On the 22nd May 1915, the young Private G. Pettigrew made landfall in France heading for the Western Front for the first time. He was serving with the 10th Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry.
Born in 1892 in Handsworth, Birmingham, Gilbert Thomas Richardson Pettigrew had left his family and friends behind. His hometown was Warwick and his childhood school Warwick School; despite a trip to Canada and back for more journalism experience. By mid-June 1915, he had been promoted (unpaid) to Lance Corporal and he was writing home to his former colleagues at the newspaper he had used to work - the Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser. His words reveal the often excited and fearful emotions of a young man at war. His letters from the front must have keenly read by those anxious to know where their menfolk had gone and what life was like for them.
On the 12th June 1915, his first letter sent to the Mayor of Warwick was published in the Warwick Advertiser entitled 'Warwick Man with the Shropshires' and his 'First Impressions':
After a little over a week's comfortable travel we have arrived, presumably, at our base of operations. We travelled by rail from our place of disembarkation, inland a matter of several hours and marched ten miles to our first billet. Here we remained four days and came back over the same ground six miles past the town where we detrained, remaining billeted in a small village a day and a half. Yesterday (Sunday) the march here was commenced at five a.m.. The roads are decidedly bad, and a fourteen mile walk through dust and heat is no light task. Our battalion has the reputation of providing the finest marchers in the Brigade, and accordingly we reached our destination, the battalion being intact to a man.
In our billets this side the water we had quite nice beds. Barns had been requisitioned and straw was there in plenty. One could not desire a more comfortable 'bed'. Here, alas! it is quite different. We have returned, after an absence of a week to 'board mattress'. All comes in a soldier's lifetime, however, so no grumbles are forthcoming. But how different is this to our camp-life! There one might sleep safe and sound, free from worry and care, but here, of necessity, the sound sleeper must listen to the ceaseless booming of friend and enemy guns. There is, too, in the night-time, the never-ending rattle of rifle-fire in the trenches. Occasionally, following the ponderous explosion of a big gun, comes the whirr of a shell travelled on its path of destruction. It was our first experience so close to the line of fire, and (I don't blush to say) it caused uneasiness and qualms for the first time. Now, after twelve hours, everything seems safe and sound.
Soldiers who have been here since the war's commencement (and there are still a few) soon had an eager horde of listeners. Their stories were brimful of thrills and excitement. Perhaps some were exaggerated, but on the whole one could gather a fair idea of the war in all its fierceness. One 'old sweat' would commence, 'Boys, I shall never forget the night of November 7th 1914, etc...' and that he was in deadly earnest, anyone could see. As he recalled incidents, painful to his hearers, tears would spring to his eyes. And he would finish, 'Yes, and he died like a man.' Silence invariably greeted this conclusion. The next minute the same old solder would brighten up, and launch forth with tales full of humour. If I can only develop so excellent a method of recalling incidents of the European war, and survive to entertain audiences so well, I shall have done something.
Occasionally during last evening our attention would be called to an aeroplane hovering in the vicinity of the enemy trenches, or enemy aeroplanes flying near our own. Suddenly a shell would burst and envelop the machine in a cloud of white smoke. Invariably German aviators had a hotter time than ours. Though we saw several near goes, there was not a single hit. It made one wonder, however, at the iron nerve of these brave men. As though nothing had happened, the aeroplane would make a graceful swerve upwards and out of range, and continue on its way unmolested. So far, so good. Our experiences have been fairly unexciting. When I write again, perhaps, I shall have had some real groundwork.
Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser 12 June 1915 page 6
Keep following the blog on Wars Last Goodbyes for more about Gilbert E. R. Pettigrew