Private Harry Burniston 15/64

Pte Harry Burniston

Born. 11th October 1889.
Killed In Action 1st July 1916 at Serre,Somme, France.

These words found on this page were written in a letter by Pte Harry Burniston to his Father.
(Nothing has been changed or added)

Dear Father,
I was very pleased to receive your letter which I got while in the trenches and also one from Mother and Dorothy. What an awful affair the Naval Battle has been; When we first heard of it, it seemed as though we had had by far the worst of it, but we have seen the papers since and are very glad to know that it was not so and that the Germans suffered more heavily than we did, but they were evidently a fairly tough nut to crack all the same.
You say you would like to hear of my experiences so far and about Mr Sen. well I did not mention it at all in my previous letters as I thought it best not to, however I will tell you what happened on the night Mr Sen got killed.

Our platoon was acting as supports to the first line and were in the trenches just behind the first line trench. we had not to do sentry duty of course, that being done by the men in the first line, but we had to go out every night over the top of the front line trench into "No mans land" (that being the name given to the ground in between our trenches and the Germans) putting barbed wire entanglements up in front of our trenches, As you will imagine, it is very risky work and we have to wait until it is getting dark before we go out on top, then get the work done as quick as ever we can and as quietly as we can. As long as it remains dark it is practically impossible for you to be seen from the enemy’s trenches, but the trouble is they keep sending blue lights up which burst in the air like rockets and light up everything round about. When you see one of these going up the best thing to do is get down flat before it bursts, but if it bursts before you have time to get down, you stand perfectly still so that they cannot see anything moving about and in all probability you will not be detected as you will simply look like a black figure stuck up and be taken for one of the large stakes stuck in the ground supporting the barbed wire.

It was Monday night the 22nd of May that John was killed and practically all our platoon was out on top wiring. we had been out about an hour and everything had been quiet when all of a sudden we saw several flashes from the other side and then Bang! Bang! Bang! all around us and before we had time to get back into the trench or anything, we were in the thick of it. Well of course the instant it started we were all down flat on the ground and at first I thought that the Germans had spotted us and were sending a few rifle grenades or something over at us, but we soon realised that it wasn't that, but a proper bombardment of our trenches and for about half an hour we were laid absolutely flat. As flat as ever we could get with our faces buried in the grass and our steel helmets on our heads while it absolutely rained shells and explosives of every description all around us. By jove, it was awful and I was expecting to get hit every second. I never expected coming out untouched. Of course they were shelling the whole of our sector of trenches from the front to the rear and I suppose it was practically impossible to walk about the trenches while it was going on, the air being absolutely full of flying shrapnel and everybody got into the dug outs, but it was those shells that were aimed at the front trenches that we were in danger of as we were only about twenty or thirty yards in front of it and every time one burst it went off with a terrific crash and the ground seemed to fairly rock under us and we could hear the bits of shell and earth tinkling on the barbed wire as they hit it. By jove talk about an inferno, I kept having a squint up and everything round was lit up with flames etc,and the shells were coming screaming over our heads one after another then going off with a crash behind.
Well, about 5 minutes or so after they started, our own artillery started replying back which helped to liven things up even a little more if that was possible and to make matters worse for us laid out on top, began to drop their shells right in front of us, perhaps fifty or a hundred yards or so in between our trenches and the Germans so that the Germans could not get out and rush to attack our trenches without having to come through our artillery screen of fire so we were in between two fires.

