Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
In the early days of the First World War, the soldiers new to the trenches could look on the fighting with an almost schoolboy bravado. On 12th November, 1914, William Murray, then 35 years-old, writing home to his father at Eden Brows in Armathwaite, made it all sound like a great game: “I spent yesterday in the trenches. It was all extremely interesting. A continuous cannonade by our guns, and the Germans throwing their huge shells all over the place. The Tommies call them Jack Johnsons and they make the most fearful noise when they burst. As they come whistling overhead it sounds just like a flock of geese.”
He wrote to his half-sister, Claudine, who was 27 at the time. He gave her a humorous account of the memorial funeral at St Omer for Lord Roberts who was known to the soldiers as “Bobs”. He told of the large German shells almost as though they were a joke: “This thing comes tumbling through the air end over end and alights on the ground. There it sits for a minute and then goes off like a million peals of thunder. The first one that came made our own men roar with laughter as it sat up and did nothing. The laughter ceased rather quickly when it went off.”
A year later, after Ypres, Neuve Chapelle and the Somme, he could tell Claudine how they had collected “a very sumptuous repast for Christmas, i.e. Caviar, Pate de Foie Gras, Turkey and Sausage, Plum pudding, a pork pie, and a bottle of champagne, not to mention a bottle of port and some liqueur brandy.”
On 24th September, 1917, he wrote of a gas attack: “Last night we had 5 hours gas, and 5 hours in a gas helmet is beyond description. I thought I would have died of discomfort, and in addition it is a very painful thing to wear for a long time, as it fits so tight all circulation stops.” Ten days later he was recuperating in a London hospital. He told his father: “I got gassed about 4 nights ago, and it has caused some trouble which will take a few weeks rest to repair.”
In 1918, the family moved to Scaurbank on the Esk near Longtown. On the day of the Armistice William Murray felt a deep sense of relief: “We ceased fighting today - No more danger, no more horror, no more mud and misery, just everlasting peace”.
After four Christmases in the trenches, he could look back on “the war to end all wars” and feel “there is bound to be a certain amount of sadness amongst the joy. I cannot help but look back at the last four Christmases kept in queer dug-outs and in extraordinary circumstances, and remember the great-hearted men who held high festival on turkeys and chickens cooked in biscuit tins or on open fires, and who are gone now.” He could speak with pride of his fellow soldiers who had died as being part of “the great band who made it possible to win the war”.
William Murray served with the Warwickshire Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery.
Claudine Murray kept her brother’s letters until she died aged 98 in Carlisle. She expressed the wish to have them published.
Alan Whitworth has skilfully edited the letters and the war diaries of William Murray to give a full account of one soldier’s experience of the Great War. It is a moving story of how one man, alongside his fellow soldiers, lived through some of the most atrocious times that any men have been called to endure. He did so with a continuing sense of humour, courage and humanity.
The Thunder of Guns is a very powerful document.