3 P.M., 26 April, ’17.
My dearest Lallie: —
Our rest has now come to an end and I’m writing this while we are packing up. At six P.M. we beat it for the “transhays” once again.
There is a nice little rumour going around that we are only going into supports and this is borne out by the order to take our packs with us, not battle order as previously, so I have sneaked a blanket, and folded it inside my stretcher. I hope that’s as far as we are going. Well, I hope I can jump that same Fritz dugout we were in before. I’ll make an awful bee-line for it, you can bet on that.
It’s very cold today, again. I wish the dickens we could have stayed a while longer under our “Bivy.” Unfortunately, they didn’t pay us this time out, so we can’t tote any “eats” in with us. I have still some candles left, though, so we can warm up “mulligan”, which is something.
Personally I have an awful hunch we shall ditch our packs in a couple of days and go through the old performance again of the last trip — reserves — supports — and front lines. . . .
My dear, I wish I could transport you over here for just one hour (’tween shellings), — so you could see how things are, — and then again I wouldn’t. The sights are interesting beyond anything in the world, I suppose — yet — they are awful, too. Last evening in very lovely weather, we pulled out, leaving our comfy camp behind. Our new place — supports, or reserves, I don’t know which — is on the old dead line of only the other day. This life don’t seem to allow one to soliloquize or see things in retrospect; but every now and then there’s something hits you, and you forget your immediate troubles and see it from the outsider’s point of view. Today as I looked around, it suddenly occurred to me I stood on historical ground. For two and a third years, the lines have never moved. France lost thirty thousand men on this very spot. England tried to take it and failed. And now Canada walks over it and digs about in it, uses old French rifles, torn up out of the ground by shell fire, for its dugout supports, and machine-gun shields as roofs. One day you must walk over the trail from Neuvelle St. Vaast to Vimy and remember — indeed it would be impossible to forget — that here Canada made herself ace high with France.
The scene is the most depressingly desolate it would be possible to imagine. The ground has only a few inches of loam over the chalk. It is honeycombed with trenches and tunnels, and — this is not an exaggeration — on the front four miles deep, (I dunno’ how long) you couldn’t find one shell hole six feet from another. The consequence is that, in colour, it’s a sort of dirty pale grey; not a blade of grass or growing thing anywhere. The ground is littered with rotting French packs and equipment and German ditto and the more recent stuff of ours. It is a graveyard. Big shells have uprooted parts of bodies everywhere, and human bones lie dirty white in the open. Old-fashioned munitions unexploded lie side by side with the new, half-buried in the drying mud; the trenches are all broken in, gun emplacements — observing posts — sticking up in fantastic shapes, twisted iron — rusty barbed wire, rotting wire and splintered wood, add to the desolation. Tin cans with labels printed in French and English and German are everywhere; here and there a huge mound of white chalk in irregular shapes. These figured in the official communiqués of over two years as “we exploded a mine in the Neuvelle-St. Vaast sector and occupied the crater.” German and English both said this; in both cases it was true, as each lip was held by one side, it being necessary for the holders to cover their helmets with wet cloth and quietly peep over the top to snipe each other at forty — thirty — fifty yards range. My friend took me over the ground today, and showed me the different trenches they held last winter. Fritz was averagely thirty yards away; it seemed unbelievable that it could all have been so. It is beyond words to describe. Today we walk on the top, and light fires, and live in safety; yesterday, to look over the parapet was instant death. Here, too, I came out of a cave in the very bowels of the earth, where the guns only sounded like very distant thunder and walked about in a hell of sound, watched and helped take pictures of the boys going over and taking these very trenches, and saw the big battle won on the memorable April 9th, 1917.
France had big feelings about Vimy. Today Canada is getting the glad hand from her. I have heard of people, French people, stopping to shake hands with boys wearing the maple leaf down at the base — an unusual thing, as the French are most taciturn, not excitable as we have been led to believe. Not now, anyhow.
