April 1, 1916
Stretcher drill again. A march of about nine miles through lanes and byways to a commons covered with bush and broom, trenches and sunken roads. Some of us play dead and wounded while others rush to their assistance, and a fine jolting we poor wounded got. From 9:30 to 11:45 General Jones inspects us and tells us we will go to the Front any day now. It's the real thing for there will likely be a repetition of Ypres of last year. We shall be needed in dangerous and difficult work. More squad drill and hard days work. A fight in the kitchen since C.A.S.C. have been making free with our rations.
Bert conducted service at night.
The usual duties in the morning with medical inspection. Off by 2:30 and such a walk, some 8 miles through Greyshott, Hindshed, Haslemore, Hammer, Shottermill, Bramshott villages by way of the Devils Punch Bowl, the Murder Stone, Gibbets-Cross. Wild moor land mostly. Paths leading down under the shadows of ancient hedges, through bush and holly, beach, oak, passed gentleman estates, little old farm houses, mostly quaint with hedge and garden. One of the most enjoyable walks I have ever had. The ways are winding, crossed and inter-twining so that we have to enquire our way.
A supper at Soldiers Club, a little devotional service in Soldiers Rest, then home. Have a number of cards for Nellie that recall the beautiful scenery.
April 2, 1916
Usual sentry duties keep us from service. At 10:30 comes the orders no man out of lines today. We take it as a sure sign of departure. We are shooting Germans and are being shot by them in our dreams. We are not worrying any though. By diligent effort inspired by laziness I escape all special duties of packing and preparing after getting my own kit packed. I go to YMCA to write letters. Since we had but one blanket left from our beds Bert and I bunk on the floor together. There is a general chorus of coughing, snoring, restless movements to keep warm. Clouds of smoke from a stove. Fitful dreams entertain me rather than sleep for the greater part. Reveille at 4:30 etc.
April 3, 1916
Started at 9:45a.m. with all kit aboard, part of Sec. B. Trudge for 3 miles under increasing weight and rising atmosphere. Who imagined the old hero Atlas with the world on his shoulders. Was he a British infantry soldier on a ten mile march? Train at Liphook. Good bye Bramshott and Hut 24. On to France and war. Can not realize it. More like a pleasure trip with a hazy got-to-go someplace in our mind. Yet we expect wounded men to carry, the thunder of guns, and all of red war before the end of the week. ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile’ is the current song. What great medicine smiles are for all manner of the diseases of life.
Port reached and we read letters received today and take sun baths. On board at 5 p.m. and out into the harbour to spend the night. Ships on all sides, thousands of soldiers. Some hospital ships with red crosses on side.
April 4, 1916
Still here. Aeroplanes often seen. We know not why we linger. A fight almost for our 24 hour rations and we take them over into a corner to eat. The day warm. We read and talk on deck until nine in the evening. Every star is out, lights from the city and shore, lights from the ships far and near, streams of lights searching for secrets the sky may hold. Bert and I bring our blankets on deck and sleep under the watching stars. Deck planks our bed springs, wooden life belts our pillow, our great coats our coverlets, our bedroom light the Great Bear and Polaris.
An argument with Bee and Warr on is it worth while. Warr is discontented and speaks rather unpatriotically at times, likely when the call of home is loudest. Is the thing to be gained worth the sacrifice? Is the brutal bloodshed and mutilation of the best and bravest worth it all? What of the broken hearts and the pinched lives of the tender ones who love, the life of toil, poverty and the lack of education in our children as well as the brutalising effect on those of us who return safe? What if the British Empire should fall and Germany goes down in the pages of history as the conqueror of the world. 'Tis not to keep treaties, to defend the weak nation or to assist friends we fight but for Britains life and supremacy. More truly the fight may be against a false and ruinous philosophy, a perverted idea of God and life as well as to maintain the high Christ ideal of greatness through humility and service against the brutal ‘red in tooth and claw’ ideal of the survival of the fittest. German ideals would never have a vital grip on the Anglo-Saxon mind or of the world in general. Revolution would have come gradually and bloodless as the greatest revolution which Britain in 18th and 19th centuries did.
