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War Letters From Tommy

In a series of letters to his family Thomas George Sumner vividly accounts the horror and futility of war in all its gore, with a familiar dry wit.

The letters are from my Great Uncle Tommy Sumner, written in pencil by candlelit whilst fighting on the Western Front in WWI.

The letters are being published here for the first time as a tribute to all those who lost their lives and to mark the centenary of the end of the war.

 

Dec 10th 1917

Sumner 52885

13 MG Squadron

MGC Base

BEF

Dearest Dad and Girls

Now at last I have got about ten minutes in hand, so I am scratching this line, no doubt you have buried me several times in the last few weeks sorrow! I have done my best or at least the Germans have done their best to out me, but its not a scrap of use my sort live on and on to a rotten old age, and at last gutter out in a miffey finish like Mrs Smith.

Joking apart, why we are not all dead only from shells shrapnel fizz bangs and machine gun fire, but more from exposure night and day in fearful weather with very little food. “Life is Sweet” the last two months has been about as sweet as sucking a lemon and trying to play the trombone at the same time.

The last letter I sent was to Fred Barnes I think, that same day we got the order to move, and in the following four days we covered nearly 120 miles the first two days we tracked in the daylight and it poured with rain, the last two tracks we did at night, it was very tasty as on both nights there was a thick fog, the transport ran into each other, and the horses slipped into the shell holes full of water etc. etc. what put the tin hat on it was crossing over a level crossing in the fog, a L N W Engen and trucks smashed into one of our ammunition limbers.

After that the track we stood to several miles behind the line for two days, then came the Big Push (Don’t make me laugh I’ve got cracked lip). No doubt you saw about it in the papers. We started at midnight in the pouring rain. We reached the place from where the attack started from just as the dawn was breaking, and as we formed up about six or eight mines went up together with one terrific biff that was the signal for the artillery, and the Hell of a straff started, the whole sky was one shimmering flame with the flashes of hundreds of guns and the din put whiskers on you.

That morning the Germans got mined, gassed, barrage fire, drumfire, then to cheer them up no less than 350 tanks went over, and after them the cavalry, straight over the Hindenburg Line.

The tanks did excellent work, as they pushed forward they dropped bridges over trenches, and they were supplied with enormous grappling irons which tore up the barbed wire, and left a clear path for us chaps to travel over. Without them the whole thing would have been impossible as there was more bared wire there than could have been blown up by shell fire in 6 months straff, I am sure we rode through a good three miles of nothing bu wire entanglements, it was a great sea all round of barbed wire about two foot high. we crossed over five lines of trenches without much opposition, and then we got held up.

Two fellows out of my Squadron are now in hospital in Birmingham and several in London, one fellow in particular is a boy from St Francis named Perks, don’t know if any of you know him, he was in big with Meanly the dentist. He got hit in the head and foot. Lucky devil. Oh I might as well tell you, this fellow Perks and I found a Catholic Chaplin the night before this straff started and went to “Scrapes”.

After, we got relieved by the infantry and we went back. Two days after we got relieved the dear old Germans broke through our lines, got a lot of reinforcements up and a hell of a splutter so the cavalry had to turn out, and gallop up to stop them. I did feel happy and glad that day. The weather had changed and it was freezing like the very devil, they would [not] let us make fires, and we got no rations up, the horses never had their saddles off for four days and nights it was speaking roughly a “Bugger” still wee pushed the devils right back to where they started from and pinched about two thousand yards into the bargain.

There is a great deal of wind in the air and stand to orders by the dozen, and we don’t know what we are on one half hour to the next. But still of course our “morale” is splendid. My moto is “Roll on death and lets have a long sleep” When you do get an hour or two fro sleep your dear “Komerates” and Hitchy koos start doing physical jerks up and down your carcass, and “oft in the still night” you spend many happy hours scratching yourself with both hands and one foot.

Thank you very much indeed for socks, gloves, scarf, gumboots etc. They came just in the nick of time.

This has been written in great haste. I am quite well and there is no cause for you to be collecting wind on my account.

Thanks for the ten bob just received, and remember he who laughs last gathers no moss.

My peace I leave with you and I wish I could leave you a few of my Komerates as well.

Love to all.

Tommy.

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his father Joseph Sumner and sisters Katy, Ethel, Marie, Gerty, Margaret of 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth Birmingham.

 

 

Dec ?

Sumner 52885

13 MG Squadron

MGC Base

BEF

Dear Dad

I have not the slightest idea of the day or date, I know it’s December and that’s all. For over a month now I have not seen a single civilian.

