France, Sept. 28, 1917.
We are just out after an eighteen day turn in the line. That is getting pretty stiff, and at first sight seems to be a good argument for conscription. But there are plenty of men waiting back somewhere and the real reason is that there is some reorganizing going on somewhere that disorganizes the regularity of the turns. It will likely be made up to us later by a good long rest. It is due us now at any rate.
I am in luck for a few days. I think I mentioned that I have been supplying as S. B. We are the last to be put to work and are a leisured class during rest times. Until our regular man turns up I am taking full advantage of the opportunity.
Say, Mother dear, queer things happen sometimes. Now and then someone comes to me for information or guidance in spiritual matters. The last one was a big fine Englishman, formerly of corporal in the 303rd, whom I have known since early acquaintance to be vastly my superior. Yet he came, and I found I could explain the thing he wanted to know. His questions resolved themselves into the difference between ordinary devout prayer and the close communion of the personal touch.
The equinox seems to have marked very closely in this country the end of summer and the beginning of a lovely autumn. I have been studying a good map, the first I have seen that gave the old political and the new military divisions together. I find we are not in Normandy after all nor in Picardy as some think, but sandwiched in between the two in Pas de Calais, a large triangular department based on the coast with its apex beyond Rouen. Last evening we watched a splendid display of modernized courage and chivalry, which live in at least one branch of the Enemy service. Standing on a wooded hillside, we were watching one of our observation balloons, when suddenly it began to descend. In the clouds above us we heard a rapidly growing hum and we saw a German plane nose-diving from some tremendous altitude at which he had approached unobserved. He dropped directed toward us until level with the balloon, then shot to and beyond it opening fire as he approached. Our observers jumped of course. Not a shot did he fire at them but opened at a range of a hundred yards on the gas-bag. It was twilight and we could plainly see his tracer bullets. It was a splendid piece of work. His fire continued as he passed and curved around his objective, and of course certain groups of infantry men were in line of fire and thought themselves attacked. Two holes in the side of the monster showed the flames within, and as the attacking hawk swooped in and soared through the barrage of our anti-aircraft guns, then veered to the left and low over the hills, a squadron of our light machines rose and thundered away in pursuit. They surrounded him above, below and on either side and so they disappeared over the hills rapidly descending the darting flame bullets flying between. Meanwhile the flames had burst through the envelope of our balloon and made a beautiful spectacle. Imagine a flame with no visible fuel save a few ropes and girders, the size of, say, the Toronto City Hall tower, slowly falling through space. The descending parachute nearby was like a big translucent pearly bubble. The whole incident from the swooping attack until the machines disappeared like swift-flying swallows over the hill two miles distant occupied perhaps three minutes, perhaps five at the outside. A spectacle it was worthy of the audience of a thousand who witnessed it.
------[September] 30th------. This morning after communion service somebody mentioned the date. I haven't thought much about birthdays lately, but it seems one is about due me. My poor Mother who wished so hard for a son, is wiser now. Let us hope that the next thirty years or so will be better spent.
Last night “Bob” Hewitson of the 5th called on me and took me over to meet the two Swanstons whose sisters I met last summer. Nearly all the Lumsden boys are, or have been, in the 5th. I have been wondering why I never ran across any of them. Now I compre. There is no one that I know, but several of whom I have heard, including the two surviving Heatheringtons.
The big battle may be set to have begun. The breaking through in the north must bring an enlargement of the plans all down the line. We are not likely to be in it – though, sitting back here in the cool beech woods, I could almost wish to take a hand, especially if there is an opportunity to carry the Red Cross over the top. In the years that are to come I would like to be able to say that I had done that.
Oct. 8 – Letter interrupted for another turn up front. Let me describe one of our little homes and the furniture there of.
Take as foundation for the picture Dewdney St. where it passes the old Haultain house. Blow a hole in it forty yards across, thirty feet deep below the road level and forty or more where the bank is higher at the sides. Down below is a pit full of a tangle of barbed wire with shovels and things mixed in, and of course when a working party passing in the dark falls in, there is what Prof. Gamble would call “a deuce of a mixture.” Now and then a minnie falls in and stirs it up some, but it can’t get us, because we are perched some distance up the slope so that anything that gets over the edge goes on over us to the bottom.
Home, properly so called, is six feet square and four high rear wall chalk sides and front sandbags, roof lumber, sandbags and kitchen utensils, such as empty tin cans, Fritz rifles and dud shells.
Item, me sitting in the left-hand rear eating cold MacConochie and chestnuts with a service jack-knife.
Item, one platoon sergeant, right-hand rear in harness, snoozing.
Item, beside my feet, one pantry consisting of part of a bag of hard tack, with a tin on top wherein repose tea, sugar, cheese, jam, the stove, sliced bacon and the day’s mail for the platoon.
Item, between our feet, one kitchen – two bricks.
Item hanging on the spoon driven into the wall, my hospital.
