Christmas parcels.

I thank you all for your kind thoughts of me and also for the very useful box of comforts you sent. The box contained just the things that are needed I think most by the men in the trenches.

Socks are in great demand when the weather is bad and mud is everywhere, and the mitts and woollen headgear are desirable if not essential, when the weather is cold. We'd both kinds of weather on our last trip in the line so you can imagine how thankful I was that your parcel arrived the day before we went into the trenches.

I am now on rest enjoying good health and am expecting to get leave soon. Again thanking you all for the parcel of comforts and trusting that before long we may see the end of the awful conflict. I remain An Old St Mark's Boy.

Name: Andrew JM Butler

Served with: Royal Irish Rifles

Written: Sunday 23rd January 1916

Very many thanks for letter and parcel received. Glad to hear the kit arrived safely and that John got another of the parcels sent on from France all right. We enjoyed the cake etc very much.

  • Courtesy of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church website.

And there was also war correspondence between friends back home. In a postcard to Mrs M Johnston, Bluestone, Portadown, a friend called Lizzie wrote:

Dear friend Mary, I saw in the newspaper that your brother has died of wounds in France. I am sorry that one so dear to you is dead and I want you to know how I feel about it. I said a prayer and lit a candle for him at Mass on Sunday. You may think it will do him no good but it eased the burden I have in my heart for you. May God protect you and all your family. Love Lizze.

  • Courtesy of Philip Orr

Name: Private David Larkin

From: Ballymena

Served with: 1st Btn RIR

Written: 1915.

I am in a hospital wounded. I got it on 11th March at Neuve Chapelle, a bullet through my left forearm and a piece of shrapnel shell in the upper part of my right leg. It was something dreadful to see how some of the men were suffering. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to the dressing station.

I shall never forget that battle. My company suffered most, there are only four of us left out of 100 and I consider myself lucky getting off with wounds.

The Germans were cut to pieces and lost thousands. They deserved all they got for man, woman and child are all alike to them. It would make your blood run cold to hear the people of Neuve Chapelle tell of the cruel treatment they received at the hands of the Germans.

I had a letter from A.... about a parcel that she and a few others had sent me but of course I was not there to receive it. It will not be lost. Some of the boys will get it and it will be divided up between them.

That is the way we all do when the owner is away wounded, so I must thank you very much for the parcel.

You would be surprised how a little parcel brightens up the troops. They are pleased as schoolchilden.

  • Courtesy of www.ballymena worldwarone.com

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