May 1, 1916
Read the Testament after work. Warr and I wore our steel helmets while on duty. We go out with reluctance into the court yard. We see shells kicking up a fearful dust in __?__. We see Sgt. M. dodging around corners. No mishaps from last night’s shells.
At 12 p.m., after I had undressed and into a delightful snooze a call was received for stretcher bearers for the Mill. We go out in the motor ambulance. These machines fill me with admiration. A purring sound, a passing shadow, a cloud of dust is all you get as one passes you. Up through the ruins and desolation. The most fantastic forms. Huge buildings, fallen all but one wall and that standing with gaping window holes or shell punctures. A corner of a wall here stands as a jagged tower. Beautiful arched windows and doors broken and torn. Piles upon piles of brick. Here a faint light through a blanketed doorway, there the remnant of the tower of the beautiful cathedral. The public buildings gutted, cracked, punctured, torn. Piles of ruins. A year and a half ago this was a fair city full of life but the war sport passed and now this ...
At the Mill we stop. A room some thirty feet long and ten feet wide. It is high enough to stand upright in the middle and is made of an arch of heavy iron covered thick with sand bags in an old building. We pass into it through the two doors covered with blankets. Within the usual semi-darkness of candle light, the tins of jam and biscuits, blankets, stretchers, boxes of tobacco, smoke.
Four fellows are sitting about chatting. One is making cocoa for the sick that will come in. There had been a big scrap on and a rush of wounded is expected. Some 60 we hear. The walking patients with small wounds come in and sit along the walls telling the story of the fight and how they or their companions were hit. ‘Are we down-hearted? No.’ is their bearing.
Then came the horse wagons bringing the wounded from the advance dressing station over the shell punctured roads down this far where we have to change them to the motor ambulance which will carry them on down. Gently, silently we lift them out of the wagon and into the ambulance or lay them on the ground to wait for the motor to return. One fellow was moaning and calling to his mother or praying ‘Oh God’. Mothersill talks to him and tries to take his mind away from his wounds. One fellow had died on the way down. They take him to one side and later bring him into the dugout to search for name papers and valuable to send home. We pass among them tucking in their blankets, giving water and cocoa, speaking words of encouragement. The flash of the star shells gives a dim light for our work aided by the stars. The machine guns rattle fitfully.
The light of day began to come slowly before three. In the last load we lift out a German officer and two wounded men. The officer raises his head to watch what we are doing with him.
We go back in a horse ambulance through the ruins now seen a little more clearly. How slow it goes.
Tucker is on guard at the door looking so rustic that I do not know him.
May 3, 1916
Very quiet day. Read the Latin text of St. Matthew. Jesus seems to speak so many awful words. It is the conversations between him and the Pharisees that is most often told. One is so deeply fearfully impressed with the earnestness of life as one reads his words.
We hear that a mail wagon was blown up and think this may account for our lack of mail.
May 6, 1916
A terrible night for our transports. Germans swept all roads with shells. Many stories of narrow escapes and disasters. S. Jones claimed he had a close shave or half a dozen close shaves.
Fritzy shelled the Asylum. I was in a distant corner at prayer at 8 p.m. when the light of an exploding shell flashed around me. Until nearly 12 p.m. shells were bursting around the building. We were ordered down into a cellar by Capt. T. and it was no hardship. I was in the Dispensary listening to soldier's stories and reading when a shell struck and knocked down some brick. The fellows were restless, rather afraid, hugging the sides of the building and the places under the iron beams. A shell hit with the thunder of a falling building and it seemed to last about a minute. There was a wild rush for the officer's room which was more secure. Men flopped flat on the floor and rushed in a way that was really laughable if one had been free to look at it in this way. A brick fell down through a window with a cloud of dust. Later I slept while waiting for the ambulance to take me away at 3 a.m.
May 7, 1916
A most beautiful morning as we came down the tree lined road. Nothing to recall the bombardment of last night except a dead horse by the road way. To Brandhoek and to Pop. Got a pass and Bert and I go out into the country for a long walk. Delicious to be out of the sound of guns. In this country way there is no indication of the war, peaceful and spring time beauty. Picturesque houses of brick and tile among the green of grass and trees.
May 8, 1916
‘On kitchen’. A walk in the evening poking our noses into shops with much satisfaction. Spent some money.