Germany a world conqueror - so was Alexander and Caesar and we now read with pity at the futility of it all. Should our descendants read of the fall of Britain and the rise of Germany? Britain can never fall. Her ideals of peace and patient industry, her consideration for the individual, small and great, would rise and revolutionize the world, not by power of sword, but of mind Is not the truth that men love to handle huge instruments even if they be of huge destruction to make the world groan for decades of pain, to fight and risk and destroy this mighty and mysterious thing called life. Mighty question this, is it worth while, is it justifiable? Was there ever a war that paid in human advancement for the human destruction? Is it not all a mighty unbelief in the power of truth, faith and love? Christ has shown us that love can conquer all things and we half believe it in the case of the individual. If a man does you an injury, by self control, fellowship and assistance you conquer him by thus appealing to his higher nature. Can it not be true of nations and races? Cobden and Bright appealed to the humanity of landowners and conquered them. Welberforce overcame the greed of slave traders. So could the idea of justice and the necessity of individual freedom to human advancement put down German tyranny though it did for a time flourish world wide. Who is there that can stand up in the light of heaven and declare that God made the universe and saw that it was good, that he yet rules and leads men in life nearer and ever nearer to His life and at the same time utter such paradox that any evil is necessary to life. His God, as yoke fellow, co-partner, and assistant toiler, any Satan? Does Christ our Redeemer have as consort in the throne chair beside him any hideous fellow god named WAR?
I can't understand how fellows take life and death.
Here are two jokes. The OC has remarked that casualties would occur almost immediately. In comment M. Sill said, ‘Just think what new scenery will surround us next week’, referring to the next world. Another speaking about leaving his polishing materials home. ‘I shall not polish my buttons again until I am up on my way to meet St. Peter’.
April 5, 1916
Still here and we have all manner of wild guesses. If one wishes to hear terrible talk take up a position on a troop ship isolated by the ocean. It was a lazy day barren of events. The time not dragging much because of a book, a lady to dream of, many dangers ahead from which we are safe here. As we made our bed the ship lights were out and we sat in darkness with ears at attention for the whurr of a hostile aircraft We creep among sitting and standing men and go up to the deck to see. It proved to be some fault of the machinery on the ship. Aircraft of various sizes are seen almost continuously in the morning. They sail along very beautifully with a huge noise. The Hindoo ship crew walk among us with ‘Hot tea John?’ and cakes wrapped in doubtful looking cloths looking for pennies. Their thin black bodies are slightly clothed. My bed is on the floor some one foot wide. Cold toes. Wishing for morning. The news? Battle in the channel, many submarines. Two troop ships sunk. Zeppelin raid on Scotland, etc. Bert and I practice communion with rations and it works since it is not met with difficulty on a stomach of unequal size.
April 6, 1916
Still here in some channel, gulf or river mouth of which my doubtful geography will not give a name. Some fellow suggested as the cause of delay - they have not room for us in Bramshott so they shoved us out into the ocean. Well there is room here. Many ships with soldiers pass but here we are - period. Lorna Doone is my pass time and I enjoy it greatly. My chief temptation is to write a letter to Nellie. This is the fourth day without a line. Hard biscuits today. Tomorrow we can say a heartier Grace over rations of bread. Buy a leathery flapjack from a Hindoo for 3 shillings. Robbery but hot. Try to sleep on deck but a few drops of rain drive me down to a bed under a table - the jungle of men gamble in pennies and quarrelling at it. A talking machine is playing hymns, others are swearing as they make their beds at which an Anglican student holds up a hand and they cease for a minute. Another is reading his evening passage of scripture beside a bench. Rolling and tumbling, swearing as they retire, floor covered with an indiscriminate mess of sleeping men, kit bags and equipment, pails, brooms, rubbish, the dim lights from the side of the huge cattle steamer, the continuous thunder of the horses pawing on the resounding iron deck just above. In the middle of such confusion I lay down to sleep like a child whom his mother has kissed good-night and tucked in.
