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Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front

Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front
    Book Description:

    This book was inspired by the author's discovery of an extraordinary cache of letters from a soldier who was killed on the Western Front during the First World War. The soldier was his grandfather, and the letters had been tucked away, unread and unmentioned for many decades. Intrigued by the heartbreak and history of these family letters, Fletcher sought out the correspondence of other British soldiers who had volunteered for the fight against Germany. This resulting volume offers a vivid account of the physical and emotional experiences of seventeen British soldiers whose letters survive. Drawn from different regiments, social backgrounds, and areas of England and Scotland, they include twelve officers and five ordinary "Tommies."

    The book explores the training, journey to France, fear, shellshock, and life in the trenches as well as the leisure, love, and home leave the soldiers dreamed of. Fletcher discusses the psychological responses of 17- and 18-year-old men facing appalling realities and considers the particular pressures on those who survived their fallen comrades. While acknowledging the horror and futility the soldiers of the Great War experienced, the author shows another side to the story, focusing new attention on the loyal comradeship, robust humor, and strong morale that uplifted the men at the Front and created a powerful bond among them.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19856-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Main Characters
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. Plates
    (pp. None)
  6. Preface and Acknowledgements
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  7. Maps
    (pp. xvi-xviii)
  8. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)

    My interest in the Great War began when I found a tin trunk among my grandmother’s possessions after she died in 1989. I soon realised that this was a treasure trove.¹ There were 243 letters written in indelible pencil on exercise book paper sent by my grandfather Major Reggie Trench to his wife Clare from the Western Front. There were also another 35 of his letters to his mother, Isabel Trench. Every pencilled word in the letters to his mother had been carefully written over by her in ink, as she sought solace following his death in battle in 1918....

  9. Part I: Going to War

    • CHAPTER 1 ‘Quiet Earnest Faces’: The National Cause
      (pp. 9-27)

      The catastrophe that led during July and August 1914 to the outbreak of the Great War is very well known. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria–Hungary, was assassinated at Sarajevo on 28 June by a Bosnian Serb. Austria, confident of German support, sought to punish the Serbs. The international crisis developed over eight days in July. Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia came on the 28th. In the next four days Germany mobilised its navy, Russia began to mobilise and Germany declared war on Russia.

      The British government began to assemble its home fleet at...

    • CHAPTER 2 ‘Glad to Go’: Patriotic Idealism
      (pp. 28-51)

      Charles Carrington, the son of an Anglican clergyman, reflected in 1965 on how he had felt at seventeen years old about the Great War breaking out. He was then back in England, after time spent in New Zealand, preparing for a scholarship examination for Oxford or Cambridge.¹ Was he then, he asked, anything more than a ‘juvenile delinquent, whose characteristics were a love for ganging-up with other boys, a craving to demonstrate his manliness and a delight in anti-social violence’? The mood was exhilarating ‘because of the rare experience of finding inclination, actual necessity and the highest principles of conduct...

    • CHAPTER 3 ‘Ready to Go’: Training
      (pp. 52-72)

      Six months of intensive training were planned at the outset for Kitchener’s Army. The sheer military ignorance of the majority of recruits and junior officers was the government’s main problem. While an officer coming from an Officers’ Training Corps had benefited from some preliminary training, most of those who enlisted as private soldiers knew nothing about saluting, standing to attention, forming a straight line on parade or wheeling from line into a column of fours for route marching. The scheme envisaged graduation from weeks of drill in platoons and companies to training at battalion strength, with elaborate field days, entrenching...

  10. Part II: At the Front

    • CHAPTER 4 ‘Write as Often as You Can’: Letters and Parcels
      (pp. 75-97)

      Collections of letters take us into the private worlds of loved ones and the most intimate concerns of family life. Our soldiers were always in close touch with home. Letters used in this book express the sheer comfort to be obtained by writing to a member of the family. Thousands watched for the post in eager anticipation of a buff or green envelope with familiar handwriting. We have to read between the lines, perceiving the understanding and sensitivity with which the soldier’s words would be greeted when the envelope was opened. Replying was a recognition of the massive encouragement that...

