I had the privilege of reading and transcribing the letters sent home from the front by Jack Trenbath, of Pendleton, Salford. By reading his extensive correspondence I noticed how many of his letters reflected the familiar themes, such as the expectation of a quick end to the conflict, but also surprising and interesting stories, such as the being on the wrong end of exploding “minnies”. Although writing almost a hundred years ago I got to know Jack and his family back home. Over the next few paragraphs I will summarise some of his interesting tales.
It is commonly believed that everyone expected a quick victory in the war. Jack seems to have enlisted in 1916 at the tender age of 19. He trained at Sobraon Barracks, Colchester before embarking for France in September 1916. Was his early confidence a sign of his belief of an early victory, or a way of playing down the risks for his family back home?
My last glimpse of the dear old country was of a small piece of white shore shut in by high white cliffs on which there were boys and girls playing cricket. This was all lit up by a shining sun. That little fleeting glimpse I got will live for ever.
The place is simply crowded with officers waiting to go up. It’s a fine life I can tell you… Nearly all those who left blighty with me are here. So we do have a gay time. Let me impress upon you the fact that there is no more cause to be worrying for me than if I were at Scarborough and another thing we do get leave after 5 months.
The war goes on quite well without us, the latest news being very encouraging.
Even by the beginning of March the following year he is still upbeat:
Being under canvas it is rather a change from the luxury of billets with soft beds and carpet slippers, though I suppose we are in France now and the fun has hardly commenced. The worst feature of the place is the fact that the town is strictly out of bounds to us and we have to derive the maximum of solace from the ever present YMCA.
Then again the majority of the chaps are greatly delighted by the state of the exchange which stands at 29.90 Frs for silver. Expressed in a more concrete form this means that for an English shilling you get 1.40 Frs which is the equivalent of 1/2. So that if you go into the YMCA or any of these places you put down a shilling, buy an 8d box of cigarettes and get 6d change…
When all is done and said you must know that I am having a really fine time, much more interesting than previously and with the real hardship thrown in. In old Blighty we sort of played at enjoying it, now we are doing the real thing and believe me it is not half bad.
However, the letters soon start to reflect the harsh reality of the situation. Despite the censorship:
For the present I think there is nothing more I can tell you because of the censorship, which personally I think is an unenviable job.
Is this because the people back home are realising the awful truth and Jack can respond with honesty?
From here to the front line the sensations which one experiences are beyond description by ordinary mortals. At first the report of our guns administers a shock. You hear the rattle of machine guns, the scream of shells and the splitting reports of all various shells bombs etc. used in war. Though generally speaking it is really surprising how unconcerned one can be in the midst of all this. During the day time little of much importance happens except desultory shelling and bombing. When it grows dark everywhere the place is lighted up by the livid glare of star shells, the machine guns start to rattle and everything seems to liven up. There is plenty of time to rest during the day in the dug-outs. The one I was in was about 5 feet square and the entrance was something after the style of a rat-hole just large enough to admit my carcass. Talk about rats, they are large enough to run off with your rifle and seem to have a greater affinity for biscuits (hard ones) than we have.
Next morning James and I were standing in the trench when we heard one of Fritz’s heavy shells coming in our direction. It fell just over the trench and the concussion was all we got. He sent these over for a long time, one of them bringing the trench in with it a few yards away. Another shell bursted over the dugout blowing the candle off the table and sending shrapnel down the entrance. During these times one lives fast and the suspense when waiting for the shell to burst is hardly an enjoyable experience.
During the early hours I have been finding my way about an unknown system of trenches. In this region there used to be a lot of mining but this has ceased and the conflict now rages in the craters formed by the explosions. At some places we have posts only 10 yards from the Bosch trenches and long communication trenches lead from our line to these places. Going down one of these on a very important message and got stuck in the mud. There I sat for an hour and a half as Fritz dropping munitions all around. Finally I had to abandon my waders and tramp nearly a mile through the mud in bare feet. My hat! Wasn’t it cold. Capt. Allan sent me some rum and I was alright again in an hour or so.
My chief occupation is looking after the men’s rations and other issues to the Company which occupies from dusk till about 10.30pm. I might say that ration carrying is one of the rotten jobs. ______ we were before the rations are brought under cover of dark and over the top. Fritz evidently is aware of this for he gives a nightly accompaniment on the machine guns. At the sound of this it is very funny to see the crowd of us flatten ourselves out flatter than flounders. Even father with his bad leg would get down in even time. Sometimes when you have to go along the trench for them Fritz will shell it all the way down. Then of course you have to look out.
