The work of fiction in this article won the 2005 School's Prize and formed part of the course work by Patrick Eccles at Manchester Grammar School.
Pvt. Patrick Eccles, 17th Battalion, Manchester Regiment
1st December 1915.
Signing up for service is the best thing I have ever done. A couple of days after I registered we were taken for training, and then on the 8th of November we sailed for Boulogne. It was the first time I had ever been on a boat, and I must say it was a great experience. When we landed at Boulogne we were taken to a commandeered building for a bit of further training and to be educated about the ‘Trench System’
The layout of the trenches is quite complicated, and there have been tales of people getting lost and taking hours to find their company again! The trenches are set out a bit like this: at the front (of course) is the front line, then leading off from that are communication trenches which lead to the dugouts, and then there are decoy trenches to fool the enemy. It’s a fantastic achievement that we’ve built such a complex network to defend ourselves.
The work here at Fonquevillers isn’t too bad, we get most of the time off! About every 10 days us and D company go up to the front line and relieve A & B companies. When we arrived here we were told that we would spend 6 day spells at the front line. I’m not bothered that we spend a little bit more than that up there -after all I came here to be in the action and to play an active role in defeating the Germans.During our time at the front line we do several tasks including keeping the trenches repaired and defending ourselves against the danger. Although I know that sooner or later they’re going to ask us to go over the top it doesn’t bother me, after all if I die I’ll do it in service of King and Country. This is one of the best experiences I have ever had, I am so glad I signed up to come here.
Pvt. Patrick Eccles.
1st February 1916
We’ve been moved to a place called Maricourt, it’s right on the edge of the British sector. The work’s pretty much the same as it was at Fonquevillers, but it seems different than when I first arrived. I guess it’s because the novelty has worn off, I’ve started to notice that there isn’t any real action. There haven’t been any big attacks planned, and I don’t think that they’re going to organise one any time soon. This means that we haven’t got anything to do except wait around for another enemy shell to drop - and those are getting less and less frequent! I really need something to spice up my days. The food they give us is terrible, it’s hardly enough to support a 2 year old, let alone a full grown soldier. We get 1lb. of bully beef, 1 and 1/4 lb.. of bread, 1/4 lb.. of bacon and small amounts of some other things. One of the main problems is the hunger, it drives you insane. The only things that keep me alive are the rations sent from home, otherwise I’m sure I’d starve. Honestly, if I had known that conditions were going to be so bad I wouldn’t have enrolled. With the lack of action I’ve started to notice other things. At first I didn’t realise how appalling the conditions were, and I suppose I didn’t really care about the lice and the insect infested earth. And then there’s the rats, I must tell you that it is very hard to get to sleep at night knowing that diseased flea bags are going to be drawling all over you. Then there’s the weather. During the winter the temperatures dropped to way below freezing, and the earth froze as hard as rocks. And then the wind is continually biting into you, it’s awful being stuck in these trenches during the long, cold, harsh winter with nothing to do and nowhere to go. And if it wasn’t cold it was wet, my trench has recently been flooded, and it took a whole 6 days for the water to drain away! And as if having to live knee deep in water wasn’t enough, there’s trench feet. This is when your feet swell up to the size of footballs and hurt like mad. But I was a lucky one, I still have my feet, two other men in my company had theirs amputated - mind you they did get to go home. I wish I could, anything would be better than this suffering.
30th June 1916
Apparently in late 1915 Joffre and Haig started to draw up plans for a big offensive, which would be carried out mainly by French troops, with some back up from us Brits. However because the Germans attacked Verdun earlier this year (in order to ‘bleed the French white’), most of the French troops were diverted there. Joffre therefore requester that Haig bring date of the attack was brought forwards. Haig, however, decided not to rush his planning and I am told that he has worked out every possibility and that he has calculated everything meticulously so that the the plan is perfect. As I know it, Haig has arranged for tens of thousands of troops to be involved in this attack tomorrow. We are going to be fighting for 2 main reasons - firstly to try and knock out a 30 Km stretch of the German front line which will help us to finish the war. We will also be attacking to relieve the pressure at Verdun because of its historical significance.
