WEEK 21: LIFE IN THE TRENCHES WOULD KILL A WOMAN
Monday 16 to Sunday 22 November 1914
German attacks around Ypres continued for some days but were repulsed by robust British defences. On 17 November, the Duke of Württemberg, Commander of the German Fourth Army, ordered his men to cease action and to dig in where they stood. Fighting flickered for another five days until inclement weather forced an end to hostilities. In spite of German superiority in numbers of men and artillery, the First Battle of Ypres ended in Allied victory albeit with catastrophic casualties: an estimated 163,000 men killed, wounded or missing. While he attempted to keep a brave and jovial exterior, Pat’s letters to Mrs Armstrong revealed the growing sense of horror and disillusionment with the war. He described the conditions in the trenches as ‘hell on earth’, and his sense of foreboding was compounded by the growing numbers of fellow officers and friends who had perished in combat. Those who survived found themselves face to face with a new enemy: the bitterly cold winter of 1914-1915. The area between the German and Allied positions established during this period became known as the Ypres Salient, a bulge-like battlefield feature projecting into enemy territory. Over the course of the next four years it would be the scene of some of the war’s most brutal struggles.
Monday 16 November
Brielen.Breakfast 8 o’c. 9 Lancers came in & washed & cleaned. Went out for a ride about 11 o’c. Shot a horse. Started to rain about 12 o’c. Very cold. Went out in afternoon with the General & Hardress. Rode about in the woods & looked for partridges. Hardress shot a brace. As usual they were shelling Ypres pretty hard. Turned very cold so we came in about 4 o’c. Rex, Buz & Graham came round & lunched with the President.
[…] There is some talk of us being pulled out into reserve if that happens I might be able to get down to Paris for a day or two. If I can I’ll let you know & you could come over. Don’t think about it much but there is just a faint chance. In any case you might find out about getting to Paris so as you could get off quickly if I can fix things. Just going off for a ride. Will write to-night.
Your loving Pat
Tuesday 17 November
We saw Lord Roberts' funeral at the Harbour it was an impressive sight the ship coming slowly in all in darkness about on a very silent evening, when it was in at the Harbour we saw the coffin & all the wreaths then it was taken off & a procession of two [?] (soldiers) walked ahead then came the coffin & huge French officers wreaths nearly as big as the men carrying them. The coffin was put into the waiting room & a guard left with it, & early tomorrow goes to London. After we had seen this function a boat came with a few refugees who we took up in the car to Grammar School to stay the night there as there were no trains going to London then. One poor girl was blind both eyes had been taken out & it was in a stage of healing we didn’t ask questions we’d had enough. Got a wire from G. from Davenport.
Brielen. Breakfast 8 o’c. Heard we were going back to Saint Jans [Cappel]. Cav Corps & I Div were to be put in reserve 3 corps holding the line. French taking over line north of Hollebeke. 1st Bde were relieved & came back most of them got in about midnight. We were going to start at 2 pm. but heard there was an attack going on opposite to Gen Wing’s section. Stood to for a bit. Went round to Corps Hd Qrs with Gen. Left with horses about 3.30. Dreadful block on road rained a bit. […] Heard Pic had been killed.
Nov 17 Hd Qrs I Cavalry Division British Expeditionary Force
My dear wee Mus,
I got a regular budget from you yesterday letters dated Oct 8 – 10 – 13 – 16th also a parcel with a diary. That accounts for why I had no letters all that time we were at Neuve-Eglise. Some of them were addressed 2nd Cav Bde & had gone onto the 7th Cav Bde & were returned. The others were addressed alright but must have got hung up somewhere. It is awfully annoying them getting hung up like that. The diary is simply splendid what an ingenious pocket that is that Jess made in it. The other little one is a bit too small so I’ll send it back next time I send films. I sent you off two rolls yesterday & asked for them to be registered so as to make certain of their arriving. Let me know as soon as they do. Will you have them developed & send me one copy of each. Give the negatives to Jess. If there are any you think would interest Blanchie will you send them to her. Will you send me out some more rolls of films. Will you send me 6 rolls at a time. If only the weather breaks up a bit I can get a lot of photos. Yesterday morning was awfully nice & sunny then about 11 o’c it started to pour. I went out for a ride & took several photos & then got a good wetting. We had an easy day yesterday & stayed here all day. The II Bde were relieved from the trenches the night before last & go in again to-night. Poor devils. The I Bde is detached & is away by itself acting as reserve to one of the Infantry Divisions. In the afternoon the General, Hardress & I went out with a gun & rode about & tried to shoot partridges. There are quite a good number but they are awfully wild. After a lot of manoeuvring Hardress bagged a brace & we rode home in triumph. It took me ages to read all your letters & enclosures. Grand it was.