One hears something one moment which makes one fear the long, long continuance of the war and the next, something which causes you to go to the other extreme.
The talk of the men fills one with utter disgust. There are to be 60 ‘women’ sanctioned by the government yet we are here to fight for the ‘right’.
May 9, Monday, 1916
A day free. Go with Matthews to Coubert Monastery, some 14 miles tramp. A great old place of some 200 years on a hill along which one can see nine of the old long armed windmills. The monks were sharing the monastery with the troops. We see one old fellow in his ancient garb, gown and rope girdle, bare feet, cowl and black beard. Go through the sick wards where soldiers lay on stretcher beds. Have tea at a farm house, eggs, bread and coffee. Have interesting time trying to get her to understand my French which is filled in with English. She explains ‘Me Belgium, me married, husband at Front.’
One fellow was packing up his friends' clothes. The friend had just died. He was not talking much to the men around as if feeling much and saying little. As he went out he said ‘Oh well, the world is mad. God is good. I hate it all but I'm going to stick it’.
Sgt. M. came up to the Asylum trembling in fear of the shells. With much hesitation he made his way out to the court yard to wash. Graham, taking in the situation, watched his opportunity and threw out on the cobble stones a great tin can and then disappeared. Just how far Sgt. M. jumped has never been agreed upon.
Men under fire naturally act in peculiar and different ways. Mr. Muir, a man whom I have never heard swear says that when the shells burst around he can't contain himself but must curse till things clear.
An officer, wounded, would take no medication until the men were served and then only when he was sure there was enough for all. He who is first is second to all.
May 11, 1916
Another walk to Mont des Cats. The highest point in the north of France from whence you can look down on all the cities of the plain even to the sea. A wonderful view of green fields, hedged trees, wind mills, houses and, in the further distance, the towers and steeples of distant towns. Much of the country has been fought over though showing little of it now. Saw German graves one of which they say is a Crown Prince.
A valley of green and hill side blue with hyacinths.
The Belgian women almost always speak to us though other soldiers that we meet seldom do. Get some chips with Matthews. Three Imperials are present. They talk filthy to the women and hit one of them with a rap on the hips. My blood boils at the disgrace to the Khaki. Some of the women seem afraid to speak to us. Paid 11 d for chocolate. No. 9 Field Ambulance are called chocolate soldiers by the Imperials because they are seen more often with a piece of chocolate than with Extra Stout.
May 15, 1916
Moved to a camp just outside town. Hate to move. Our old kit bag is heavy. I was sitting, reading quietly, when suddenly a great commotion and a storm of language like I had never heard before. It proved to be the Sgt. Major getting after us to clean up everything for the arrival of No.10. We go for a walk in the evening into country ways and the night is full of the roar of guns. Nicely asleep when a bunch march in from the corps with roaring laughter and loud talk. Wake us all. In the morning we hear that an aeroplane dropped bombs nearby. A wild commotion which I did not hear. Some said they heard things fall, a bit goes through a tin roof etc. Couldn't see anything.
On a march we move as if we were new recruits. The Col. gives an order, the Sgt. Major thinks he made a mistake and gives another. A fine mix up. Made all the officers angry.
May 16, 1916
Went a few paces away to read and write and then could not be found when wanted for duty. On pay parade Sgt. Major called me down and I protested. Some words and much heat. Every Sgt. is as the Pope in his infallibility. Perhaps I was slightly at fault for I wanted to write and one does get lazy.
A bath parade on which the two main topics of converse were lice and the end of the war. ‘Are you crumbly? Not I - yet!’
A lovely walk in the evening, a R.C. service, a valley filled with sun set gold. A country very beautiful.
The name of our hut is Optimistic Hut. I have joined a pioneer squad with Bee. A bomb proof job. I so wish it was. Early in the morning a great commotion caused by hostile aeroplanes. A bomb dropped near with a great roar but I slept through it all.
This diary follows no rules of composition I know. I started out in the evening and end up in the morning.
Each morning Fritz comes along with his aeroplanes and bombs our fellows. Say the Britishers can't get up early enough to keep him away. It is most unpleasant to hear those bombs go boom down here when we are supposed to be at rest and out of danger.
