A History of World War One in 100 Moments: ‘I’d never seen a dead man… then 300 all at once’

A History of World War One in 100 Moments: ‘I’d never seen a dead man… then 300 all at once’

We arrived at the Dardanelles and saw the guns flashing and heard the rifle fire. They heaved our ship, the River Clyde, right up to the shore. They had cut a hole in it and made a little pier, so we were able to walk straight off and on to the beach.

We all sat there – on the Hellespont! – waiting for it to get light. The first things we saw were big, wrecked Turkish guns, the second a big marquee. It didn’t make me think of the military but of village fetes. Other people must have thought like this because I remember how we all rushed up to it, like boys getting into a circus, and then found it all laced up. We unlaced it and rushed in. It was full of corpses. Dead Englishmen, lines and lines of them, and with their eyes wide open.

We all stopped talking. I’d never seen a dead man before and here I was looking at 200 to 300 of them. It was our first fear. Nobody had mentioned this. I was very shocked. I thought of Suffolk and it seemed a happy place for the first time.

Later that day we marched through open country and came to within a mile and a half of the front line. It was incredible. We were there – at the war!

The place we had reached was called “dead ground” because it was where the enemy couldn’t see you. We lay in little square holes, myself next to James Sears from the village. He was about 30 and married.

That evening we wandered about on the dead ground and asked about friends of ours who had arrived a month or so ago. “How is Ernie Taylor?” – “Ernie? – he’s gone.” “Have you seen Albert Paternoster?” – “Albert? – he’s gone.” We learnt that if 300 had “gone” but 700 were left, then this wasn’t too bad. We then knew how unimportant our names were.

I was on sentry that night. A chap named Scott told me that I must only put my head up for a second but that in this time I must see as much as I could. Every third man along the trench was a sentry.

The next night we had to move on to the third line of trenches and we heard that the Gurkhas were going over and that we had to support their rear. But when we got to the communication trench we found it so full of dead men that we could hardly move. Their faces were quite black and you couldn’t tell Turk from English. There was the most terrible stink and for a while there was nothing but the living being sick on to the dead.

I did sentry again that night. It was one-two-sentry, one-two-sentry all along the trench, as before. I knew the next sentry up quite well. I remembered him in Suffolk singing to his horses as he ploughed.

Now he fell back with a great scream and a look of surprise – dead. It is quick, anyway, I thought.

On 4 June we went over the top. We took the Turks’ trench and held it. It was called Hill 13. The next day we were relieved and told to rest for three hours, but it wasn’t more than half an hour before the relieving regiment came running back. The Turks had returned and recaptured their trench.

On 6 June my favourite officer was killed and no end of us butchered, but we managed to get hold of Hill 13 again. We found a great muddle, carnage and men without rifles shouting “Allah! Allah!” which is God’s name in the Turkish language. Of the 60 men I had started out to war from Harwich with, there were only three left.

We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging – even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying, “Good morning”, in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath. At night, when the stench was worse, we tied crepe round our mouths and noses. This crepe had been given to us because it was supposed to prevent us being gassed.

The flies entered the trenches at night and lined them completely with a density which was like moving cloth. We killed millions by slapping our spades along the trench walls but the next night it would be just as bad. We were all lousy and we couldn’t stop shitting because we had caught dysentery. We wept, not because we were frightened but because we were so dirty.”

© 1969 Ronald Blythe. Extracted from ‘Akenfield’ by Ronald Blythe (Penguin, £9.99; penguin.co.uk)


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