A story from History. It gives you a glimpse of the euphoria and patriotism that was at play at the beginning of what became a gruesome and devastating war.A century ago, the world went to war. The outcome was total destruction. Armies swept through towns and villages in many countries with devastating results.

7.45 PM, April 30, 1916,

Serre, Somme, France.

Darling Mum,

Guess where I’m writing from. Go on, guess! Well, I suppose what I’ve written up top might have given that away. I’m in France. France, Mum! I never thought I’d even be outside Britain one day, let alone France. Imagine that. A boy from a tiny place like Woodhouse — and I’m in France!

I know you must still be boiling mad that I enlisted for the Great War without even telling you, more than a year ago. But I’d already left school, Mum, and I was working for a year as blacksmith’s striker, and when the Leeds Pals tram came by, calling for men to join the army … well, I couldn’t stop myself. I had to do it. Dad was a soldier after all. I guess I’m like him. I want to fight for my King and country too, Mum.

Because, Mum, this War is bigger than anything you or I can even imagine. Bigger even than when Dad fought, I think. I know the officers said it would be over by Christmas 1914 (I even heard Britain and Germany declared truce on Christmas Eve, and played a football match! Germany won.), but it didn’t. It hasn’t. Now they’re saying they don’t know how long it will take. Maybe months. Maybe years.

And to think it all began with some Serbian man shooting Archduke Franz Ferdinand! I’ve been talking to other soldiers here and learning so many things. This man, Gavrilo Princip, he shot the Archduke of Austria-Hungary (imagine that — a country called “Hungry!” Ain’t that funny?) in Sarajevo (my pals say it should be pronounced ‘Sa-ra-yay-voh’) on June 28, 1914. Sarajevo is in Bosnia. I’m not sure where that is. Somewhere in Europe, I think.

So Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia (I’m skipping some things here, I know — it wasn’t that simple) and made friends with Germany. Then our country joined with France, and pretty soon, it’s like the whole world has jumped in and is fighting on one side or the other. The Allies came together: Great Britain, France and the Russian Empire on one side (with Japan, Belgium, Serbia, and Romania joining in); Germany and Austria-Hungary on another (with the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria pitching in).

It’s mad, I tell you. But it’s horrible too. We have to fight in trenches — trenches that have two feet water in them and muddy and stinking … they’re saying one of these trenches runs for nearly 400 miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. They’re cut like zigzags to confuse the enemy and have trenches in right-angles to carry food and medicine. There is a soldier for every four inches of a trench! We even have dogs to go out into the open, and drag wounded soldiers back with ropes in their jaws! It’s blood and gore everywhere.

We use machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons … I’ve never seen anything like those rifles which fire 15 rounds per minute —those were used in Mons battlefield. Not all of us can do that, though. I have a Lee-Enfield rifle. It has a ten-cartridge magazine and I can fire twelve well-aimed shots a minute.

We fight alongside soldiers from other countries too. Like India. I met a Sikh soldier with a turban. He said Paris was like heaven — except that the bread was horrible: burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. They are brave warriors. But like everyone fighting, they understand that it’s terrible. “No man can return to the Punjab whole,” my Sikh friend said. “Only the broken-limbed can go back.”

I hope he gets home safe.

It’s not easy on the seas either. You remember the RMS Lusitania, don’t you? Downed by a German U-boat, and 1,198 people died. Civilians, Mum.

I know my sister Florrie kept telling me not to enlist, but this war is swamping us. Did you know? Someone called Sandes enlisted in the army in 1915. She was a woman! And remember Rudyard Kipling, the writer? Well, his son was in the Battle of Loos. Died, so I hear.

I have to do my bit in this War. Or the women might hand out a white feather, and say I’m a coward. Soon, the Government is going to make sure every single man in the country has joined, so it’s a good thing I’m already here. Soldiers all over the world are going through the same situation. This is our chance to be brave.

Maybe I’ll come home. Maybe not. But I’m going to do my duty. I hope you’ll be proud of me.

Ever your son,

Horace Iles.

PS: I wish someone would write about me in History books. That would be something, wouldn’t it?

Historical Note

2014 marks the 100th year of the start of the First World War, also known as the Great War, which lasted till 1918. With more than 100,000 tons of chemical weapons used, nine million soldiers were killed; 21 million wounded, and five million civilians died through disease, starvation or exposure.

Horace Iles was a real soldier, belonging to the 15th Service Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment. He was killed in action on the morning of July 1, 1916. His family did not know of his death until 11 days later. Today, he is remembered as one of the youngest soldiers to fight in the Great War.

When he enlisted to join the Leeds Pals, Horace Iles was just 14 years old.