Second Lieutenant Sydney Woodroffe, from Branksome Park, wrote this poignant letter from the Western Front to his old schoolfriend, Aidan Wallis, who was still at Marlborough College.
It was dated 12 July 1915. Sydney, known as ‘Boodles’ to family and friends, died in action in the Battle of Hooge 18 days later. Posthumously, the 19-year-old Rifle Brigade officer, whose home was in Branksome Avenue (now The Avenue), was awarded the Victoria Cross.
(The letter is now conserved in the Royal Green Jackets archives in Winchester.)
12 July 1915
My dear old Boko,
I wonder if you would mind if this letter does for Jack Barnes, Paul and Thomas H. if they come to read it, as I owe them all letters and it simply impossible to write. In that case one apology for not writing will do for all of you!
I don't know if I have told you anything so far, but anyhow for the first six weeks we wandered over Northern France and Belgium and no one seemed to have any use for us at all. We flopped about in the appalling heat and flopped into trenches in different parts of Europe, each lot being worse than the last, and losing a few men here and a few there, amongst others Hooker and Lawson-Walton. Nothing particularly exciting happened and I didn't even get lice. Then at the beginning of last week we were put into the worst trenches in the British Line. This is an absolute fact - I'm not trying to be funny – as no Division ever takes them over for more than a month or it becomes a platoon and a long roll of honour. We were stuck in these trenches for nine days on end and I will try to give you some idea how beastly it was.
The place was the extreme tip of the furthest advanced part of our line, i.e. at the end of the well-known ‘salient’. This means that we were enfiladed by guns from both sides, and so were fired on from three directions at once. There was one eight-inch howitzer that used to shell us regularly every evening right away from jolly old ‘Hill 60’. One man in our company was hit when he was 400 yards away from the burst. Another shell, a 15-inch one, burst in Ypres the other morning and the base of it, weighing over a hundredweight, knocked down a wall 900 yards back.
All the water in this God-forsaken country is undrinkable, and every drop of water we consumed in the trenches was brought up by hand in petrol tins over a mile at night. In one part we were in all the streams had been poisoned with arsenic by these bleeding Bosches. You can occasionally find a Jack Johnson hole into which water has drained - probably via an impromptu cemetery and a few refuse pits - and this affords a doubtful wash. You never get your boots off the whole time you are in the trenches, and after about 10 days a change of socks is decidedly desirable!
One thing that practically turns you inside out at first is the flies. Every kind of disgusting and bloated bluebottle and fly in various stages of torpor buzz about or sleep on beams, and flop down your neck when you bang your head on them for the hundred and one-th time.
This last lot of trenches we were in were ones that were captured from the Germans about a month ago. We were in reserve for that attack and sweated with fear all one night that we would be pushed into it. Practically every trench and road out here has a nickname, generally absurd but cheery names like ‘Piccadilly Circus’, ‘Eastbourne Pier’ etc; in this last lot it was ‘Hellfire Corner’, ‘Suicide Corner’ and ‘Dead Man’s Alley’ and such like, which of course cheers one to start with!
Well, first of all our company was put in a support trench quite isolated, about half a mile in rear, and Rae’s [one of the masters from Marlborough] platoon was in another little trench about 50 yards behind us. We were warned that they shelled us all day every day, and my goodness it wasn't far wrong. It was so bad that fires could only be allowed between 2 - 3am (jolly time for a meal) as the smoke doesn't show in that misty light - otherwise shells galore. It is beastly hardly ever having anything hot to eat and drink, especially when you are tired and fed up. The one amusing thing was that most of the shells that just missed us generally used to get Rae’s trench! You get pretty selfish out here – as long as the shell misses you personally it is all right!