I personally think that we’re in with a good chance tomorrow. Firstly because we have been stock piling supplies for ages, which will mean that we can’t run out of ammunition (-this has been a problem in past offensives which led to us having to run back to the trenches for cover, this time we will be able to go all the way!) Also there has just been the most intense 6 day artillery bombardment, there have been shells flying over non stop- if that hasn’t disabled most of the German defences then I don’t know what will.
I’m really quite excited about tomorrow - after all I have just spent 6 months complaining about the lack of action. This is what I came here for, to go out there and fight, not sit around in a trench playing cards. And because of all the precautions this is going to be lots safer than all of the other attacks I’ve been involved with. I just pray that I don’t mess up, and that this offensive pays off. If all goes well tomorrow then with any luck the war will start to draw to a close. Pvt. Patrick Eccles
2nd July 1916
My God it was a disaster out there yesterday. We quickly discovered that all the time and money that had been wasted on the artillery bombardment had not paid off - all those thousands of shells had hardly made a dent in the German defences. The miles of barbed wire were still intact and that made our advance across no man’s land painfully slow. The artillery had also failed to damage the German trenches, and so all their strong holds and gun posts were still there and ready to use, we were basically sitting targets for the enemy machine gun fire. And if it wasn’t bad enough that the artillery had failed to fulfil its objectives, it also gave the enemy a good and proper warning that an attack was imminent. The first band of men was due to go over the top at just after 07.30, which would be marked by the detonation of 17 mines. Unfortunately one of the blasted things went off ten minutes early, and gave the Germans time to get to their posts before the men went over the top. They didn’t stand a hope in hell of coming back to the trench alive, they were simply mowed down by the enemy’s machine guns. I was in the 5th wave of men, and I went over the top at about 09.00. It was a terrible experience going up there and watching the other men just charging forwards to meet there deaths. I was so ashamed to let them go to their deaths, when all I did was dive into a shell crater and try to get as many Germans as I could. Yesterday must have been one of the biggest displays of chivalry in the history of warfare. For the best part of the day I stayed there in that crater, occasionally moving forwards. When most of the fighting was over I made a dash for the trenches, trying hard not to step on any bodies. The battlefield was laden with a blanket of dead soldiers, I was just glad to be alive.
1st February 1917
We found out that 20 000 men died on the FIRST day of the Somme, it was the worst day ever in the history of British warfare. But this didn’t put Haig off, and for weeks he continued to send men pointlessly over the top, achieving nothing whatsoever. On the 11th of July the first set of German trenches were captured. However there were very few big advances, and there were no major victories - but this didn’t put Haig off, he was convinced that the Germans were on the verge of surrender and so he continued to send men to their death. The battle continued through the summer, and began to die down a little in September, until on the 25th Haig decide to renew the attack and there was quite a big attack then. And so the fight continued all through October, achieving nothing but a longer list of casualties, but on the 18th of November the Somme offensive was called off due to snow. In 4 and 1/2 months we had got as far as the first day’s target, we had advanced 7 miles! And for this poor, insignificant advance we had to pay with the lives of thousands, and it has been reported that there were 600 000 allied casualties. But although in figures it might seem like a waste of time and money, we now know that it had great implications on the Germans - they sustained 500 000 casualties. It was also suggested that the Germans would not be able to survive another Somme. This has been made clear by the fact that they have retreated back to the Hindenburg Line. This was because their forces were spread too thinly, so they have retreated to concentrate their forces and have a much greater defensive ability. When we first learned they were on the retreat we were quite excited, but now we know that it was only a tactical retreat and it wasn’t as significant as we hoped. After the Somme Joffre was sacked and replaced, as was von Falkenhayn. However Haig has managed to hang on to his job, which I must say is an outrage after he sent all those innocent men to their deaths. And worse still he’s started to plan a new offensive, yet again we have started to build up stocks. I just hope this next offensive isn’t as much of a disaster, and this time it really will start to round up the war. Somehow though, I don’t think I’ll be going home too soon.