    • CHAPTER 5 ‘Sticking it Out’: Fear and Shell Shock
      (pp. 98-118)

      In traditional patriotic thinking war was a test of manhood and character. But the Great War taught lessons which struck at the very heart of Victorian and Edwardian manliness. Neither attendance at a public school nor training in an Officer Training Corps prepared men for the emotional reality of the Western Front. The adventure literature and patriotic verse had swept fear aside. G.A. Henty, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt did not write about danger in terms which alerted boys to how they would cope when faced with battle. These writers assumed that men schooled in heroic virtues would be...

    • CHAPTER 6 ‘A Certain Sense of Safety with Him’: Leadership
      (pp. 119-142)

      His men must surely love him in view of all he did for them, Reggie Trench’s besotted mother insisted when he had been four months in the trenches. ‘No, you are quite wrong,’ he replied, ‘the men do not love or even like me but I think they will follow me.’ ‘Very few men and I’m not one of them can keep good discipline and popularity.’ Reggie explained, ‘I think I have the first but I know I have not got the second.’ A couple of weeks earlier, Reggie had told Clare of an incident which exemplified the respect in...

    • CHAPTER 7 ‘Such a Helpless Lot of Babes’: Care for the Men
      (pp. 143-162)

      Trench life was a fight against the elements. In summer there was heat and dust, in winter cold and mud; cold was the greatest enemy. ‘The cold crept under our clothes, our fingers and joints ached with it,’ wrote one soldier in his diary, ‘it seemed to congeal our blood and kill the very marrow of the bones.’ Mud enveloped men in the front line; lice were everywhere, infesting men’s clothes. With surplus food and corpses all over the place, rats multiplied with amazing fertility.¹ On their return to billets, washing and cleaning their clothes were men’s priorities, yet obtaining...

    • CHAPTER 8 ‘Drops of his Blood on my Hand’: Horror and Endurance
      (pp. 163-175)

      Two words sum up the tragedy of the Great War in popular memory: mud and horror. When men stood in the cold, the wet mud of the trenches promoted trench foot and frostbite. Moreover, mud carries associations of excrement and dead soldiers, of shrapnel and barbed wire, associations which throughout the twentieth century portrayed this war as utterly opposed to nature. Thinking about mud leads to thinking about the bodily struggle with it, how it could engulf men, choke them and drown them. It took time, when it was over, for men to find meaning in such a cataclysmic struggle,...

    • CHAPTER 9 ‘I Merely Did my Duty’: Discipline and Morale
      (pp. 176-192)

      Morale is the impetus which drives a soldier to conquer fear and carry out his duty. Discipline is the external force which substantiates this. Morale can be defined as ‘the common shorthand for military resilience and combat motivation’. It is

      the thinking of an army … the way it feels about the soil and the people from which it springs … the way it feels about their cause and their politics as compared with other causes and other politics … about food and shelter, duty and leisure, weapons and comradeship, discipline and disorder.

      Morale was maintained by a combination of...

    • CHAPTER 10 ‘Very Gallant in Every Way’: Early Losses
      (pp. 193-197)

      It was during 1915 that the British public began to realise the scale of the losses the nation was suffering on the Western Front. The casualties at Neuve Chapelle between 10 and 17 March were 11,200; at Second Ypres between 22 April and 25 May they were 70,000; at Loos between 25 September and 14 October they were 50,000. On 25 September 1915, the first day of the Battle of Loos, the roll of honour notices inThe Timesfilled four columns. It was in 1915 that the first of our letter writers were killed. Three of the soldiers who...

    • CHAPTER 11 ‘Blighty, oh Blighty in about a Week’: Leave
      (pp. 198-210)

      Officers did much better than men in getting leave. They could expect it two or three times a year, while a single short trip home was the best the average Tommy could hope for. There was always a sense of unreality about going on leave. ‘All he seemed to want was to be at home and rest … we did all we could to strengthen him up but the time was all too short … he felt parting keenly.’ Robert Saunders’s account described how he welcomed a son home from the Front in December 1915.¹ Letters home are often filled...

