France May 3 / 17
My dear sister Clare:
This letter deals with April 9th a historical day for Canada.
I am incapable of doing justice to the glorious achievements of that young country’s sons on that never to be forgotten 9th of April. The Easter Monday that gave the world a blazing picture of a breed of men that knew not the meaning of defeat; but whose only blood runs riot with victory.
It is of these I write and am hard pressed for adequate words to pencil [?] their deeds. My pencil falters when I think of my limitations to depict the scene. I can but do my best.
It was a cold, grey, dismal sort of morning with a threat of rain with dark angry clouds hurring by in the heavens. An intense and ominous silence prevailed throughout the land; dim, ghostly figures moved causiously about our soggy front line, and in front, shell holes concealed hundreds more of the wraiths. Final instructions in whispers passed from mouth to mouth[…]for the fatefull minute to arrive. This was the state of affairs at 5:29 by every official time piece. At exactly 5:30 the earth split asunder and vomited forth living sheets of flame, but not at us, oh no! but to our front on successive trenches of the enemy these writhing twisting lines of […] produce a pyrotechnical display of rare beauty; the blending of colour was brilliant and beautifull beyond description, and almost it caused one to stop in wonderment. But the havoc it wrought! Thousands upon thousands of shells of all sizes literally rained down upon the unhappy huns and high in the air little puffs of smoke spoke of shrapnel sprinkling them from above. It was weird. It was terrible. It was beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp the fearfullness of it all. The continual thunder of shells exploding and the reports from the cannons beat relentlessly upon the ear drums. Viciously the shells ate into the trenches and flattened them beyond recognition.
This was the scene we witnessed when we rose up from our trenches and poured out from saphead. We started in lines --waves we call them--but the condition of ‘No Mans Land’ precluded any possibility of retaining any semblance to straight lines on account of shell craeters which fair linked each other leaving in some places only narrow strips of earth upon which we had at the best a precarious foothold.
As machine gunners, we were suppose to be with the fourth line, our job being to hold positions, captured by the infantry, against counter attacks, but before we reached the enemys front line, the lines had become so intermingled it was impossible to differentiate. By this time the enemy began to speak and here and there men silently slipped towards the earth to lay motionless. We had barely got twenty five yards when one of my crew was killed and another wounded; but our explicit orders were to stop for nothing. The No.1 of another of our gun crews I knew sinks down on the edge of a shell hole, his tripod continuing on over his head into the mud at the bottom. Next I saw our sergeant bending over extracting this necessary mounting for the gun from the slimy muck and pass it to one of the other members of the crew. And all the while, steadily, slowly, irresistibly this great wave--it was a single wave by now--rolled onward, an indomitable roller of determined manhood. If you had been some where looking down upon this, you no doubt would have likened this advance to a great crowd leaving a ball game. To the uninitiated there would appear to be no order, no system; where in fact it was all order and according to schedule. Every man individually knew his objective and there was no chance for confusion.
Throughout the whole advance which was simply a stroll--yes, that is the proper word--strolling along nonchalantly smoking and even stopping to borrow a light from a comrade, with rifles hanging carelessly from the shoulder.
Now that is the way Canada went over the top, and that is the way her sons trod over the shell packed ground all aquiver like a huge jelly with the continuous reverberations, and remember that all this time the enemy was pouring a murderous hail of machine gun bullets amongst us. It was splendid. It was glorious. It was wonder full this absolute indifference to death as displayed by the sons of Canada and I was thrilled with a sense of awe and wonder at my own countrymen and rejoiced in the fact that I could claim brotherhood to these men. Listen, I passed a shell hole in which lay a boy probably not more than seventeen, mortally wounded, the pallor of death already creeping to his brow, laying on one arm, with the other he was waving us on and his young voice rose above the noise of battle urging us on. His eyes were two glowing lights that shone with courage and an unconquerable spirit. Would one dare hold back after gazing into that inspired young face. I hardly think so.
Everything in connection with the advanced was timed. The artillery knew just how long it would take us to reach the enemy’s lines. Everything went like clockwork. As we drew near the first line that that wall of flame (our barrage) lifted as if by magic and resumed its terrific destruction on the next line. It seems as if all the guns playing on this line had been activated by a common spring so perfect was the result.
So far we have only got into “No Mans land” but now we reach what is left of Fritz’s wire entanglement, nothing left but a few twisted wires cut into small pieces and buried in the ground. The artillery work on this was perfect. Into the trench we jump, or should I say what is left of it as we behold it it is nothing more than a succession of shell holes. There were not many huns in this line to start with and there was less left to finish with. Our first (I mean the infantry) encounter with the bayonet was at the second line when out lads jumped to it with remorseless energy--our barrage had repeated its magical shift and was hammering the third line--an almost imperceptible pause and the boys were over this trench on the way to the third line.
