August 1, 1916
No duties but guard at midnight, the day without events. At 11p.m. I found Ford before the billet with a desire for company. There had been a story of spies flashing a light from a house window. Thought I had seen something in the open field myself when I was sitting behind T. and W. on their bed. With a few stories to start on and darkness one can see many things. He had seen a suspicious looking Belgian passing on a wheel and we really would like to catch a spy. We discuss how we would lead him to the light and strip him even to the hollow heels of his boots. A few yards away stood somebody smoking. We walked by, and, on seeing the English uniform, went on to the suspicious house. On the ground, in front of the house, water had been sprinkled - to mean something perhaps. Returning by these Englishmen one shoved me nearly into the ditch. I had no suspicion anything like that would happen. Then began a chewing match between 15 husky chaps and the 2 of us. Canadians in general were discussed by them and especially Field Ambulance men who were all cowards and shirkers and whose place was, by right, the front line. We delivered the ultimatum -’pass on or be arrested’ and did not wait for the completion of the story. We took upon ourselves, them not being sure of our duties, to challenge suspicious passers by. Those who spoke and swore in lusty English, passed. We hadn't even a tooth pick for self defence if anything had happened.
At 12:30 one passed giving the news we were using gas against Fritz and to be sure and have gas helmets ready for fear wind turned. We woke the men in the pasture field to make sure they had theirs.
In the hospital we have an occasional bite to eat, at 1 a.m. he left me and I wrote letters in the old kitchen until 3:30.
August 2, 1916
Sleep, got a parcel from Nellie. Duty at night in hospital. Very quiet night with few cases.
August 3, 1916
Sleep in a house in the field.
August 5, 1916
Came up in ambulance to the Asylum. Sang songs as we came. There were fires among the ruins of V.
I am on refreshments and make cocoa for the Major
There is little change in the ruins. There are some half dozen more shell holes and one in the room at the back of the chapel where I used to write letters. There are a greater number around the door way and court yard. A doorway has been made in from the back for ambulances.
August 8, 1916
Two gas cases and a lecture on gas by the Major.
Quarrels with Joe Plant and Jones over cooking utensils which I was supposed to have used. Reading, writing, etc.
At 11 a gas alarm was given and we got into dispensary. Put helmets on and sit there trying to work our breathing apparatus. The tube stung our tongue and lips, the chemicals our throats, the glasses for eyes were out of place altogether. A rather tight corner and an eccentric looking bunch with huge gaping eyes, tubes sticking out where nose should be, all shape of head lost in the grey bag. We joked, hoped we could soon get them off. The Major reported it thick upstairs. Later when we went up after a bout of breathing through a sack we thought we smelled it. The horses had broken loose two huge ropes on account of it.
August 9, 1916
Woke at four dreaming first that someone was calling loudly for someone through the ruins. The horror deepened and at last I woke to realize some calamity. Those cries, groans and shouts were of dying men. I had lain down fully dressed even with gas helmet and cap. Jumped up and up stairs to meet guard just above, his face hard below his steel hat. I asked the question and he answered ‘This is Hell’ and it was as near Hell as anything seen on this earth. It was murder with fiendish torture. In the court yard, corridors and rooms they lay, tossing and rolling on stretchers. In torture, sure of coming death. As fine a body of Irishmen as you ever met, big, strong, passionate men. Their heroic manhood showing out most clearly in these last dreadful hours. I thought I could not go into the room but I did. All were panting - panting for the precious breath without lungs to receive it. As the last moments approached - frothing on the lips with that whitish yellow flow. Some were already dead. These the R.A.M.C. men were carrying out. Our Major, with a tank of oxygen, was going about them, injecting oxygen in one case, letting blood in another, studying each case intensely, his nerve driving to a high tension by sympathy. We began breaking capsules of ammonia, kneeling over the suffers to let them breath of it. Mine was a fair haired Irishman, huge of frame and, last night, as strong as the strongest. Now dying. In his agonies I stayed with him, trying to help him, but he could scarcely speak and didn't want to. He would walk then come back. Another helped me. When I had gone down for breakfast he died, going out suddenly. Strong one moment - dead the next.