May 18, 1916
A stand to. This night it fell to my lot to lay in the middle of the bunk made of six blankets on the floor. Wilson on my left, Bert on my right. The lights of the candles were blown out at 9:30.
May 19, 1916
Reading of army art during which men amuse themselves tickling each other with grass. I said that I don't feel so bad about giving a sermon now.
An inspection of gas masks.
Walk to an old wind mill for grinding wheat, rustic enough, surely. Shakes as we walk up the stairs. A fair hair girl lowers the bags. A pretty picture against the Belgian green and blue. The old, old mills with its long awkward arms and ancient machinery. The two wheeled cart with huge, slow moving, good natured horses fastened with a chain and the sweet little maiden pulling on the rope in the door.
A terrible misfortune. Stumbled and spilled my pudding at noon.
Had a theological argument with Wilson. Finished reading Battle of the Strong.
A bullet went through the cookhouse roof just at noon giving C. Davis a scare. A man in our sister corps reported wounded near the Copse.
The cookhouse stands to the east of the huts. A corrugated iron roof covers it. The sides are of boards but left open on two long sides to give air and allow smoke to escape and relieve the sore eyes of the fatigues working inside. Orders give times for meals but at supper fellows are playing ball, horse-shoes, reading, writing, the time is not noticed. ‘What's that? Supper is ready?’ A commotion, the ball is dropped, books shut and crammed away someplace, then flying figures jumping sidewalks and ditches, cramming into hut doors and fumbling among the hundred and one articles of the kit for the mess tin. The same rush to get early in the bread lines. In a very few minuets the long line is formed with jingling mess tins. The boys play, there is an occasional oath. To be late means twenty minutes wait for supper. Then slowly, so slowly, move forward step by step until the bread is reached ready cut on the table, the basin of cheese, the spoonful of jam and the tea. Old tea grannies we are! Supper secured, a shady place found and super in the mess tin on the grass with gossip. When will the war end, discussions, etc. All food gone the mess tins must be swept and garnished with sand and water from the water tank. Run to get supper but go very slowly and regretfully to washing of the tin. Here ‘We're in the army now’ catches us with an unpleasant hitch in the side.
May 20, 1916
Work on the cook house. Have a terrible struggle not to dislike C. Davis and be cross and irritable at many things. An attack of the blues, fought with the help of God to some success. A letter from Leslie in Saskatchewan. A store keeper is surprised that we, being thirsty, ask for water not beer. A scrap with MacIntyre and Tucker in the blanket.
May 22, 1916
Early last evening a hush seemed to fall over the whole camp. A whisper of a calamity. Was it true? It could not be. With some questioning it was confirmed. Our officer who was with us yesterday had been killed up near the Copse. An ambulance had been sent for his body. The first casualty had occurred in our own corps and that of Capt. Waterston. The sadness of the thing followed us in our walk and weighed heavily on our attempts to have a pleasant talk. As we were lying down to sleep Thomas came to the door. More sad news. McGurty, his batman, had also fallen. His brother is with us still.
The funeral was for four o'clock. A voluntary parade. All special duties were called off so that all might go. At three o'clock we fell in. The officers and part of the men of No.10 were present. In a little hut, roughly built of tar paper lay the body. The coffin was neatly made of pine boards, unpainted. With hats in our hands we filed past our captain who lay like a warrior taking his rest. A warrior against death wrapped in the soldier's gray blanket. His boots were muddy as if he had been walking far. A single, small wound disfigured his face
The lumber wagon with small black platform fastened and a team of fine black horses drew it. We did our best in the drill and the march. Some dozen officers are present. When everything is ready, six men carried out the body on their shoulders. It was covered with the flag and bands of flowers. As it appeared we were called to the General Salute which we held until it rested on the carriage. Order of March was formed and we moved off at the Slow March which was quickened to the Quick March outside the gate. There was no sound of music since a medical corps has no band. Each soldier, especially noticeable the Belgians, salute the body as it passes. The pungent dust filled our nostrils, the weather was hot and the wagon rumbles over the cobbled stones. The natives stood at the doors gravely chatting. Some two miles brought us to the cemetery. Once there we are lined up and listened to the burial ceremony conducted without a book by a Major Chaplain. A Methodist we thought. The officers all marched past the body with a salute as they passed just as devout Catholics bow when then passing the altar. Then the bugler was called to sound the Last Post. This call is always heard after darkness has fallen and when we retire. In this connection it was most impressive and made the lump form in our throats and the tears come near the surface. ‘Lights, lights out.’ Finished the bugle. Surely lights out ---.