Item terminis, one artillery and placement – the sergeants rifle handy to the curtain – the front door.
All right about the honor roll, I am getting used to the idea and as regards the kiddies I can see considerable sense in it, provided I do not have to live under the glimmer of it myself.
By the way I mustn’t forget to describe a real home we had lately. A four storey house it was with sundry parts of it missing. Five or six feet of bricks had fallen onto the ground floor and Fritz, late occupant, had poured cement in among them making the cellar as nearly bomb proof as possible. The sergeant, myself and one man were the garrison. The nearest Heinie outpost was perhaps 150 yds. away, and a well with a squeaky pump somewhere between furnished our water supply.
In the six roomed basement were copious somewhat scattered German ammunition stores, including a three bushel heap of flares, numerous and various bombs and lots of rifle stuff. We had been rummaging about and playing amongst it like so many children in a garret. One afternoon I was sitting in the only patch of daylight crumbing up. (Ask Walter what that means.) The other two were making tea inside, over a Tommy cooker (a tin of solid alcohol). Of a sudden there came a burst of thunder sound and the light went out. I rushed for the door. Somebody in subdued tones asked for a light. The candle revealed the sergeant upon his knees, painfully opening a knife with which he proceeded to scrape fragments of red flesh from the ankles of the private. The boiling water had been resting on two tins of bully beef, one of which had exploded with the heat. The same man now carries a bomb in place of his emergency rations of bully.
Your letters of Sept. 2nd and 10th await reply.
That is a fair picture of Miss McLachlan, but she might be most any age. I can just see her dealing with her delinquents, all nice and confidential.
That photographer could certainly handle his instrument. Your kitchen looks funny. Well, will there be room to finish the rest of the house without moving the west fence?
I hope that Dick Bell comes through his difficulty. Half an hour before I received your letters, I was talking to Will Howland, so, if he has been to Blighty he shows no sign of it and says nothing. He is a stretcher bearer in the 5th – Fighting fifth, lousy seventh, hungry eighth, drunken tenth – we are some outfit! History asserts that one time when we relieved the seventh, they left beaucoup rations behind them and the eighth fellows, who had as usual been half starved waded into the grub without any ceremony. The “fighting” as is not generally known refers to big doings when an estaminet (saloon) somewhere in France was cleaned out. Why the other two battalions have such names I have no idea.
I mentioned something to the chaplain about Mr. Wayne getting gassed and he had not heard nor do I know of his having been absent during any appreciable part of this summer. Of course we all get gassed more or less at varying intervals and it is only a matter of degree.
For instance. One pitch dark night we were filing up a communication trench stumbling and bumping along, I with my stretcher in the rear of all except a corporal where the trench only waist deep crosses over among some buildings, a stream of machine gun bullets came between me and the next man, an Indian, who was only 2 feet ahead of me, – the same man, by the way, who came to put his head in the bottom of my bunk hole when we made the attack.
A few minutes later, one drilled a nice comfortable hole in his wrist. I remained behind to dress him and then made my way forward alone through trenches where I had never been before. I met no one for nearly a kilometer until in the front line, I found a sergt. making the rounds of his sentries. I was in the wrong part of the trench so accompanied him and his corporal to their company headquarters. On the way we encountered a cloud of shell gas that was drifting forward from where the enemy had been bombarding our supports. We put on our masks and went all down the open trench which was a badly wrecked German ---[?] merely a ten-foot trough in loose chalk. Before long shells came over and we were forced to shelter in a new communication trench which latter was, in turn, in a few minutes enfiladed by machine gun fire. It was almost a case of “when shall we three meet again.” We chose the least of three dangers – dropped our masks, whose dimmed eye-pieces inhibited rapid progress, and we ran helter-skelter, for the dug-out a hundred yards away. My stretcher made me the slow one, and the N.C.O.’s waited for my pace. That is a good deal for men to do, but it is a common thing here. The gas was so strong that when we got inside the other fellows smelt our clothes and immediately put on respirators. My throat was a little affected and I could not close my eyes for most of that night. It is a curious effect of this particular gas that a slight smarting becomes immediately intensified in geometrical progression as soon as the eyes are closed. We get plenty of chances to test our respirators, which are a perfect protection, but accidents will happen. Three or four nights ago I was strolling up a trench a couple of feet deep behind a hedge enjoying the moonlight with a chum when, plunk, a gas-shell came over my head and dropped kerplunk ten feet to my right. A fresh breeze angling from the front drove the gas across the trench. I ran for the necessary rod, then went on never dreaming but the other fellow was after me. I gave the alarm at the next post and then began to think of friend Lewis. Blamed if he haven't sot him down right in the gas to put on his helmet instead of beating it. Naturally he suffered the consequences.
