"We are having hell of a time": Letters from the Somme 1916
July 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest and horrific periods of World War 1. Despite lasting only 4 months, it incurred over 1.2 million casualties. Impossible as it may be to understand these barbaric acts of extreme violence these men experienced, letters sent home from the Front to loved ones and friends offer us a unique glimpse into this period. These letters provide us with a first hand account of the Somme, enabling us to piece together a picture of the daily life, opinions, and the innermost thoughts and fears of a soldier fighting at the Somme.
One such collection of letters are those sent by Harold Barton Mansfield to his wife Eveleen Mansfield (nee Barton), who was expecting their first child during the course of their correspondence. In what is a series of honest, poignant and, at times, moving letters, Harold recounts his daily experiences of trench life to his wife and, by extension, us.
Harold Barton Mansfield was born in Dublin in 1880. He emigrated to America in 1908, and is listed in the 1910 census as being resident in Los Angeles, California, where he was employed as a clerk with the Tille Garatas Trust. Eveleen, born in 1881 in Dublin, joined him for a short period in 1909, where they were married in California. After returning to Dublin, she took up residence in her family home at 11 Grosvenor Sq., Rathmines, Co. Dublin.
Sometime between 1910 and 1916 Harold joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force. In 1916 he enlisted in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 10th Battalion. He was active on the Western Front, experiencing first hand trench warfare at the Somme, a number of his letters are written from the trenches. He was killed in action on the 13th November 1916, during the Battle of Ancre (13th – 18th Nov. 1916). He is buried at Knightsbridge Cemetery, Belgium. He was survived by his wife and child, Marjorie Mansfield (DOB 1916/1917).
The collection in questions begins on an unexpected, upbeat note, with Harold describing his pleasure with the living conditions he has found himself in, and general life as a soldier, “I am living very well in fact to well”. Although he follows this line up with “but we will be going up to the trenches in a few days which will break up our lives”, displaying a keen awareness on his part of the environment he will soon find himself in. (RDFA/109/001 31 August 1916)
A great deal can be learnt about life in the trenches during World War 1 from Harold’s letters home to his wife. The sheer boredom and monotony experienced by soldiers stationed in the trenches, which resulted in them becoming tired and weary with the war, is something that is frequently commented on during the course of these letters ‘I get very fed up with this life sometimes always moving, never settled”, (RDFA/109/004 19 September 1916) compounding this feeling was the bad weather conditions encountered on a daily basis during the Somme campaign, which made a soldier's life very difficult, “We had heavy thunderstorms and very heavy rain yesterday and it was very oppressive (RDFA/109/001 31 August 1916) and “the weather conditions are something too terrible to describe, we live in seas of mud and the rain has been something awful, everything around me is damp and soggy and everybody has a cold and feels miserable.” (25 October 1916 RDFA/109/010)
Something which is clearly evident from Harold’s letters is the deep sense of separation soldiers felt from their loved ones while stationed at the Somme, and the brief glimmer of happiness and comfort a cherished memory provided them, during long and dangerous stretches spent in the trenches, “I sit for hours sometimes thinking of you down at Greystones and cursing our luck that we are parted like this. I miss you terribly loved one” (17 September 1916, RDFA/109/03) and “How I long for your companionship and to feel you near me, the happiest days of my life have been spent with you my loved one, and my greatest joy is to sit and think over all our enjoyable times spent together.” (RDFA/109/004 19 September 1916). Touching lines of a tender and intimate nature are dotted throughout these letters, revealing a frank openness and displays the deep love Harold held for his wife, “I suppose you are now to tucked into your bed sleeping peacefully in your nice white nightie and cap and I only wish to God I was with you and feel your women body in my arms. I miss you very much dearest one.” (9 September 1916 RDFA/109/02)
Harold's letter to Effie on 6 November 1916. Ref. RDFA/109/02 (click to enlarge)
A sense that death could come at a moment’s notice is present throughout Harold’s writings. From his instructions to his wife to clear up his financial affairs as soon as possible, or his statements regarding his time in the trenches, it is clear that Harold was in no doubt that he might not make it through alive, “I am writing this in the trenches and I do not know if it will reach you. We are having a Hell of a time… (6 November 1916 RDFA/109/013). At one point he even goes as far as to hope he will be injured, so that he may be removed from the trenches and be reunited with his wife, “I wish to God I could get a wound that would bring me back to “Blighty” where I could see your dear face again’”. (25 October 1916 RDFA/109/010)
Harold Barton Mansfield, sadly, met his death on the 13th November 1916, when he was sent over the trenches on the first day of the Battle of Ancre. This collection of letters is capped off with a number of correspondences from his superiors in the army informing his wife of his death, a letter from the Battalions chaplain, a telegram from the King and Queen of Great Britain passing on their condolences to his wife, and a letter from the war pension’s office.
Harold’s letters afford us a first hand account of trench warfare, through his writing we are transported directly to the Somme and provided a unique, personal and candid insight into his experiences, something which no history book or movie can offer us. The letters have been fully digitised and transcribed and can be accessed at digital.libraries.dublincity.ie
- City Hall Lunch-time Lectures April 2017: Remembrance & Commemoration: The First World War
- Dublin Remembers: Stories from the Somme Exhibition
Guest Blog by Colm Birmingham, Dublin City Archives