Railheads: ‘gun fire and rats’

This is one of many letters sent by staff of the Great Western Railway Audit office at Paddington who had enlisted to fight in the First World War. (RAIL 253/516)

Sidney Smith, 19 March 1916, France. Born: 20 October 1881, Regiment: Railway Operatives Division, Royal Engineers, Regiment number: 218849, Rank: Sapper, Returned to office: 19 May 1919, Retired: 20 October 1941


My Dear Elton and all,

I expect you are wondering why I have never written since leaving England. Well the fact is I have never had a chance for it has been a Cook’s Tour since I was last with you. Perhaps I had better try and give you some idea of my adventures from the time we last met. It was not many hours after seeing you all that we were dispatched for France…We landed at a town after a nice long trip… At this spot, a rest camp so called, we spent about a week. What with parades in the daytime for various reasons and employed at the docks all night, unloading flour was the job that came my way you can imagine the rest we had. However we then went on to another base and here owing to illness, we were all isolated for ten days and no letters could be sent. Within a day or two of being released from this I alone of all our boys was packed off to another depot so that was the last I have seen for the time being of our crowd, and have been on my own since. After a couple of nights at this depot I was sent to a point to get experience in the work I came here for. This turned out to be the best thing I had touched for the staff were billeted out and I slept in a feather bed which was great for it was under canvas… I soon found out that my luck was in and that happiness and comfort would be my lot whilst there… Alas my dream was soon dispelled, and after a week of civilised existence, I was sent for by the depot. After another 48 hours there I was sent away again to some other spot, but en route, was detained at a rest camp for two days, apparently owing to the absence of trains to the point I was going…

Covered vans are used here to convey soldiers about. Strange to say the actual truck I made this last journey in I saw again the next day loaded with sick horses, so being used for any purpose you can guess they cannot be compared to the carriages in which we made our daily trips to town and back. To continue my travels, the next day I was sent to the point I am now writing from, and which I think will be my residence for some little time as I have now taken up regular duties. It is a terrible, Godforsaken and desolate spot. There is naught to be seen except shell holes and rats and these latter are an abomination…There is little to be heard here at night except gun fire and rats and one soon gets used to both. I went to a village, the nearest here, about two miles away, on Sunday last and it was really an awful sight to see how it had been smashed by shell fire. You can now I trust realise the reason for my not writing before, in fact I have only written to my wife and father, and have only received one letter from each of them and that was a few days ago. I can tell you that I hunger for news of home after being here a month without a word… It is also almost impossible to buy anything for there is nowhere to get it…

I trust all is well with everyone at 164 and that poor old Sid is alright again. If Miss Welsh’s little affair has come off I wish her the very best of luck and trust she will have all happiness… Please write to me soon some of you. Lots of luck, and good wishes to you all. Your old pal,


Return to Letters from the First World War, part two