Last month we introduced you to Thomas May, a member of the Post Office Rifles (PORs), who fought in the First World War 100 years ago. Thomas’ diary is in BPMA’s collection and through it we can gain an insight into his personal experience of the war during his station in France in 1915. Histories of the First World War tend to focus on the action: the battles, the excitement and, of course, the horrors. However, there was another side, one full of parades, drills, inspections and endless marching. This daily drudgery is more than apparent throughout Thomas’ diary and will be the focus of today’s blog.
Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. Post Office Rifles changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.
Inspections and Exercises
Troops generally worked to a pattern of two days at ‘the front line’ in the trenches and two days at rest, in Thomas’ case usually in Bethune, a French mining town. These rest days were by no means peaceful however. Rising at 6am Thomas would frequently have to prepare kit and weapons for inspections. On Sunday 18 May, after the men had been in France for over a month, Thomas notes that it was the ‘first time I have ever paraded with rifle’. Two days later his morning consisted of ‘Rifle, Ammunition Inspection, Bayonet fighting exercises’. This is a stark reminder not only of the realities of warfare 100 years ago – where hand to hand combat was still a distinct possibility – but also of the relative inexperience of these young men.
Marching through the Land
Throughout the diary there are several days where May and the troops seem to spend most of the time marching, either because they were moving off to a new base or billet, or simply on a route march as on Wednesday 28 April: ‘Route march from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Distance 12 miles. Weather very hot and roads very bad for marching. Properly knocked on return.’
Whilst marching is the most common of any army exercise, as Thomas shows it could be tiring work, particularly in the hot French weather which these English men were far from used to.
The Jolly Old Weather
Unsurprisingly comments on the weather are frequent in this Englishman’s diary. In the first couple of months the weather was ‘very warm for marching’ as we have just seen, but May brought heavy rain. This coincided with a major offensive by the Post Office Rifles at Festubert, making for horrid conditions. On 17 May Thomas writes ‘Still it was raining and we were up to our necks in mud…wet through to the skin and covered in mud, also cut about in trying to get through the German barb wire.’
Taking a Bath
Hygiene was an important concern as these muddy, dirty conditions at the front meant fleas and lice were common, as well as more serious illnesses. Some of the billets also left something to be desired. On 23 April Thomas was billeted in ‘a dirty old barn. Inside the barn was rats, mice, chickens, ducks and one bull, but all the boys slept soundly’. Thomas does not seem to have relished the opportunities for a bath however: ‘Paraded 5.50am for Bathing much to our disgust’.
Ensuring an entire Company of men stayed clean cannot have been an easy task however and on some occasions the activity seems to have taken most of the day:
‘Bathing parade at 9.30am after marching all round France found baths at 1.30pm. Allowed 10 mins for bath. Returned home at 5pm.’
Extracts such as this from the personal diaries of those who experienced the war first hand support the themes that came through the printed media of the time. A famous postcard designed for the officers and soldiers of the 4th Division was entitled ‘Fighting Fleas in Flanders’.
Action and Inaction
Daily life at the front was full of such frustrations and the dichotomy of being ready to spring into action at a moment’ s notice and waiting in this state for hours on end is a powerful one.
20 May : ‘Stood by ready to move off at a moment’s notice. But all orders were cancelled.’
Nights were often interrupted with ‘Stand to arms 2.0am’ and on occasion full night operations made for a long day: ‘Paraded 1-30pm for trench digging, home 6.15pm. Night operations. Paraded 10-30pm. Trench digging, home 3-15am next morning.’
On May 7 at 5pm Thomas ‘was ordered to dig dugouts in readiness for a bombardment. Wind up all round, and had to sleep with boots and putees on. Nothing occurred.’
Food and Drink
Thomas’ subtle wit can be seen throughout the diary as on May 16 he writes ‘Since the exciting evening of May 7th had nothing else but bullied beef and biscuits also no boots and puttees off’. Bullied beef and biscuits was the staple diet for the Rifles, and although Thomas complains about it, he also realised that sometimes a bland diet was a blessing. On 29 March after one of the first shellings that the PORs experienced May writes ‘For once had a good dinner, but was spoilt owing to the horrible sight’. On 4 May dinner was accompanied by ‘Plenty of Champagne because of leaving for trenches’ May tellingly puts in brackets after this ‘(Usual Occurrence)’. Alcohol was often used to try and lift morale and create cohesion between the men of the fighting unit as well as aid in the transition between extreme fighting situations and the ‘rest’ days. In contrast to the front, there were concerns back at home that alcohol was harming the productivity of war workers and thus the war effort.
These were some of the components that made up the daily life of Thomas May and his fellow Post Office Rifles while at the Front. It was often frustrating, boring and tiring yet, as we will see in the next blog, the preparation was vital if the Post Office Rifles were to be successful in their first major offensive, that of the Battle of Festubert in May 1915.
– Emma Harper, Curator