Home » First World War » Diary and Letters of Sydney Ewbank Speed » Sydney Speed – Letters Home from March to October 1915

Sydney Speed – Letters Home from March to October 1915


April 1st

It is a little different to St Albans so far, with the exception of the language, which will take me a long time to pick up.

April 5th

I keep writing these uninteresting letters but it is not my fault, as you know, I am not allowed to say much or to tell you my whereabouts. I am enjoying the change, although there is nothing to go mad over in this country, what little I have seen of it is very dirty, bad roads and the law of sanitation to be unknown.

April 14th

We had rather a quiet time for our first experience of fire; the trenches are so built that there is little chance of being hit by rifle fire, but one has to keep low when shelling is going on; shrapnel appears to be the most dangerous.

April 17th

We had 24 hours in the firing line and 3 days fatigue duty, working in the communication trenches under shell fire. There are a lot of wrecked houses in this district, some absolutely brought to the ground, nothing but heaps of bricks, but the inhabitants do not seem to mind, they keep on with their work just the same until compelled to move. We had a Battalion Concert in the local theatre last night, a building that equals a good many of the London houses. We are billeted in an Orphanage, it’s not so bad.

April 20th

Since I wrote on Saturday, we have moved about three miles and are now billeted in a place which appears to be a disused school room.

April 26th

We came in here last night after 48 hours duty in the firing line, we were only about 150 yards from the Germans but it was a very quiet time, only a few shells came over on the first day, well wide of the range, except one, which knocked over a few sandbags.

April 30th

We returned from reserve billets last night, been there 48 hours in broken down houses, which have been well shelled; the Allemands sent us a few over the first morning but only made holes in the ground, one however, knocked a few bricks off the side of a house.

May 3rd

I am writing from the trenches – we shall be relieved tonight after a 48 hours stretch and go into reserve billets for a short period. We have been fortunate up to now, having very few casualties. I hope our luck continues. Last night, we pulled part of our parapet and rebuilt it, all this kind of work has to be done while dark.

May 7th

We left the trenches on Monday night and went for 24 hours behind the firing line. Up till now, it had been very quiet for us, although I am sorry to say we’ve had three or four killed. We are now several miles from it all for a few days.

May 11th

I expect you will all be glad to hear this piece of news: I have been made Lance Corporal with 3d per day extra pay. I will let you know when I lose it.

May 13th

I am sorry to say that we have had 5 killed and about 20 wounded to date. It is wicked to see some of the destruction here: picture a small town in Dartford in Kent with every house demolished, roads torn up by shells, the Church brought to the ground and even the bones of the dead shelled out of the ground and scattered broadcast. The people must have left these places at a moment’s notice, as one sees all kinds of furniture and clothing mixed up in the ruins.

May 20th

Just back from the trenches where we have been for the past 6 days and am glad to say I have come through safely. We relieved the Guards and it has been the hottest time we have yet had – the Germans were bombarding us nearly all the time and I am sorry to say we had about 30 casualties. Plenty of rain lately, you would have smiled to see us leave the trenches covered in mud. I have a few lice about the body to keep me lively but I don’t grumble for there are a lot more fellows sharing them with me. Hope to get a bath and a bake soon.

May 24th

The weather is now like midsummer, which is a lot in our favour.  We are back in the trenches again but for how long I do not know at present – it does not matter much where we are, there is always something to do – when we are behind the firing line, we form working parties at night, digging trenches, filling sandbags or building up breastworks. We had bad luck the last time here, 5 killed and 28 wounded., but it only makes one the more determined to do his best from the top to the bottom f the Regiment. If the tramway strikers think they are doing more than their share at home, then it’s time they had turn out here, theirs is a softer job than 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and not knowing from one moment to the next when we are going to take our last single ticket. I think if they had a real idea of this work, they would be back on their trams at once.

A couple of shells have just dropped in the trench on our left, killed 6 and wounded 30 – I am told one with his foot blown off is singing to the other wounded to cheer them up.

May 31st

This is the ninth day we have been in the trenches and, of course, we have not had our boots off all this time. I managed to get a wash yesterday (the first time for over a week) so you can guess what a treat it was. They are sending their shells over here now but have got too long a range and are falling harmlessly in a field in the rear. I am sorry to say we lost a fine soldier this morning in our Brigadier; he was paying a visit to the trenches when a stray bullet hit him, from the effects of which he died. We had one officer and two men killed yesterday.

It is the keen eye and steady arm that’s wanted as the Allemand seldom shows his scalp above the parapet but we get some of his tongue very often, shouting over foul expressions, which we can hear quite plainly being only 50 yards away from their trenches.

June 9th

We have been in the trenches again for three days but may be relieved tomorrow. It is now so very hot that we walk about in our shirt sleeves all day.

