No 3 South General Hospital
Oxford, England, June 17/16
As you can see by the above address I had been transferred to England, Good old “Blighty”, the mecca of all soldiers at the front.
In this beautiful old town on the Thames, this historical seat of learning, we have found a veritable haven of rest, ministered to by gentle nurses, our every wish and want granted; the gratefull rest of soft beds and clean cool sheets; the scent of flowers wafted through the open windows; the songs of birds, and above all the peace full quietness, after the turmoil and noise of battle. This indeed is heaven.
My wound bothers me very little, only an occasional twinge as nature keeps returning the lost flesh and drawing in together. So you can see I can enjoy my comfort to the full. When I get out I will tell you of this place if I can. In this letter I intend to give you a brief account of our part in the third big battle of Ypres, which is without doubt the fiercest and bloodiest the Canadians have ever been in.
On June 2nd, our company having just left the trenches five days previous, was enjoying a well earned rest. We had still three days of grace before our turn to go in again.
In the morning of the above mentioned date, were very busy overhauling and cleaning our guns, belt, ammunition etc. The afternoon was being spent in the usual manner, every one amusing himself to his fancy. Some were reading, others writing letters, a few playing card and quite number taking part in the usual afternoon ball game. The shouts and yells of the contesting teams, the jeering cries of rooters hurling their derisive opinions, rang through the quiet countryside. You see we were billeted some twelve miles behind the line, in a section of the country which had escaped the devastating effects of the enemy and the environment was typical of the old world, quaint and picturesque. The hop vines were well on their way up the guiding poles; the fields were green with future harvests, cows browsed lazily in meadows; the birds sang their everlasting songs, and this, though in the very shadow of death seemed as remote from the scenes of murder and carnage as a country place along the Assiniboine. Into this peaceful scene came the ominous news that the enemy had taken part of our line. Following closely on the news came the order to march. Packs were soon made up; wagons and limbers loaded, and hastily partaking of a pint of tea we were soon in readiness to move. Followed by our transports carrying guns and munitions, packs, etc.
Marching in two ranks and keeping close to the right we commenced our journey to the scene of conflict. Over the rough cobble stone roads we trudged along. We could hear the bag pipes of our kiltie battalions, and occasionally we caught glimpses of them when passing a cross road, swinging along, heads up; every one keeping step to the pipes. Kilts swaying in perfect rhythm. Marching cheerfully and fearlessly to battle. Before twenty four hours had passed hundreds of these brave lads will have passed to the great silent army and hundreds more will come out, but wrecks of a sturdy manhood that went in.
Every road leading frontward we knew was thronged with Canadians. Every Canadian battalion would share equally the burden of this fierce fight: As we move along, great motor trucks laden with war material pass us by; transport and ammunition wagons rumble over the uneven road. Now an then a fast driven motor car speeds past bearing some staff officer. Dispatch riders on their noisy motorcycles tear along the road dodging in and out miraculously escaping collision with the traffic. We pass through two or three small villages with their peculiar old fashioned buildings of red brick, many of them housing soldiers and others full to over flowing with refugees. Overheard aeroplanes hum and drone and cast loose their signals of smoke. Later on as it darkens colored flares are dropped. They are no doubt signals to our batteries, but to us they have no meaning.
We have been marching about three hours and have come into the zone of the Enemy’s long range guns but as yet no shells have come over. Now and then the air vibrates with the boom of our own canon. The sky is lit up for a brief moment and we hear the scream of the shell gradually dying away in the distance as it hurls through the air to drop, lets hope, on a vital spot of Fritz’s line.
We come to a ruined village, silent and deserted, the only outstanding feature a tall Church tower; two of its walls having been blown away the remaining portion is simply a ragged structure of uneven surfaces looming heavenward. We leave these dismal remains of once happy homes and a march on. Soon we arrive at one of the most pitifull sight of Flanders. The ruins of the once beautifull city of Ypres. The desecrated city, destroyed and deserted. It is almost impossible to describe the wrecks. It lays a mute sad symbol of hunish hatred. Not a building is whole, no, not even one. The beautifull cathedral; the magnificent cloth hall, the many old historical buildings of grandeur, all are now but dreary mounds of brick and mortar with tottering bare walls showing great gaping holes, a grim testimony of german gunnery.