April 7, 1916
Still here. A day on guard in the hold of ship. Though against orders I wrote part of a letter. I was glad of the duty. A ship towed in, as if lame, nationality guessed at. A hydro plane went past, first in the air then in the water. The first I have seen of these wonders of the air and seas. We leave by 8 p.m. and by 9 p.m. we are in the channel. Lovely scenes of an island, an ancient stone castle standing like a forlorn ghost with dumb mouth lamenting of glorious days gone by. We pass Osborne House where Queen Victoria died, the town seen indirectly through mists, the water coloured with sunset. War boats whistle and bark, lines indicate submarine nets and mines. No chance for Germans here.
April 8, 1916
Le Havre - Second wedding anniversary - two months since. In Canada she will soon awake to it and wonder where I am. Last 9th on the Atlantic, this, my arrival in France, next in the hands of God.
Things look a little foreign, enough to remind me I am on a foreign shore for the first time. Soldiers with their curious light blue trousers, like bloomers. Lamentable waste of cloth in war time. A small group of German prisoners go by. The first I have seen. Dirty ragged clothing, tunics patched and worn. We all rushed like a bunch of school boys to see them but were turned back by our Sgt. Major. We sun ourselves on the dock and eat cake and sandwiches. We march up a long winding road to the highest hill and sleep under canvas in a beautiful spot. Just a little cold. Bought a post card for Nellie. Got a card after inquiring at a dozen places. Officers give instructions!
April 9, 1916
We could not go down town last night on account of unexpected and hasty orders. We are told we leave for the Front today. Men from Egypt shiver a bit as they wash. They had finished up war in the east and now must help us. France is very much like English scenery with mist, hedges, plants, houses more elaborate in decoration. Many English signs, many Belgian flags. A lovely place, the hill by the sea with ancient houses. Grand buildings used for hospitals by the English. English and Belgians seem to be as much in prominence as French except in the language of the people. Flower market with perfume, immense shipping, cotton piled high in places.
April 10, 1916
The calendar in my mind went wrong.Instruction in stretcher drill, motor wagon etc. We know now we shall be on stretcher bearing work. Take news without a change in feeling. A route march out through the city, out through fields and meadows, along the cliff, back through the Australian camp. The most miserable human creature I ever saw, an old woman rag picker at 75, red eyed, face besmeared, lonely. Captain held me up for long hair and therefore got off short. Wrote letter for censor, first time.
April 11, 1916
Rain. We're to leave at 2 p.m. Must we carry all this? Two blankets? No, as a contrary order was given. Moved off at 3 p.m. along streets of cobble stones, down winding narrow streets. See many young widows with long flowing capes. The children beg for biscuits. A foreign flavour in everything. Took train about 5 p.m. Something new. A long string of cars, every other one marked 'Men' the other, 'Horses'. Why they marked the cars as they did I know not for they were all alike. Thirty of us in a tiny car, large cracks in the floor, the strong odour of horse manure. We have a small flickering light of which K. said we must light a match now and then to see if it were yet alight. No windows. Lay down in blanket and though the lightest I slept warm and well. My first ride in a cattle car. Fellows kick like steers especially when other soldiers pass from the passenger coaches. Woke at twelve and listened for ten minutes to the most awful swearing I ever heard. The horse transport fellows make the place smoke with the bad language.
