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Date: 1963

60 Pembroke Road
October 1963

Dear Sir,

In answer to your appeal for personal experiences of the 1916-17 period of the Great War, I herewith give my most vivid remembered incident:

Name: John Pritchard Sudbury. Rank-Private of the 9th Canadian Brigade Machine
Gun Company, serving in France and Belgium. Arrived Belgium Feb1916.
Wounded at Passchaendaele Oct 26th 1917. Served throughout in front lines at Ypres Salient 1916, The Somme 1st tank attack on Sept 15th 1916, Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and Passchaendaele in Oct 1917.

October 25th 1917

The afternoon and night was spent by 27 of us carrying all our gun equipment and ourselves mile after mile from the rear of Ypres over the duckboards (often broken by shelling) and mud and more mud towards our positions from which we were to advance next morning towards the German Line. When the occasional rest came my friend "Curly" would persistently join me rather than stay in his allotted position in the single file line we maintained. He was particularly solemn and I did my best to cheer him up, for there seemed nothing else I could do, but inwardly I thought, "You, my friend, have a premonition"

At last we were under enemy gunfire and I knew now that we had not much further to carry all this weight. We were soaked through with rain and perspiration from the efforts we had been making to get through the clinging mud, so that when we stopped we huddled down in the nearest shell hole and covered ourselves with a groundsheet, hoping for some sort of comfort out of the rain, and partly believed the sheet would also protect us from the rain of shells. I shivered alongside Stephens who was a quiet, kindly and refined lad having his first taste of the front line. Together we huddled in this hole when there was a great thump behind us, but mercifully that shell failed to explode. As the shelling grew worse it was decided we had better move on, so reloading ourselves we pushed through the mud again and amid the din of the bursting shells I called to Stephens, but got no response and just assumed he hadn't heard me. He was never seen or heard from again. He had not deserted. He had not been captured. One of those shells that fell behind me had burst and Stephens was no more. "Missing believed killed" would be the laconic message home.

The rest of us struggled on in pouring rain and complete darkness. We often fell over one another, for not being able to see we just listened for the groans and puffings of those ahead, at least when we could hear amid the din of artillery.

At last word came down our little line to lie down. Apparently we had reached our allotted position for the next morn's battle.

We waited in the mud. At 5.30am on Oct 26th our guns opened their barrage on "No man's land" and the enemy lines, or perhaps we thought they did. Whether we had gone too far forward or whether the guns had sunk further into the mud no-one will ever know, suffice it to say that their shells fell on us. One after another of my friends called out that they were hit and struggled back for help elsewhere. At last the whole barrage lifted and those of us left gathered ourselves and our equipment together, to go forward. A few paces ahead a shell hole on my right attracted my attention and horror. There was that curly head face downwards on one side of the shell hole and his body on the other. There was no time for grief or tenderness. On we went struggling with the mud step by step to the enemy barbed wire, and there in another shell hole were two live Germans-but only just alive. They were mere boys and could not have been more than 16 years of age-both bleeding profusely but the look in their eyes I have never been able to forget. A look of abject fear mingled somehow with pity. I remember I hastily grabbed my water bottle, drank a sip and threw it to within their reach for I had heard the call to hurry up with the gun I was carrying, and I had to move on. I caught up with our party and noticed that two other guns were unmanned already. I put mine down and with the help of my friend "Chips" we bent down to remove the gun from its "boot" (carrying cover). I felt a bang and toppled into a shell hole on my left, and Chips who was on my right side yelled "Oh, my wrist". Luckily my shell hole was new and had not had time to fill with water. I quickly realised that my left leg was useless and that we had both been hit by the same bullet and, what was more horrifying to me, was the realisation that from that direction the enemy must be behind me. So I decided that this was no place for "Suds" and that I'd try and get back from where we had started somehow or other. Glancing round I noted that all our Company were gone-at least no one was left there-and then I crawled forward and raised my head to see where I had to go. It was just one stretch of water interspersed with rings of earth here and there which I knew were the edges of shell holes and I must keep out of them or drown in the holes they enclosed. How I kept my bearings I shall never know as I dragged myself round half of this hole and half that, keeping my mind on direction but ever turning a bit this way and then that way. How long that quarter of a mile took me to traverse I do not know, but at last a friendly voice called "Suds!" Two of our company came from their hole and picked me up. They told me that they and five more were all that were left of our 27. Now they were to have a chance of respite by getting me out with the aid of two others who brought a stretcher.

Now the mud really came into its own. The only way to move that stretcher was to push it foot-by-foot, almost inch-by-inch, over the surface. Then for each to hang on to it and drag first one leg and then the other out of the mire to replace it with more mire, perhaps a foot or so further on our way. It continued to rain and the enemy artillery were now replying to our onslaught. Shells fell all around us and none of us expected to reach the dressing station, only 300 yards away. It was four hours before we did reach it. The stretcher was full of water, mud and blood and at one halting I managed to slap a field dressing, dragged from the lining of my tunic, on to my knee to try and stop the bleeding. At long last we made it, and to me the very worst kind of hell upon earth was over. There was, however, much more for me to go through, but at least the hopeless frustrations, desperations and the complete unreality of life on Passchaendaele was over for I, like all my comrades, did not care one iota about fighting battles. The enemy and ourselves were in the selfsame muck, degradation and horror to such a point nobody cared any more about anything, only getting out of this, and the only way out was by death or wounding and we all of us welcomed either.

P.S. This filthy poisoned mud set up gangrene, and my left leg was amputated two months later after six operations to save it

That was 46 years ago. I am now a retired schoolmaster having served 31 years with the London County Council. I have also served the Boy Scout Movement with many active years as a Scout Master.

Yours etc