We pass through the city without mishap though several shells burst close by. Just before leaving the city we rest for fifteen minutes. The next lap is in the open and though it is dark still Fritz having the range of the roads to a nicety keeps things lively. Our marching now consists of running and walking alternately. We leave the road and cut across fields eventually ending up at a point where the transports can go no further. Taking cover in a ditch we wait for the transport which has followed the road, and when they arrive we are soon busy unloading.
Our packs are left on the limbers, but machine guns, tripods, ammunition and rations are divided up and each one shoulders a share. This unloading point is a favourite spot for enemy of artillery, and shrapnel shells are exploding in the air all around. Horses become frightened and unmanagable; limbers get crossed on the road; drivers shout hoarsely to the frantic beasts and endeavor to head them out of the confused mass. In the midst of this chaos we slip through the darkness, leaving the drivers to extricate themselves as best they can as we have other business to attend to.
Fifteen minutes walk and we halt. Four gun crews are sent forward to the front and of the remainder are told to occupy an old grass covered trench close by.
It is now about one o clock and we barely get ourselves settled when hell breaks loose. The roar of artillery, bombs, mortars, rifles, machine guns is deafening. The sky is lurid with the thousands of flashes. Fritz has made another attack. Fifteen minutes and everything is quiet again.
Three times in all before daylight the sharp quick attacks occur. We remain idle in our trench waiting for our call. Shells burst on our parapet and behind, throwing the earth over us but doing no harm. Just as dawn is breaking we get the news of the nights work. The wounded are coming out, and we eagerly question them as to the outcome. Some look at us queerly and pass along, too numb to even reply, an incoherent jumble of ideas, none of them seem to know what had taken place. Most of them could simply say, “It’s hell,” It’s hell.”
Saturated with blood, supporting each other, limping and stumbling along, dull of eye, weak and maimed they struggled along to the dressing station. Soon the stretcher cases began to appear. The weary toil worn bearers bringing back the helpless. Some of them stopped to rest and from them we got a fairly good account of what happened. Fritz had attacked three times but each time was driven back, retaining only his initial advantage of the previous day, which was some fifteen hundred yds of our front line forcing our troops back about several hundred yds. The sacrifice of life on both sides was fearfull, but the enemy’s losses outnumbered ours.
And during the remainder of the day intermittent artillery duels were in progress, and about dusk, Fritz attempted another advance but was repulsed with heavy losses.
We were not yet prepared to advance. Lines had to be consolidated, supports and reserves placed, units reorganized etc. Some battalions had been literally shelled to pieces, what remained of them had to be taken back and fresh battalions brot up.
I must mention here the brave and daring work of ammunition drivers. Dangerous as it is at night for wheel traffic on the road, it is a mere nothing to what it is in daylight. Night time Fritz only guesses you are on the road as he can’t see; but in daylight he can see from his observation balloons for miles, and he has simply to train his guns on certain portions of the road and wait until his quarry is opposite and let blaze. To run the gauntlet of this murderous fire is no mean thing and requires not only courage but nerves of steel.
