Skip Navigation • Access Keys • Frequently Asked Questions •

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

Front Line

As men could not leave the front line trenches without orders (or they would be accused of desertion or killed by enemy snipers), popular pastimes included playing cards (see Barclay's diary entry for 21 February 1917), smoking cigarettes, telling stories and embroidery. Beautifully embroidered cards were sent home to loved ones, examples of which can be seen in the Durham Light Infantry Archives collection.

British newspapers were also read, as Constantine mentioned in his letter of 13 May 1915. Families could pay for publishers to send newspapers directly to the troops.

Photograph of ‘Barney’ McArdle playing the piano, c.1915 (D/DLI 2/7/18(84)) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+
Music was popular, and quiet(!) singing in the trenches common. My Little Dry Home in the West was a parody of one of the popular songs of the war. Some enterprising soldiers found this piano, possibly in a French farmhouse, and put it into a trench near Armentieres in France, c.1915. The pianist is 'Barney' McArdle of 7DLI.

Lieutenant Rees kept a book of copies of all the letters which he sent, called a copy-book.

In this letter he described how he and his fellow officers have a 'gramaphone with us which plays rag-times' in their dugout. He goes on to describe how 'Last night I had a wee pup with me all night. It sleeps by the cook-house stove.'. A less pleasant pastime in the trenches was killing rats:

'There are hundreds of rats here. I amused myself on my rounds during the night by firing at some with a revolver but couldn't see them well enough in the dark ... A great trick with these rats is to put a bit of cheese on the bayonet & rest it on the parapet & when a rat starts nibbling pull the trigger- result no rat.'

Letter from Second Lieutenant Rees, 28 December 1915, p.6 (D/DLI 7/560/4) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+
Letter from Second Lieutenant Rees, 28 December 1915, p.7 (D/DLI 7/560/4)
+
Letter from Second Lieutenant Rees, 28 December 1915, p.8 (D/DLI 7/560/4) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+

Letter from Second Lieutenant Rees, 28 December 1915, p.9 (D/DLI 7/560/4) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+
Letter from Second Lieutenant Rees, 28 December 1915, p.10 (D/DLI 7/560/4) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+

See a full transcript of Lieutenant Rees' letter, 28 December, 1915.

Lieutenant Catford's letters also show life in the front line. Along with this particular letter he included a copy of the DLI regimental magazine, 'The Whizz-Bang', which was produced monthly between 1914 and 1916. It was called 'The Whizz-Bang' after a type of shell, which, according to Rees, got its name 'from the noise it makes'.

Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 1 February 1916, p.1 (D/DLI 7/115/4) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+
Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 1 February 1916, p.2 (D/DLI 7/115/4) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+

In this letter, Catford describes a dinner party in his dugout. The menu included 'Turtle Soup, meat & two vegetables & Apricots & Cream washed down with Whisky & Perrier Consumed from glasses'. (learn more about food in the trenches). This was achieved because his 'Mess Sergeant managed to buy me some stuff at "P" & send it up to the Trenches', probably for money. "P" could possibly be short-hand for Poperinghe or Passchendale, both of which are near Sanctuary Wood, where Catford was stationed.

See a full transcript of Lieutenant Catford's letter, 1 February, 1916.

More adventurous was Captain John Jeffries of 6DLI who, in May 1915, went with his senior officers, while in front line trenches near Ypres,: 'birdnesting after lunch. (This was right up in the shell strewn area & only 3/4 of a mile from the front line, & things were still supposed to be a little critical!) He shewed me a nightingale's nest with 6 eggs, another with no eggs yet, a chaffinche's, blackbird's, & a missel thrush!'

Letter from Captain Jeffreys, May 1915, p.1 (D/DLI 7/899/3) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+
Letter from Captain Jeffreys, May 1915, p.2 (D/DLI 7/899/3) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
+

See a full Transcript of Letter from Captain John Jeffries to his Wife, Evelyn, 16 May 1915.