STORIES SEEN THROUGH A GLASS PLATE
Cpt. Herbert Verral — A Letter Home
D8861/007 — Grange Road, Lewes, 2017
‘Letter Home from Cpl. Herbert Verral of Grange Road’ — David Hackett, Lewes Operatic Society
Audio transcript below
“Cpl Herbert Verral, 5th Royal Sussex, of Grange Road
We were marched to the trenches the night before the action, and slept at our posts. The bombardment commenced at 5am and lasted 40 minutes. We all had cotton wool in our ears, but the roar and thunder of our guns was deafening. The birds, who had welcomed the dawn with their beautiful songs, now lay cowering on the ground close to us. Then the order came to advance and we filed along our trench until the communication trench allowed us to reach the firing line. Just a breather and then over we scrambled. On the top a chum fell at my side with a bullet in his thigh. I shall not forget the appealing look he gave me! But our orders had been “Stop for no-one”, so down I jumped and crossing a little wooden bridge went out into the open. By this time the men had gone on a short way extended, and thrown themselves flat on the ground; before making another rush I doubled out and flung myself down on the left. As we waited the bullets were pinging away like venomous insects, plugging into the ground all around.
At intervals all over the field, shells were bursting, heaving up huge columns of black mud and smoke. Strange to say the birds were singing up in the sunbright air, as if everything was at peace. Then the order came “fix bayonets”. As I drew mine my right hand was violently hurled up against my rifle. I looked at it and saw that a bullet had gone through across from one side to the other. My arm went numb. I looked at the next man to me. He was apparently fast asleep, lying peaceful and calm as though he had just dropped asleep. He was dead, shot through the head. “Forward” came the order and at the same time my jaw seemed to explode and I lay grovelling. I realised it was a “knock-out” and seeing Corporal Langridge (the next section commander to me) looking at me I waved him on; not to expect any more from me. So I found myself alone in the field with the dead man. I looked back to our trenches, they seemed miles away.
For a moment I felt inclined to stop where I was until picked up. But bullets and shells were still searching the field, so I decided to get back. I dragged myself, furrow by furrow, until the barbed wire entanglements stopped me. There was no gap to be seen, but by pushing and wriggling I got through. Then came a dyke of thick black mud and water. I fell in and, wading and swimming, made my way up to the trenches. Scrambling out I must have looked a horrible sight, covered with mud and blood, for the men in the trenches shouted to each other to make room for “the poor devil”. I wobbled along until I came to where several of our fellows were sitting, having their wounds dressed. Eddy Hills was one, I remember. Someone bound up my jaw and an officer said that I must be taken to the dressing station at once. An RAMC man told me to follow him and off we went. But dodging the bullets etc. I missed him and found myself on the wrong side of a fence. I crawled through a gap, but my equipment caught up and I had to lie in a most ridiculous attitude until someone came and released me. I reached the dressing station and from there was taken on a stretcher to the Sussex dressing station. They made a bed on the ground for me and I thought “Rest at last!”
Then a shot burst outside the house, and they shifted us to an inner room. Hardly had they done it when “crash!” came a shell into the room we had left. The whole place was filled with smoke and dust. We all dashed (more or less) out of the house. I scrambled through a hole in the wall, and tottered as far as I could, after the others to the dug-outs. Crawling in, I lay there for hours, getting weaker as I lost blood. An RAMC man happened to see me and fetched the doctor. He dressed my jaw and then four men carried me over two miles on a stretcher, in order to catch the next motor ambulance to Bethune. They had had quite enough by the time they got there! At Bethune two or three doctors examined me and re-dressed my wound. They cut off my coat and shirt, injected some morphine, and something to prevent lockjaw, and then with a blanket thrown over me I was taken on a stretcher to a large room.
My nerves must have got rocky, because I felt sure that they had given me up as hopeless. Some little while after, however, some kind soul gave me the good news that I was being sent to the base. My passage to Boulogne is a bit blurred, but I eventually got there”