Now this redoubt as this line was called was strongly defended by machine guns and as we approached we were received by a hellish storm of bullets. It was suicidal to continue so the infantry dropped into shell holes and opened up rifle fire along the entire trench. Two of my crew and myself had been plugging along and presently found ourselves with the foremost infantry where, technically, we should not have been. I was just lowering the tripod from my shoulder when our ammunition carrier cried in my ear “My God! Look at them. I looked and there to my right front; silhouetted against the sky was a line of the grey green enemy deliberately firing point blank at our troops. It was such an opportunity as a machine gunner dreams about and I grasped it in a hurry. At school we used to have to mount our guns against time, but the fastest time I ever made on competition was as nothing to the manner in which my number two and myself got that gun and mounting connected. While I whirled my elevating wheel to align my sights on this outstanding target No.2 had a box of ammunition in place and the [?] of the belt through the feed way. In a second that wonderfull mechanical device was merrily spitting out a stream of leaden hail. My comrade, a lad by the name of Tetu, who is blissfully indifferent to danger as a wooden Indian, pampered that gun and fed the ammunition to it as if it were a baby, all the time keeping up a running flow of endearing terms as if it were a real live friend, coaxing it not to jam or get foolish and stop. And it didnt. It staccato voice continued without interruption to the last cartridge in the belt; My eye was glued to the sights; one hand on the wheel and the other on the handle and that trembling, vibrating muzzle slowly moved back and forth along the grey line which melted away into oblivion. We put through two belts, about five hundred rounds in about two minutes. In a shell hole beside us an infantry sergeant shouted out, “Go to it machine gun, give ‘em hell.”
In front of the gun in another hole two other infantrymen lay, their heads just a foot below the muzzle of the gun. I have an idea that their ears are still ringing; but when we ceased firing they only looked up and grinned asking if were finished.
The huns had about all they could stand by now and started over with their hands in the air flapping them in a most ridiculous manner. These were sent on back and the infantry continued to their objective, which was some fifteen hundred yds from the starting point. From this point fresh troops took up the fight and the battle passed away over the ridge out of sight, and our brigade rested on its victorious won ground.
Some points on this third line trench were not as easily taken as others and the infantry had at other places a stubborn foe to deal with. It was a case of bayonet and our boys excelled themselves and left Fritz without a shadow of doubt as to who was superior. Our captures in prisoners and material was most gratifying.
Throughout the advance stretcher-bearers flitted here, there and everywhere attending to the wounded. The signallers followed closely on the heels of the infantry and as each trench was taken, communication with headquarters was linked up with, so the staff in rear knew every move and exactly where we were every minute.
In the afternoon some of us went back over our battle ground and the scene was one I shall never forget. In and around the enemy’s trenches the germans lay by the scores in every position imaginable, and in the open air Khaki clad boys who had made the supreme sacrifice slept the sleep of victors even in death.
Hundreds of old shell holes had been full of water and many of these were not great basins of crimson red with the blood of the fallen men who cheerfully died that civilization might live.
Groups of men were everywhere carrying away the wounded, assisted by german prisoners who were only too willing to do anything required of them.
One of these prisoners was asked in french what he thought of the Canadians. He dolefully shook his head and replied “Ah, Canadians “tres courageaux!” There is no doubt about that opinion being sincere, as the hun is the best qualified person in the world to know its truth.
We came to a wounded german, half sitting and half lying on the top of a trench. He had been badly wounded in both legs, but our stretcher bearers had bandaged him up and he was waiting his turn to be carried away. He motioned to us for a drink and I passed him a water bottle which he almost emptied in one drink. He then showed a hand all twisted and almost useless. It had been crippled for years, but he told us in broken french that men like him were forced into units such as engineers, which he belonged to, and he had been assisting to repair trenches when we came over that morning and made it unnecessary for the continuance of further work on that part of the line.
They tell a story of one prisoner, who on being captured coolly informed his captors that “me no fighting man, me minnie man.” It was a very unfortunate remark for that deluded hun. You see a “minnie” is the most formidable trench mortar the enemy has, and has caused us a great deal of annoyance at times. Naturally our fellows failed to see his viewpoint, and it is rumored that the last state of that Fritzie was worse than the first.
You no doubt wonder what it feels like to make an advance under fire. Well, personally I had an indefinable sensation of exhilaration, I was immune to anything like fatigue, the ninety pounds of gun and personal equipment rested on my shoulders like so much feathers but the strangest part of it was that I felt an absolute sense of safety even though I could see men dropping all around. Some men have premonitions of death. I experienced the very opposite and instinctively knew, yes, knew I was going through without a scratch. How do I explain this I dont know, nor does anyone else. Its an unsolvable mystery.
It might be as well add here though that it was a mighty comfortable feeling to possess.
I have dwelt too long on the subject of self as it is so I’ll just switch off.
I see by the English papers that the part of the line the Canadians took was considered the most difficult on the whole advance, and when you consider the conditions under which it was taken it was a most remarkable achievement. The ground – an artillery target for over two years -- was one solid mass of shell holes and huge mine craeters. It had been turned over and churned up so thoroughly that not even a blade of grass could be found, and the continuous rains of March had made it a sticky, soggy, evil smelling mess of uncertain footing. This underfoot problem was augmented by rain and snow and the artificial obstructions of the Enemy. You can make a fairly good guess that it was’nt quite as easy as a review march past on a model parade ground. I could continue indefinitly with incidents that occurred on the great day and also subsequently, but I’m afraid the censor might get a real peeved at the taking up of his time, so I’ll just leave these episodes for another time.
Your loving brother,