Away again at the Quick March back to camp. No tears had fallen and we thought the most of ourselves. Who would be next? Still we were sorrowful for our captain and talked much of how it had happened. He had gone to relieve a doctor of another unit in the trenches and while in a dug out a shell had struck and killed five out of the six. Ralph Connor's batman was killed. He himself had just stepped outside the dugout and thus saved his life.
May 23, 1916
I saw Armstrong on the wash house job. Into studs up to his elbows and singing ‘Will never let the old flag fall’ in a voice none too musical. Today nails were scarce and I learned a new trade. I hope though not to be compelled to put in practice in civi life. Competitors will not likely be many. I was an ash picker.
We had an issue of chewing gum.
May 24, 1916
A sports day in Pop arranged by G.M. No.9 acquitted itself well and won several prizes. The crowd of Canadians was so big it was impossible to see satisfactorily. While bloody war was raging 15 miles away we were cheering with the usual enthusiasm over a base ball match.
Dinner of chips, a bath and a walk about town. Wilson on guard. A very nice time with usual sports day headache at night.
May 25, 1916
Perhaps with half a sleepy eye I have seen the daylight shinning through the door. Perhaps I have heard, with a sleepy ear, the whurr of hostile aeroplanes or our own and the constant air battle. At six the guard comes in to call the kitchen fatigues more or less noisily. I wake too and know I am to have half an hour longer when the bed is so comfortable just before one must leave.
All too soon the watch shows 6:30 and I remember that 200 men must wash in four basins and the early bird catches the dish. The Orderly Sgt. to comes to make sure all eyes are open with a gentle push with hand or foot on the blanketed figures on the floor. Sometimes this is accompanied with word battles but 'tis no use to complain against Fate or the Orderly Sgt.
Up, dress, blanket shaken and put on the roof to air. The water is a problem. There are three sources of supply. A well with a broken pump; a frog pond which receives the drains of the wash house - but we must not wash here, so the Sgt. of Transport says, for he waters his horses there; and the water cart but another Sgt. has ordered no water to be taken for washing. What is one to do? You do as you wish and try to appease any Sgt. who runs athwart your way. None are around in early morning. We wash in a cut oil can and shave in cold water. This done we have physical drill by Sgt. A. We like it best when it's muddy and they let us off. The rusty muscles must work and the toes must be touched. Legs stiffened with yesterdays run must run again. This spasm past - a run for the breakfast line-up occasionally with a book to read while waiting.
May 27, 1916
On Saturday the three of us went to Pop. Saw a foot ball game, had picture taken, saw a picture show. In picture show driven to desperation. I tried to reprove an Imperial for his vile language. It was not that I loved his soul but he made one uncomfortable. Spoiled the picture for me. He told me I should be .... I know not where. He would quit when he wished. He quit but somehow I felt a failure and spoiled the evening walk home. I was in the blues. These blues, which I keep away quite successfully, sometimes grip hard. Am I a failure for all time? Well, if I fall in battle she will never think so.
Met M. in the evening and showed him B. Perley's letter re. keeping our chairman in touch. Had a talk on spiritual things which did me much good and I hope him also. Not so bad a day!
May 28, 1916
Church parade. Service was under a rather hot sun by a clergyman from Quebec. A simple little Anglican talk. Enjoy the Holy Communion service after. The priest robed himself before us and good Methodist brethren had to force below a wayward smile. Men of all classes were among the some 20 present. Men of clean lip and those whose mouth often utter the filthy blasphemous things. Men of all congregations were gathered in. Praise God for this freer spirit.
Wrote six letters under an apple tree. Tried to find Wm. Creik. Almost taken for a spy because of my many questions. A splendid view from this hill top above the town where so many Canadian regiments are encamped.
Fritz shells Pop. From about 6 to 12. Bee, who had stolen down into town without a pass came back with eyes big but still smiling like a boy just escaped from a policeman. A shell had struck the house next to him and he had the dust of the explosion upon him In bed we lay counting the shells going into Pop. Most of them were duds. We hear the gun go, the flying cry of a big shell, a fire cracker explosion or was it the noise of its fall only. Such a dead shell we call a dud.