I think I have only one unanswered letter of Elsie’s in my pocket but there is a bunch of a dozen or so in my pack that need overhauling. There may be one of hers. When you mentioned that she had been writing every week I was thinking of Elsie Hughes and was somewhat startled. I have received six greenbacks to date. They fit in just right. Please continue as before and if you hear of me as wounded just double the supply, that’s all. There is no pay allowed in hospital no matter what the duration of a fellow’s stay. That is by way of a precaution enforcing the rule against drinking.
Last night my writing was interrupted by the collapse of an alcoholized sergt. of the 10th in the G writing tent. I had to take charge, and it was some fun, I don’t think. This morning I reverted to the ranks, the other S.B. having returned.
Elsie explain something of Brenda’s doing when she mentioned a partnership offer which she has declined with thanks on account of her own financial impetuosity. But I do not understand at all the how, the who, the where, nor quite the what of the undertaking. Brenda herself has not written for quite a time. I suppose that if I am so darned lazy myself I can’t expect anybody else to write. A letter to you leads off and sometimes exhausts nearly every spasm, so you can imagine how the rest fare. It is partly the result of Regina going off the map so suddenly. I think I understand the allusion you make to the nature of a certain disappointment and to be candid on thinking the matter over I have come to a similar conclusion. To be just I must say that nothing happened that could be thus interpreted except in the light of succeeding events. It is hard to keep my faith in an important section of the human race. Somehow the war seems to be bringing people on this side of the great water altogether too near to nature. I hope and pray that it will be over before the same change takes effect among the circles of young folk I used to know back yonder.
Walter’s letter and yours came together as was only natural seeing I had had no mail for several weeks. The delivery had one of its infrequent stoppages. Mail often comes to the trenches and is served out along with the rations but I prefer the safer and slower method of holding it over. Barton's interpretation of “I am not ashamed” fits in very well with our present circumstances. Little by little I find the old restraint slipping away and the real life growing freer in billets in the trenches, the old tunes come out in little snatches and here at the front nobody objects or interferes.
That book he took was likely “Memorable Places Among Holy Hills” which I brought from Toronto. I think you have Waldeck and Wallard mixed. They are about eighty miles apart across country and two or three hundred by train. I did not remember that Mr. Barton was at Limerick but I think we met at Lumsden Beach. I wish you would send me a pair of winter mits. Please get medium weight unlined sheepskin with elastic at wrists if you can – the same sort as I used to wear at home and send a pair of woolens as well to wear under them. I enclose two postcards which I found in one of these towns.
One day I stood at an upper window of a chateau that accommodates a thousand men, with half a thousand more in the stables each side of the court-yard. Looking down the cobble drive between tall beeches to the heavy iron gates I thought that so a century and a half ago, must have stood some proud young demoiselle of France watching as the howling crowd broke through the barrier.
Mother, the war grows fiercer as the enemy rally for the great stand. There is no end in sight now as we view it but we can afford to be patient, can’t we? Who better?
Oct.13 – Rumor had it the other day that we were to march 100 kilom. Whether it is so I do not know but somebody is going somewhere soon. We fell in to march away but for reason unknown did not. That afternoon I found myself detailed to Brigade – school. When I fell in I found myself to be the only whole and sound member of the party. One was deaf, one couldn’t answer his name because he stuttered, and half the party were all over boils from the gas. We are a sort of rest squad, we think. Some kind N.C.O. must have thought of my undependable ankle, which by the way has given the battalion no trouble for some time. We will likely be here a month in the rear of an estate belonging to the chateau of the district. It is one of the huge group of Canadian camps all in the woods hereabouts where it rains from the clouds all night and from the trees all day. The evening we marched in was black dark. As we came to the huge stone front gates a fully lighted motor car drove behind us. The light fell on the great gray pillars and followed us up the stone road into the forest where it illuminated the mists that obscured the treetops – a very fairy land of the gods, Mother.
So here we are for a time while the wet weather squelches whatever great movement was planned. And they say it will be wet from now until the freeze up in January.
I bummed an extra bath and stole some creolin for my clothes so I have the poor little pilgrims hunting cover down under my putters.
The Pilgrims of the Night (adapted)
When you have an army corps
On your body forming fours
Then deploying on your back
Ready for the night attack
Then you shout with all your might
Strafe the Pilgrims of the night.
Though some hundreds you may kill
You will find some hundreds still
For they hide behind each other
And are smart at taking cover
Then, they have an awful bite
And a shocking appetite
Strafe the Pilgrims of the night.
There are families by dozens
Uncles, mothers, sisters, cousins
And they have their married quarters
Where they rear their sons and daughters
Then they take a lot of catching
And they cause a lot of scratching
Strafe the Pilgrims of the night.
When you're getting off to sleep
They are forming up two deep
When you're in the land of Nod
They are forming up in squad
And you’ll find it most annoying
When the sections start deploying
Strafe the pilgrims of the night.
When at last there comes a day
When you throw your shirt away
You'd like to cast your trousers too
If they only let you do
And adopt the ancient style
Of wearing nothing but a smile
Strafe the pilgrims of the night.
S. J. Neville