Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – December 1915

DECEMBER 1915

Natasha was signed off later than we expected. When I went to collect her, in a War Office car with their blessing, the consultant Mr. Dawkins asked to speak with me. The diagnosis is bad. They can but try to clear her lungs but her life hangs on a thread. She must avoid exposure to un-burnt town gas. When we got back to the flat I telephoned home and asked our local gas company to check our house for leaks. I had electric lights put in long before the War, gas being used for washing, warmth and cooking. Next day their engineer confirmed all was well.

We went home on the Saturday and I did my best to reassure Rose and the boys but feel they are suspicious. Nevertheless Natasha said she wanted to return to mentoring her ’girls’. She came back to London after a week resting at home. The first morning she was presented with a framed cartoon entitled ‘Our Sister peeps over the top’, organised by a girl who knows Paul Nash. I am proud they think so highly of her. But I thought the depiction of the trenches too realistic.

On the War front, our rail work runs smoothly. I have not made any trips since Manchester but have been asked to check the French rail network in the new year.

The major news this December is the changing of the C-in-C. John French has gone, Douglas Haig takes his place. In the Department we are not surprised. Too many have died in battles where the land won is too small it can only be drawn onto the largest-scale War Office maps. We can hope that Haig will bring a more positive effort to driving the Boche out of France. The same day the ‘swine’ subjected our troops in the Salient to a gas far more toxic than chlorine. Even chlorine is deadly, as my poor Natasha knows. The enemy learned a lesson when the gas blew back over their own trenches. Again the winter rains have made the trenches into moats of putrid mud, the men manning them have suffered terribly from loss of feeling in their feet.

Meanwhile Churchill’s ‘master stroke’ is being undone. The ANZAC troops have been pulled out of Gallipoli; Kitchener had seen for himself the impossible tasks they were expected to perform. In Mesopotamia our Indian troops are now contained within Kut: both in the north and south the Turks are showing they are tough fighters when organised by their German advisors.

We got home on Christmas Eve. Celebrating Christmas was subdued this year, the church sermon was all about the sacrifice of our men must not be in vain. The Kitchener divisions are being prepared for 1916. The Regulars and Territorials have fought well but with no help from ‘General Luck’. Dispiriting though was the performance of the newly trained soldiers when sent into battle, enthusiasm is not substituting for experience.

One ray of good spirits over Christmas was Rose; she even kept her temper when her brothers teased her about the ‘tartan beau’. As agreed with Maud and David, when we returned to London it was with Rose. After putting her on the train at Kings Cross, Natasha observed to me how radiant she looked and how she was turning into a beautiful woman. The War is forcing our young to grow up faster than in Victorian or Edwardian times.