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Battles of WWI

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World War I has the dubious honour of involving some of the bloodiest, most destructive battles ever waged. Just the mention of the Great War will conjure up images of men perishing in terrible conditions, knee deep in sucking mud, wet and freezing while shells fall all around. Even when there was no official big push or campaign, the soldiers were in constant danger from trench raids, snipers and shelling. There was no reprieve for these brave men who fought for their country.

However, when there was a major battle, losses were inevitable and the fright must have been palpable. Original records, letters and diaries make the experience of battle tangible, whether the writer was part of a large troop or a small unit.

‘Every house where British could be concealed, every possible observation post, every foot of trench, every hill crest and 400 yards behind it was swept and devastated by the [fighting].’ – Major A. Corbett Smith, Royal Field Artillery, at Mons, 1914

‘As we cleared the crest a murderous hail of missiles raked us from an invisible enemy. The line staggered under this smash of machine gun, rife and shell fire, and I would say that fully half our men fell over forward onto their faces, either killed or wounded.’ – Corporal John F. Lucy, Royal Irish Rifles, at the First Marne, 1914

‘The shrapnel is shrieking through the lane, I can hear the groans of our wounded. One man drops helplessly into our dug-out. He extends an arm battered beyond description. We bandage it. His groans are terrible. A shell bursts very near us. The shrapnel pieces fall through our roof. A piece strikes me on the shoulder. Luckily its force is spent.’ – Private Samuel Knight, Welch Regiment, at First Ypres, 1914

‘It was pitch dark then all of a sudden the coast, a dim outline of the coast, loomed up. As we got closer, we were all beginning to get tensed up, nervous, wondering what was going to happen as everything was so quiet. Then a single shot rang out and a yellowish light flared up in the sky, and from then on the Turks let loose; machine gun and rifle fire at the boats … As soon as the boats grounded it was every man for himself, it was out, do the best you could.’ – Private Walter Stagles, 1st Australian Division, at Gallipoli, 1915

‘At first the gas drifted slowly towards the German lines … but at one or two bends of the trench the gas drifted into it. In these cases I had it turned off at once.’ – Lieutenant A.B. White, Royal Engineers, at Loos, 1915

‘Flames were belching from what I took to be the fourth ship of the line, then came the big explosion which shook us a bit … Immediately after that came, what I term, the big smash, and I was dangling in the air on a bowline, which saved me from being thrown down on the floor of the turret.’ – Petty Officer Ernest Francism HMS Queen Mary, at the Battle of Jutland, 1916

‘Over the roads leading towards Verdun, artillery and ammunition were brought up in such quantities as the history of war has never seen on such a small space. The country was covered with guns.’ – German eyewitness, at Verdun, 1916

‘“Fire at that trench,” came faintly through the uproar. I turned and nodded, and saw with a feeling of sickness the tin hat jump violently off the man’s head, and the immediate fading of life as a bullet crashed through the brain.’ – Private Arthur Lambert, Honourable Artillery Company, at the Battle of Messines Ridge, 1917

‘The first thing I noticed as I raised the nose of my tank to cross over the trench was several grey-clad bodies lying right in my path, and just as the bus gave her downward lurch one of them turned and looked up in a most despairing effort to avoid the monster. I’m afraid there were many that day that suffered a similar fate.’ – Driver A.W. Bacon, Tank Corps, at the Battle of Cambrai, 1917

‘In the summer of 1918 came the breakthrough. We had left the trenches behind, those mud sodden trenches that we hated for so many years. We were out in the open country. We almost felt victory in the air.’ – Sergeant Major Richard Tobin, Royal Naval Division, at the Battle of Amiens, 1918

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