Early in the morning a terrible commotion in the air. All kinds of guns used in the business were going. Roll over again and sleep and let men who fight, fight on, and let me, when I am supposed to, sleep. This is of a certainty a 20th century experience. A sleep under a battle field. That battle field the clouds and its warriors on wings shooting bullets twice as quickly as a watch ticks.
More about Bee. He had seen a sign on the Talbot House ‘Come out into the garden and forget the war’. He did and soon after a shell struck in the garden knocking him flat down and covering him with debris though he was on the far side by the wall. Another fellow in the house was struck.
May 30, 1916
Bath parade. We lined up with towel in hand and march off into Pop. Arriving at the baths we march into a large yard the back of which is filled with lines where girls are hanging out socks, shirts and underwear by the mile length. We enter a hut made of canvas, a form running down the center on which to sit while disrobing. All outer clothing is here taken off and tunics carried in the hands. Twelve at a time we enter and strip leaving dirty clothing on the floor and hanging tunic and trousers on a cross bearing a number which must be remembered. This done we pick up our boots and towels and go into the bath room. Here we see twelve tubs above which is a rather meagre sprinkle of warm water. Soap provided we indulge in luxury more delicious than the perfumed fountains of the ancient citizens of Pompeii. The stone floor, inevitable in Belgium, feels cool to the newly washed feet. Dry on our dirty towel, into a dressing room where another luxury awaits us in the form of clean socks, shirt, towel and underwear. Happy is the man who gets a shirt of some certain color and shape in which he will not loose himself in empty folds. I should not prefer, if I had my choice, the garments of a Grenadier Guardsmen washed last week. From a hole in the wall ones tunic and trousers comes back to you hot. The cross is suggestive of a grave but it really is alright. It marks the grave only of nameless, little, unwelcome creatures. In the process of the bath they have been crushed by mighty giants who with monster eyes search them from their dug outs and advance trenches in shirts and underwear. Deserted by these same giants whose companionship they have so persistently clung after plenteous feasts and generous hospitality. Drowned in falling water, roasted even in their homes in their tunic palace. Now the monster giant goes with, he hopes a least, none of their company. We dress, fall in and go back through the dust, heat and grime of the main road.
May 31, 1916
While writing a letter saw an observation balloon adrift and in the same darkness German shells were bursting by the scores. Looked like the flash of fireflies. I heard the men had descended in parashoots when it broke loose. Davis said if he were there he would prepare for a hasty trip to Kingdom Come. It was an impressive thing to see there drifting in the darkening sky with certain destruction flashing on every side. If not by this shell then by that. Like a sinner at the end of life, drifting into darkness and death.
[The following poem was included in the diary. Author unknown.]
Talk not of your Heroes, the men of long ago
For we have men much greater which I'll proceed to show
Men noted for their Valour, their Hunger, Talk as well.
And as you seem impatient, their exploits I will tell.
A valiant man who knows all things as sprightly as a lark
Who'd end this war, right at our door if left to Private P-k.
But he has gone to D.R.S. Case hopeless too they say.
He's got shell shock, an awful knock, it fell a mile away.
Then there is the one, who saved a gun, a Battery so do tell.
He's modest, quiet, never talks, his name is Private R-l.
When shells are falling just like rain, one fell, and no one tried to stop it.
He caught the shell and threw it back and killed the man who shot it.
Thus__?__ a brave N.C.O. who the Copse was sent
When shells did burst, its ‘Safety First’ says our bold Sgt. A---n.
Oh my poor back, I'm on the Rack, who slaps me woe betide him.
He rode the track, when coming back whilst wounded walked beside him.
Another one has stripes quite three, he's good with Pill and Potion.
To Do or Dare, He doesn't care where, for danger he's no notion.
Too proud to fight, though in the right, the Allies under rates
But then its plain, should he explain ‘I'm from the U.S. States.
Then we have one, the Son of a Gun, He's in our Cavalry too.
He's got the spurs. He's got the legs, for letting shells go through.
We've Shrapnel Pete with rubber feet, got souvenirs by the ton
Old iron, bits of shell he gathers one by one.
But why go on, we're Heroes all, and when stood up in line
The Boches fear, the Allies cheer, long live the No. 9.