The part of the line we are on now is I think the most depressing of any, and I have been to every part of our line in France and Belgium. Here one can go for quite thirty miles back from the line before one gets away from the destruction and desolation caused by millions of both German and British shells. The Germans retired over this part of the country and they laid it to waste. God only knows what the French people will do with it after the war, there is not a village or town left standing, they have all been shelled down, burnt down, to blown up. In places there are the remains of what were once large woods but thousands of shells have cleared them and nothing remains but the shattered stumps, and trees with nearly all their boughs blown away. On a grey December afternoon with a drizzle of rain and a bit of fog this country looks God forsaken to say the least.

The gum boots etc. were a great boon thank you very much indeed for sending them.

I have not had a day’s illness since I have been out here.

Once I was nearly gassed and once I had a bit of shrapnel in my arm, but nothing to hurt. I am at present quite well in fact never been better in my life, which considering the very trying time we have been going through in the last six weeks, is rather wonderful.

Being filthy dirty annoys one like hell, it’s horrid, but can’t be avoided.

When we went through the Hindenburg line we couldn’t get water, or food except a few biscuits, and muddy water which we drank out of the bottom of shell holes, and the cold at night nearly creased us.

It’s all in the day’s march, and the time will come when you hear other people talking about what they went through and I shall have a satisfaction in knowing that I did my wack.

One night we were “standing to” with our horses all saddled up, waiting for fear the Germans counter attacked and it was very dark, cold, and raining, and those lines out of Henry 5th before the Battle of Agincourt came into my head:

“and gentleman in England now abed

“shall think themselves accursed they were not here

“and hold their manhood cheap whilst any speak

“who fought with us upon Chrispin’s Day”

Well Dad I shall have to stop now.

I am longing to come back to you all again. To meet Jack Fellows, and both carry on like a couple of fools for a few hours would be better than heaven.

By the way, I fell over some barbed wire in the dark a week ago, and smashed my watch, the first opportunity I get I am going to send it to you to get repaired.

Love to all

Your loving Son

Tom

Excuse scrawl written by bit of candle.

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his father Joseph Francis Sumner, 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth, Birmingham.

 

From a book of picture postcards found with the letters.

 

Written sometime after Easter 1917

Sumner 52885

13 MG Squadron

MGC Base

Dearest Dad

This is the first opportunity I have had of writing you a few lines. No doubt you have seen in the papers that the Germans have made a great offensive on our front.

On the Sunday before Easter, our Squadron was issued out with Infantry kit and we were rushed up the line, part of the way by train and the remainder in motor lorries. We went straight into it, dumped all our packs etc on the roadside. We did not know anything, we mounted our machine guns by the corner of the wood and waited.

In the afternoon we got the order that on no account were we to retire and that every gun was to be manned to the last man, so after that things began to get cheerful. Shortly after, the Germans came over the ridge in front about 1000 yards away and we opened fire, they were in mass formation and we mowed them down.

After a few minutes they got round on the flanks and our guns (twelve in all) had to retire two at a time and take up new positions to prevent us getting surrounded. It was getting dusk when they seemed to have had enough of it for a bit, and they retired over the ridge.

During that scrap we lost one gun, two fellows were captured, the officer I believe at the last minute, when he saw all was up, shot himself – the rest of the gun team were killed.

After dusk wee stood to our guns with fixed bayonets until nearly midnight when a battalion of Australians came and occupied a trench just in the rear of us, then we retired into the same trench. Together we held the position all Holy week and got relieved on Easter Monday. During that week we were up to our knees in mud as the trench got flooded, the Germans shelled us to hell with whizz bangs, shrapnel and gun shells. God knows how we hung on, if the Germans had had enough guts they could have wiped us out in twenty minutes.

During that weekI had some jolly lucky escapes I was on guard one morning behind a gun, the Germans were sending over dozens of whizz bangs and aerial torpedoes two most deadly things. A whizz bang burst under the gun, blew it about seven yards and smashed it up, the shock put me on my back and some of my clothes were burnt but I was not even scratched. Another time I was lying under the same blanket with a pal of mine and an aerial torpedo burst in the trench, my pal caught the force of the explosion in the stomach and was killed instantaneously and once more I got off without a scratch.

There is a great deal more I could tell you but it will have to wait for a while as there is no more time now, we are moving back tomorrow to get made up again as we have a good many casualties.

I expect the 13th Squadron will get split up now and send to reinforce other Squadrons, but I will let you know in a few days. I am quite well. One day I got terrible shivering fit which may have been caused by the rain and mud, and partly from the great strain of being shelled for days, as it plays hell with your nerves, but anyhow I got over it. Last night we had our boots and socks off, the first time for eleven days, two toe nails and several other bad lumps of foot came off with my socks.