As before we are in a tunnel through a perfect pig sty to the last. From end to end it is crumbling away and it fell down in two places simultaneously, fortunately without burying anyone. Notably the platoons were cut off and we had a job to get their meals to them. The engineers got a narrow way through just sufficient to crawl through and we had to drag the dixies through after us expecting every minute the stuff to fall in again. I had just got through with the last one when it did happen. Then the place where I sleep is as bad – one side fell in and hit me on the chest, flattening me against the opposite wall.
Perhaps you know that it is now the practice here for both sides to send up Very Light at night. These are a species of rocket which go up a short distance and then burst into a very brilliant light which slowly descends. Anything within a reasonable distance (100-200 yards) is clearly visible in silhouette. If you happen to be standing up at the time all you have to do is to stand perfectly rigid and then he will not notice you, but if you make any movement whatever the game is up and he knows that someone is there. It is rather a crucial moment when a light goes up and you are balancing yourself on your eyebrows extricating your lower extremities from the loving embrace of a coil of barbed wire or doing a sort of balancing trick on the muddy incline of a shell crater. However it all serves to add a spice of fun and excitement.
Like most young soldiers Jack was forced to grow up very quickly as demonstrated in this excerpt:
Father used to say that I did not know what it was like to lose a nights sleep. Perhaps I did not, but I do now. Not only that, but I know what it is to lose four or five nights sleep. Sometimes I manage a couple of hours sat on the floor with equipment on and expected every second to be called up. The last night I spent pushing a truck laden with rations etc. from the dump behind the trenches along the line and Fritz searching for us with a machine gun. The moon was at its height and of course the truck squeaked like mice.
I am more than thankful to be able to have come out of that tunnel alive, it is perfectly miraculous that I was able to send a nil casualty report. Time after time Fritz blew down our parapets and each time the fellows built them up.
It was a very hairy moment when we stood behind our parapet till everyone was ready. When we filed over the top into the dark empty space. The first thing we did was go rolling down a huge shell hole into the water at the bottom, but we had no time to enjoy this fun for we had some of Fritz’s wire to negotiate so soon in a disused trench. No-mans land is a perfect labyrinth of disused bashed-in trenches often laid with trip-wires and other entanglements, but after sundry abrasions we were well away into space. There were five of us and I brought up the rear. When you remember the time that I would not go up into the attic alone in the dark you will realise that some change has happened. So off we went like a serpent wriggling and writhing on hands and knees pausing frequently to take our bearings and I can tell you that in view of the previous night’s escapade we quite expected that he would attempt to snaffle me again.
Jack helped distribute the rations and made frequent comments on the good standard of the food.
For quite a long time now we have been very well fed indeed in fact the trouble at the beginning was just while the commissariat became accustomed to cooking bacon and onions in the same receptacle that they had for boiling tea. There are always some cheerful idiots who tell you that we live on Bully and biscuits. We don’t and never have done for very long spells, it’s about three months since I mealed on either of them. As a matter of fact I don’t eat anything like all the bread I have issued. When fresh meat is not obtainable we get maconochie (?) rations which are boiled in tins and contain a first class meal of meat and vegetables of all descriptions. They are top hole and I prefer them many a time to fresh stuff.
For use with the brazier we have a frying pan to cook our food. This consists of a petrol can with one side cut out. All the same it acts admirably.
Then we have dried vegetable, which when cooked and put with stewed meat I defy any one to detect. Once per week we get cold roast with pickles and at odd intervals steak and chips, fig and date puddings, rice and altogether better grub than we get in England.
It is amazing to see the quantity of the letters sent by Jack (and presumably he received a similar number). They were sent at regular intervals and occasionally Jack asked his correspondents to note a new address. The postal system must have been very efficient as the letters seem to have arrived swiftly and accurately (and were very welcome). Equally amazing were the number of parcels of food received by Jack:
I received the third parcel from you last night but one and the contents were fine. The bread was simply A1 and the parkin was champion. The eggs were lovely too. In fact the whole lot was past description. Last night I received one from Auntie Millie and Uncle also some cigarettes from Eric. We nearly went mad at the sight of some “Three Castles”. You know I have to smoke anything I can get and it is generally woodbines or something worse. Here you have chaps who in civil life smoked cigars and Abdullas (?), begging a cigarette however common.
Parcel from “The Height School”.
……….For the first time your parcel was well bashed. Better luck next time.
The parcel was A1. The strawberries and cream were top hole. The ham I have not yet cooked though it is good.
……………2 parcels……one containing amongst many other things a pair of socks from Sunday School – very good of them all.
Sometimes a parcel arrived, but it was difficult to consume the contents!
