It was a curious sight to all of us, French or English, the day when the Indians arrived in a dreary little town of Northern France … Suddenly the Indian Lancers appeared, and the pavement on both sides of the street was at once filled by a crowd of soldiers and civilians watching the procession, […]

It was a curious sight to all of us, French or English, the day when the Indians arrived in a dreary little town of Northern France … Suddenly the Indian Lancers appeared, and the pavement on both sides of the street was at once filled by a crowd of soldiers and civilians watching the procession, as a London crowd will do in Whitehall on the day of the opening of Parliament. In fact, those Indians looked all like kings. The Lancers sat proudly in their saddles, with their heads upright under the Oriental crowns; then came a regiment of Sikhs, walking at a brisk pace, all big and strong men, with curled beards and the wide ‘pagri’ round the ears; the Pathans followed, carrying on their heads that queer pointed bonnet, the ‘kullah,’ which reminds one of the warriors seen on old Persian tapestries – a more slender type of men, but equally determined, and with faces at the same time smiling and resolute.

… The day after, we heard that during the night one of the Sikh regiment had had to recapture the trench, which the Germans had taken by surprise, and that their bayonet charge was so tremendous that the enemy did not dare counter-attack. Almost immediately after that feat an order came not to allow the Indians uselessly to expose their lives by walking out of the trenches. The fact was that, in order to show their contempt for death, some Sikhs had refused to hide themselves in the trenches and had immediately drawn a fierce fire on their regiment. Fortunately, they did not insist on playing that sort of game; otherwise the Indian Army Corps would have disappeared in one week’s time out of sheer bravery. […]

A ‘Black Maria’ fell quite near a sapper while he was lying on the ground and steadily firing on the advancing foe. It did not hurt him, but dug a hole six feet deep at his side. The sapper – a Sikh, I believe – waited until the smoke had gone, and then jumped into the hole. He soon found that the position was a comfortable one, and started firing from the cover the Germans had dug for him; according to officers who were standing by, he managed to kill some fifteen or twenty Germans by himself, and would have remained there for ever if he had not been eventually ordered to retreat. He was warmly congratulated afterwards, but did not appear to think he had done anything remarkable.

December 1914: A British Officer’s Letter

A truce had been arranged [on Christmas Day] for the few hours of daylight for the burial of the dead on both sides who had been lying out in the open since the fierce night-fighting of a week earlier. When I got out I found a large crowd of officers and men, English and German, grouped around the bodies, which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows.

I went along those dreadful ranks and scanned the faces, fearing at every step in recognise one I knew. It was a ghastly sight. They lay stiffly in contorted attitudes, dirty with frozen mud and powdered with rime.

The digging parties were already busy on the two big common graves, but the ground was hard and the work slow and laborious … we chatted with the Germans, most of whom were quite affable, if one could not exactly call them friendly, which indeed, was neither to be expected nor desired.

They spoke of a bottle of champagne. We raised our wistful eyes in hopeless longing. They expressed astonishment and said how pleased they would have been, had they only known to have sent to Lille for some. “A charming town, Lille. Do you know it?” “Not yet,” we assured them. Their laughter was quite frank that time.

Meanwhile time drew on, and it was obvious that the burying would not be half finished with the expiration of the armistice agreed upon, so we decided to renew it the following morning.

On Boxing Day … we turned out again … The German soldiers seemed a good-tempered amiable lot, mostly peasants from the look of them. One remarkable exception, who wore the Iron Cross and addressed us in slow but faultless English, told us he was Professor of early German and English dialects at a Westphalian university.

He had a wonderfully fine head … The digging completed, the shallow graves were filled in, and the German officers remained to pay their tribute of respect while our chaplain read a short service.

It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed.

Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet. Then, with more formal salutes, we turned and made our way back to our respective ruts.

7 May 1915: The Gas Atrocity in Flanders

The following extracts from a letter written by a British officer at the front speak of the terrible suffering of soldiers who were “gassed” during the Germans assaults on Hill 60: “Yesterday and the day before I went with *** to see some of the men in hospital at *** who were ‘gassed’ yesterday and the day before on Hill 60. The whole of England and the civilised world ought to have the truth fully brought before them in vivid detail, and not wrapped up, as at present. When we got to the hospital we had no difficulty finding out in which ward the men were, as the noise of the poor devils trying to get breath was sufficient to direct us.

“We were met by a doctor belonging to our division who took us into the ward. There were about twenty of the worst cases in the ward on mattresses, all more or less in a sitting position, propped up against the walls.

“Their faces, arms, and hands were of a shiny grey-black colour, mouth open and lead-glazed eyes; all swaying slightly backwards and forwards trying to get breath. It was the most appalling sight, all those poor black faces struggling for life. What with the groaning and the noise of the efforts for breath, Colonel ***, who as everybody knows, has had as wide an experience as anyone all over the savage parts of Africa, told me to-day that he never felt so sick as he did after the scene.

“In these cases, there is practically nothing to be done for them, except to give them salt and water to try and make them sick. The effect the gas has is to fill the lungs with a watery, frothy matter, which gradually increases till it fills up the whole lungs and clogs up the mouth; then they die. It is suffocation – slow drowning – taking, in some cases, one or two days. Eight died last night of the twenty I saw, and most of the others I saw will die, while those who get over the gas invariably develop acute pneumonia.