April 12, 1916
Ypres, Belgium. In cattle car until about 4 p.m. To eat - 9oz. of canned beef and 3 biscuits. Read Lorna Doone. Off train about 4 o'clock. Hospitals have large red crosses painted on roof and bomb proof huts of sand bags. Unloaded wagons then march some 3 miles through some small villages. We were told that on this road 12 men fell last night. Proved to be untrue for the shells fell short People look happy. An old lady calmly weaving lace, an occasional building with windows gone, bricks knocked out. When darkness falls star shells are seen to one side. The first of the real thing, this is war. Within a short distance is the firing line where men are fighting and dying. There have been Canadian casualties within the last few days they say. I hope this horse shoe will not bend. If so, God help me. I can scarcely classify my feelings. No fear except when I got a doubtful story of six Red Cross men buried yesterday. One dying in seven months is a more reassuring story.
Still we are here ready for anything. No troubled thoughts or shivering of the flesh as on 13 Jan. We are ready for the work and anxious even. Say we go into the trenches tomorrow night. I have a new mind, take all things, never wink. ‘Oh pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. What's the use of worrying, it never is worth while.’
A low roofed wooden hut with 25 men. Rather close but quite comfortable. Mud, high trees with tuft of branches on top, fertile green fields. Aside from long strings of wagons, horses, fields filled with camps and hospitals, neat little grave yards packed with little crosses, all at peace. Slept splendidly. I sleep next to a negro cook. Carry rations for Sgt. Price across mud. Old Fussy.
It looks serious when we see the bricks knocked out of houses from splinters of shells and we listen to the stories which old timers tell for the benefit of the uninitiated. On the whole it is more like a pic-nic yet. The war here is within less than a mile and gives me less anxious thoughts than it did when I was on the opposite side of the world in Saskatchewan.
Fellows in next hut make a terrible row singing injudiciously.
April 13, 1916
The news comes that we are to advance on to the second dressing station. Major: ‘Just keep your eyes open and do your work, never mind the enemy.’ It seems as if it were into the real dangers of battle we were going. 'A' section shakes hands in farewell to us of 'B'. We pack our troubles and smile.
Get mail, precious mail.
A long hard march, hardest yet. The officers make a mistake and lead us nearly a mile out of the way making two miles extra. We make a face and turn around. 2 1/2 hours.
In the first town the windows are half gone from the buildings, marks of bursting shells in walls a few tiles gone but after two years of fighting it does not seem so much. Farmers quietly dray in their fields, children with their same unconscious laughter play around houses, women do their accustomed labour just as if no guns ever barked death. Auto wagons rumble over the cobble stones, motor cycles fly on their noisy way, army service wagons trot along, troops of infantry march with shovels over shoulder and queer pot shaped, bullet proof helmets on their way to the trench. Big guns boom behind us, to the right and left and ahead. We are reassured by the calmness of the inhabitants even though the two years of anxiety and neighbouring death has left its mark. We pass trenches prepared for a probable retreat and the traps of barb wire. A few holes made by bursting shells, six to sixteen feet across.
Spend a night in a most comfortable hut. Divided into sections of six to go to the dressing station. I hope not to go and get my wish and have a splendid sleep. A few wounded we hear about but I do not see. At 1 a.m. I am awakened by the rousing of my bedfellows and listen as a Sgt. describes the horrors he has just seen. He speaks in whispers and is dressed in a foreign looking raincoat. There are candles flickering, blankets over the window to hide light from air craft. It is the hour of midnight when thoughts most readily take hideous shape. I think for a few minutes then roll over on the floor bed. I think of her who wrote me those letters of love and drift off into sleep. Before retiring I write sitting on the floor by candle light. Look outside and see the flash of huge guns light up the overhanging cloud and the constant shooting flares - makes one feel as if it was a noisy thunderstorm - if not for the death. Thrilling. V.C. and men go on up to carry stretchers and the story of the things they saw and passed through come in varied and awful form. If one believed and cared he would die of fear or prepare to pay for his blanket in about two days.
