Dec 21st 1916
My dear Betty
I have not seen Reuters news lately, but I understand that our recent activities out here figure in it. So doubtless you are wondering after reading the papers how I have been faring. Shortly from casualty lists you will know that I have recently been in action. Now after one of the most strenuous and sleepless periods I have had we are further back again, and I have some chance to rest and write.
It happens that up to the present very little fighting severe from the casualty point of view has been experienced. Only very few regiments have had a bad day, and as it happened half of my regiment, ie my company and D Company, had the worst time of all that bad day. D Company fared rather worse than we did. It happened on the 15th in the afternoon. We formed part of a double skirmishing line sent to advance against an entrenched position not a hundred miles from a certain little town. Had opposition been slight we might have been pushed in to try and take it; otherwise it was up to us to get well up to the enemy and find out as much about him and his position as possible. It turned out to be very much otherwise, and we had a very nasty few hundred yards advance under heavy fire before being held up, and then it was still very warm work lying and scratching ourselves holes to lie in while the remaining hour of light lasted, although the soil was so light and soft that one could dig with ones hands. D Company’s commander was killed, two of his subalterns wounded and also two of mine; the two former were not severe so that they carried on for 36 hours before the doctor sent them away. Our little bit of the line got further forward than the remainder, chiefly by accident, but got a much better view of the Turk’s trench, and incidentally a good proportion more casualties. It was as severe fire as I ever remember being under in daylight. Heavier fire at night I have known, but then you can trust most of it to go miles above your head. The last hundred yards while I was pushing my line (the second during the advance) up level with the front line who had stopped was not a bit nice. However a bullet rubbed my puttee and made me jump, but didn’t even bust the puttee, and that was the worst damage I came to. My company sergeant-major, walking alongside me had one through the shoulder of his coat, and it lodged in the top of his pack, giving him the impression he was hit until he had time to find he wasn’t, and came up and rejoined me. Some poor fellows were less lucky, though the proportion of men killed under these conditions is fortunately low. The men were simply splendid, and advanced better than ever in training, though lots had never been under fire before; they were greatly admired by everybody watching from far behind.
That particular day started well with an Arab ‘strafe’. Just before we were due to get breakfast some snipers started firing on us from cover 600 yards away or so, and I hastily took the company in two extended lines out against them. When they saw we meant to have no nonsense they cleared, and got on their horses a little way back and rode off. They only hit one man, and I hope we may have got one in return, but it was hard to tell. I was most annoyed because it upset all our arrangements for giving the men a good comfortable meal and getting ready to move without violent hurry.
Beyond this day life has been very strenuous with marching and digging, especially the latter. We marched for the early half of the night of 13th; majority of night of 14th, the day being about a third on the move and two-thirds digging. Fairly good sleep that night, but chilly as it always is with only overcoats. The 15th I have outlined; Arab strafe, advance of a couple of miles under artillery and rifle fire with digging for dear life at the end. The digging proceeded without a break all night. By morning of 16th we were in trenches passably secure, but very constricted indeed and almost impossible to move in, and impossible in the daylight to move out of. Continued to improve them without further digging most of the day, and at dark were comparatively comfortable, and able to sort ourselves. We were promised relief at 6.0 pm, but it came at 2.0 am. Not far to get back to battalion Headquarters luckily, where was hot tea to refresh us. We found we had to go out again to act as support behind the other two companies who were on outpost work; got into place and finally lay down to sleep about 4.0 am. Up at 6.0 and had to dig ourselves down straight away being within range of stray bullets, or liable to shelling. Having got pretty safe we heard late in the afternoon we were to push further forward at dusk. Not a very long advance (this time over different ground from that we covered on 15th, but not far away) and met with no opposition, but had to dig all night to secure ourselves. It is weary work making men dig when they are almost dead-beat; but they were very willing, and grumbled hardly at all. Next day 16th fairly safe but again in isolation while it was light. One youngster was too bold and would not be advised to keep his head down. We did all we could to save him but it was no good; he was our only casualty. Trench improvement on this day was continued gradually, and after dark large parties were put on to work at much needed communication trenches. I managed to put in a fair sleep, which I needed after having totalled 2 hours for three consecutive nights, to which I added one hour of daylight sleep. Still digging most of the 19th, especially from dusk till midnight, at which hour I learnt we were to clear out by 4.30 a.m. and go back to reserve. This we did, rising to pack up at 3.30, so I didn’t get a long night then. However we settled down at daybreak into some ready dug trenches, and the men got into blankets and had a good morning’s rest. During the afternoon a rude shock disturbed our joyful anticipation of a real nights rest, long and warm. A brigade of artillery might have to move a long way; if it did we should be its escort, and meanwhile we were to go two miles off at once to the place where we should pick it up. Packed up hastily and went, leaving all blankets and such luxury behind.
Bivouacked for a beastly cold night, learnt (thank goodness) we were not wanted, and marched back to our trenches to secure our rations and get breakfast.
At last on the 21st a fairly slack day and a good long night to follow. Next day (yesterday) we had to leave our friendly trenches to other troops, where they were, and start to build our own shelter. Moreover we found ourselves expected to build accommodation for the whole regiment – we being two companies, at short strength owing to casualties.
At this job we have been busy these two days; it is hard work, but we get good nights and are therefore much refreshed. Tomorrow with less work we hope to get things finished so that should the other companies join us for Christmas Day we may all take a good rest.
I hope to get this letter away in the morning. I had yours of Nov 8 brought up with rations the night of the 18th. Thanks for the photo of Arthur and Dorothy. She looks a dear little kiddy. Good luck in the matric this time.
I am exceedingly well, and never was more hungry in my life which says a lot. Luckily they contrive by some wonderful means to feed us extremely well. We have had bread these two days. I wonder how they manage it in such a hopeless sort of country. It is quite mountainous round here by the way, elevations of several feet above the ordinary level are frequently attained.
Best love to Father and all of you.
I shall be thinking of you in two days.
Your affectionate brother
Cyril E Sladden