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Date: November 13th 1916
Joseph Hunter
Sydney Brightman


Pte. Sydney Brightman of the Pioneers Gives Some Interesting Details of Life in That Corps on the French Front.

Mr. Joseph Hunter, Cedar District.

Dear Joe- I received the paper you sent me all right, and your letter about a couple of weeks back, and should have written before, but I know you will expect a fairly long letter this time, and until the last few days we have been fairly busy, out on working parties most of the night, doing our bit in the big drive.

When I last wrote you we had only had our first taste of shell fire in the trenches near Mesines. That was nearly seven months ago. After that we put in about five months in the Ypres salient. You will have read about some of the scraps that took place there when we were on that part of the line. Now, as pioneers, we are seldom in the front line of trenches, yet we are near enough to Fritz to get a fair share of everything going except hand grenades and bayonets. We expect to go on leave shortly, and drew lots the other day, there were only 107 of the original company left (between 100 and 250 men), so our job is far from a bomb proof one. We have been remarkably lucky too. Several times a shell has dropped right amongst us and failed to explode. While at the billet in Ypres that I was in, one shell struck on top of the house, another knocked in the front of the house and a third exploded in our sitting room, and so one was [?]. At times Fritz would shell the town so much we had to go on the double to the cook house. On the work parties in the Ypres salient we were nearly always exposed to the machine gun fire and snipers. A lot of our fellows say they would rather have the shell fire than the snipers' rifle bullets. It is not a very pleasant sensation anyway to first hear a bullet fly by between you and the man in front, another just over your head then one behind you. We had two experiences with curtain fire and it was decidedly lively while it lasted. One time we were digging a new reserve trench just behind the front line. We had to dig it about 2 feet wide and four feet deep and about 6 or 8 feet of it for each man. I had just about finished my part when I noticed Fritz sent up two red flares and in about half a minute our front line was a good representation of hell Rifle and machine gun fire, bombs hand grenades, trench mortars, all shooting out flames, lead, and iron. But we hadn't got much opportunity for observing the front line for Fritz' artillery started dropping shells of all sorts and sized round about where we were, so that it was very much like a hailstorm of iron and lead, only it was travelling a bit sidewards instead of straight down. The object of the curtain fire during an attack is to prevent reserves being brought up. The shells are dropped roughly speaking, about half way between the front line and the reserve trenches and we were diffing the new trenches right there. However by lying down in the trench, which was fortunately, just about finished, we had few casualties. Had it started about two hours earlier I think we would have been about wiped out.

At one time I had an idea that shell shock and 'cold feet' were much about the same thing, but after the shaking up we got that night, when the concussion would almost lift one off the bottom of the trench at times, and would seem to knock the heart from one side of the body to the other. I now see quite a few men are killed by the concussion of an exploding shell without being actually hit by the shell itself, that it seems quite feesible that some fellows will get such a shock that although it will not kill them, it will render them unfit for any more military service. Of course you have read in the papers about our new armoured cars, the tanks. I saw them a day or two before they were actually used in a scrap. They should certainly be awfully useful especially against machine guns. I saw one calmly going over trenches. It is claimed that they will go over a 14-foot trench if necessary, and if it is any wider it will go down into the trench and climb up the other side. It was easily wander through barbed wire entanglements, can stop half way across a trench and shoot machine gun of 3 inch shells down the trenches. According to the papers they can butt into trees and uproot them, run into a brick house knock it down and climb on to the ruins. However, of course I don't imagine they would wander very far through a forest of Douglas firs.

October 4th.

Since writing the above we are back near the front again. I am writing this where I can see Fritz's shells bursting. About a couple of hours back he was dropping enough of them right round here to make it more pleasant in a dugout than outside. My house at the present is a hole I cut in the side of a trench, it is about 2 feet 3 inches wide and runs back about eight feet, it is about 4 ft. 6 ins. high covered with a sheet of corrugated iron and tin biscuit boxes over this, with a few more supports, then sand bags filled with earth and over the top a good mound of earth. This would stop shrapnel. At the sides of my home for about 18 inches high I have so-called waterproof sheets. About a week ago we got a blanket, all through the summer we had to be content with our overcoat. If we happen to get soaked with rain when we have finished our job we can now roll up in our blanket to dry our clothes, which is a decided improvement on having no blanket to roll up in. We are hoping before long to get our tot of rum once a day. This was stopped some time back. I believe some of the temperance cranks wanted to stop the soldiers' tot of rum. Personally I should class such people with the people in the bomb proof jobs who punch parcels sent to the soldier by his friends. I have a better opinion of the average German than I have of them, and we are each packing around a rifle and a bayonet and 120 rounds of ammunition for the benefit of any stray Germans we run across.

You ask for information about the fruit in this country. So as to be able to say I had tried some of their apples I immediately on receipt of your letter went to a store to get some. But as they wanted 4d and 5d each and we only get 10d a day, I told them to keep them. However, what will interest you, apple and pear trees are sometimes used for shade trees along the sides of roads for many miles along one road I saw apple trees planted for shade, and on another road it is all pear trees. However the apples seemed to be cider apples. At the present time the chief methods of pruning are when a shell bursts near the tree it clips some of the branches off. But this method has disadvantages as the tree trunk is often cut in two, or sometimes the whole tree lifted out of the ground. Another method is not quite so dangerous to the tree and is much practised by the Canadian soldiers. It is the combined picking and pruning method, you get a rock or half a brick and heave it through the branches, and pick up any fruit that falls. I am afraid it is no use for me to recommend you try it.

But to get on about fruit. Soon after receiving your letter a comrade and myself, with the aid of a bottle of stout, decided that it was our duty to investigate the fruit here, so we went out looking for fruit. After a time we discovered two trees with a lot of apples on and as there were thousands of troops passing near every day we came to the conclusion that there must be some reason for the apples remaining on the trees. at first I decided that they must be cider apples and too bitter to eat, but half a brick amongst the branches decided that they were about the best we had tried in the country and we loaded our pockets with them and tried them again next day. The secret of the apples remaining on the tree was the fact there was a hive of bees under each tree, but fortunately that didn't trouble me. Now about the quality of the apples. If I remember right you have one tree in your orchard with very poor apples on it and you often give a few of them to your horses. Well, I should put the apples we got in the same class with them, and as I have said above they are the best I have had in this country. I believe in southern France they can grow good fruit.
I shouldn't care to go farming here after the war. It will take up too much work levelling it up, in places you can hardly walk between the shell holes, which vary in size and depth from a few feet to the Jack Johnson holes, say 20 feet deep by about 40 feet wide, and there is a crater here something like 100 feet deep and about 300 feet across.
We hope to get leave before long for a week in the old country, and as we have had about eight months here we shall not be sorry to get back to civilization again. Of course we shall be more pleased when we hear the war is finished, but it is much better to have a few more months of it than a patched up peace.

Your old friend.