One soon learns to be resourceful and quick up here. Last night we arrived, piled arms, and “dig yourselves in where you can, boys” in an hour. K. and I had selected a corner in a broken trench sheltered from the wind, tore sandbags from dismantled parapets, walled it in, put the stretcher and the rubber sheet over the top of the roof, laid another sheet on the ground inside, got a blanket and our coats spread out, our kits for a pillow, a candle (one of yours) lighted and stuck on a stick, pushed between two sandbags at the head end. Our entrenching tools transformed a gasoline can into a brazier — wood is everywhere — quickly a good fire was blazing at the open front end, a mess tin of water boiled quickly and four cubes of your Oxo made us a good‑night hot drink. We slept perfectly. Fritz threw over a few shells — apparently out of spite — but they were “tired” ones when they arrived, and didn’t disturb us, nor the rats which were numerous. Early this morning, off came the temporary roof, a few hundred yards wide of scouting around, and we had a sheet of shell-torn corrugated iron, some broken trench mats, some netting wire for a permanent roof, the wall reinforced with more sandbags, another rubber sheet — no doubt belonging once to some casualty — for a door, and now we have a home to be proud of, where I am sitting writing to you. We put a row of sandbags on the top to make it solid and plugged the holes with mud. It isn’t bomb proof; but only a direct hit can get us, and shelling is only most desultory, so we are safe as at home. Some of the boys have built most palatial places with lumps of chalk, regular huts. Fires are going everywhere; no one seems to give a damn about Fritz observing anything. In fact, all through I notice a growing contempt of him; it is taken for granted he is beaten and knows it.
The opinion is growing everywhere that Fritz cannot hold out. I wish I dare believe it. The guns are at him all the time; sometimes for an hour or more they all open up together. It is like a million big drums in the distance, punctuated by the leisurely whistling — sort of sobbing — passage overhead of the very big fellows behind. The field guns are all away up; nothing can live where our artillery is — nor our organization. Only a few days ago, this was No-Man’s-Land; across here now are a dozen roads, long never-ending lines of transports and pack mules — one road for “in”, another for “out.” Railway tracks have already been laid right up to the Ridge and over. One appears to have a number of gasoline tractors on it, small powerful engines; another has big dinkies puffing away day and night. These lines of supplies are endless. Last night I noticed a pack mule train where you couldn’t see the end nor the beginning, and it’s level ground for miles.
I have understood that in the trenches on our right, the Germans made nine counter attacks in the last two days, and not one reached our line. The artillery cut ’em up, and the ground in front is a mass of dead.
I just decided to have a wash, so found a shell hole with some water in it and an old steel helmet, stuck it on our stove and had a beauty, with Pears soap and a clean white towel.
When I had finished, I got a hurry call: “Stretcher-bearer!” A sergeant of our company had driven a pick into a buried smoke bomb, and it burst in his face. It was very bad — very bad indeed. I could only bind it with a shell dressing to keep the air out till he reaches the dressing station. It’s a Blighty one alright. For twenty years to come, there’ll be accidents of that kind happen all over the front line in France.
There were one or two “sticky-out” things I intended to tell you at various times. I’ll try to think of them now. One was: Heinie has a new shell. When it bursts, out pops a terrifically brilliant arc light which hangs in the air far too long. The country is made as bright as day. Imagine the feelings of a bunch of men working, or marching in the open at night, and one of those damn things busting near! They flop, I guess, tout suite. We had one bust over us, but we were in the trench and so safe. It’s a good one — and I fear, if only his observation is good, it will be a bother to us. Like every one else, you have heard of Fritz’s gas shells. I was under the impression they were a fearsome thing. The other night, coming out, I noticed shells coming over and hitting the ground with a dull “flop.” Soon I noticed a queer smell like — as much as anything — fresh green tree bark — laburnum trees. I said “What the devil’s the smell?” “Gas shells,” some one says. Try to imagine us groping along in the dark in single file, tearing along all we knew, to get away from the zone of shells. Right and left, every minute, a big “Ker-up”, as one bust, — each man looking only at the feet of the man in front, as the murmur continually passes down the line from man to man: “Shell hole on the left!” — “Wire under-foot”, — “More wire” and so on, the only guide you have, and me bringing up the rear carrying a stretcher which sometimes got so heavy I thought really I could never make it. And then the guy says, “Gas Shells!”
Without stopping (I can laugh now), I lugged out the mask of my “gasperator” ready to put it on. However, I noticed the chap in front didn’t seem to be worrying, so I let it hang. All the time, there was the whistle of the arriving shell, and the full flop of the shells in the mud and the smell growing stronger.
Well, — that’s all.
They’re a joke. Unless one comes and lands in the top pocket of your tunic, they’re as effective as lavender water or eau de cologne.
They land in the mud and give a little kick — an explosion which draws out a cork or something — and out oozes Fritz’s frightfulness. I am waiting to hear of some one getting gassed by one. K. just came in the dugout and I thought I’d ask him if he’d heard of any one. He says, “Yes, at the Somme, when he threw some thousands altogether.” So that’s it. I guess he hasn’t got the guns here, so his attempts are a joke.
