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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

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Fighting in WWI took place in the air, at sea and on land. It involved aeroplanes, zeppelins (see Glossary), ships, submarines, bayonets, guns, shells, and new machinery such as tanks. Because the men dug trenches to protect themselves, a stalemate was created which led to the invention of new and even more deadly weapons.

Thousands of men could be lost for the gain of only a few kilometres of land: from the end of 1915 until 1918, the war was one of attrition, with heavy casualties. The five month Battle of the Somme won only 12 kilometres of ground, but resulted in over 400,000 British casualties, as well as French and heavy German losses.

War Diary of 2DLI, June 1915 (D/DLI 2/2/1)
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The War Diary of the 2nd Battalion The Durham Light Infantry recorded the movement of troops and casualties.

The contrast of its tone with the personal accounts is striking; it is precise and objective with no emotion shown: 'there was a certain amount of shelling by the enemy but practically without any effect. Casualties. Lt J.R. Hill and 6 men killed; 15 men wounded'.

See a full transcript of the War Diary, June 1915.

War Diary of 2DLI, 9 August 1915 (D/DLI 2/2/1) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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War Diaries also contained lists of those wounded, killed or missing. This extract is from the entry for 9 August 1915. Officers are named, but it lists only the number of 'other ranks'. On this one day, 2DLI had six officers and 42 other ranks killed, six officers and 262 other ranks wounded and 100 men reported missing.

See a full transcript of the War Diary, August 1915.

Signal  Sergeant J. Wilkes wrote a poem to raise money for 'the purpose of supplying comforts' to the 5th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry. It tells the story of how the soldiers of 5DLI were 'rushed from Newcastle' to Ypres to fight in May 1915, and although it does not gloss over the reality, it is very patriotic (see Glossary) and shows the bravery of the men:

Poem ‘The Second Battle of Ypres’ by Signal Sergeant Wilkes, 1915, p.1 (D/DLI 2/5/17) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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'It was now breaking daylight, and awful sights were seen, With hundreds of wounded soldiers returning from St JEAN.
Yes! Wounded were returning, all had the same old cry, "Good luck to you, Durham Lads, but you're going up to die." Our tired-out limbs were now forgot, we meant to make our name,
If we are going up there to die, we are going to die game; Rain came down in torrents, and with shot and shell, It was to us no other than a raging living Hell'

Poem ‘The Second Battle of Ypres’ by Signal Sergeant Wilkes, 1915, p.1 (D/DLI 2/5/17) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Poem ‘The Second Battle of Ypres’ by Signal Sergeant Wilkes, 1915, p.4 (D/DLI 2/5/17) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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See a full transcript of 'The Second Battle of Ypres' poem.

Lieutenant Catford's letters emphasise the heroism and bravery of the British soldiers as well: 'The bravery of the men exceeds anything anyone could possibly imagine... When our Infantry attacked yesterday afternoon I think I witnessed the finest sight that I have seen. Under a hurricane of shell and machine gun fire they advanced as if on parade. A huge shell would drop amongst them, you would see the gap made in the line, but they never wavered, never even lost their dressing', whilst describing how 'as usual, the Germans put up no fight at all... and are the greatest cowards'.

Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 28 September 1916, p.1 (D/DLI 7/115/16) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 28 September 1916, p.2 (D/DLI 7/115/16) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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See a full transcript of Lieutenant Catford's letter, 28 September, 1916.

The letter describes the brutality and noise of the fighting: 'clouds of earth, limbs of men and debris' caused by explosions, 'the incessant shell fire and row'.

He also emphasised that 'the trouble here is that we have to lay waste and blow to pieces every yard of ground we gain'. He also mentions his servant: officers had to maintain their status as gentlemen and, therefore, had a servant to perform routine tasks for them in the trenches.

Sergeant Constantine's letters also give an idea of how noisy it was in the trenches because of the shells: 'its hell all day long, shells of all sorts, bursting all about,' and adds that 'the German shells are not very good because I've seen a lot of them not burst at all & others are full of marbles & some of our chaps were saying they had seen some burst that were full of nails, a nice thing to put in shells, eh!'