The first day we were there they gassed us with (prussic acid) gas shells. My God, it is bestial. With these foul shells which possibly explode a few yards away from you, the stuff is on you and inside you before you have time to make a selection from your stock of respirators and helmets. (Once you have been gassed you take jolly good care) It makes your eyes (and nose) simply stream, you cough and retch and have a beastly sore throat and violent headache. While suffering like this a confounded great horse-fly bit me on the hand and reduced me to an absolute frenzy of rage.
The next day we were treated to a similar gassing, one of the shells knocking down the parapet about 5 yards away from me and covering me with earth. That night I had the most horrible time I have ever had, and ever hope to have. I was sent with a party of 100 men to clear up a trench which had never been touched or occupied since we had captured it from the Germans a fortnight before; since nicknamed "Dead Man’s Alley". I had a look in the daylight first, though couldn't start work until dark as it was under fire, and the place nearly made me sick, although you get used to a good deal out here. There was I landed in the dead of night on my own entirely, to make 100 none too willing men work in this perfectly godless place. Besides all the countless equipment, rifles, overcoats etc we collected, we buried 23 corpses (4 English), 2 heads, a dismembered hand and a foot. As it was a pitch dark night what I had to do was to wander about by myself, and on smelling something that nearly knocked you over backwards, cautiously shine my torch until I saw a ghastly blackened face grinning up at me - and then tell off a small party to dispose of it!. Every one of us had to wear our respirators the whole of the 3 1/2 hours we were there, and at the end of it I had had quite enough. To add to the discomfort, once when I shone my torch in the sky by mistake for the ground, we were promptly treated to two shrapnel shells.
The next day we were gas shelled again - and properly this time. They got the range exactly and out them right on the parapet. The first smashed to pieces our one and only anti gas sprayer; the second blew to blazes the stretcher bearers dug out and buried a stretcher; the third blew the head clean off the captain of my company, killed two corporals in my platoon and wounded a sergeant and another man in about five places, and so on. You can't imagine how bestial it was with the place as an absolute fog, and everybody coughing and choking in their helmets. I was wearing 3 myself, so couldn't see or hear! In desperation, finally, to get out of the blasted place I got hold of a sergeant and we sweated off with one of the men on a stretcher. It was a pretty absurd thing to do as it meant haring down a road which can be seen and is invariably shelled if anyone shows his nose down it. One shell removed practically the entire road not more than 10 yards in front of us and nearly knocked us silly. The man we were carrying on the stretcher had been hit in the head and practically the whole inside of his head came out on the way down, which didn't make things pleasanter. I continued to cart stretchers until I thought the gas might have departed a bit!!!
That night the powers decided that ours really was rather a ridiculous trench, so we were shifted up to the firing line trenches to recover! All except the wretched Rae's platoon - he was left there alone all the time.
It is extraordinary how the gas hangs about, especially low down on the ground. Two morning's later I took a small party in the still smaller hours of the morning - about 3.30 am, as that is when the German Gunners go to bed for a few hours - to try and dig out a lot of equipment and property that had been buried where the shells burst. It took us 3 1/2 hours, simply because we couldn't stay in the place more than a minute at a time wearing all the respirators in the world.
That night it fell to my lot to take a ration party - about 80 men - a mile back from the fire trenches to draw out the next day’s rations for the battalion. It was all down a long communication trench and road, both of which were invariably shelled. Ten men were killed in the trench alone on similar jobs while we were there. What makes it so beastly is that you have so little control over a vast string of men in single file.
That night they bombarded us and knocked the trenches about a lot; early the next morning a party of German bombers came and bagged the trench occupied by one of our platoons. I was shaken up in a very déshabillé and sleepy condition and told to take my platoon and help get it back. I had not the haziest idea what was happening and had never seen that particular trench before. Feeling extraordinarily frightened and trying not to look it, I collected a party of bombers and stalked up (unfortunately discovering on the way that the only kind of bomb we were carrying was the only kind I had never seen in my life and not knowing how on earth to use them). Luckily, a platoon of another regiment on our left came to the rescue and had helped to clear the devils out before I arrived. We slew about eight of them in all. The Germans then got sick and bombarded us until 4 in the afternoon, banging our trenches to pieces, knocking out a lot of men, and preventing me from getting anything to eat until 5pm.