Any how old Fritz is held up now on this part of the front, we made six attackers in one day and each time got returned with a kick in the pants.

I hope you can read this, you might send me ten bob, we don’t look like getting any pay and I want a toothbrush etc. etc.

You must not let things put the wind up you in Blighty, we are all doing our best.

Heaps of love to all

Tommy

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his father Joseph Francis Sumner in Handsworth, Birmingham.

 

Oct 13th 1918

Dearest Dad and Girls

I have a few minutes to spare, so I am writing this letter to tell you I am quite well and getting strong.

I often feel ashamed that I do not write oftener, because you all have been so good in writing and sending me whatever you want, but these days it is most difficult to write because we are on the move all the time, and I expect it will be the same now until the end. Everytime the infantry make the Germans retire, we rush them and keep them going as fast as we can, then when they fall back on a dug position we hold on until the infantry come up and then we hand over to them. In the last five days we have advanced a good distance, and now we are in a new country, that has seen no war except when the Germans stormed over it in early 1914.

I have on two occasions been scrapping alongside the Americans and they are good fellows and fight like hell, but they make a few mistakes because they are new to it.

The razor Uncle Frank sent me is excellent, shaving out in the open with a cold wind blowing and about four days of stubble on your chops is torture, unless you have a good razor.

The civilians here look worn out and scared stiff especially the women and girls, it is hard luck on them.

One evening we charged and took two villages at dusk. I went into on of the villages with another fellow for water. We found about forty Civvies all huddled up in one house, they went scatty when then saw us we had to kiss them all round about four times.

Im afraid the Paris leave is rather hopeless now, but I don’t mind so long as we can keep pushing on and end the war.

God give us peace.

Well dears, I shall have to stop now, I have received all the parcels you have sent and they are a blessing, we do enjoy them.

Being out in the open all the time makes you so hungry this cold weather, but so long as your stomach is full you don’t care a jot,

Cheerio

Heaps and Heaps of Love

Tim

PS Yesterday I had a letter from Marie, Ethel and Marg.

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his father Joseph Sumner and sisters Katy, Ethel, Marie, Gerty, Margaret of 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth Birmingham.

Nov 15th 1918

Dearest K.

There are hundreds of things I have to do tonight before I go to bed, but I have put them off to write to you.

Tomorrow the whole Cavalry Corp s are going on a triumphal march through Brussels and into Germany where i expect we shall remain for some time.

We followed the Germans up until the last, and we went on chasing them for nearly nine hours after the Armistice was started, as we knew nothing about it, we chased them right through Mons. The Belgian people went mad, gave us everything, my horse looked like a flower show, best part of the time.

There are thousands of things I could tell you about, but I cannot spare the time so the telling will have to wait.

The king of Belgium is leading my Brigade through Brussels when we go through and I think we are staying there for several days.

Madam Morot wrote to me today and said how happy they all were and that I must go and stay with her. Please write to her for me and tell her how I appreciate her kindness but that I am sorry it will be impossible to go to Paris now, as in a short time I expect to be in Germany.

She had better send the money back to you, then send it on to me. I might have a chance of a bust up in Brussels.

Thank God hostilities have ceased, if all goes well I expect we shall stay in Germany a few weeks and then I think it is probable that all the Cavalry will return to England.

It was jolly hard lines, two of our boys got killed about an hour before hostilities ceased, we were scrapping against some Uhlans who were covering the German infantry as they retired. One boy had been out there since August 1914.

Give my love to Dad and all at home. It looks as though Jack Fellows and I will meet again after all, I honestly never expected we should.

It’s like heaven now, no shells bursting about, no rattle of guns, no bombs “nuffink”

Cheerio

Heaps of Love

Tim

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his sister Katy, 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth, Birmingham.

 

Dec 16th 1918

Dearest Dad

I had my election paper come a few days ago, and I should very much have liked to vote for Lloyd George’s party, but I didn’t know which out of the three candidates represented Lloyd George’s party, so I haven’t voted.

I spent tow days in Cologne, it is a very fine city. The people of Germany are quite docile, we have had no trouble with them, in some of the places have stopped in, we have been treated very well indeed. When we were in Bonn some of the people there were Prussians and tries to be a bit “Buckish” so we helped ourselves to everything we wanted, and billeted ourselves in all the flashiest houses we could find. All the time we have been in Germany, we have had good beds.

