December 21, 1915 — Raymond Asquith, the son of England's last Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, served in the First World War in the Grenadier Guards and wrote to his wife on this day describing life in the trenches*.
In a conflict noted for its mud, blood, horror and tragedy, it seems remarkable that Asquith was able to write of "sport", "fun" and his men being "amused".
He wrote to his wife Katharine that one of the British trenches was called the Duck's Bill and ran straight towards the Germans about seventy yards distant. He said that when Germans were spotted the British "loosed off fifty rounds at them in about five seconds with our portable machine-guns."
Asquith added: "We got two or three that way. It keeps the men happy and amused."
But he added: "Then yesterday afternoon the Germans began firing rifle grenades. It is a thing like a blunt-nosed fir cone on the end of a rod about two feet long. You put the rod into the barrel of a rifle and fire it with a blank cartridge. They will go about three hundred yards.
"It is a good form of sport because it is almost like shooting with a bow and arrow. You can see the missile all the time in the air.
"I fetched up three men who are experts in the game and we gave the Germans back volleys of these things. Our plan now is always to give them back about ten times as much of any particular form of beastliness which they begin to practise on us.
"We made very good shooting and kicked up great columns of black muck from their trench and parapet.
"The grenade explodes like a bomb only much more violently when it touches the ground. The men get very excited when one of these duels is going on and swear and sweat horribly. It is almost the only fun they get in the trenches, poor dears."
Lieutenant Raymond Asquith, hailed by his men as courageous and "knowing no fear," was killed in September 1916 while leading an attack at Ginchy in Northern France. He was shot in the chest and apparently knew straightaway that his wound was fatal, but to stop the attack from faltering he casually lit a cigarette. He died while being carried back to British lines. He was 37.
*Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, ed. John Jolliffe, Collins, 1980.
Published: November 27, 2017