One of the roads leading to our batteries passed by our trench about ten yards away and all day long the limbers came and returned always on the dead gallop, tearing along at breakneck speed. Drivers lashing their dripping foam flecked horses past the danger spots, the latter being openings through the trees that lined the road. There was a clear space at the end of our trench in full view of Fritz, who in consequence kept a murderous fire concentrated there. Time Fuse shrapnel that exploded about twenty feet in the air sprinkling the road with its fragments and then for variety high explosive percussion that bursts when it hits the ground making the earth tremble for hundreds of yards around and leaving great ugly craeters in the ground. From where I crouched in the trench, the back of which was very much open--I had a clear view of the road for a hundred yds. I could see the limbers is coming along easily while out of the enemy’s sight, but on nearing the opening the horses would seem to fairly leap forward; the drivers bent over in the saddle goading them on with whip and spur; the limbers jumping and careening from side to side. “Crash” a shell would burst beside the road, the black smoke for a moment blurring the onrushing steeds and men, but another moment and they pass on to safety behind a great embankment. Now this death defying race has been going on since daylight; and though I know not what may have occured at other points of the road, at our point they have escaped as by a miracle until about three o clock in the afternoon the horrible thing happened. It was a double limber with six horses, three teams, a driver astride the near horse of each team. A demon whine, a blinding flash, a roar as of thunder, a cloud of black smoke and what had been a living dynamic force was now a broken mass of quivering flesh and splintered wood. The shell hit of the wheel team blowing them to shreds, their driver sharing the fate of the team. The centre team was mortally wounded, and its driver received severe wounds in the legs. The lead team and driver escaped without a scratch. Merciful bullets from one of our rifles soon put the poor wounded beasts out of their misery. The wounded driver was hurried to a dressing station. The unwounded horses were untangled and sent scampering down the road, the uninjured driver accompanied his brother driver, and the incident was closed. When all is said and done it was only an incident in this mammoth game of slaughter. But what sublime courage and daring. However if you were to tell these same lads that their action was heroic they would laugh at you and call you a “nut”. It’s all in the days work and the danger gives spice to the game.
There is not much to record for the remainder of the day and ensuing night. Occasional artillery duels and a few minor attacks by the enemy which didn’t amount to much were easily checked.
Early on the morning of the fourth we moved up closer to the front, two more gun crews taking up positions.
The infantry having no trenches to protect them were forced to take cover in shell holes ditches and in fact any thing in the shape of a screen. Sanctuary wood the point to where the enemy had penetrated was alive with our own troops and here is where many a desperate hand to hand fight took place. Small parties of men would come in contact with each other, and in these small fierce contacts the superiority of our troops was wonderfully demonstrated. We are compelled to respect the enemy’s artillery, but as individual fighters with the bayonet they are rotten. When they find themselves in a hole up goes their hands. In innumerable cases where our troops, cut into pieces by artillery and mortars, have, by a furious resistance repulsed overwhelming odds. Countless are the deeds of heroism displayed by individuals and many are the incidents of isolated parties fighting to the last man rather than surrender hurling with their last breath cries of defiance at the enemy.
It is the firm conviction of a great many that the germans had been drugged before making the charge, some even go so far as to claim smelling ether and other drugs. Whatever truth there may or may not be in this, its not out of reason as german officers are only too well aware that the soldiers are, to put it mildly, somewhat reluctant in meeting Mr Atkins personally. They much prefer the hidden depths of their trenches which by the way are about twice as deep as our own. The german soldier will do nothing on his own initiative. He must been driven on by his officers and when the latter are killed or incapable he is done.
In wonderfull contrast is the quick decisive intelligence of the Canadian, as an instance:
Two platoons or rather the meagre remains of what was left of two platoons had received orders that at three oc in the afternoon, when our artillery in would cease their bombardment of the enemy, they were to charge. When of the hour arrived not an officer was left to lead them. Did they hesitate! No! Promptly forming a council of war by themselves they decided to follow out the original schedule and without a leader, but in splendid order and with every confidence in each other they made the attack and won the german trench.
Unfortunatily their number was so depleted that it was impossible to withstand the massed counter attack by the enemy, but they held to the last man and over their dead bodies the germans regained their former position but at a cost they will not soon forget.
We had our guns situated in the ruins of old houses, behind hedges, on the crest of knolls. In positions enabling us to sweep the country to our front. Up to the present we had been very fortunate with only half dozen casualties, but two of our crew occupying an old building that had been bombarded heavily, and a shell making a direct hit buried them, guns man and ammunition were covered up with bricks. Five casualties was the result, the most remarkable thing being that no one was killed, but all were badly wounded.
