Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, January 1, 2023

J.B. Priestley's New Year's 1916 Letter Home from the Front

J.B. Priestley, 1915

John Boynton (J.B.) Priestley (1894–1984) was from Manningham, Bradford, Yorkshire, UK. His father was a schoolmaster. John’s mother died when he was young and his father re-married. John worked as a clerk after leaving Belle Vue Grammar School but his ambition was to become a writer. He served in the British army during the First World War, volunteering for the Duke of Wellington's Regiment on 7 September 1914—he was proud to be one of Kitchener's "First 100,000"—and being posted to the 10th Battalion in France as a Lance-Corporal on 26 August 1915. He was badly wounded in June 1916 when he was buried alive by a trench mortar. He spent many months in military hospitals and convalescent establishments and on 26 January 1918 was commissioned as an officer in the Devonshire Regiment and posted back to France in the late summer. As he describes in his literary reminiscences, Margin Released, he suffered from the effects of poison gas and then supervised German prisoners of war before being demobilized in early 1919.  

In 2020, we presented an article drawing on his memoir, Margin Release, in which he reflected on his service in the Great War.  It can be read  HERE.

Here we present a letter he wrote to his family from the front at the dawn of 1916.

1–2 January 1916

My Dear Parents,

I am writing this on the evening of the first day of the new year. We came into the trenches (an emergency call) the day before yesterday, but we are in the reserve trenches, not the firing line. I am writing this in my dugout (about two feet high and five feet long) by the miserable light of a guttering, little bit of candle. Soon it will go out, and then (for it’s only 5.30 and a wild night) come the long, long dark hours until ‘stand to’ in the morning.

Last night, old year’s night, was a nightmare evening. At 1 o’clock, the troops in the front line made two bomb attacks on the German front line, and we’d to support them. For an hour, it was literally hell upon earth. I had to spend most of the time crouched in the mud by the side of a machine gun. It was going nearly all the time, and the noise nearly stunned me, then the sickly smell of cordite, and the dense masses of steam from the water cooler didn’t improve matters. Both our artillery and theirs were going for all they were worth, and they lit up the sky. You could see some of the shells going through the air, swift, red streaks. Then an incessant stream of bullets from both sides, bombs, trench mortars, making a hellish din, and the sky lit up with a mad medley of shells, searchlights, star lights, the green and red rockets (used for signalling purposes); just about an hour of hell, and that was our introduction to the year of 1916! This morning I learned that we lost about 80 men and several officers, so that it cost us pretty dearly. 

I enjoyed the parcel hugely, and the pudding was splendid! Please thank Mrs What’s-her-name for her kind gift. It is very comfortable. I’m afraid that you would hardly recognise me if you saw me now. It is three days since I had a shave, and two since I had a wash. I’m a mask of mud. My hair is matted, and I resemble an Australian beachcomber.

This is morning of Jan. 2nd. We go into the firing line this afternoon for four days. By the way, if you can get hold of any old paperbacked sixpenny novels (such as Jacobs, Stanley Weyman – light stuff) please send some in your next parcel. No magazines; there’s not enough reading matter and the quality is bad. Only old copies, you know, don’t buy new ones.

I saw a tin the other day, labelled Mackintosh’s Chocolate Toffee de Luxe. It sounds so weird that I’d like some if you can procure any, please!

Yours affectionately,


Sources:  Forgotten Poets of the Great War;

1 comment:

  1. What a clearly detailed account.
    The call for light reading moves me.