June 18th

I am now in a billet in a fair sized town, for how long I do not know.

June 22nd

In the trenches again for four days.

July 1st

The weather is much cooler and we are having some rain and this causes the trenches to be full of mud and we all look more like navvies than soldiers. We came here in reserve on the 28th, I think for 8 days – this reserve is on top of a coal mine so we get a good mixture, mud and coal dust.

July 9th

I had not had time to write for several days as we have been very busy and are not getting much time to ourselves. We are now in reserve, doing drills by day and working parties by night.

July 22nd

We are now in support trenches for a few days and have some of the New Army with us – a Scotch lot, who have not been out here many days so we may get relieved shortly and, I may say, it is nearly our turn as we have at it without break since April 7th. The enemy has been giving us a bit of shelling this afternoon, doing no damage but making plenty of noise.

July 28th

We came from the firing line a couple of nights back and billeted in a brewery (brasserie) that has not been worked for some time. There are plenty of barrels piled up all round but, alas, all empty.

August 8th

We are now back for a rest, miles behind the firing line – it is not a rest altogether but a rest from the trenches. We are doing the same routine as a soldier would in England in peacetime, the usual parade duties and training.  The place I am at now is the nearest approach to the country in England I have seen yet – there are not many men about except olds who, with the women, do all the work in the fields. In fact, it is just the same as an old English village.

Just been paid 10 francs (8/4) – you will smile nut I have only drawn 40 francs pay since I have been in France, sometimes we go for a fortnight without having an opportunity to spend anything.

August 15th

We have just returned from Brigade Church Parade, which did not come off – we had just formed up when down came the rain and it was abandoned.  Rumour has it we shall be moving next week. I hope so as there is too much drill about this so called “rest”.

Yesterday, we had regimental sports. They made a pleasant change – the finals are to be decided this afternoon. Needless to say, I did not enter for any – I am a bit too old for the game now.

August 20th

We have moved since I wrote last Sunday and are now doing trench digging, which is a lot better than the so called “rest” when every man has to be as clean and regimental as a button stick. Our company was first turn this morning, finished at 1 o’clock and do not parade again until 11am tomorrow, being second turn so you see we get a bit of rest here.

August 31st

Pleased to say my name went in for leave yesterday. If all goes well it will land me at Victoria early on Saturday morning.

September 12th

Just a line to let you know I am safely back with my Regiment – what a send off we had in Victoria. We arrived in France at 1130 the same night, then a 6 hours train ride and, after that, it took us about 7 hours to get to the Regiment and reported ourselves at 130pm yesterday. Had nothing to do for the rest of the day. Our Regiment had not been doing anything while I was on leave, just drill and digging.

September 23rd

Having a very quiet time lately – more a holiday than anything else.

October 1st

No doubt, you have heard the good news by now. Our Regiment took an important part in the fighting for four days at a place that will be mentioned in the papers. We went over the top in the early morning under a fierce machine gun and rifle fire, besides getting a terrible shelling – we had about a mile to go to their second line trenches – when we arrived at the first line, the Bosches threw down their rifles, put their arms above their head and shouted for mercy. After we had, finished there, we went forward to the second line, which we found empty and you could see the scoundrels running away to the village. We are now back for a rest.

October 7th

Still resting. In the little skirmish we had when we beat the Bosches a couple of weeks back, this Regiment gained a golden opinion not only from the Brigadier General but also from the General in command of the Division. Morten (a chum of Robinson’s) was killed. It may interest you all to hear that I was promoted Corporal yesterday (the 6th). We have been having much rain – have had two or three soakings lately.

October 12th

Our Regiment is still resting. However, all troops may be moved at any time.

October 20th

We suddenly had orders to move and were taken to a village some little distance from the firing line, in reserve, where we were confined to billets ready to move at any moment – we were there for 48 hours when the order came to move again, this time into the firing line.  The road up was through a now famous town (Loos) known to all at the time; this place has been terribly knocked about before the British captured it but, since it has been in our hands, the enemy have completed its destruction – but they cannot knock Tower Bridge over, which I believe is nearly 300 feet high.

Along the road, one meets carnage all the way, every conceivable kind of transport smashed, hundreds of dead horses, British and German dead in heaps still waiting to be buried (this can only be done at night) and the stench is awful; I was going to say that I never want to smell it again but I know I shall get another turn of it when we are relieved as we shall to pass out the same way as we came in.

Our lads have now been 10 days without washing or shaving and not able to take our clothes off so you may guess we are beginning to look something like “Weary Willie” types of individual, plastered with mud and chalk. It’s as much as we can do to get enough water for drinking purposes.

October 23rd

Am well – in the trenches – hope to write more next time.