The rations here are already getting in their fine work — no butter — no jam — only biscuits. Already I’m hungry as a bear. . . .
If you ever hit one of our camps and saw the fellows go for those canteens, you’d have a fit. Our canteen sold five thousand francs worth of stock in three days, and no one had been paid. It takes anywhere from half an hour up, to get into one, owing to the line-up. Money outside your pay seems essential; but nearly all the boys seem to have some. I had ten francs this time out, and young F.W., who had a hundred franc check, gave me eight francs. Down at the base where grub wasn’t the main thing, fifteen francs every two weeks was bearable; but here — well. It’s no fun. For instance, a can of lobsters costs four francs and a half; cake is sold in portions not less than two francs’ worth; a candle is five cents (Canadian); milk one franc and a half; peaches two francs twenty centimes, and so on. You can see by this how far a poor little fifteen francs is going to go. Next time out, we’ll get paid; and we are already talking of our spread. It’s going to include a packet of Quaker Oats, this time, with canned milk. I taste it now! Heavenly! . . .
My last thoughts will be of you, as will be my waking ones.
It is you I am living for — you I am doing this work for. When—if—the supreme test comes, I shall jump in, doing it with you by my side every second — remember.
My Very Dearest: —
The weather is still most glorious — sun — spring — lovely. You remember how I told you what a jolly camp we had? Well, Fritz was over on his plane and must have made a picture of it, as I am sitting on our dismantled “bivy”, waiting to know where its new location has to be. Heinie got too enterprising and commenced dropping shells amongst the huts, so we must beat it to a new home — only a mile I guess, or so, but it’s a beastly nuisance nevertheless. Yesterday, we had a parade at two P.M. The Colonel just looked us over a bit, said we had begun to get the mud off anyway, congratulated us very much on the recent splendid victory, etc., etc., and told us he hoped we should not have to go in again immediately. Tres bien!
This morning at ten we fell in for a bath parade, about a three-mile walk. It was lovely, the bath and the walk too — and we got a clean change, leaving our other stuff behind. Officers and men just dig in together; all the saucy stuff on their part is “napoo” here. We had the pipe band to play us down, too. All the Battalions have their bands here. We have two pipe and brass. Life “out” is positively blissful!
We have moved all our things over here now, about a mile away. We packed our tarpaulin and pegs and everything over on my stretcher, about an hour’s work — six of us — and we now have a ripping bivy. An old salvaged rifle holds up one end, pegs at the sides, ends fastened up with old tacks. The nights are very cold, and believe me we appreciate our little home.
The boys all seem to think the war is coming to an early close. I wish I dare think so. A captured officer told us that they had tremendous reserves for counter attacks. The more the counter attacks, the better, because the artillery will attend to them. But the main thing I think is to bust Heinie’s morale to such an extent that his men surrender easily. I see they credit us with thirteen thousand prisoners, and now we hear Lens has given the Imperials six thousand more. One can take these figures without fear of exaggeration. Surely no army can stand this kind of thing for long. Then the French are after him for fair, too. No! I hardly think it can go on much longer. The points we captured were absolute fortresses; yet we took them easily. How can they hope to resist more, without their extraordinary defensive apparatus, dugouts and so forth? No words in our vocabulary can describe the artillery bombardments we put up. It isn’t like a bombardment as you would understand it; it’s just a noise continuous. You’ve seen mud, when it’s in a jelly, sort of boil and waggle if you poke it with a pole. Well, I’ve seen the earth sort of boil like that. Of course, nothing can live in it, not a mouse. Then we have what the boys call “flying pigs”, a thing like a torpedo that is fired in the air. When it drops, its own weight makes it penetrate three feet in the ground — the depth of an average dugout. It then explodes and leaves a hole like a mine crater. The Germans protested to neutrals about this thing; but I guess were laughed at, as I’ve seen ’em going up the line in hundreds. The finest piece of engineering work I’ve seen was the road from here to the Ridge to get the supplies up. The land from here to there was one mass of connected shell holes, wire, mud, and busted trenches. The engineers have made a road of rough boards where they couldn’t do it without, and the impossible has been accomplished. Heinie has a better plane than ours. To look at, it’s almost exactly like our new one; but for speed, he has it. I’ve seen him bring ours down in a sheet of flame, like a hawk on a pigeon. Just the same, we beat him in numbers. Often you can see twenty of ours up at once. He is over us repeatedly; but only in ones or twos, and never for long.