Well, as I said, we were laid there about half an hour or so and as things did not appear to be getting any better the corporal in charge of us passed the word down that we had to get back to the trench as quickly as we could so we all commenced to work our way back on our stomachs like eels and it was a job needless to say. We had about thirty yards to do and then we came to a gap in our barbed wire where we had to get through. As we were on the side of it farthest away from our trench of course at this place the wire had a way cut through it so that we could walk through in ordinary circumstances, but still there was any amount of it lying on the ground in the grass and we had to crawl over this for a distance of about fifteen or twenty feet and it was a business as it kept catching in our clothing and we had to pull ourselves free again without getting up from the ground and exposing ourselves more than we could help and in addition we had our rifles with us and a bandolier of cartridges and a bag with a gas helmet in slung over our shoulders. There wasn’t half some torn trousers etc when we got back to our trench. Both my trousers knees were torn and the bandolier as well. Talk about heaving a sigh of relief, I did when we tumbled over the top of the parapet into the trench again and the other boys who were inside the trench manning it weren't half glad to see us back safe as we each came tumbling into them. They were all very excited and vowing what they would do to the beggers if they came over to attack us and we all felt the same once we were safely back. I know I did, I felt ready for sticking any Bosch who showed his head over our trench. It was the next day we felt it most after the excitement had gone off.
Well, soon after we got back the bombardment started to slack off and ceased after a do of about three quarters of an hour and immediately it was over two different parties of Germans rushed across with the intentions of making a bombing raid on our trenches but our chaps spotted them in time and opened fire on them with their rifles and drove them off. I believe they suffered pretty heavily too as they left several dead behind them just in front of our parapet and we got four of their dead brought in and captured one of them alive. Our platoon did not take part in driving the beggars back when they came and as soon as we were all safely back in the trench we went back to our own place in the support, but of we had known they were coming I think we should have wanted to stop in the front line and been in at it , I know I should. As of course you will have seen in the papers, we suffered a good many casualties ourselves and it was soon after we got back that I heard poor John Sen had been brought in killed. He was hit in the leg and neck by shrapnel and died almost immediately. He was evidently hit in the leg first. As when they fetched him in he had a bandage tied round it and must have been bandaging it up when he was hit again in the neck which killed him.

He is buried alongside of the other boys who got killed in one of the places where they bury soldiers , just behind the trenches and has a small wood cross over his grave with his name and regiment on. They put one over every grave where possible.

Well father, it is not very cheerful reading and I was not going to write and go into details about it all , but seeing you have asked me to give my experiences so far, I decided I would tell you what happened and give you something of an idea what it was like as I know it will be interesting to hear about. Of course the bombardment we were in was only a small affair directed on to the particular section of trenches we occupied of a few hundred yards frontage, but some soldiers who have been out here since the early stages of the war said that though they had seen bombardments on a much bigger scale and for a much longer time. They had never seen one more fierce while it lasted. I should think there was hardly a square yard of ground that was not shelled. There’s one satisfaction about itand that is, that where as at the beginning of the war the Germans could shell us like that without our boys having anything to reply with, we have any amount of guns here now and the minute the beggars start their tricks, our artillery start and bang back at them and give them as much as they give us and this is what has been happening when you see a short paragraph in the papers saying artillery duels have been going on at the following places etc etc. As a matter of fact, it is all artillery out here and our rifles are hardly used at all as we never see anybody. Everyone being down in the trenches of course and ridiculous as it may sound I have never fired a shot since we came to France for the simple reason I have never seen a German yet, although of course there are thousands of them not above a few hundred yards away when we are in the trenches. The poor old infantry (on both sides) has simply to stand in the trenches and be potted at by the other sides artillery and depend for retaliation on your own artillery which are somewhere about half a mile and a mile behind the trenches.

PS. Since writing this, I have been reading an account of the recent attack by the Germans at Hooge where the Canadians were and have come to the conclusion that ours was only a picnic compared to it.

I have not told you before, but even when we are not actually in the trenches and are in billets, we go up to them practically every day as "Working parties" and it is a walk of about three to four miles there and the same back of course and we are either carting great loads of wood, barbed wire, sand bags, etc about up and down the trenches, or else digging new ones and repairing old ones. A lot of the work cannot be done in day time and then we have to go at night of course and are on from about six in the evening until twelve o’clock or later in the morning, so you can tell how much rest there is for the troops when they come out of the trenches. Its all bunkum about rest camps, at least we haven't seen or heard of one yet and we have been here well over three months now.

It was rather funny the other night, we were up at the trenches on a fatigue, carrying one or two wagon loads of the above mentioned goods into the trenches from a dump in the fields just outside and behind them and a lot of us were just stood outside the entrance into them, in the fields, when all of a sudden we heard a machine gun rattling away and at the time one of the chaps clutched hold of himself and emitted a loud and agonised "ooch" and flopped down. Of course, everyone followed suit myself included and not last I might say and with my usual luck down I went with my rifle barrel right into a big pool of wet sloppy clay. As it had been raining for over a week, the ground was something like porridge. Well, we laid and cuddled the ground for about half a minute while a few dozen bullets went hissing and singing over us about a foot or two above and then they stopped.

