Shorncliffe, Kent, England,
Lal dearest, —
I want to keep writing letters that will give you real impressions. I mean impressions that will convey the exact condition over here, because conditions here are not even faintly similar to anything you and I have seen together. It is difficult however, — not only getting the exact impressions, but getting them down on paper. I am writing this on a doubtful table laden with cheap “pots” (pardon, dishes), surrounded by a very hungry crowd waiting for the dinner call. Writing is hard, but I’ll do my best.
To go ’way back. We only learned recently how near we came to being torpedoed. It was very near — about a mile, to be exact. I remember seeing a lighthouse one morning and then in a few hours another one — yet it was the same. I thought at the time it was funny; now I know we had turned right around, and beat it back some distance. Then another destroyer came up, also—luckily, I guess—a dense fog. Anyhow we’re here. It was kind of exciting, though.
We are in huts: our work is merely fatigue work of no interest. It isn’t that I want to tell you; but of the things I have learned about this greatest of world upheavals. . . .
Well, — dinner is over, in a rush, like a lot of wild animals — beef, potatoes, rice pudding — the same always. And now I am writing on my bed, an affair of boards six inches from the ground and rather low.
I don’t know how to begin to tell you “things”; but my main impression is that I should have been here long ago, — also, not in a “safety first” corps. This thing is so terrific, this war, that a Canadian in Canada cannot possibly grasp it.
You cannot imagine men arriving here in this camp, getting an order at six P.M. to be at the station at seven — no sleep that night — running like hell — cross the Channel and next go right into a trench. And do you know that they have gone back into armour again in this war — that the thing is so desperately fierce that a rifle is becoming of no use, only high explosive shells, then knives and hand grenades? Men come back, recovered from wounds, for three days’ leave; and have to go right back to it again — back to face it all. And all the men — every one — agree that it is indescribable. You must never expect to come back. As long as the sun shines, we shall never drive them — the Germans — out of Belgium. We shall win; but not that way.
Also all agree that the Huns (and you soon get the habit of using that word) do not play the game. They have ten machine guns to our one, as close as twenty-five yards apart — when our men have in cases been given orders to fire as little as six shells only at a time. But the Germans cannot stand — will not stand. This is not just rumour; but what I’ve gathered from dozens of talks to dozens of men. The great difficulty is to distinguish between rumour and fact. But I am being careful to tell you what I am sure of.
The atrocities are facts.
And here is an extraordinary fact: the Saxons will not fight against us, and they have to be split up here and there with Prussian regiments....
The things that really matter are not in any papers. Hull has been raided more than once. On one occasion over one hundred were killed. Three times last week, Zeppelins tried to locate this camp and failed. It was read out in Orders. Aeroplanes scout round, night as well as day, and in the Channel just over the cliff lie sometimes destroyers — sometimes cruisers.
This letter is bound to be disconnected; but you must piece it together.
Wounded do not have to wear belts or puttees; others do. That is one way of telling. Another is to look in their faces. I can tell one at a glance; I can even tell you the man who has been over, without asking. That’s what you call it — “being over.” . . . It doesn’t sound much but — it means a lot.
I cannot tell you about London, all at once. First, though, it is the only town. Once again I am sure of it.
But what a London now!
London, the stiff, stuck-up place, doesn’t resemble itself in the least. There are just as many Belgium — French — soldiers on the street as English, little boys of about fourteen; French is spoken almost as much as English, and everywhere are wounded — in blue hospital suits, in carriages and pairs, in autos, and on top of ’buses in parties. I was there for two nights and two days. I was alone, but they won’t let you be alone — at least that was my experience. They want to talk to you. Once the town, as I remember it, only just woke up about ten P.M. Now all is quiet soon after ten.
The entrance to Hyde Park looked quaint with a huge searchlight on top painted a dark grey, and beside it, in a kind of shed, what I took to be an anti-aircraft gun.