I am not about eighteen miles inland from Cologne and expect to be here for three weeks and then my brigade relieve the second Brigade who are  stationed in the Cav. Barracks in Cologne. We have had rather a shortage of rations, up to the time the Armistice was signed. Fritz was retiring as fast as he possibly could and blowing up all bridges, cross roads and railways, and the rations had to come eighty or ninety miles over bad roads on motor lorries, so you see it was difficult work, hundreds of R.E.s have been working day and night, and now the railways and roads etc. are all repaired. In Belgium the civilians were very plucky. On many occasions the Germans mined roads and bridges etc. with “delayed fuses”, as soon as their backs were turned the civilians took the mines out and chucked them in the river.

On that advance we never knew when we were going to be blown up, it was quite exciting.

My pal has gone to bed so I shall have to do likewise.

Wishing you a very Happy Christmas,

Your loving son

Tom

written in haste

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his father Joseph Francis Sumner, 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth, Birmingham.

Dec 17th 1918

Dearest Katie

Thanks for you letter of the 10th inst. The P C for Fred Barnes was sent before I received your parcel with the cigs enclosed, it was pure sarcasm to make him buck up. I wrote a letter days ago thanking you for the cardigan, socks and gloves, I expect you have received it by now.

You might send some more cigs as soon as possible. There are no cigs to be had in Germany, except at about 3d each and rotten at that.

“Leave” is quite off the map there are heaps pf fellows in my Squadron who have not been home for 16 months. So I shall have to hang on until the first Cav division come home. I expect my division is for India, they are next on for Foreign Service. I should be in England by next April.

Last night I slept in a German bed that was alive. You know what a clear case I am when there are flees about, well I am covered in bites from my neck to me knees, never been in such a state before in my life, its nearly sending me “scatty”. When I found out this morning I was in such a vile temper, I lugged the bed out into the yard and set fire to the lot. I felt like burning the whole house down, the filthy devils.

One night last week you would have laughed three of us went into a very swagger cafe and restaurant in Cologne. There were a lotto Germans in, mostly Prussians one could speak French.

He said the English were no good so I told him what I thought about the Germans and we got a little crowd round, he kept telling his pals what I said to him in French and when I told him about the terrible torture “mustard gas” inflicted on our men, they all laughed, I went mad and knocked him over a table and two chairs, then there was hell to go for about five minutes, we wrecked the place,and chucked them all outside, it was good sport, Saxby was three parts cut, so after we had chucked them all out he did a bit of revolver work and busted every electric globe in the place, after that we bolted.

What a life!

I sometimes wonder how I shall let off steam in civilian life.

Well Cheerio, I was so pleased to hear Mother was better.

Love to All and a VERY Happy Christmas.

Tim

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his sister Katy of 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth, Birmingham.

Dec 19th 1918

Dearest K

I have received the parcel today everything was A1. I should very much like to have the Christmas numbers you spoke of sent out. There is an American magazine called “The Cosmopolitan” which is first rate, I wonder if you could get it in Birmingham. My Squadron is billeted about 18 miles from Cologne, in a small village, we expect to be here for three weeks or a month, and then we go back to the Cavalry Barracks in Cologne, and relieve the second Squadron. We shall get a good Christmas dinner this year, preparations are being made for a slap up dinner at 3.30 on Christmas Day. We all hope to get “Tight”. After my exciting experience in the “Live Bed”. I changed my billet, and the one I have got now is quite good.

I got the Bradbury alright I don’t think I said anything about it in my last letter.

We have had some snow today and plenty of rain, but it doesn’t matter much now the war is over, because you don’t have to be out in it night and day.

I gave the infant in my billet one of the oranges out of the parcel and it is howling like mad now, expect its guts are twisted poor little devil.

I was sorry to hear Jack Fellows was ill again he hasn’t had much luck, I expect he will come home as soon as he is well enough to cross the water.

Has the partner put in a n application for me? I don’t suppose it will make any difference but still there is no harm in trying. All the miners are going home in a few days. I spent the best part of this afternoon filing my horses teeth down, because he bolts his food, and gives himself tummy ache, its a lovely job, I think the horse would have preferred gas, he kicked the stable down, jumped on my foot and tried to toss me. I wish I knew as much about business training as I do about Cavalry work and Machine gunnery.

Well our Canteen has arrived at last, so I must dash off and see what I can get in the way of cigs etc.

Give my love to Arthur, Gert and the infant when they arrive, you all know how much I should like to be with you for Christmas, but we won’t give way to weeping and K’nashing of teeth. Better luck next year.

Love to all

Tim

P.S. Get Susan under the mistletoe for me.

Written by Thomas George Sumner to his sister Katy of 114 Trinity Rd, Handsworth, Birmingham.

With thanks to Jack Humphrey for his help documenting our family history.

 

 


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