The experience of trench warfare was now becoming a common one in Italy. Each man had to deal with the constant threat of shellfire, the discomforts of trench life in the open, and the attentions of enemy patrols. Men reacted differently, as differently as Spike Milligan treating the war as an absurdity or Audie Murphy, the hard minded infantryman. They were writing sometime after the event, with the expectation of publication.
This is another perspective on how men felt in these circumstance, a revealing personal account that was written at the time, almost certainly with no thought to publication at the time it was written. Major Lawrence Franklyn-Vaile of the Irish Brigade was writing to his wife at home:
I am writing this sitting on the edge of a slit trench in a wood ready to dive into it at any second if any artillery shell bursting is at hand. It has been a grim few days since I last wrote. The first day we marched 20 miles, then at night marched another 10, and dug in before daybreak. In the afternoon, we marched another 12 miles, fought a battle at night, dug in, moved in the morning, dug in again, moved and re-dug.
Since then, we have been under constant shelling from the Germans. The worst part of being shelled is the feeling of utter impotence and, after a time, combined with total lack of sleep and very little food, it has an extremely wearying effect on the nerves. For 96 hours, I don’t think I have experienced more than 4 hours sleep and I began to feel dreadfully tired and depressed. Indeed yesterday when I was by myself, I actually cried a little as I felt so done in. I then thought this will never do, so I took a couple of aspirin, a blanket and went and lay down under a tree.
I slept for about 6 hours – my batman waking me once with a cup of tea. I awoke at 3, feeling a new man. A merciful providence saved my life for 5 minutes later a shell burst 5 yards from where I had been sleeping, and the blanket was covered with large bits of shrapnel. I would not have stood an earthly, if I had been there. Lesson learnt, never sleep outside a slit trench and you may be sure I will never forget it.
This morning, a German patrol tried to enter our area. Our forward post opened fire on them and they went to ground. I went forward to our post, tested the area by firing rifle shots into likely positions and then, with a L/Cpl armed with a Tommy Gun, went forward and searched an area about 300 yards ahead.
I do not usually stick my neck out quite so far, as the saying goes here, but I did it deliberately to test my nerves and, to my delight, I found I was a steady as a rock. I have felt more excited on an exercise at home, but never was a finger more ready to press the trigger. We found nothing but I was pleased with my own little performance, for it showed me that when there is something doing, there is not much wrong with me.
The only good thing that can be said for war is the spirit of comradeship it produces. No finer friend than Johnny has ever existed, and for once I have someone I can occasionally lean on. I think he strengthens me in the same way as you have always done darling. In times of stress and depression, you have always had the happy knack of knowing how far to be sympathetic and how far to be firm. I have had some strong friendships in the past, but never one that I can get the same strength and comfort from. I have not seen Denis Haywood for some days but his company had rather a happier time than ours. However our situation appears to be easing, as we have very strong forces behind who may bear the brunt for a little time.
Tomorrow is my birthday and it will hardly be spent under very happy surroundings. However let’s hope my birthday in 1944 will be spent with my own darling wife and little daughter. I have not had a letter for some days now, but am hoping there will be a few when they are able to bring the mail forward. It seems a long way from home at the moment but one can never tell what is around the corner. The Russian offensive keeps pressing forward and is highly encouraging.
I have been very touched and pleased about Valerie kissing my photo at night. Keep cheerful precious, and remember I love you more deeply all the time.
Your devoted husband
Major Lawrence Franklyn-Vaile’s letters appear as part of the history of the Irish Brigade.
The following day, the 27th, they launched an attack during which he was wounded and colleagues killed, which he describes in his letter of 29th October.