9 May, ’17.
Dear Lal: —
Well — we’re out. I don’t know how much you know over there about the recent fighting. I mean of this last week. I have a hunch, too, that letters from here are going to be pretty closely censored for a week or two, so I’ll be careful, as I want you to get this.
We arrived out yesterday at daybreak. This morning I had my first wash and shave, and though feeling horribly “dopey”, I’m much better than I was. We’ve had a “strenuous” trip, very strenuous. Some of the old timers say it has had the worst of the Somme beat. All admit it was as bad. Some one is looking after me alright. Never a scratch. I cannot believe it, and there is no doubt whatever that at least on one occasion I was in the very hottest corner of all. It happened K. fell sick — fortunately I carry a thermometer — his temperature was over 103, so I could get him out. The ass didn’t want to go. I helped him pack up his things, and right in the middle Fritz opened up. I suppose it couldn’t have been worse. Personally, I was convinced this was finis. K., of course, couldn’t get out, but hunched back in his funk hole with the rest, and waited. I stayed in when I could; but of course I was out a little “on business” up the trench. The air was quite black; your mouth was full of smoke. When it quieted down, K. got out. And took my letter. Next day was not so bad; but at dusk of course it started again. Our bunch were to go up on a party to dig a new front-line trench — our two sergeants were getting the turn together — when a big one fell almost on top of them. I think I’ve mentioned Mike to you. I doubt if we could have had a better sergeant. He was a real friend to me, a stranger in the Company; helped me in every way. Every one liked Mike. It happened about twelve feet from me. He was walking along the trench, had just passed my funk hole with the other sergeant, when the shell came. I felt it must have got them. I went out. Only S. was alive; he was terribly hit. Another stretcher bearer and I did what we could. I didn’t see anything of Mike. There wasn’t enough of him, I heard afterwards, to see. We got S. on a stretcher, and I helped get him out; but he died before we got anywhere.
All the time, we kept hearing we were to be relieved; but always they told us “tomorrow.” One night, I was in the front line to continue it another hundred yards; that was a cinch. All we had to contend with were snipers. We didn’t have a casualty. Next day, Fritz slowly moved up and down over it in a plane. Whenever there was a bunch of men hunched rather close together, he dropped a flare. The same second over came a shell, and — no trench — no men. I was in the trench the next night, beyond it to our other Company to get out wounded. All the way, we climbed over dead bodies.
The salient is like a horseshoe. The heavies come from in front, the light from near-by behind. The trenches are not trenches, only two feet or so wide and about four feet deep. Fritz has every inch marked. These poor men — Why should it be them that line the trenches? I leave you to imagine what it’s like, getting a wounded man out. The stretcher is wider than the trench. One night, we got on top to carry; we stayed about a minute. The first flare to come over, and he got after us with both whizz bangs and heavies. Right there is where a miracle occurred. A shell dropped amongst us, and — even now I don’t understand it — it never went off. Not one shell in a thousand does that now. Well, we got out. Our stretcher cases were alive, and our “walkers” too. Going down the main trench, he shelled us all the way. It was the night of the relief, and we passed them coming up. Imagine that, too, if you can. The men hurrying, cursing, with sobbing breath, coming up; and we trying to get down with our stretchers. Telephone wires across the trench everywhere. I dunno’ how it’s done; but it is. When we got to our own part of the trench, another party took the cases and went on out. Our relief came about the same time. Our troubles weren’t over yet, though. Fritz, of course, was wise to the relief, and, going out, in addition to ordinary shelling, put up a gas barrage (shells) away back. This we had to pass through. He threw a fearful lot, and it was pretty bad. However, we got through that, too. And, like a lot of drunken men, arrived at the point — some miles away — where our cook wagons were. I forgot to say it rained. Here we flopped in the road, and ate steaks and drank tea — then slept. Then came the really interesting part. We’d been asleep awhile, then were waked up to “stand to.” Fritz had come over on those trenches and taken ’em. Now can you beat that? Personally, I couldn’t either think or move, I was so “all in.”
Those poor devils who relieved us (Easterners) to crawl into those new trenches over all those dead bodies, find their places, and in the rain and dark, with Fritz shelling it, and then for him to come over! However, in an hour or so, we heard they’d gone over and retaken them. If Fritz couldn’t hold that line, under conditions as they are, having the ranges and everything — couldn’t hold it from Battalions feeling as these fellows must have felt! — then indeed he is no good, and the war is over, as regards which are the best men.
Our machine gunners were the last to leave. They stayed to hold the line while the new bunch got all fixed in their places, so they were there when he came over. Our platoon gunner, it is claimed, held up the whole entrance. He claims fifty Fritzies, and he’s no hot-air artist. He stayed till his gun was knocked out. It’s a medal, sure.
The boys are not happy or jolly this trip out. There are rumours we must go in again before a rest. God knows how we’ll do it. Today is the ninth, just a month since the advance; and we’ve hardly been out of the line at all. There’s a limit, and I think we’ve reached it. Five million men they say we have. Well, where in hell are they? Is it up to Canada to win this bloody war? Nearly a month since we were paid, even.
It’s silly, I suppose, to say, “Don’t worry.”
You must do as I do — hope for the best.