Recently I unearthed a copy of a letter written during the First World War – exactly a hundred years ago, in 1915 – from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother. Charles Hudson was a British officer serving on the Western Front at the Ypres salient. He was a daredevil, addicted to adventure, and not beyond disobeying orders. To offset the passive endurance of trench warfare, he had developed a taste for ‘night crawling’ – creeping out in the dark, usually unarmed, and accompanied by one of his men to inspect enemy positions and cut their barbed wire. On one occasion he finds himself peering through a chink into a German dugout: ‘The door in the trench was open…the men in the dugout lit a candle as the door closed and in the light I could see the men opposite me quite distinctly. Three sat in a row on a bench. I had never seen the enemy, other than prisoners, at a range of a few feet and I was vastly intrigued. Then a man just the other side of the wall shifted his position so that the back of his neck blocked my view. I blew gently and the man scratched his neck but did not move.’!
The letter to my grandmother details his next - illegal - excursion. I’ve shortened it somewhat but it’s a vivid, heart stopping account of living in the moment.
You may be pleased to hear I was absolutely forbidden by the General to go again as I am Coy [Company] commander, rather rot for me but…
I went with Stafford again, at 4.30 am.
“Damned cold, Sergeant.”
“Yes Sir, moon’s a bit bright, but it will be going down soon.” “Yes Sir, better take some bombs.” “Yes Sir, shall I get them Sir?”
“We’ll pick them up at the listening post (in front). Sentries warned?”
So off we go through a covered gap in the parapet and down the ledge.
“Who’s that?” (whispered)
“Sherwood Foresters. Captain Hudson. All quiet Corporal?”
“We’re going out in front to the left.”
“Very well Sir.”
We are now 150 yards from Fritz and the moon is bright, so we bend and walk quietly onto the road running diagonally across the front into the Bosche line. There is a stream the far side of this – boards have been put down across it at intervals and must have fallen it – about 20 yards down we can cross. We stop and listen – Swish! – and down we plop (for a flare lights everything up). It goes out with a hiss and over the board we trundle on hands and knees.
Apparently no one has seen so we proceed to crawl through a line of ‘French’ wire. Now for 100 yards dead flat weed land with here and there a shell hole or old webbing equipment lying in little heaps! These we avoid. This means a slow, slow crawl head down, propelling ourselves by toes and forearm, body and legs flat on the ground, like a snake.
A working party of Huns are in their lair. We can just see dark shadows and hear the sergeant, who is sitting down. He’s got a bad cold! We must wait a bit, the moon’s getting low but it’s too bright. Now 5 a.m. They will stop soon and if we go on we may meet a covering party lying low.
And the moon’s gone.
“Got the bombs Sergeant?”
“No Sir, I forgot them!”
‘Huns’ and the last crawl starts.
The Bosch is moving and we crawl quickly on to the wire – past two huge shell holes to the first row…Out comes the wire cutter. I hold the strands to prevent them jumping apart when cut and Stafford cuts…Two or three tins are cut off as we go. (These tins are hung to give warning and one must beware of them)…
It is getting light, a long streak has already appeared…
Stafford has to extract me twice from the wire…He leads back down a bit of ditch.
Suddenly a sentry fires two shots which spit on the ground a few yards in front. We lie absolutely flat, scarcely daring to breathe – has he seen? Then we go on with our trophies [pieces of wire], the ditch gets a little deeper, giving cover! My heart beating 19 to the dozen – will it mean a machine gun? Stafford is gaining and leads by ten yards.
“My God,” I think, “it is a listening post ahead and this is the ditch to it. I must stop him.”
I whisper “Stafford, Stafford!” and feel I am shouting. He stops, thinking I have got it.
“Do you think it’s a listening post? There! By the mound – listen.”
“Perhaps we had better cut across to the left Sir.”
This time I lead. Thank God, the ditch and the road over the ditch, and we run like hell, bent double. Suddenly I go a fearful cropper and a machine gun is rattling in the distance and the streak is getting bigger every minute.
“Are you all right Sir?” From Stafford.
I laugh, “Forgot that damned wire.” (Our own wire outside our listening post.)
Soon we are behind the friendly parapet and it is day. We are ourselves again, but there’s a subtle cord between us, stronger than barbed wire, that will take a lot of cutting. Twenty to seven, 2 hours 10 minutes of life – war at its best. But shelling, no, that’s death at its worst. And I can’t go again, it’s a vice. Immediately after I swear I’ll never do it again. The next night I find myself aching after ‘No Man’s Land’.
Some yarn I think, worse than the Wide World, tell me if it sounds realistic, it’s all the truth.
My nerve has quite come back again. I felt a bit shaky when I started…
Ever your loving Brother
|Charles Hudson V.C.|