Your parcel arrived just before we went into the trenches so I carried it in and opened it there, but on the way it had quite an exciting passage. We went down under one of our own barrages something enough to turn your hair grey. The night was perfectly quiet until all the guns in the neighbourhood suddenly spouted forth together. Bedlam pandemonium and all those sort of places seemed to have been opened and venting their pent up fury on some unfortunate individual. Some of the guns go off with a livid yellowish spurt whilst others give out a red Mephistophelian (?) glare and the combination was too weird for words. Overhead it seemed as if ten thousand express trains were tearing away and rending the air with an earsplitting din. For the first time I saw shells actually on their way. You know that the friction of their passage through the air makes them red hot and you can see them describing their important trajectories through the air.
Fritz’s line absolutely danced under the busting shells (high explosive) and the air was crowded with the red flash of burning shrapnel. This side of the question is all very nice, but Fritz is not yet in such a parlous state that he will stand such a bumping without replying. So over came his infernal stuff. It’s a good job for me that some of his shells don’t go off and that those that did go off sent no shrapnel in my direction. Anyway it made me sweat some.
Jack made reference to the horrors of the mud, which is well known, but did you know about the rats!
From head to foot I am one mass of mud inches thick. I have got a pair of those rubber waders which come right up the thighs and are a boon in the wet places.
The weather is very bad and the trenches are waist deep in mud. Communication is awfully bad. Still when things are like this it is generally quieter.
By the way talking about rats! They swarm in dozens about a piece of bread and provide much fun for we who have revolvers. Some of them are too fat to do anything but crawl and you can easily kick them as they pass. It is quite a novel experience to wake up and not find a battalion of them crossing your chest in column of route.
Jack seems to be intelligent and observant of the events around him. He mentions (censorship allowing) some of the new technologies of war:
Aeroplanes and aeroplanes fights are common order of the day. Observation balloons lift their ungraceful shapes before our door. The night is characterised by the sharp rattle of machine gun fire whilst the vivid flashes in the sky proclaim the increasing vigilance of our guns. In the trenches when Fritz has a saucy mood on and throws all kinds of horrible things over, you suddenly hear the scream of one of our shells followed by in rapid succession by countless others. Then you feel perfectly safe and give not the slightest heed to Fritz and his infernal stuff.
I am going to tell you something but I don’t want you to worry about it. The first day up here I was going down the trench when suddenly there palled (?) upon my ears the telltale sound of a “Minnie”. I saw it coming straight for me; like a frightened rat I skittled away but found as usual that it had swerved and was coming in my direction. Thereupon I doubled back, stopped and ran on and then CRASH it came just behind me only over the parapet. The concussion threw me head first down the trench and I lay on my chest to be covered with the falling earth. Events moved rather quickly – rather too quickly to be healthy – it took less time than it takes to write. If you could have seen me you would have laughed. Just down the trench a working party seemed highly delighted with my feats.
The things up at Messines are horrible what with eruptions more violent than any earthquake and those “new and terrible engines of war.” These latter are I presume unknown to you except by name, though I have an idea of their terrible character. With regard to the explosions, only those who know the violence of a few pounds of Ammonal (?) can realise or form any opinion of the explosion and the hole left by them. At present we are on a similar hole the dimensions of which would astound you.
It seems like Jack’s sister wasn’t too sure of aeroplanes and told him not to stand underneath one as it might drop out of the sky. In WWI the German Army used a type of trench mortar called a Minenwerfer. This was nicknamed the ‘minnie’ by the Allied forces. The first record in print of it being called that is in From the fire step – a WWI memoir by the American soldier and author Arthur Guy Empey, published in 1917: “A German ‘Minnie’ (trench mortar) had exploded in the next traverse.” Finally, is a “new and terrible engine of war” a tank?
Jack was a committed and dedicated soldier. A number of times in his letters he spoke sympathetically of individual German soldiers, despite his hatred for the Bosche.
As you say they are giving Fritz a warm time of it in this part of the globe. Such a gruelling that I don’t imagine he can stand much of. The worse he gets it the sooner he will give up, although of course that is a callous sort of thing to say when you think of the individual Bosche.
Jack warned his readers to beware of exaggerated and misleading stories of the war. His foresight was spot on when he said that the “economic question” would be a deciding factor in who would win the war.
On a number of occasions Jack wrote of his attempts to obtain a Commission. The London Gazette of 13th July 1918 recorded that he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the East Lancs Regiment. Sadly only a few days later, on 8th September he was killed at Adiers. Jack is buried at Nieppe, nr Armentieres at Pont D’Achelles Military Cemetary.