Letter from Sergeant Constantine, 13 May 1915, p.1 (D/DLI 7/137/5) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Sergeant Constantine, 13 May 1915, p.1 (D/DLI 7/137/5) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Sergeant Constantine, 13 May 1915, p.3 (D/DLI 7/137/5)
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Like Catford, he states that 'We passed a large city on Tuesday night on our way to the trenches & the whole place from end to end was on fire, what a sight, its just done for wilful destruction & nothing else'.

See a full transcript of Corporal, later Sergeant, Constantine's letter, 13 May 1915.

Constantine mentions the 'Lusitania', which was a large luxury liner. She was sunk by the Germans on 7 May 1915, near the Irish coast, killing 1,198 civilians. As she was sailing from New York to Liverpool, she had many Americans on board and it caused a major controversy at the time, because, in 1915, the United States was neutral.

Photograph of ruined buildings in Belgium, n.d. (D/DLI 13/2/86)
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The destruction described by Constantine and Catford can be clearly seen in the ruined buildings and rubble filled streets of this photograph (left) of a town in Belgium. Postcards were sold of some of the more famous views, such as the ruined Ypres Cloth Hall, with photographs taken before and after the war.

The fighting is shown in sketches drawn by Captain Mauchlen and Rev. J.A.G. Birch. Mauchlen's sketch of the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt depicts soldiers 'going over the top'. Rev. J.A.G. Birch

Sketch of a fight in a sugar factory by Rev. J.G.E. Birch, c.1916 (D/DLI 7/63/2 (158)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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drew a sketch in his diary of a fight in a confined space. 'A Fight in A Sugar Factory In the Somme' shows five soldiers sheltering behind a large metal object. Each is busy with a different activity.

One soldier is preparing to throw a grenade, another is ready to rush out with his bayonet, the third seems to be taking aim, the fourth is rummaging through a box, possibly for more ammunition. The fifth man in the sketch appears to be dead or seriously wounded.

Second Lieutenant Gamble wrote a series of letters from October 1915, until his death in May 1916. These were then typed and made into a book, although it was never published. The letters describe in detail his experience of everyday life in the trenches, entertainment and fighting. On 23 December 1915 he described a gas attack:

Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915, p.1 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915, p.2 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915, p.3 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915, p.4 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915, p.5 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915, p.6 (Acc. 3290(D)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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See a full transcript of Second Lieutenant Gamble's letter, 23 December, 1915.

He adds that 'I suppose it would just be mentioned in the papers at home that "there has been a gas attack on the Western Front, which was repulsed", but people will never probably realise a hundredth part of what it means, and what the troops are going through'.

Rats are also a recurring theme in Gamble's letters (and in many other accounts. See Lieutenant Reesletter about shooting rats and Second Lieutenant Stafford's sketch of a dugout). His sense of humour, despite the horror of the gas attack, is shown:

'One thing I must tell you, before I stop and that is about a little bit of diversion during the gas attack. I had just been bandaging up a couple of wounded, when one of them called my attention to a couple of big rats which were staggering about on their hind-legs as if drunk. It really was one of the funniest sights imaginable. One usually only gets glimpses of rats as they scuttle rapidly by (during the day), but these two were right out in the open, and their antics were too quaint. They were half-gassed of course, but strangely enough it was one of the things I remembered best after the show was over. One good thing the gas did was to kill a lot of the little beasts'.

Photograph of the mine crater at Hooge, August 1915 (D/DLI 7/87/2 (21)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This photograph is of the crater at Hooge in Belgium, taken in August 1915. The crater was created by digging tunnels and then deliberately exploding a British mine to blow up concrete fortifications which the Germans were building.

This approach was used throughout the war and eight special Tunnelling Companies were formed, although other soldiers helped too.

Durham miners, in particular, were used to dig tunnels under the lines and set explosives, as they were used to working in cramped, underground conditions. The tunnels at Hooge were dug by 175 Tunnelling Company. When the mine exploded, poisonous gases were absorbed into the soil and the men were forced to lie there for three days because they were under attack. You can see the dugouts in the side of the crater that the men created to try and make themselves comfortable. The crater is now a pond in the grounds of a hotel.