[…] Now about this idea of Paris. When the second Division was relieved several of the officers were allowed 48 hrs leave & went to London. Well the idea now is to pull the Div out for a bit & to keep us as an 8 reserve. If they do that & there isn’t much doing I don’t see why I shouldn’t get a couple of days leave & go to Paris. Could you meet me there. You had better find out everything: How long it would take you where to stay & everything. I’ll pay all expenses if you can fix it. Great fun it would be if we could arrange it. Of course it may be hopeless but it’s a good idea to keep in our heads. I’ll find out things on this side & see how long it would take me. I’m sure that the General would let me go if he could manage it. He’s awfully good about things like that. I’ll write to you again about it, but be ready to start off pretty quickly. It will be rather difficult to arrange, so as I can let you know quick enough. You can go from Folkestone to Calais I believe. I could probably meet you there if that would be easier. But I think it would be easier for me to get to Paris. Anyhow I’ll find out & let you know. I got a letter from the Boss last night written on Oct 14. Over a month ago. Dreadfully slow isn’t it. He says he has sold Frank for £65 & has put £100 into my bank.
[…] Mouse has just come up here & told me that we are moving back to our chateau at — where we were all last week. It will be nice to have a few nights without shells whistling over one’s head all night. They don’t worry me really but I often feel that a chip of the house may be knocked off & it’s uncomfortable.
Your loving Pat.
Wednesday 18 November
Got a letter from Pat, dated 16th he says they may be going to Paris, to have a rest, & that we could come out, if they do. Muz came down, & I took the baby out, then she & Heppie went to the shop. I met Mary Stubbs on the Front, with her baby, & we sat out there, then Miss Stubbs came out. On our way back, we went to see the baby that was born yesterday. After lunch did some knitting. Muz went up to watch Tom’s dancing then the two Miss Stubbs’ came for tea, & left at about seven. They want me to go to the dance with them on Saturday, went to bed at about 9-30.
Thursday 19 November
Went down to take the baby out, but it was too cold […] We saw the wee new French baby, she is the sweetest wee thing. Then I went & did some shopping with Mary, & came back in the bus as it was raining. Did some knitting after lunch, & it snowed nearly the whole afternoon. Muz sent the general a tea basket. We got a letter from Pat, dated 17th. Muz got a wire from Gordon, to say they were going to Winchester. Went to bed at about ten.
Nov 19 Hd Qrs I Cav Div British Expeditionary Force
My dear wee Mus,
[…] There had been a good deal of shelling in the night [of 17 November], shells still kept coming close to us but nothing near enough to do any damage. We heard that we were coming back here & that the Cavalry were to be pulled out & put into Reserve for a bit. Poor devils they deserve it. They’ve had an awful hard time […] That night we came back here & got in about 7 o’c. We had a baddish ride. The whole road was blocked with French transport & the sides of the road was about a foot of mud. Dreadful it was […] how I wish this show was all over & that we were all coming home. Mus dear, I wish you could dream the end was near. I hope Italy comes in now, it would help things well. Russia is pretty busy now with Germany, Austria & Turkey to deal with. Italy could do a lot of good work & has about a million or so men, who could nibble at somebody & make herself unpleasant. How absurd Dicky whoever she is saying she is going into the trenches. It’s bad enough for the men but would kill a woman. You’ve only got to see some of the 1st Corps & you’d realise what the trenches are. Hell on earth. They look more like animals than anything else. Old, haggard, gaunt, & dirty with weeks & weeks of beard. The only redeeming feature is that they have had tons of food. […]
To read the entire letter, click here.
Friday 20 November
Pat sent us two films to have developed, went round to the Stubbses, but they weren’t coming out. Muz & Ione went over to Wye to see Kicks, I took the baby out, but it was rather cold, so I didn’t keep her out long. Did some sewing after lunch, then Muz & Ione came back at about five. The two Miss Stubbses came in at about 5-30, & went at about seven. I did some knitting after dinner, & went to bed at about ten.
Capt. Kavanagh is wounded.
My dear wee Mus,
[…] I am glad to hear that Nevy is alright. It’s horrid for him being a prisoner but I expect they treat him pretty well. One of the gunners who was in a town in Le Gheer (that was where we first went down to the Lys & were living in the Chateau at Ploegsteert) doing observation post was captured by the Germans. They looked after him very well & when our guns started to shell the house he was in they put him into a cellar. Our Infantry made a counter attack & took the town & the people who were guarding him were captured. That looks as if they treated prisoners well doesn’t it. I’m worried about little Roger & hope he will turn up alright after the war. […] I heard last night that poor old
Bob Drake has been killed. Rotten isn’t it. He was one of the best. I used to go about with him a lot in Africa & like him most awfully. Ralph Peto has been killed too. He’s not a proper soldier but came out with his brother who is in the Regt. Buz has been wounded again in the thigh. Rather bad I believe, but I haven’t heard much about it. Bad luck isn’t it as he has been doing awfully well. The poor old 9th have had a rotten time. There are only 3 of them now who came out at the start who haven’t been wounded. They have had 32 officers wounded I think. […]
To read the entire letter, click here.