That night I was in charge of a ration party again. On the way we were cheered up by passing a man who had recently had the whole of his face blown off. The next morning there was a big attack on our left, which I expect you read about, and we bombarded the Germans opposite us in order to keep their guns quiet. This sounds all right, but unfortunately the German thoroughly entered into the spirit of the thing and gave the unoffending us back about twice as much as they received. Also they will insist on having these shows at the unchristian hour of 3 or 4 in the morning. I stood there shivering with cold and simply deafened by the appallingly ridiculous noise, and every now and then showered with earth and muck - net result - trenches again bashed in and more men knocked out. It was made unnecessarily unpleasant again by our having been told that we might be wanted to attack as well.
The next night we stood to arms the whole blessed night as there was the probability of a German counter-attack. However, besides a few scares entailing furious blasts of rapid fire at nothing at all and besides the usual nightly ration of a thousand odd shells, trench-mortars, grenades etc - nothing. What you do discover though is that the sleep you were so much looking forward to never seems to come off.
After nine days of this we were relieved. I had to guide part of the relieving battalion up, which meant an extra five miles walk for me. The billets we came to were 14 miles back, so in all I started at 8.30pm and walked some 19 miles all through the night before eventually arriving here at 7.30am. Trenches do not get you into the best of training; very little sleep and eating vile tinned things at irregular intervals. To make matters worse I was stricken for the last nine miles with the worst stomach ache of modern times, and arrived completely doubled up at this most delightful of farms, where I slept 22 out of the first 24 hours.
Such is life here. Time drags in the trenches, nothing done to further the interests of our country as far as one can see, and the battalion lot 5 officers and 100 men, and the brigade about 350 in all. This is war! The German supply of shells seems quite unlimited. If our guns fire we cheer; even when they lay out men by dropping them in our own trenches (which has happened twice to us) we don't like to discourage them. As a matter of fact, really their gunners aren't a patch on ours and it will make all the difference in the world when we get the ammunition.
The most humorous thing that has happened to me so far was when an absolutely spent rifle bullet hit me plumb in the back of the head - and simply bounced off, merely giving me a bruise!
There is going to be the hell of a battle soon. I bet you anything you like. The Germans I believe have massed about a million men and guns opposite this part, so we are led to believe. With any luck we shall get a move on too. All the same there is nothing out here to make one believe the war will be over for the hell of a long time. Also it is simply becoming a war of shells and hand grenades.
How I would love to be able to get over to M.C. before you all leave. If I ever see it again it will be so horribly different after this term. It was perfectly priceless about Cheltenham. I hope Jack Barnes treats Rugby in the same way. How's the tennis - also Lower? I shall begin snorting with delight shortly at the thought of you enmeshed in endless certificate exams. You can comfort yourself in return at the thought of a weary and fly-blown S.C.W. with a 15-inch shell. If you haven't heard a 15-inch just go and listen to Duck's motor bus and it will give you some idea. Nothing will give you any idea of the noise it makes when it bursts though.
Are you going to Camp? It sounds awfully nice. I live just around the corner from Swanage, i.e. Bournemouth. Isn't it simply rotten about Bussoll? This stinking war. I saw him just before we left Aldershot. I see Heal is dead, too. Pretty creditable my surviving two months, I think.
Will you give W-W my love and tell him Reggie Layden came over today? He has been at Rouen lately. He is looking much older, rather sadder and slightly grey-haired.
Look here, quite seriously, however hard up you are for copy – and with certificate exams I know what it is like – please (we were once comrades in trouble) don't put any part of any letter I write in the Marlburian! Otherwise I will never write again. I do mean this. Give my love to:
(1) The Walls
(2) The Perks
This is the longest and worst letter I have ever written. I won't afflict you again.
Very Best Love