September 6, 1916
Tearing down tents and packing up. Tomorrow we are off. Major calls to me. ‘I must shorten my letters. Worst sinner in the Corps. 38 pages a day and officers are not appointed solely to censor letters. They have to etc. etc. Why man, we don't get a chance to write ourselves. Apply the golden rule and write letters of four pages.’ How I hate it. Here is my liberty gone again, one of my chief pleasures. I shall become a U.S. citizen and get in the next war caused by Britain searching the mails. Oh when I get out of khaki is one battle cry, slogan, life motto and star of hope. When a fellow feels ready to burst, being so fed up, he can shout, more or less quietly, ‘Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. When feet are sore and muscles have lost all vitality and ache instead - ‘Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. When we have tramped all day without dinner and at the end a bed on the grass under a doubtful sky - ‘Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. When officers snap and bark and the sergeants are rotten - ‘Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. When one feels lonely, turning into homesickness and the spirit rebels against the heartlessness of everybody - ‘Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. When the mud is up to ones ears, day after day, the tent leaks and the water freezes up on the grass you lay on -’Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. When the biscuits are as hard as planks, the stew and marmalade and the cook gives us instead of food - ‘Oh wait till I get out of khaki’. Think a fellow can't write a letter of what length he desires to his wife! This for King and Country business is rather tough on us all.
I shall have to fall back upon my diary. What of Nellie? Shall the poor, dear girl feel more lonely still? But my spirit has flamed enough already over it. Still I had to laugh at my own sore head to prevent listing things. That night everything was torn up in town, no place to go. Slept on a hard wood floor of schoolhouse and was cold and thought much. Read 'Rosary', beautiful thing. If all love stories were so passionate and pure as this.
September 7, 1916
Very little work and most of the time spent sitting with our kit in the field. I finished my book. A last trip around Steenvoorde with Swan. A lady meets her friend in the field, she has been crying. Purhaps a letter telling of the fall of some dear one.
At nine we move off into the night towards the north, marching 50 minutes, resting 10. Feet get sore. Near end of journey at midnight have cocoa and some of Alice’s cake. Never tasted cake so good. We stopped in the middle of the cobble stone paved square and lay down on our packs on the cold rough street and sing our old songs. On again with aching feet. Sleep in a pile by the station where the ground is doubtful with foul smells. After the usual shuffling of kits and standing in line, we go into a cattle car and beds are made in a corner. Sleep in the rolling car when shunting is engaged in.
September 8, 1916
Through Calais while asleep. Wake as we are passing through the tunnel entering Isques. Fascinating beautiful country. Entirely new to one. Etaples, where the sea appears, is an immense hospital, city of tents, nurse hospital. On to Conteville then off the train and four miles of weary march to Longvillers where we pitch tents and carry on a hospital for the sick. Tucker has a bilious attack.
September 9, 1916
On duty at the hospital. Conducting patients from dispensary to the upstairs of the house. A lovely warm day. Tents struck at night for we move on in the morning. A bed under the apple trees. Wonderful scene under the apple trees with the fire light and soldiers songs, pranks and talk. A hard green apple hits A.P. Wilson on the head. Not only his head but his temper gets sore and he reports that he wishes to hit someone. ‘A dud in the lug’. A great bed if it were not for the ridge of hills under my hip.
September 10, 1916
Woke at 5:30 by Sgt. Major who is hot for having been called by Capt. Turner so early for no other reason than to call Staff Sgt. H. He fumes furiously giving his unbiased opinion of old Chappy etc. He said many things not learned at his mother’s knee or in Sunday school.
Up, pack, breakfast, wash and shave from mess tin. Go down to get a ride for my feet were blistered but there were too many patients and so I walk through France. Franqueville, Domart, St. Leger, Berteaucourt to Halloy-les-Pernois. A windy rough road through the dirty little French villages. The last mile at nearly four o’clock was just all I could stand. Rest, lunch, swim and make up bed with Mac in a tumbled down, tiny, mud house. Late supper. Next day I found a host of lice, don't know if there is any connection.
A Frenchman asks 6 cents for a piece of chocolate which makes me angry against such robbers of men who have travelled thousands of miles to save them.
September 11, 1916
Herissart arrived at after another march not quite so long or so hot. At 2 P.M. halted on top of long hill for lunch. See other division of Canadians coming out and hear many stories of their diminished numbers. I find much and unpleasant occupation in killing a flock of lice. On again around a semi-circle and through a town to a hillside from which we see a vast stretch of country and the heights to the south of Albert. In the distance were puffs of smoke or dust coming above the ridge.
A little rain makes us decide to sleep in the barn instead of discovering. We are packed in the bottom of a hay mow but decide to climb up on the mow where Bert, Mac and I slept but where the rats did not sleep. We get water by a windless from a three hundred foot well with a leaky bucket. Wilson is to go on pass but can take no letters though we have had no chance to post them for days. I wonder through a dozen little apple orchards.
September 12. 1916
Off again quite early over the hills. An old lady told the fellows who used a few sheds for a bivouac that we were more destructive than the Germans. Contay reached where we quartered in a large hospital for the sick. No.4 moving out as we came in. There is a city of tents set in a forest of trees in a valley. Scott tells us what the battle on the Somme is like. Not dangerous for the A.M.B etc. Wash in a stream and after letter writing sleep on pulled grass in a tent. Wilson anxious to post letters. A good N.C.O. takes Bert and I from tent sub division for stretcher bearing.