As soon as they stopped someone jumped up and said "Come on lads up you get there's a man been hit" and rushed over to him saying, "Where are you hit?" and to the great amusement of everybody he said in a pained voice, "In My seat". Well, a lot of us were still laid down as it was all done very quick and you could hear various chortles and groans coming from different parts of the floor and it sounded very funny as it's rather awkward to laugh laid on your stomach (Just try it on the room rug and see).but I don’t think it would be very serious for him being hit where he was and he will get into the Hospital for a few weeks and have a rest at any rate.

The last time we were in the trenches the weather was terrible, we were in for eight days and it rained practically all the time and all I and two others had to live in was a hole scooped out of the ground with a piece of corrugated iron over it and we covered the floor with sandbags to sit on. We were not in the firing line this time, but in the reserve and we were carrying the rations from the dump in the fields into the trenches every night. The trenches were in an awful state and over the ankles in water in many parts and the fields outside were like quagmires. We were out every night for about four or five hours and on one or two occasions got wet to the skin. It’s a licker to me we don’t get laid up with it as our clothes have simply to dry on us, boots as well but we seem to be able to stand anything now. The rations are done up in sandbags which are tied together in pairs by the necks and we sling them over our shoulders and carry them that way. They are awfully heavy and we have to carry them about, Oh nearly a mile I should think from the dump to the trenches and then go back for some more and it generally takes at least two journeys and very often three, So it’s some job I can assure you. I pity the poor chaps who were out here at first with the original expeditionary force before there were any trenches dug and things had not been organised as they are now. It must have been heartbreaking for them, especially in winter and I have heard it said, that you could see men sat down and actually crying. When one has been sent out here and seen what it is actually like and what as to be done even now, when everything is organised and at its best, it makes you realise what it was the first lot did in keeping the Germans back and they deserve all they get done for them when they get back to England again.

I have had a letter from Kathleen and she says that you got the Daily News I told you of and found both the place on the map and the article on Egypt. When someone writes to me next, just say the name of the place you fixed on the map, so that I can see if it’s the right one.

We were very glad to see the papers and find that the big Naval battle had gone a lot better with us than at first reported and it must have been a fearful business and although the Germans have been a long time in coming out, it was no walk over for us when they did start (Dash it, I’ve just remembered I’ve mentioned this at the beginning of the letter).

What a bad business about the Hampshire going down with Kitchener on board, especially at a time like this. The Germans will rejoice, although some seem to think it will be a good thing to have a change in the office that Kitchener held.

By jove the Russians haven't half taken some prisoners, If they go on the same way for a bit longer and we only commence to do the same on this side the war should soon be over and I think there will be something doing here very shortly.

Did you get the book called "Fragments from France" that I told you about. If not, you ought to get it, it's fine and you will have a good shillings worth of amusement out of it. Now don’t forget and keep it clean as it will be nice to look at afterwards, or as they say here, "Apres le guerre".

By the way, I did not tell you that I had a letter from Mr. Green at the post office, asking if it was true about Mr. Sen and I have written him and told him all about it. I wrote Mr. Hefford a letter some time since and Dorothy tells me he has received it alright. Also we did not get surrounded by the enemy and have to cut our way out again. The account I have given you is exactly what happened.

Well, I will close now and try and get on with a letter to Mother as I am sure she will be wondering how it is I have not written before. Thanks for all your good wishes and advice Father and as being as cheerful as possible. Well, no one could have a better example than yourself for I’m sure you have had plenty of worry at one time and another and you have always kept smiling. Well, I hope it won’t be long now before the War is all over and that I shall be spared to come home safely back to you all. It will be fine to see you all again.

With much love,

I remain,

your affectionate Son,


P.S. I wonder if Mother keeps my letters as they will be interesting to read afterwards, if the pencil isn’t rubbed out.

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