April 14, 1916
A day of comparative idleness. Moved to a brick barn to live. Very comfortable and the mice step gently when they make their way across. On guard in the dressing station. See first two men killed by a shell. Poor chaps were in a rest camp quite far back; they were coming out of their hut at dawn when struck. Their ghastly blood flecked features make it more plain the meaning of those booming guns. Handled none too gently, pinned up in their blankets and laid side by side to rest in the soldiers grave yard. ‘In sure and certain hope of resurrection’ read the officer. Oh God may the words be true. If it were not true the horror, the unspeakable cruelty of life would surely banish all joy from the world.
The blackbirds here sing just as joyously as they do in the swamps back at home.
Up until 11 p.m. in the dressing station waiting for wounded to come in. Only one man with Appendicitis. Some do come in after 12. Seemed a rather quiet night from here.
Attended a good lecture by one of those devoted Anglican clergy who follow their men almost to the very trenches.
Saw a helmet torn by a bullet. Hole as big as a fist. The man had another wound in his shoulder.
April 16, 1916
On duty in the coal house. Others go to church while big guns are making the air pant with bursting shells. Later quiet and we go to a little service in the evening. Simple, very effective. Our hearts go full into the hymns. The old familiar prayers they never were more earnest.
Attended the funeral of three GG men. The grave yard grows fast.
A most lovely day, warm and quiet except for the shells popping at the many air ships sailing in all directions. They seem never to pay any attention, no more than to mosquitoes and truly few came near. A vicious flash, a puff as of batting white or black, a pop. In the momentary glare of a bursting shell there is something indescribably horrible, worse than the glare of a tigers teeth or the glare of a lion’s eye. Something devilish as if a spark stolen from hell.
The report is that there are some 50 casualties caused by the morning thunder. It proves to be some 2 or 3 slightly injured. The enemy was trying to hit an armoured train and a huge gun but got nothing.
April 17, 1916
Appointed assistant carpenter with Bee and worked at the hospital. I am happy when I can keep busy but when I have time to think the horrors of blood come over me. Blood on the floors, on the blankets, on stretchers, on dead men's faces, on the hands of those who dress wounds and bury the dead, the smell of the dressing of wounds in the air, the thunder of guns which make men bleed, constant stories of death. We were fixing up windows in an old convent which were broken by recent bombardment of the railroad before we came. As a carpenter I shall have no night duty dressing wounds. Thank God. Had a tasty supper of chips, eggs and coffee in a Belgian house.
April 21, 1916
Good Friday. Still a carpenter and spend 12 hours each day at the Dressing Station. I feed the sick in morning and do odd jobs. At church twice. The story of Passion Week and the life of Christ were illustrated. Touching hymns ‘Holy father in thy mercy...’ A prayer for safety and freedom from danger while guns are banging. We have chips at the house of a Belgian. Many words over the charge of a 5-franc note. Bought handkerchief from nuns, kindly old souls. Capt. Tull complains of a plague of carpenters while trying to sleep today. Cpl, S. opens a can of apricots to my pleasure.
April 25, 1916
Ordered up to the Asylum. Start at 6 p.m. in a motor ambulance. A fast and easy drive over dusty paved roads. The country is pock marked with shell holes. Ruins, ruins, ruins. The houses all deserted. Some completely knocked to mouldering piles of brick, others with gaping windows and naked rafters. Where one half of the house was gone I saw a baby's cradle in the upper room. The Asylum was a magnificent building of brick, beautiful little grassy court yard with forget-me-nots and daisies. The windows are all gone and not a fraction of serviceable roof is left. In the lovely little chapel the altar partly remains but the head of Christ is gone. One can imagine what a pleasant place it had been. We live in the cellar and sleep on stretchers. A little dark but otherwise quite comfortable. At dusk some shells burst over a small company of soldiers resting and some are brought in wounded.
Fragments of shells occasionally drop in our yard. The air seems alive with gun explosions and bursting shells. We feel quite safe. Nothing but a Jack Johnson could reach us if we stay inside. Some of the fellows go on up to the mill to help in the rush of wounded tonight. The birds are singing their spring songs as they build their nests in sheltered nooks of the ruins. The sunlight is lovely. I enjoy a walk across the courtyard in the long dewy grass.
