‘Dead tired’ on the front line in Holland

A dejected Lance-Bombardier Davis and Gunner Carey of 319th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, shelter from the rain and sleet in Holland, 10 December 1944.
A dejected Lance-Bombardier Davis and Gunner Carey of 319th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, shelter from the rain and sleet in Holland, 10 December 1944.
A Bren gunner of the 1st Gordon Highlanders in action near Nieuwkuik, Holland, 6 November 1944.
A Bren gunner of the 1st Gordon Highlanders in action near Nieuwkuik, Holland, 6 November 1944.

The British Army had been motorised right from the start of the war, never dependent on horse drawn transport as the German Army was throughout the war. For the motorised infantry of the Queen’s Royal Regiment, attached to the 7th Armoured Division during the advance across north west Europe, this made little practical difference. The life of an infantryman remained arduous in the extreme.

R. M. Wingfield wrote memorably of his experiences in the line towards the end of 1944:

The men were asleep, but they still kept moving. We had marched from the T.C.V.s [Troop Carrying Vehicles], blindly following the man in front. We were fast asleep. The column stopped. Each man bumped into the one in front and groaned awake, like trucks in a goods train jerk and clank all down the line when the engine stops.

It was dark. It was raining. Our enemy was not the Wehrmacht but the heavy rain, the darkness, the weight of our packs and weapons and our sore feet. We were exhausted, past caring. All we wanted was sleep. A cup of tea and a cigarette gave us a feeble spark, soon extinguished, a drug wearing off.

We took over wearily, apathetically, from a unit of another Div., 45rd Wessex, I think. They told us where Jerry was and what to watch for. We didn’t speak.

The positions were by the wall of an orchard, with holes blown in the rugged walls for vision slits. Night, black and drowsy, prevented our seeing much. We didn’t want to see anything. For God’s sake, give us sleep!

Sentries were posted in pairs to punch each other awake. I leaned with my chin on the Bren butt, staring blearily into the darkness. My head nodded. My forehead fell on the back-sight. I jerked awake and punched my mate on the arm, above the elbow.

The sudden pain woke him. So it went on for two hours. Finally a tap on my shoulder from the relief and I sank to the bottom of the trench. I was asleep before I reached it.

Two hours later it was nearly dawn – stand to! The Sergeant pulled us to the top of our trenches and kicked our backsides till we were awake.

We fought, spinning, to the surface. The light, feeble and grey as it was, smashed into our eyes. We cocked the Bren and leaned on the parapet, dozing. As the light grew stronger, our eyes narrowed to filter it.

We squinted through the holes in the wall, touching its rough stones to remind ourselves that there was something real in the world. No-one spoke. The only sounds were the sighs and groans of exhaustion and a faint thump as someone fell asleep over the edge of the trench.

We dozed on fitfully, half awake, half asleep, vague. Our heads were not parts of our bodies but long, opaque periscopes stretching up from somewhere in the trench. Our shoulders sagged till they seemed to be resting on our thighs.

We didn’t feel our legs. If we moved them, they answered the brain’s message slowly. They weren’t part of us, just heavy things vaguely attached to our weary bodies, deadly useless things which somehow prevented our dropping to the bottom of our trenches, where we wanted to be with all our hearts. We hated them.

We were dead tired. I use that term because the words were synonymous. A tired man was a careless man. A careless man was a dead man. We knew that. We were beyond fear.

See R M Wingfield: The Only Way Out

Troops of the 1st Norfolk Regiment during the advance on Wanssum, Holland, 26 November 1944.
Troops of the 1st Norfolk Regiment during the advance on Wanssum, Holland, 26 November 1944.
Infantry of the 1st Suffolk Regiment rest during a patrol east of the Maas near Geijsteren, 4 December 1944.
Infantry of the 1st Suffolk Regiment rest during a patrol east of the Maas near Geijsteren, 4 December 1944.

2 thoughts on “‘Dead tired’ on the front line in Holland”

  1. On careful examination of these poignant photographs taken by
    somebody obviously with a camera even during combat, it might
    be a record from the first world war other than the updated weapons.
    Rain, trench warfare, the cigarrette for comfort and to stay awake…….
    One hopes these men from East Anglia ( Norfolk / Suffolk ) saw the
    war through without loss. If not, God Bless. Some of my relatives are
    from Wells next the Sea and Morston, North Norfolk. The Temple Family.
    Wedn. 10. xii. 2014. 12.27pm gmt wt / -1hr. Geoff Hamilton

  2. 1st South Lancashire Reg just up the line from you, we were in you were out tired out just to sit down and have a fag. Christmas in Venrey back in the line for Boxing Day. (B) Company.

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