On 1 January 1916, J B Priestley wrote this letter from the trenches in France during some of the fiercest fighting he endured in the First World War. It is one of a collection of surviving letters Priestley sent to his family which recount his experiences on the Western Front. Priestley volunteered for the army in September 1914 at the age of 19 and served for four-and-a-half years.
What does the letter reveal about J B Priestley’s experiences of war?
The letter captures both the misery of daily life in the trenches and the horror of front-line warfare. Priestley’s vivid evocations of deafening machine gun fire, the sickly smell of cordite and a sky lit up with shells and searchlights are made all the more poignant by his exclamations of gratitude (‘I enjoyed the parcel hugely, & the pudding was splendid!’), and his requests for ‘sixpenny novels’ and ‘Mackintosh’s Chocolate Toffees’.
Writing about his war experiences many years later in his memoir Margin Released (1962), Priestley recalls that he could not wait to get out of the hell of war, feeling like ‘a mouse in a giant mincing machine’. He is scathing of how the army ‘behaved as if a small gentlemanly officer class still had to make soldiers out of under-gardeners’ runaway sons and slum lads known to the police’, and criticises the way men were packed into ‘rotten trenches’, leading to greater casualties and despair among survivors.
Priestley left the army with a strong sense of class injustice, which greatly influenced his political life and his writing. It is a key theme in An Inspector Calls (1945). ‘The British army specialised in throwing men away for nothing’, Priestley said. ‘The tradition of an officer class, defying both imagination and common sense, killed most of my friends as surely as if those cavalry generals had come out of the chateaux with polo mallets and beaten their brains out’.
 J B Priestley, Margin Released (London: Heinemann, 1962), p. 100.
 Priestly, Margin Released, p. 136.
 Priestly, Margin Released, p. 136.
 Priestly, Margin Released, p. 137
In the trenches
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 its 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
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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
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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!