Selected by Patricia Methven, Director of Archives & Information Management
Letter from Captain Basil Liddell Hart to his parents written in a break from fighting in the Battle of the Somme, 1916, as he prepares to go back to the Front the next day. The letter was intended to serve as his last message home in the event of his death.
When Liddell Hart wrote this letter he had already fought at the Front. In this letter he tells his parents of all that has been achieved to date and the comfort that, if he dies, it will not be because his life has been squandered by an inept leadership. At the same time he wants them to know the brute reality of trampling over bodies ‘as thick as peas’ and his difficulty in coping with the stench. He puts his destiny in God’s hands. The balance and the dignity moves me but so too do his final thoughts that somehow he would not have missed it, ‘It is a wonderful experience’ and its capturing of youthful patriotism and the excitement of fighting.
In ‘Impressions of the Great British Offensive on the Somme by a Company Commander who saw 3 ½ weeks of it’, 18 September 1916, Liddell Hart describes what happened next: two days of ferocious artillery fire and fierce hand to hand fighting through difficult wooded terrain where bodies seemed piled as much as ten deep and where shell holes provided cover for enemy snipers hiding behind advancing troops. At midnight on the 17th July his company was relieved and Liddell Hart starting sending his men back by platoons. As they went, the Germans started to bombard the wood and gun positions, this time with a new type shell. ‘At first, as these shells came over like whizz-bangs and fell to the ground without exploding, and there was no noise and no flash, we thought that they were ordinary shells which had failed to explode and were congratulating ourselves on our lucky escape, when suddenly the air was full of fumes of gas, and we realised the Germans had just started to use a new invention, a highly poisonous gas shell, which killed a lot of our gunners and others’.
Liddell Hart was gassed and saw no further service in the Somme. He went on to become a distinguished military commentator and author.
Ref: Liddell Hart 7/1916/15a