April 26, 1916
At the Asylum, reading, sleeping, wandering around the ruins.
The artillery starts early in the morning, a terrible bombardment of the enemy's artillery. The batteries within a stones throw of this building makes us jump when they go off. Huge guns, a flash of hellish fire, the atmosphere cracks like a solid thing, one grips the railing as the concussion strikes, then the peculiar whurring scream of the shell as it seems to bore its way through the air. The sound of the shells causes a strange echoing noise as if the sky was an enclosed dome. Fritzy contents himself with blazing at our aeroplanes.
At about nine hell develops in a small valley to our right. Fritz it seems had not been answering our guns but was busy on our trench. On the distant ridge the shrapnel shells burst with a livid red hue. The effect was awful through the clouds of rolling smoke which soon developed. This with shooting flares, the rattle of hand grenades bursting and the machine guns pecking was awful, thrilling, indescribable.
I stood in an upper window gazing out and pray with a heart beating faint, wondering how it was going with our fellows and wishing evil for Fritz. How could I wish evil and pray? Because evil for Fritz meant the end to these scenes of horror.
Earlier as I stand at the gates a shell bursts near and its pieces rattle on the road just in front of me. I beat a retreat just as another comes and sends things rattling among the ruins. At the front gate I hear some two dozen go over, many not exploding. Their shells make a different noise from ours. It is easy to distinguish ‘going’ and ‘coming’. With each ‘coming’ we crowd in behind the wall until it has passed over. One shell comes pretty close and causes slight panic. I was sitting outside on a bench looking up at an aeroplane with some shells bursting near it overhead. Fearing that some bits might fall upon us I started for the door and the noise of an approaching shell makes us crowd like a flock of sheep before a dog.
I am on guard duty until 12 p.m. Give soldiers water and have a talk with them. Help a sick lad in. Begin to realise that ours really is an errand of mercy.
Lads return early in the morning and describe the battle, how it started and some of the things that happened. Fritz gained nothing by his blowing up of the hill and his attack. Many a poor lad lies cold this morning that was whistling in full manhood yesterday.
Capt. Tull says our cellar has a chance of a million-to-one of being hit by the shells.
April 28, 1916
Two months since I left Montreal. It seems like years. Canada seems like one of those places so far away in time and distance you only just remember.
Now we are at our regular work the time will pass more quickly especially in these perfect summer days. I found a new and pleasant occupation - sketching.
The officer calls us all down into the cellar because of a heavy bombardment which we fail to see or hear. We soon come up again and everyone is hunting for souvenirs. The most plentiful are bits of shrapnel shells. One falls off the roof from a bursting shell. Hamilton got it. I found another bit on the altar of the church.
A wounded soldier tells jokes when one would expect groans. His back was a complete mass of sores, cuts and bruises from the shrapnel. ‘I feel as if an old hen had been scratching for worms on my back.’
A medical man tells me something of his experiences during his 20 months of service. On one occasion, while carrying a stretcher a shell just passed him and tore down a brick wall covering himself, his companion and the wounded man but all come out safe. He believes the war will never be over. Nothing can stop it.
I like these old ruins very much, rather romantic and though the shells give me a start now and then I have no sense of danger.
Pay day, 15 francs.
April 30, 1916
Sunday and on guard. A lovely day with a singsong at night conducted by the Capt. I rescued two books from the ruins. We were in the church, at prayer at 9 p.m. when I got a bad fright. A blinding flash. A shell seemed to burst right over my head. A shower of bits of plaster pour over me as I sprang for safety behind the altar. With fast beating heart I return to the cellar where all was excitement. A few moments later a crash as a shell struck the building just overhead. Bits came in through the upper door and hit the stairway. It hit the wall about 12 feet from the door tearing a great hole and knocking bricks and debris into the tea room where a number of chaps were sitting. It gave them a most hearty scare. It just passed by our ambulance in which was a wounded officer and a number of men.