    • CHAPTER 12 ‘I Am Serene, Unafraid’: The Somme
      (pp. 211-224)

      The confidence of the British Expeditionary Force, still largely untrained in battle, on the eve of the Somme is fully attested in many letters.¹ Charlie May reflected in March 1916 that this was an ‘unlovely war in detail yet there is something grand and inspiring about it – men’s sober pluck and quiet good-heartedness contributes very largely to this’.² ‘The time has come for us to show our best and I am glad of it, eager and longing for it,’ wrote the artilleryman Richard Downing on 14 June 1916: ‘we shall have our work cut out to smash the Germans,...

    • CHAPTER 13 ‘Capable of Finishing the Job’: Battles of 1917–1918
      (pp. 225-234)

      The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in February and March 1917 was carefully conducted, slow and measured. General Ludendorff abandoned all the Somme battlefields, moving his forces back some twenty-five miles, destroying and burning villages in the process.¹ The excitement engendered by this was the main theme of Reggie Trench’s letters as he marched his fresh troops across from Le Havre. ‘It was very thrilling,’ he told to his mother, when, on his first visit to the front line, he saw huge fires behind the German lines as the enemy laid waste to the territory they were abandoning. ‘We...

    • CHAPTER 14 ‘The Men Cannot Grasp It’: Armistice
      (pp. 235-248)

      Lance Spicer wrote reflectively to his father in February 1918 during the lull before the Germans launched their final offensive. He was expecting a massive assault and envisaged that it could ‘make us withdraw a little’. But his concern was the need to keep up morale at home to match confidence among those at the Front. The fight was to uphold ‘certain ideals and beliefs which we and our fathers before us have held for centuries’. Both sides were now war weary but there was nothing to be said for ‘grousing and talking about peace’. He and his colleagues needed,...

  11. Part III: Sacrifice

    • CHAPTER 15 ‘We Will Remember Them’: Remembrance and Commemoration
      (pp. 251-261)

      The poet Laurence Binyon was sitting on the cliffs of north Cornwall when in early September 1914 he wrote the seven stanzas of ‘For the Fallen’.¹ The casualty rates among the British Expeditionary Force were growing day by day. The Battle of the Marne was foremost in people’s minds when the poem was published inThe Timeson 21 September. ‘They went with songs to the battle; they were young’ runs the first line of the little-known third stanza of the poem. But it is the fourth stanza that we all know well: it is read year after year on...

    • CHAPTER 16 ‘All the Best and Choicest and Unblemished’: War Heroes
      (pp. 262-276)

      In his famous Queen’s Hall speech on 19 September 1914, David Lloyd George claimed that he saw ‘honour, duty, patriotism, and clad in glittering white the great pinnacle of sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven’.¹ It was ironic that, while other leaders – Asquith, Bonar Law and John Redmond – lost a close family member, Lloyd George did not himself make an ultimate sacrifice of that kind. But no one spoke the language of sacrifice like Lloyd George. Yet he merely dramatised a new national mood which had become established with almost lightning speed over six weeks or...

    • CHAPTER 17 ‘Among the Happiest Years I Have Ever Spent’: Survivors
      (pp. 277-286)

      Our six soldiers who survived lived through the events of the 1920s and 1930s. They saw another world war begin and end. Rowland Feilding, by far the oldest, died in 1945. The next officers to die were Graham Greenwell in 1970 and Herbert Trench in 1971. Lance Spicer lived until 1980. The two Tommies, Jack Sweeney and Cyril Newman, died in 1961 and 1978 respectively. We know very little about what these men thought of their war experience in the long retrospect of their later years. This chapter gathers the shreds of evidence on their lives as they grew older...

  12. Epilogue: The Great War in Perspective
    (pp. 287-293)

    Henri Barbusse’s novelLe Feuwas given a rapturous reception when it was published in January 1916. It takes the form of a memoir written by a French poilu soldier, much of it in dialogue. It offered a moral condemnation of war as a radical evil, and in its first year sold 200,000 copies in French. It has been called by Jay Winter ‘the first in a long line of war novels which told the world about the war from the inside’. It expresses, he declares, a kind of moral witness which lives on after publication in the midst of...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 294-314)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 315-318)
  15. Index
    (pp. 319-328)