Letter from Pat Armstrong to Captain Marcus Beresford Armstrong
My dear Sir,
I have just got your letter dated Oct 14, it went to the 2d Cav Bde & has been all over the place. It is splendid you have sold Frank. It is awfully good of you to have put £100 into the bank for me. Thank you very much indeed for it. We had a rotten time last week up at Ypres. The Germans made very determined efforts to get it and are still going on shelling the town & attacking it. We have been pulled out for a few days to refit which was badly needed. These Germans really are wonderful the way they keep on attacking. They are as brave as lions & keep pouring on in dense masses & take an awful lot of stopping. I had an awfully lucky escape last week. A coal box1 pitched within 10 yards of me but luckily just beside me. I got covered with mud & stuff but all the explosion went forwards & upwards. I was exactly on level with it when it pitched. I saw it for a second just before it hit the ground. I suppose about 8 ft from the ground. The shock nearly knocked the mare over but she just managed to stay on her legs. It gave me a terrible shaking.
The weather is dreadfully cold now. It snowed yesterday & froze last night. There is about an inch of snow on the ground now & it is freezing hard again to-night. My old chilblains are dreadful to-night. I can’t keep my feet warm at all. I am looking forward to getting your Norwegian boots. They will be grand & big & keep my feet warm. I ought to be able to put a couple of pairs of socks under them. Things seem to be going pretty well out here. But there is no sign of the Germans going back. It is going to be dreadful now that the cold weather has come on. I must be off now as I’ve got some work to do. Best of luck.
Your loving Maurice.
Saturday 21 November
Went round to the Stubbs’ with Muz, to see if they were coming out. Miss Stubbs came down with us, & we went in to see the baby, but it was too cold to take her out. Then I went & had my hair washed. After lunch I did some knitting. Mr King turned up at tea time, we hadn’t seen him for about three years. He has been on the stage, but now has joined the Sussex Regt. Harry wired to say he was coming in to dine. Muz went round to see the Garratts, & brought Mr King back to dine with us, & we went to the dance, but Muz wouldn’t come. We went with the Stubbses. They were awfully nice about introducing me, as I only knew Mr King, they introduced me to about five people; I danced all night, & had great fun, as they were all good dancers. Harry brought us back here in his taxi, & then took Mr King back to Dover with him. Muz was up when we got back. Went to bed at about one.
Sunday 22 November
Ione & I went to church, & then went out on the Front, it was awfully cold, so we came in early. Muz & Ione started in the car at about eleven, & took too nurses for a drive, they went to Dover to meet Harry, he showed them the trenches, they got back at about 4-30. We were expecting them back for lunch, so waited for them. Helen Walter came round for me at 2-30, & we went up to the camp again, to help at Mrs Lloyd’s soldier’s club. There weren’t very many, as a lot of them were over at Sandling. Mrs Lloyd got a wire at about four to say Major Lloyd was coming back for a week’s leave. She went down to the Harbour to meet him, he came over by Boulogne. He came in to the tent, & then we went & had dinner with them. He says, they have had frost for the last three days, so the trenches are dry, but frightfully cold. Got to bed at about eleven.
Nov 22 Hd Qrs I Cav Div British Expeditionary Force
My dear Wee Mus,
We have just had a chit received from the Corps saying that the leave is good. Officers who can be spared can have 72 hrs leave in England. The arrangement at present is that the whole Div goes into the trenches to-night, in fact they’re in now, and are to be relieved to-morrow night. Home , Mouse & Hardress are the first lot to go from here. They are by way of starting on Tuesday & will get home that night crossing from Boulogne to Folkestone. They then get 72 hrs at home & come back again on Friday. Mouse will be in London […] Then when he gets back here I ought to be able to get away, which will probably be next Sunday. […] You can’t think what a relief it is to be away from the shells for a few days. That was a dreadful week we spent up at Ypres. Life on a salient is no fun I can tell you. We got shelled from every direction. We were awfully lucky not to have our house hit. I hope you got my photos alright. I’ve sent you two lots now. If you have got them done don’t send them out for a bit. Oh! Yes send copies. You’ll keep the negatives in any case & are bound to have copies. If I don’t get home as soon as I expect it will be nice to have them. Well I think I have told you all the news & it’s just time for dinner. Best of love to you all dear wee Mus. How I hope this leave comes off I’m just longing to see you all again.
Your loving Pat.
- Any shell explosion causing a cloud of black smoke, also known as a Black Maria.⇑