Christmas in the trenches: 1914.

Raymond Hester enlisted with the London Brigade in December 2014. By Christmas he was in France and sent to the Front Line on December 23rd. He kept a diary:

December 23rd: This is the trenches and it is jolly hard to write. We started this morning from Verquin at 5 AM and marched via Bourree and Noyelles to Vermelles. Vermelles is a fairly large town gutted by shellfire. After about 2 1/2 miles through communication trenches which were in a fairly good state we arrived about 10 AM at the front line proper. Here the the mud and water was tremendous and often we were knee deep.

There was  heavy shellfire when we arrived and we experienced a pretty tough baptism of fire. Gradually we grew accustomed to the different types of shell. But I can tell you it takes some getting used to. I felt a wee bit funky when a large chunk of 10 inch buried itself in the parapet just where I had been sitting and had got up to get something. It began to rain and the conditions were truly miserable. As it began to get dark I wished myself elsewhere.

About 5 PM Sergeant Lilley told me to go on sentry on the parapet and as it wasn’t yet dark I felt mighty funky again about putting my head over the top. Anyhow I stuck it over gingerly and bobbed down like lightning but soon found out it was fairly safe. Sentry on parapet duty is very impressive at first. Soon after dusk the German fairy lights or star-shells begin to go up, lighting up a large area as if with electric light for about a quarter of a minute. Then you must duck your head or the snipers have you. Our artillery kept up an incessant rain of heavy shells all night on the enemy’s lines of communication and reserve trenches with little or no reply. German snipers are busy all night. We had no dugouts and had to sit on the wet firestep with our waterproof sheets over us and try to get to sleep.

December 24th: Day before Christmas. Morning broke amidst pouring rain and we are now in about 9 inches to a foot of water or mud. We were all drenched. About 8am our sergeant told us that there was to be an attack that morning and you can imagine our feelings for the first time.

It was soon rumoured round that our engineers had discovered a mine laid by the Germans under one of our foremost saps and they in their turn had laid one under this and intended to blow both up simultaneously after clearing at trench.

It was assumed that the enemy would immediately attack. Our machine guns were brought to bear-round so as to crossfire on the enemy should they attack and our best shots placed to the best advantage. Of course we were all naturally excited and got all our ammunition ready and rifle bolts oiled for rapid fire.

About 10am with a violent shaking like an earthquake the mine went up and no sooner had the force of the explosion subsided than our artillery let go magnificently. It would have been madness for the enemy to attack. At first our shells dropped a bit short and we had some near squeaks but they soon found the range. In about two minutes the German guns began to reply and as quick as lightning shell after shell followed. Several coal boxes made their presence conspicuous by a rotten stink and mucky black smoke. The bombardment was terrific and our chaps said it was quite as bad as that at Loos on September 25. We all huddled ourselves close to the parapet and remained in the same position for what seemed like hours. We were all ready to jump up and give them rapidfire. The order however never came. The enemy did not attack.

After several hours the firing subsided to a usual steady shelling. We had a few casualties from reserve trenches.

A party of Bombers under Sergeant Newton was sent out to hold the now unmanned part of the line formed by the crater of the mine, also a party of diggers. Now happened the worst part of the business. It was said that the exact whereabouts of the German mine was not really known and that our mine was only approximately near to it. Our party of bombers assuming that during the great explosion both mines must have been blown up gave no heed to the possibility of this not being so. Unknowingly they walked right over the unexploded German mine and they all went up and were buried under tons of debris. Sergeant Newton managed to keep his head above ground and after several hours plus was dug out in a bad condition. The other poor fellows were all dead. Several of them I had been speaking to only a few moments before.

This was on Christmas Eve. The night passed off fine with occasional rain.

December 25th: Christmas morning. Beastly weather but cleared up after. The trenches were still frightfully wet and muddy. A few chaps yelled out “hello Fritz” – with no answer.

About eight Sergeant Roulace asked Jimmy and I who would go for water, so we tossed up and I lost. I didn’t know what I was doing when I proposed tossing up. We i.e. I and three other chaps had to go to a quarry about a quarter of a mile off. It took three hours. Wading through mud and water waist deep and scrambling across shell-swept open spaces strewn each side with dead men. There was one delightful place where to show your head was to have it blown off. No cover absolutely; although we had a big stone jar each and there was a good foot of mud and a great barbed wire entanglement in the middle we had to crawl across as best we could. We were jolly glad to reach the safety of the trench.

Returning of course it was twice as bad with the bottle full up and time-after-time we got stuck. We then had to pass the same wretched place again – one at a time.

When we returned we found it was 1 o’clock and we had started at eight! We presented a very brilliant spectacle indeed: absolutely covered in mad and my overcoat weighed about four tons. They were very glad of the water however. I now manage to get some thing to eat for the first time for about 12 hours; a tin of sardines with some bully and biscuits and a cold rasher went down well.

Jimmy had been very anxious while I was away and was glad to see me back. Sergeant Lovelace now put him on periscope sentry for an hour and told me to relieve him at the end of that time which I did. I had only been on about one minute and had been interesting myself by counting the dead men laying between the lines when the ‘Allemandes’ evidently got the reflection of the periscope and dropped a trench mortar across. Whoever sent it over must have been a jolly good shot is it knocked the jolly periscope to bits and very nearly me and another chap as well. I stopped three pieces in the head and two in the foot; nothing serious (just a possible Blighty which is to be proved). The other poor chap had a shattered knee and is a jolly site worse than I. They took us to St Barts first, then to Virmelles then on by car to Nouelles Memes. There I stayed the night.

December 26th: in the morning we were all shoved in larger cars and formed a convoy to Lapuguoy. By this time the firing line was a thing of the past and we were well away. After an hour or two we arrived at Lapuguoy and were comfortably installed in beds in large tents, which were carpeted and decorated very nice. Here they are very kind to us. This is Sunday evening and the MO had a look at me and told me I was going to have to have gas to see if there were any bits in me. I had gas and they were jolly nice doctors. There were some bits there but they were sending me to the hospital where I should have them extracted.

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Raymond Hester (1897-1972)

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