“It is without a doubt, the most awful form of scientific torture. Not one of the men I saw in hospital had a scratch or a wound.

Battle of Arras

The Battle of Arras in April 1917 Underground, soldiers took shelter in tunnels dug centuries earlier by rich merchants. Photograph: Hulton Archive
“The nurses and doctors were all working their utmost against this terror, but one could see from the tension of their nerves that it was like fighting a hidden danger which was overtaking everyone.

“A German prisoner was caught with a respirator in his pocket. The pad was analysed, and found to contain hypo-sulphite of soda with one per cent of some other substance. The gas is in a cylinder, from which, when they send it out, it is propelled a distance of 100 yards. It then spreads. English people, men and women, ought to know exactly what it going on.”

13 April 1917 : In the Caves of Arras

“This is King Street,” said a voice in the darkness to-day, “the third to the left is India Lane.” A moment later I collided violently with a dark figure, moist with mud, and our steel helmets rang sharply. We were in the caves of Arras, tunnelled out centuries ago, when rich merchants built the houses in the Grande Place and mansions guarded within grand walls, all pierced now or quite destroyed by two years of German shell-fire. But the caves and the tunnels have not been touched by any shell. They are very deep and wander in a maze far below the ruins of the cathedral city and out in the open country.

On Sunday night last, before our advance across the German lines, thousands of our soldiers waited in these caves for dawn, and before the dawn, marched down the tunnels, pressed close in a long tide of life, streaming forward for an affair of death. Hour after hour the supporting troops followed the first waves of assault, and from the world above came down the first of the wounded.

They passed their comrades closely, touched them with the blood of their wounds, and steel helmets clanked together. There was not much talking. The men going up asked a question or two. “How’s it going, mate?”

“‘Fine; we’re through the second line.”

“Badly hit?”

“It hurts, but it ain’t much, old lad.”

The long tunnel was only dark at its entrance. Further along was the glimmer of electric bulbs, set along the walls at even distances. I passed on a long way and heard a throbbing down in a deep pit and felt a sudden warmth come up to me. Here was the power-house for the electric plant. Further still I looked down other tunnels leading away to unknown places. Men slouched down them and talked in low voices. Cigarette-ends glimmered, a rifle fell with a clatter. I had a sense of bring in a subterranean world inhabited by men doing uncanny work.

I turned down India Lane, climbed a long flight of chalk stairs, felt the wind blow on my face, and heard the infernal clangour of great guns. My steel helmet caught in a strand of barbed wire. Before one stretched the battlefields of Arras. Down across the battlefields came the walking wounded. They were not in a company, which makes suffering more tolerable … but in single figures, lonely, after being hit by chance shells up by a village where fighting was then in progress.

I hated to pass these men without an offer of help, but I could do nothing for them. They walked very slowly, avoiding the litter of brickwork flung up by shell-fire, drawing breath sharply when their tired feet stumbled against a stone, hesitating with a look of despair when they came to the edge of broken trenches. They were “light cases” – the lucky ones – but their way was a Via Dolorosa.

An officer came along in a private’s tunic. He was wounded in the arm and very white and weak looking. “Feel bad?” I asked. He smiled. “I’m all right … but it’s slow going.”

A comrade with me pulled out a flask and said, “This will do you good.” The officer lifted it to his lips, and the colour came back into his face a moment. “Thanks very much,” he said, “elixir vitae at a time like this.” A German crump cracked a score of yards away from us with a howl and a roar. The wounded officer struck half right. “Not out of it yet,” he said. I watched him stagger a little and then straighten himself and trudge on – a gallant man, needing all his courage for that walk.

The German prisoners huddled together for warmth until they were given shelter. The officers were … grateful for their treatment and were polite to their captors, saluting punctiliously with a click of heels. They were mostly young men and not professional soldiers before the war, and nearly all of them Bavarians and Hamburgers.

Some of them excused themselves for being unshaven and dirty.

“We had to keep close to the dug-outs,” they explained. “Your drum fire was frightful. Up above it was certain death.”

“The waiting was worse than death,” said one young officer whose hand trembles as he lit a cigarette. […]

“We could do nothing. We were trapped,” said the Brigadier, who was taken with his whole staff. The Brigadier wept a little. He confessed to the humiliation of being captured with such little loss among his men. “We thought the Vimy Ridge impregnable,” he said.

But his greatest grief was not for the defeat or for the capture or sufferings of his men. “My little dog,” he said again and again. “Has anyone seen my little dog? It has been with me ever since the beginning of the war.” He had lost his little dog when he had come out of his dug-out and held up his hands and then come down with his mob of men.

9 October 1917: A Country Diary

The barometer was falling at the weekend, and yet on Saturday the sun and wind combined to make an ideal day for fruit-getting. Many worked, as we did, from early morning till dusk. Since the storms of wind and rain have swept over the country … I find from very recent inquiries that farmers in Cumberland and Westmorland have come through their labour difficulties exceedingly well, owing to the ready help given them by their friends and neighbours in all ranks of society. To see a lady of title drive a milk cart and at a pinch shoe her own horse, and young and old take their share of the work, rough or smooth, as they have done now for months past, shows one that there is no degeneration in the race.

Source- The Gaurdian