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Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, 25 May 1916

An Observer’s Experiences 

How Sergeant Harold Lee Dodges the Shells

The following interesting letter from Sergeant L G Harold Lee, of Raunds, has been sent to friends at Ringstead: 

“My dear friends, I expect you will think it is about time I wrote another ‘General Epistle’ to the saints that are in Ringstead. 

First of all let me congratulate you in having had conferred on you the benefits of daylight saving. When you push on the hands of your clocks and watches please remember that eight years ago when the idea was merely ridiculed I did my ‘bit’ by giving evidence as to the advantages of the plan before a Select Committee of the House of Commons. Truly great men live before their times. What some of us thought eight years ago England, with a great part of Europe, thinks today. 

Last December I was suddenly pulled up by my roots and sent down south to my present station, and right glad I was to leave the mud and slush of the dreary plains of Flanders for the comparative beauty of these chalk downs. There is more work, but I am provided with an assistant. 

The little village in which I have now been settled these six months reminds me somewhat of Denford, except that the surrounding hills are higher. It lies in the valley of a very similar river to our Nene, in a not unpretty district. Halfway up the hillside I, with my assistant, occupy an empty cottage, while our work is done at the crest of the hill. The cottage is at least waterproof in all but severe downpours. I said empty, but we are obliged to share it with sundry rats and mice. The rats, I am thankful to say, remain upstairs, which we do not use. The mice keep us company in the lower quarters, and have a decided liking for the warmth of my ‘bed’, from which I have to pluck them when they get too numerous for sleep. 

At the back of my billet is a little garden; which I have cultivated as well as broken tools and a no great liking for horticulture will allow. My peas and potatoes are looking well, and I hope to celebrate Raunds Feast Sunday in the usual way by adding both to the menu on that day – that is unless another shell falls in their midst, where one did fall last December, battering the glass out of the back door. If any of you could call you would always find a hearty welcome. The gate is shut neither by day nor night, as our work extends over the full twenty-four hours of each day. Don’t call, however, in the mornings as then I am either asleep or about my household duties of cleaning up or chopping sticks. Four pm sees afternoon tea laid, and we have a spare cup. Unfortunately I cannot guarantee that the water will not be smoky, as my only saucepan is lidless. I often think as I and my assistant sit down to tea that at last I am enjoying a kind of married life, even to our domestic jangles and the length of my ‘wife’s’ tongue. I understand that even the best of friends on an Arctic exploration get irritable with one another, and sometimes I think we shall bite one another out of a similar kind of irritation. 

My post of observation is often shelled. One shell dropped right among my instruments. The hole it made I still keep open, as it forms an excellent ‘funkhole’ and I have developed an alacrity for jumping into it when I hear a shell coming which would quite surprise you. 

We have had a delightful Spring, and the valley is looking lovely. ‘Every prospect pleases’ – but there is no need to finish the quotation, as it isn’t true, at least on this side of the trenches. I have been able to study the natural history of the district in the very early mornings. The cuckoo arrived at this sector of the front on April 16th and the nightingale followed exactly a week after. In reference to the nightingale, I was very desirous of knowing if it was a visitor about here, so I mentioned it to one of the local farmers. Not knowing the French word for nightingale, I had to tell him it was a bird that sang by night; and then, still finding no information forthcoming, I ventured to try to imitate its inimitable warble. Instantly there was a smile of intelligence as he replied, ‘Oui, Oui, Monsieur; vous voulez dire un hibou’ (It is the owl you mean). Since then I have tried no further imitations of bird songs. 

What a wonderful orchestra Nature provides about 4am, be the morning cold or cheerful. And there seems no incongruity when it is mingled with the roar of the artillery as the morning ‘Hate’ commences. The guns but provide a bass counterpart to the treble of the birds. 

And so the weeks roll on into months, and soon I shall have been out here a year. Ours is a particularly lonely job. We are separated from others and belong, as it were, to nobody in particular. I miss the camaraderie that I so much enjoyed in the ranks of the dear old 4th Northamptons at Thetford, Norwich, and St Albans; but when I get more than usually ‘fed up’ I remember that it is not so bad that it couldn’t be worse, and then I repeat to myself that exquisitely tender verse of the poet whose Tercentenary we have not been celebrating: 

‘When you tread the floor with baby,
In an all-night crooning song,
Thank your stars you’re not in Greenland,
Where the nights are six months long!’

