You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Soldier Explains What It Was Like In the World War I Trenches

Wikimedia Commons

I had been advised not to go to the Red Cross Hospital in Sofia to speak with the one English prisoner there, because he was an “uninteresting case.” At the Hospital they finally unearthed the doctor who spoke German, and I told him I had come to talk with the wounded Englishman. “Certainly,” said the doctor, with that instant friendliness I began to believe was characteristic of unofficial Bulgarians, which lies deeper than courtesy.

He was not in the ward when we entered, but when we came through the door I knew he was Irish the moment I looked into his eyes, which were the roundest blue things in the world. He told me later his name was James Corcoran. You had only to see the eyes to know that the man was called “Jimmie” at home. He hobbled past me to his cot. When he had seated himself I said, “So you’re one of the boys who got through!” And his eyes grew even rounder and brighter.

He had enlisted on January 1, 1915, in Dublin, and gone with the Connaught Rangers to the Dardanelles. Four months of trenches, two important engagements,—“we took three trenches from them,” he said of his regiment, with no particular pride, merely a quiet and it may be indirect expression of his opinion of the Turks. Then long periods “worse than fightin’,” with “water two miles off, and shrapnel and snipin’ all round.” He added, with comical appreciation of the irony of his position, “We were glad to get out of the Dardanelles and be shipped to Saloniki.”

All the time he was bending slightly up and down, running his hand over his thigh from knee to waist.

“A little uncomfortable,” he explained.

“How did the boys feel when you started for Bulgaria?” I asked.

“Oh, fine o’heart!” he said in conventional smiling Irish.

They had pushed forward in good order and finally entrenched; scraped a two-foot scratch in Balkan mountain rock.

“We were in the first line, and we were there for nine days and nights, and it was as cold as—“ he stopped.

“Say it,” I begged him.

He smiled.

“What kind of clothes did you have?”

“Our Dardanelles suit.”

So it was true; it had been almost impossible to believe.

“We was up in the mountains with the same stuff we wore down in Gallipoli in summer,” he went on, in his unimpassioned way: “The trenches only came up to your knees, and no protection at all; and then there was no food.”

“No food?”

“Well, a biscuit, a bit of jam and some tea, maybe.”

“How many times a day?”

“Twice a day some, three times a day some, mostly once; when they could get it to us. Just enough to keep the life in you.”

“What did you do all that time?”

“We had to be looking out always; you had to be on your knees, too, for that. No sleep—o’ course you dozed a bit now and then, but mostly you had to be watchin’.”

Impossible to go forwards or backwards, impossible to believed; stupefied with the bitter icy waiting. I was told later the German officers had maintained that nine days’ delay. The Bulgarians would never have held the comitadjis1 back so long.

“And how did the boys feel?”

“Oh—“ he stopped, puzzled. Fortunately he was no psychologist or he would have told me how the boys felt, and I should not have learned that there are times when you do not feel.

“The last two days—“ he began, and stopped again, puzzled. “Well, we—didn’t feel good,” he finished lamely.

“What do you mean?—You sort of woke up, and felt—?”

“We felt something coming,” he said, tersely; and just for an instant I felt what those men, a yard apart in the knee-high trenches that were no protection at all, had felt.

“We knew they were getting ready for something,” he said, with another stop, in that elliptical fashion of his.

“Artillery?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “artillery.”

“What about your own?”

“Oh, the English guns were no good at all,” he said, decidedly. “The French was all right. The Bulgarians worked theirs fine.”

At the foreign office they had told me the English and French artillery worked much better than the Bulgarian, but Jimmie had been out there nine days and nights, in Balkan mountain wind and tropical clothing, and at the end the Bulgars had come “with the knife.” I do not imagine you can remember much difference between shrapnel and bayonets sometimes. Moreover, it is true that the effect of only the enemy’s shrapnel was apparent to Jimmie; but it is equally true that the Bulgarians are so inordinately proud of their prowess with the “knife” that they gladly belittle any other excellence of the army merely to enhance the glory of their bayonets. “Ein dummer Pat!”2 Herbst of the Intelligence Office said impatiently, when I repeated to him what Jimmie had said of the Bulgarian artillery.

“Yes,” Jimmie said again, in his even tone, “ours was all mismanaged—bad handlin’—I think it was the Colonel’s fault.”

“Then the Bulgarians came?” I prompted. “Did you check them at all?”

“We was fagged—no life in us left. And then they were three to one, and we each of us a yard apart.” He bent down and stroked over his wound again.

That was all. January first, took the King’s shilling, and later took four months of the Dardenelles; after that he marched “fine o’ heart” with a tropically clothed division the majority of whose members had never seen service into an early Macedonian winter to meet the Bulgarians, was rippled with a bayonet through the left thigh and now lay comfortable and quite content in the Red Cross Hospital in Sofia where he received every care the Bulgarians themselves received.

“The only trouble is—they don’t understand you,” he said, not by way of complaint, but to explain.

One year this bit of flesh and blood and bone had played the game with steel, and he was one of those who had come through, even survived the errors of his officers. I looked at the mild amiable man, with his large girl’s eyes and face with no indication of energy or personal assertion. This Irishman, who in the normal course of events might never have gone from Dublin to London, here in Sofia. For all the purposeless pain of the situation it was shriekingly comic.

“Who fights the point?” I asked, rather pointlessly.

He smiled at the stupidity of the question.

“Oh, the Bulgarians,” he said, with the nearest approach to emphasis I had heard from him, bending down over the discomfort of his wound again.

  1. Comitadjis refers to the rebel groups fighting against the Ottomans in the Balkans during the war.

  2. "A stupid Pat!" ("Pat" was a commonly used term for the Irish, short for Patrick.)