After volunteering as an Army private following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, former grammar-school boy Harry Drinkwater, 25, joined a ‘Pals battalion’ — so-called because the men were encouraged to join up with local friends and work colleagues.
A few months later, his conversion from Stratford-upon-Avon shop assistant to soldier was complete.
In this extract from his remarkable diary – which it was strictly against the rules to keep and which has been published for the first time – Harry writes about his brutal introduction to the trenches at the Somme in Picardie, Northern France…
Thursday, December 16, 1915
Arrived in [the hamlet of] Suzanne today, after a very hard march. We’re billeted in tents, 12 men in each, encamped between the enemy and our own heavy guns.
At night-time, one sees little slits of light shining from the tents on the puddles of water outside, which give the impression of a fairy land.
Rolling into our blankets, we occasionally hear the ‘splash, splash’ as some fellow moves from one tent to another, or the plod of the sentry. Plus the continual shriek of shells.
Tomorrow we go into the trenches. I wonder what sort of a show we will make.
Sunday, December 19
No words can adequately describe the conditions. It’s not the Germans we’re fighting, but the weather. Within an hour of moving off, we were up to our knees in mud and water.
The mud gradually got deeper as we advanced along the trench.
We hadn’t gone far before we had to duck; the enemy were sending over their evening salute of shells.
To move forward, I had to use both elbows for leverage, one each side of the trench. After about one and a half hours of this, we reached the firing line. Later, I groped my way to our dugout. What a sight.
Imagine a room underneath the ground, whose walls are slimy with moisture. The floor is a foot or more deep in rancid-smelling mud.
Monday, December 20
The trenches are in a terrible condition — anything up to 4ft deep in mud and water. We’re plastered in mud up to our faces.
Our food – cold bacon, bread and jam – is slung together in a sack that hangs from the dripping dugout roof. Consequently, we eat and drink mud.
Tuesday, December 21
Heavy bombardment at about 11am. Heard a fearful crash. The next dugout to ours blown to blazes, and our physical drill instructor Sergeant Horton with it.
I helped dig him out. But before we could get him anywhere, he’d departed this life – our first experience of death. I’m tired out, sick of everything.
Saturday, December 25
After five days in the trenches, we’re thankful we can still walk. I’ve had approximately an hour’s sleep a day – always standing up.
Often, when from sheer exhaustion I doze off, I’m awakened by a fat squeaking rat on my shoulder or feel it running over my head.
Most of the rations fail to arrive – because the communication trenches are water-logged and being continually shelled. We eat with hands caked in mud, which has caused many cases of acute dysentery.