By flashlight our kits are lightened of mirror and shell metal. Park takes them. A supper of a hunk of bread in a line up of all the patients. Seems to our hungry stomachs a mile in length. The guns of the great Somme battle roar with no inviting sound. A hot time is expected.
September 13, 1916
Again on the march. The medical kit given us suggests closer work in the battle. Beyond the town we see German prisoners ‘hard’ at work upon the road. We are to stay an hour so talk with them the best we may. ‘What of the war? Yes over before Christmas for we surely are weakening.’ They have a cock-sure attitude which is a continued, unspoken, insult. I don't like these super men, though they freely talk and laugh with us.
Up over the hills made very slippery by the mist of rain falling. The horses labour hard with the lumbers. A huge balloon rests in a hallow where bush hides it. We were in a valley with the Virgin the Church of Albert showing hazily through the mist when we hear shell fire. In front is a huge plateau absolutely covered with troops and equipment and right into the middle burst the shells. A troop of horses break loose and run. Cavalry gallop away. Into this we too are to go and it does not look inviting. This is our first acquaintance with the German guns in Thiepval. On we go up the valley with dug outs and trenches in a very destroyed state. Up to the middle of this ‘Boche field’ and rest on our packs while shells pour in. I expect one to come on to us and the same time fellows stand on the bank and watch where they land as if they were watching a game of ball. We are lined up by the cinema tent in the battle and apparent confusion of marching men, wagons and ambulances. No house or food for us and, urged by hunger, I break the Canadian $5 I have carried safe for months. The tent of Boy Scouts run by chaplains is doing an overwhelming business as well as giving away tea to the endless line of thirsty Tommies armed with old fruit cans picked up around the yard. The tent is crowded with talking, eating men. They have the terrible experience of the Somme to discuss together and often one catches the harsh tones of the story of a comrade’s fall. We hear about the ‘tanks’, a land dreadnought, armed with a great array of guns which can go any place. It sounded a fairy story that we do not believe. Afternoon is spent writing in the sun in view of Albert and its famous tower with the leaning virgin. Tyrell yielded to a common temptation and returns badly frightened. While in the crush of traffic, in the square, a bit of shell strikes him. ‘It seemed to me as if providence had hit me a kick and told me to get out of there’. Apparently he knew he had no right there. After the cinema show we go in the tent and sleep on the ground without blankets. The surface is completely packed with sleeping men and equipment. A little cool but not so much that the reveille call in the morning is welcome.
September 14, 1916
9th Field Ambulance is chosen, so the story goes, out of the three ambulances to take part in the greatest event of the war. We were to see the horror of the situation. Taken up in ambulances through the crowded streets of the dead and forsaken half ruined Albert, making our way by fits and starts with great difficulty. Under the arms of the leaning Virgin shining bright gold in the clear light. She seems, in her war ravaged position, to give us her blessing as we go to die purhaps. Shall we again pass under those golden arms in a return journey? The question would enter our minds and work havoc there if permitted.
Out of the town and up the slope where the indications of a recent advance are obvious. Before the bursting of the storm on July 1 though it must have been a very quiet Front from the lack of shell holes and the perfect condition of the roads. Up over the slope and down passed la Boisselle on the right and the irregular piles of earth which once were the German first lines. The village is so completely gone that though we pass through its centre we did not know it was the place above named or any other. It seems as if giants had been at work upon the ground. Such an upturning of the surface. The Germans had laboured hard for months to build an impregnable fortress and here British shell and mine had rent and torn the ground out of all original form leaving holes as large as volcano craters.
We reach the hill crest where we encounter the 6th Ambulance and find our way down into the German dug outs. We wonder at their wonderful depth and security and are happy in the fact that we might stay here in perfect safety. No shell could penetrate to this thirty feet depth. They are a marvel to us who are accustomed to the tin and two layers of sand bags - built on the surface style of the British. What tremendous labour it must have cost the Germans. No wonder one wrote on the stone at the mouth of one, ‘Six weeks it took to build this. Six years will not see it destroyed’. The mouth is narrow and stairways very steep so that one is in grave danger of bumping head or arms on the side. The steps are almost dangerous with slippery mud, below the darkness is Egyptian and on the floor is moulding rubbish. The air is stuffy so that one has a nasty head coming out after a nights sleep. Around are all the evidence of recent battle, discharged rifle shells, broken equipment, mostly German, and all the filth and horrors and decay of such a place.
On the surface above the dug out lay 222 partially buried Germans with flesh blackened in hideous decay. An unfeeling wretch of our group kicks a skull with his toe. The dug outs all open into the winding trench in which usually lies the most slippery mud imaginable. The mouths of some have been closed up with an explosion and fire. From balls of tarred shavings it was evident the attacking force had burned the stairways when the enemy had refused to surrender. One shivered when one thought of what might be below and the horror of the death they died.
One dug out was commonly named the Chamber of Horrors. It was left unvisited by me but a number had put on gas helmets and, by candle light, explored its darkness. We did not lack a detailed description ---. Many Germans and British dead lay as they had fallen in the fury of combat. We did not have to go further for a number of A section took the advance work.
Rations were scarce and the YMCA was a thing one would praise God for.
September 15, 1916
The day of the great, great battle, when the Canadians stormed Courcelettes.