The ambulance took away the hopeless ones. One by one the others were carried away. After breakfast there were only two left. One a lieutenant, a black haired Irishman of Irelands best, a gem among men. A poet at heart, among his last words were; ‘He who has many lives to live, many deaths must die’. Once he stretched out his arms and cried with a beautiful passion as deep and pure as angelic life. ‘She loves me and I love her.’ Mothersill offered a prayer and he said ‘Thanks old chap.’ Repeated also the Lords Prayer and the man prayed for a release in death. A strong and great man stricken, one could admire his every moment, the fight he made with pain, his musical Irish voice. Tears were in our eyes and hatred for the Germans burned strong. Hearing the sound of a gun we heard him murmur, yet a soldier, ‘a surge is on’. In his voice was that which revealed he gloried in fair battle, but this is murder. There was nothing bitter or ugly about him. He was grand. At last he went out--. Thirty one lay dead in a room, others died on the way down. Purhaps a hundred went through here during the night
How it happened no one knows. Some had helmets which, being inexperienced, they removed too quickly. Some had been caught while napping. More came in towards night and the horrors continued but they were cleared out as fast as possible, only one dying here. I heard that many over a hundred died at C.C.S.
August 10, 1916
After dark, the night before, we came into the mill, or rather, a cellar near the mill. Fritz was shelling the town at the time. About every two minutes a shell crashed in.
A report that a piece was blown from the brickwork just outside the Asylum. We packed ourselves away in the ambulance and waited five minutes for the Major and moved off in fear of what might come. Nothing occurred and we found a bed, some stretchers in a corner, mine under Ben Heap. He would sit on his, over my head, and let his feet hang down in my very face. You remember what a pepper box Ben was. Touch him and you get a shower of hot stuff. Treat him as a joke, laugh him out of it and honour him with compliments and he would hug you with momentary affection which might end at any moment in a shower of pepper.
At seven there was a call for our squad to take two wheeled stretchers down to the Asylum. A lovely trip by daylight through the ruins. No danger. Wilson and I scouted for shell noses, especially valuable as souvenirs. Loitered a moment in the Cloth Hall. A few months ago it was one of Belgium’s finest buildings with statues of her kings and the dwelling place of her glory. Now it is piled in heaps, the great and wild poppies growing in the debris. Bits of German shells scattered about between the broken pillar stones like the remains of a worm beside the apple it had eaten away. In the great tower there is a shell hole, half way up, through which a horse and buggy could have been driven. The square surrounded by these imposing ruins was grass grown.
At the east end, another public building with scaffolding in front, as if some repairs or some statue, symbolic of the nation’s life, having been put in place when this bombardment started. Further on we passed through the Mennin Gate which goes through the ramparts, a huge brick wall backed by a pile of earth seventy five feet thick and below which runs a mote or canal. This brick wall, scarred all over with holes where shells burst. Purhaps, when the inhabitants of Ypres built this, they were sure that for all time they were making their city impregnable. A baby carriage lay in the ditch. The grave yard full of imposing headstones and marble statues had been smashed and gored. A shield of inch mesh wire and willow wands lined the side of the road towards the German lines, the Mennin road, half a mile up a sign forbid us going further in daylight.
August 10 - 14, 1916
Guards every other night. Visited the garage with a shell hole behind which overlook the German lines. We of course could not see them but, with glasses, they might see us. On a working party here one night we cleared away a pile of odorous rubbish into a shell hole. Occasionally a shell would come in near. Gas stand too.
Talked with Welshman from __(?)__. Received a scare when a shell case dropped an aeroplane.
August 16, 17, 1916
Zeebrugge burns. Guard every other night. Rats in our dugout. Trips to Valley Cottage and first experience with Aullets. See letter for this date. Duty at all hours. Sleep by fits and starts. Another trip to Valley Cottage where Bert and I volunteer because no other way could be seen by us. Trip on to Asylum with Wilson getting back at 11a.m. Considerable stretcher bearing.
August 18, 1916
At Pop., or rather at a siding, of which I can not remember for two minutes the name and haven't the ambition to take my diary up to copy the name. Great to get back where roosters crow, children cry and shout in their play and women parade about. In the evening a trip for shell noses. Went into a graveyard. On one grave a wreath of flowers and a card on which was written ‘In loving memory of my darling, sweet heart, Harry. From his loving Rose’
Back to bed for a sleep to catch up. Very comfortable on the earth. See the 4th Canadian Division come up among which A.M.B. from Victoria. Have a very long talk with W., my successor, who comes out in this A.M.B. Tell them much re. this work and the conditions to be expected. They were much interested.
The name of this siding sounds like Hop Off. Very appropriate because it was here we hopped off into Belgium.