On the night of the fourth nine of us were taking sand bags up to an advanced position. There was an open space of about two hundred yards which we had to traverse. Fritz was well aware that soldiers were constantly passing back and forth at this point, and he kept a constant curtain of fire over it. We had an exciting race. We had to dive into a ditch about ten times before we got safely across.
During the fifth of June we forced the enemy back as far as our old original front line.
Half of our brigade being almost wiped out the remainder was brought up to the advanced position. The machine guns were ordered to occupy the front line. Taking shovels and sand bags with us we dug in. Patrols covered our front and so we worked feverishly all night, managing to get a trench about five feet deep with also a firing platform for our guns. Other guns were in positions at intervals all along the line. Everything was quiet untill about two o clock when it suddenly green and red signal lights shot high into the air from the enemy trench. No need to tell us what this meant. In the twinkling of an eye we were crouched low in the bottom of the trench.
It seemed as if the sky had opened up and was raining shells. The din was terrific; the flashes blinding, the earth fairly rocked from the shock of hundreds of high explosives. The air was full of flying metal. We were covered with sand bags and dirt. Our eyes burned and smarted from powder gases, which hung in clouds over us. One would naturally think under the circumstances that a panic must result. Not so, by any means. Cool and collected men fixed their bayonets, oiled rifles, adjusted ammunition and bombs and put themselves in general preparedness for out expected attack. We stood by our gun, with ammunition boxes ready a belt in place, gun packed and ready to scatter forth its four hundred and fifty bullets per minute. Like a China Sea typhoon it came abrupt and terrific and ended as abruptly. Fifteen minutes and everything was quietness again. We strained our eyes for an approaching enemy, but as nothing moved in no mans land, we concluded that Fritz have abandoned the idea of our attack, or probably he had thought we were going to advance, so to make sure he tryed to forestall us. If however he was only giving us a gentle hint that he was still on the job, he was quite successfull. We were well of that fact.
The wounded and dead were hurried out and back to digging we went. At daybreak we ceased work, tryed to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, but the trench being narrow and crowded it was impossible to stretch out, so we sat in a cramped position. About seven oc it started to rain. The air was extremely cold, and soon we were shivering and our teeth chattering like a band of monkeys.
Our clothing was soaked and as the rain continued pools of water gathered under us. Cold piercing gusts of wind would sweep down the trench chilling us to the bone. I never was so miserable in my life and to put a finishing touch to our misery we found that Fritz had completly wiped out our larder.
The remaining part of my stay in his trench is a hellish night mare. The devil opened the ball at 11 A.M. and kept his imps on the jump untill 7 oclock in the evening and curious enough it appeared to be an angel in the disguise of one of our air men flying low over his trenches and searching for his batteries that decided him to stop the dance. But this is getting too far ahead. It started easily. Just a shot here and there as feelers, ranging shots which gradually increased in intensity untill I presume every battery was in action. It is almost impossible to describe this terrible display of modern artillery fire. Every kind of projectile imaginable was used. Three inch shells (18 pounders), commonly known as “Whizz Bangs” by Tommie, swept along our trench. Four point nines, six inch and eight inch shells containing the highest explosive chemicals rent the air and shook the ground all about us. Just to the rear of my part of the trench was the remains of an old farm house. If Fritz put one, he must have landed five hundred shells there. The air was full of flying brick, and a dense red cloud of dust hung constantly over the spot. Shrapnel shells burst high in the air, leaving great puffs of green, black and white gas. These latter shells we fear least of all, if we have a fairly deep trench. When the explosion occurs, the fragments are hurled towards the earth at an angle, consequently the parapet and paradox (these terms mean the mounds in front and rear of the trench, usually built up with filled sand bags with the earth that has been dug from the trench) receives most of it. The stench from the gases was sickening. The eyes burned and watered from “tear” shell fumes. The fearfull explosions just a few feet away displaced the air with such force that each concussion seemed like a blow on the brain. We could do nothing, sitting there hunched up our limbs cramped, our brains reeling with the never ending shock upon shock, waiting, waiting, for the expected one that would release us from this hell. Still throughout it all, no confusion, no panic, no signs of fear. Just a ditch full of apparently indifferent stoics. Seemingly just skimming our heads could be heard the vindictive screaming of our own shells passing by the hundreds, landing with beautiful precision on the enemy’s trench. For a time I watched through a periscope and could see the destructive results of our huge 9” shells. It as awfull. If we were getting hell, Fritz was experiencing a super hell. His casualties must have been --and from later accounts were-- fearfull.
