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1916: Exploding paint drums

2nd Battalion of the 8th City of London Regiment Post Office Rifles in Cuckfield High Street (Colourised)

Writing to Mr. Hayden, of Haywards Heath. last week. Corporal M. Anscombe, of the 8th Royal Sussex Pioneers, said: 'I thought you would like to know how the Cuckfield boys in the Pioneers are getting on out here. Well I’m glad to say 'All right.’ They are keeping well and fit. But the weather is awful now.

'Winter has set in very early this year, and for several days the ground has been covered with snow. Much rain has fallen, and the trenches are in an awful condition. Nearly everywhere the knees of the men are reached by water and mud. It nothing to see some poor chap up to his waist in the mud with his full pack on, waiting for some one to come and dig him out.

'Of course, the worse the weather is, the more work it makes tor us, as being a Pioneer Battalion, it is our job to repair all the trenches, and keep them in as good a condition as possible. We have had plenty of exciting times lately, and some narrow shaves. The other day a party of us were working on a trench a few hundred yards from the Germans, when they started to shell us. They landed 25 whizz-bangs all round us. but, fortunately, no one was hit.

'The following day we were clearing the earth back from the top of a trench to save it from falling in when a machine gun started to sweep the parapet. Most of the men managed to get down in time, but our Brigade-General, who happened to be there at the time, was not so lucky. A bullet hit him right in the thigh.

We have been out here nearly five months, and we have held this line tor four months, so we ought to be relieved soon. Things are quieter along the front than when we took the line over. I suppose the Germans, like us. find plenty to do in keeping then trenches in decent condition without troubling much about the strutting business.

'The trenches are so close together that a lot of mining goes on. Nearly every day or two a mine goes up by one side or the other. Just lately the Germans have been straffing us with a lot old tin canisters, paint drums, etc. They fill them with stones or bits of old iron, and fit a detonator, time-fuses, and some gunpowder in them. What power they use to send them over I do not know; perhaps some large catapult or other.

'All the boys are wondering what will happen on Christmas Day, and whether the Germans will come out and have Christmas Day off as they did last year. I hope they do so that we shall be able to have a decent look at them. We don’t see much of them If you put your head up for more than a second a sniper cops you.

'Our regiment have started their leave, so we are looking forward to having a few days at home. Of one thing we are certain - the Germans will never break through on this part, whatever they do elsewhere. Our lot have got them properly set here. It’s only a question of time for driving them back, and I do not think much will be done before the spring. The Kaiser might just as well chuck up now, as the longer the war lasts the worse terms he’ll get at the finish, he is bound to lose in the end.’

Sussex Express, Surrey Standard, and Kent Mall, Friday, December 24, 1915

Postscript: We also know that Michael was 21 when he wrote his letter from the trenches and that a year later he was wounded.

in July 1916 he was wounded in the foot by shrapnel which was removed in a field hospital. he wrote:

'Just a few lines to let you know I have been wounded in the left leg and right foot by shrapnel. I am glad to say the wounds are not serious. I am in the base hospital at present, but expect to go to 'Blighty' in a day or so. Our division called up again after a few days rest, and on the night of 14th (July) we went up to a wood where a lot of fighting had been going on. Our lot drove the Germans clean out of it. We were supposed to dig a trench and wire it in to stop the enemy's counter attack, but we got shelled so heavily that it was near to an impossible job so we took what cover we could in shell holes and waited. It was then that I got hit.

There were five of my section in this shell hole when another shell dropped straight in. We all got wounded, but not seriously. Frank Elphick and Harry Chatfield, who used to work at Denman's, were two out of the five. I haven't heard yet how the other Cuckfield boys got on, as they are in different Companies. Bill Fox fell out on the way up through exhaustion. We are treated jolly well here. It is a bit different sleeping in a bed to lying on the ground - the same as we have been doing.'

On 26th July 1916 he added: 'Glad to tell you I am going on famously. I was operated on two days ago everything went off well. The doctor gave me a fine piece of shrapnel which he took out of my foot. It will make a decent souvenir ...'

From Mid Sussex Times 18 and 26 July 1916

Thanks to the Parish Magazine in March 1919, we know that Michael Anscombe survived the Great War and that as Sergeant he took charge of the Church parade at a Thanksgiving Service to mark the victory and cessation of hostilities.

Sources: Cuckfield Remembered by Shirley Bond.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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