August 19, 1916
A day about camp and trips to Ploegsteert to concert at night held by P.P.C.L.I. At 9:30 p.m. we were still so far away!! We returned at a walking pace similar to that under shell fire. We went into the front gate and, to be honest and above board, past the guard, but there stood Sgt. Major Whittaker, a long personification of danger and --. We received a lecture though not over harsh and cruel. We crept up to bed as quiet as mice in the dark and slept with cold and bitter thoughts of the morrow.
In the morning we found ourselves on kitchen and many stories in the wind. There was to be a roll call night and morning on our account and what of public opinion! He had our names and would parade us before the O.C. ‘Every one of those d--n theologians were out until eleven o'clock. Men who are supposed to set an example!’ and much else. And us - we declared it was because we were theologians. If only we had been partly drunk or up to something else disgraceful it would have passed by as a joke. The Sgt. Major had found life monotonous. The fellows were all busy and had forgotten his presence. Thus he was making his presence felt by starting something.
There was the disturbance in society caused by some one asking for physical drill. Various quarrels with Joe the cook so that I hated him and military life. I fought with myself for peace, happiness and contentment with poor success. The following days were blue.
August 20, 1916
The above was part of Sunday. Towards evening it rained but in spite of rain we went down to C.C.S. with Mac. Service in a little tent held by Dr. Gutherie, a very enjoyable one. Saw No. 11 Ambulance and hunted for Hamilton without success. This night I was very hungry and wanted bully beef and got a threat of court martial from Joe and much swearing and the fight as mentioned above. Stories as to where we are going for we are to go. They range from Calonica to South Africa.
August 21, 1916
A walk down the track to Bail-leul. Was nicely tucked away in blankets when a flash light switched on us by the Major. He declared that we had been ordered to clear the tent for those coming down and much of this nature. Kind enough though. Then Staff Sgt. Heron came in declaring the orders had been given and made us crowd together. With one eye open, waited for those who did not come.
August 22, 1916
P. asked for a march. At 1:30 started off at great pace. Past Bail-leul we have a rest much needed. Sore in muscles and feet. Then on, on, under heavy packs, getting sorer, until one had to hang on with teeth to keep from falling out. At last, when we were about exhausted, we came into Steenvoorde, to the old straw roofed hut from which we came on 23 July. There were heels actually bloody and needing dressing. It was a test march to see what we could do for future jaunts. We may march on our way someplace but for now we are to stay here for two weeks they say. All is the same. Chips eaten in same place. One blanket issued to each man and many were the semi-conscious groans heard only by the guard. How cold it was. The same cold earth makes hideous the hours of night.
August 23 - September 3, 1916
At the same place. For five days we fixed and fed patients under highest __(?)__ , something over one hundred men more or less sick. Some were crusty and some were sad. Some delighted. Some get mad at beans for breakfast, always beans. One old Scot and MacIntyre had a scrap. Macs ire was raised at his companion from No.10 Ambulance. ‘He had a face like Scots we' ha' and dressed in kilts.’ A good thing Mac was Scottish to or he never would have dared.
After we got moved down to our tent the rain came and it continued to rain for many hours. During the night the canvas dripped, dripped, falling on ones nose and causing you to change. Change so it drops on the air pillow with the sound of a hammer. In the morning we felt very damp and the rain continued all morning. In the afternoon I took a wheel stretcher to Bail-leul to D.D.M.S. and the rain, it rained, and the wind, it rained, and the trees, they rained, and the roads, they rained, houses rained, cart wheels rained, ones rubber coat rained, your boots rained. Worst of all, you know your house, at the end of your journey rained. My supper rained when I ate it though I ate fast. Burt Pearse loaned me dry boots and we went up to the wooden hut to sleep. It was cold but dry.
To Cassel on Thursday. A very great trip. We saw the cities of the coast and the dark line of the ocean with the smoke of ships, the sand dunes, over 40 miles of France. On Saturday a stealthy journey to Hazebrouck but this was on Sept. 2. Great excitement during the week because Romania came in. What might one not expect next, purhaps home by Christmas, who can say. Now everybody’s happy.
I have not told of the fire which occasioned the major shock. Of how, when the parade was called that night, I hunted diligently for a job on the water pail and thus escaped having to stand guard over the ruins. Nor of the daily little vexations and unpleasant things. Where officers use their endless authority and order one about as a slave. At such time one hates the army. Oh yes, he reasons, and as the consequence feels so cross and discontent. Not to reason is to secure happiness. Oh when we get in civvies.
We are to leave soon, for where? The Somme? Who can tell? Let’s ask the civilians about town. I go to church at morning and night. Rain and carpenter work.