That is not a bad philosophy for life at the front.

With kind regards to all of you, I am, yours sincerely, 

L G Harold Lee,
May 15th”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, 30 September 1916 

Over The Top!

Raunds Journalist Describes His First Charge

The following is an extract from a letter received on Friday by Mr F W March, of Raunds, from his son, Pte Arthur March (5603), London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles), who was formerly on the staff of “The Chatham, Rochester, and Gillingham Observer,” and who joined the Rifles last February, being sent to France about three months ago: 

“September 24th 1916 

I told you in my last letter that we should soon be in the trenches again: since then we have done six days in, and have been in a rest camp for three or four days since we were released. Of course, when we went in I knew that we were going for a very serious purpose, and in all truth it was! Soon after we got into our position I had my first taste of ‘going over the top.’

We went for the German first line just as dawn was breaking, and I can assure you it was an experience to be remembered. The Bosches sat tight behind their machine guns: others slung bombs, snipers were in shell holes between the lines, and shells were dropping thick and fast, but when we got to the German line most of them had bunked to the rear, but those who were there showed no inclination to fight, and came out with their hands up, crying, ‘Mercy, Kamarad,’ offering our chaps money, watches, etc, evidently expecting that we were going to shoot them. However, we captured a lot of them and then set about converting their trench into a British trench by turning the papados into a parapet.  

It was interesting to come upon a German trench which had been vacated in a hurry, and we found ourselves in clover. Cigars were in every ‘cubby-hole,’ bottles of mineral water, Rhine water, lager beer, boxes of cigarettes: and I had a dozen packets of milk chocolate. Parade helmets, soft caps, equipment, machine guns and ammunition, and heaps of bombs, and plenty of ‘good Germans’ – dead ones! Soon afterwards they began shelling us heavily, and they kept it up for hours. 

Afterwards we made another advance and I went over for the second time, and again found that ‘Fritz’ had found ‘discretion the better part of valour,’ and we bagged his second and third line trenches without resistance. But though our attacks were wonderfully successful, we had to pay a price and we left a lot of our splendid chaps behind when we came out. Our Company Commander, Captain Roberts, went down directly we went over, and the four platoon officers of our company were wounded, and soon after the start our Company Sergeant Major was in command of the company. All of my particular chums were wounded, but, I am thankful to say, not one seriously, but they were all out of the line an hour or two after the start. After they had gone I went over with another attack, and was in the thick of two German bombing raids, and now that the excitement has passed, I can hardly credit that I came through with nothing more than a scratch made by a sniper’s bullet on my arm – after six days in the line. 

The last two days were very wet, and we came out caked in mud, but I think the film operator caught us looking fairly cheerful. Just now we are residing in a camp situated in a fine park, and, with splendid sunny weather, are having a pleasant time too. 

I have just had a fine dinner – the best since I have been in France. The rations were roast mutton and potatoes, but various parcels produced two tins of baked beans, two tins fruit salad, a tin of spaghetti and a bottle of pickles. We have plenty of cigarettes now – so we have fared luxuriously. This afternoon a regimental band is to play in the camp, and if my imagination is lively enough I may be able to picture myself in either Hyde Park or the Bishops’. But ‘some’ imagination is required. Then this evening I may go to the service in the camp, unless I can muster enough energy to stroll into the village to sample the vin blanc. After that, back to sleep to the comparative comfort of a tent holding fifteen men.  

I do hope my description of our recent scrapping will not ‘put the wind up.’ It is all over now, and we do not anticipate another dose in a hurry. But whatever comes along we have to be ready for it, and, having come to very close quarters with the Bosches, we know that they are the ‘under dog,’ and by the time the infantry gets to them the artillery has just about knocked them and their trenches to nothing.”

* Arthur March had survived virtually unscathed in the trenches for nearly two years when he was wounded on the first day of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. He recovered from this and enjoyed some home leave in the October. Then, in one of his last letters home the following month, he reassured his parents "there's no need to worry, I'm having a great time and have quite settled down in the job again." But alas his luck had run out, for he was killed in action a few days later, at the Battle of Cambrai on 30 November 1917.