I could see great clouds of earth simply lifted high into the air, sand bags, timber and all manner of material flying in every direction. One who has never actually seen or experienced a bombardment can not realize the fearfullness of it all. His idea at the best is only a mind picture which falls far short of the actuality. Listening to our shells came a fantastic though: what if one of them came into a head on collision with one of the enemy’s shells. I concluded that there would be “some” explosion.
An officer crawling over the crouching men came to the rear of a traverse near where I was and raising himself level with the embankment swept the enemy’s line with his field glasses, smash! a shell landed just behind him, covering him with earth, shaking himself free. Spitting mud and blinking the dust from his eyes he leisurely crawled down beside me and drawled out coolly “no place for a parson’s son”
I quite agreed with him that it was no place for anyone’s son and he laughed remarking that it might be worse. Ye gods ‘worse. The only thing worse, or I might say a fitting climax might be a subterranean mine that would blow us to atoms. However, there was no likelihood of that considering our position was but a new one.
About twelve OClock a shell landed just in front of our machine gun, turning it over burying gun, tripod and ammunition, completily destroying our position. The sergant was also buried but fortunately not hurt much. As Fritz seemed to be concentrating more fire at this particular spot, we passed the word down for every body to move to the right, but the best we could do was bout fifty feet, so we were compelled to remain where we were. We had dug up our gun and found it intact; although full of dirt. The only way we could use it now would be to turn it upside down and fire from a sand bag in case the enemy attacked. Our move down the trench was most fortunate as the next half hour saw that part of the trench literally smashed to pieces.
About two in the afternoon a “coal box” a large calibre shell, exploded about three or four feet from me, at the end of a traverse. A piece of shrapnel, quite a large chunk struck my leg, just to one side of the shin bone chipping away a generous piece of the flesh. I poured a small bottle of iodine into the raw open wound but my leg being numb from the shock I couldn’t feel the strong antiseptic. I bandaged up the wound myself with my field dressing, lit a cigarette and waited for the next round.
This constant, no ending din continued all afternoon. About seven in the evening, one of our aeroplanes, at an altitude of about three hundred feet recklessly flew over the lines. Fritz filled the air with shells and bullets, but failed to get the fearless scout, who ducking, swerving, and performing all manner of tricks with his machine, eventually sailed away unhurt.
If ever a man was blessed it was that courageous airman. On his approach the fire died down to nothing and from then untill about nine we had a breathing spell of quietness. About nine he gave us about five minutes hot time just as a reminder I suppose that a new shift had come on.
Under cover of darkness the wounded were taken out, I hobbled out and made the dressing station from which point I was taken in an ambulance to the clearing station. The next day a red cross train took us to Etaples where I remained in the Can. Hosp. for seven days, after which I was transfered to the hospital from which I write this. I havent heard how the company as a whole fared after I left, although I noticed in the casualty list the name of my section officer among the killed.
There is one class of men to whom the greatest tribute and praise must be given. They are the stretcher bearers. Fearless, seemingly tireless [illegible] places, carrying the wounded from off the field of battle under heavy fire. No thought of self, with out even the satisfaction of returning blow for blow, but always bent on their errands of mercy. These men are deserving of the highest praise, and well the soldier boys know it. Tommy has a great warm spot in his heart for the stretcher boys, besides respect and admiration.
If you ever get a chance to shake hands with one of these brave boys, you can feel proud of yourself and can say in all truth I have met a real hero.
Now I must close, as the length of this is getting beyond all reason. So be good. With love to all,
M.N. Dunfield #475067
P.S. for obvious reason I haven’t mentioned the name of my unit officer