12 August, ’16.
The heat is fearful, a close, clammy kind of heat, and my work entails funny hours: from 6 A.M. to 6. P.M. with breaks in between just at inconvenient times for writing. . . .
You asked about Biggs. He went downtown, the other day, and never came back. English and French police searched for a deserter, or a dead body in the sea. In about a week, when every one had quite given up hope, he calmly writes from up the line, if you please, that he met some boys from Vancouver going up to reinforce a battalion in the trenches, and he joined them and is at present in the front line. Can you beat it? The colonel is raving, and now comes the interesting point of military law: can a man desert into the trenches? What looked like a tragedy has developed into a huge farce. No one has ever heard of a similar case. The only point is that, if nothing is done about him, others will be doing it. It would be an awful joke if he got a Blighty one and came here as a patient en route; wouldn’t it?
A coincidence — have just put into an ambulance, en route for Blighty, a pair of twins — joined together — wounded together — here in same ward together — and now gone away to-gether.
I daresay you know — have heard frequently — that the army is the one original place for wild rumours. I have always refrained from telling you any before; but I’ll break a rule tonight. You know the R.A.M.C. has moved all the fit men from hospital work and are using P.B. or permanent base men, the fit men being sent on more strenuous work up the line. We have heard repeatedly that the C.A.M.C. was going to do the same, but so far nothing has been done. I was talking to our O.C. to-day. He told me that all fit men were being taken from here. What that means in detail I don’t know — but I wouldn’t want you to hear suddenly that we had all been moved up the line. It is quite possible that all of us who are able will be put to work at more general usefulness — which is sound common sense, as you will be bound to agree. You will hear of course immediately I know anything definite.
Did I tell you we had formed an orchestra here? It is developing finely, every one says. The boys pay half the cost of the instruments, and after the war they have them. Last night they played for a couple of hours, and I could hardly believe they were all learners, a month or so ago.
What must be the general make-up of a person’s mind, who collects, packs and mails all the way from Canada a parcel of “literature” for the boys in France — consisting of Literary Digests dated 1912? I see some one has done it here. Queer, eh?
This story is true. When a man dies, his effects are sent to his parents. A boy died here, his simple things were sent home. An indignant letter came back to this effect, —
“I gave my boy. You have had him — why steal his things? Where are the pair of gloves and the tin of zinc ointment I sent him?”
. . . . Our speculations about Biggsy and what was to become of him were settled the other day by his arriving in the charge of a couple of military police. I saw him in our little “coop” — which is a wee room, probably some old monk’s private room, ’way up under the tiles. He just looked fine and was all enthusiasm. I got about the first intelligent “fresh” description of the line I’ve had. It appears when he went downtown, he met a couple of friends, and possibly over a few drinks (though Biggsy does not overdo it at any time) the three of them must have imagined themselves back in the States and decided to beat it to the front line. Only any one who has been in France will realize the absolute, colossal impudence of such an adventure; and, maybe for this very reason, it succeeded. Not once in ten million times could it have come off; but it did this time. Not a motor truck, not a wagon can move a mile without being inspected, even down here; and every yard you approach the firing line, things get stricter. Nevertheless, by climbing on a rock train and hiding in the rocks, they made it. When they got to the reserve trenches, they enquired for the particular battalion where Biggsy had friends, and eventually found it, calmly marched up to the Major’s dugout (he was a pal of Biggsy’s) and told their story. They were sick of the base, couldn’t get transferred to a fighting unit, so just came up, and there they were! Biggs says the Major couldn’t quite grasp it, couldn’t seem to get the thing at all, and no wonder! However, he fed ’em, put ’em under open arrest, and near became a casualty through laughing. They were given duty — till the escort arrived. The things Biggsy told us would make a rattling good short story — but there is no space here to tell you much. One thing made me laugh: he was determined to have a look “over the top”, if it killed him: — and it nearly did. Fritz didn’t understand his peculiar case, and a sniper nearly finished the whole thing. The main thing that impressed him were the rats.
It appears they positively refuse to get out of the way — just march about the trenches, stop, turn round and look at you. They are everywhere. His trench was under shell fire all the time — He says it’s great!!!! When the escort came, they brought him back another way, so he has really seen more places and towns than a fellow would who went up legitimately.
At his trial, he was charged with so many days’ absence, and he’s now languishing — or rather working more than particularly hard — doing fourteen days’ field punishment No. 1. . . .
There is more than a rumour that this particular hospital is to move to England. It appears our doctors have long been annoyed that they cannot see the result of their treatment and operations, as no sooner a man arrives than he is shipped to England — or back up the line, if he is soon well enough. I imagine that their wishes carry some weight, and there doesn’t seem much doubt the Unit will be moved this fall.
Now I haven’t the slightest wish in the world to go to England. I am sick of this, I’ll admit; but only in that I am sick of a base hospital, so I have tried to engineer a transfer to No. 1 Casualty Clearing Station. They are located at Bailleul, which you see on your map is a few miles back of the trenches. It will be more interesting — more real work.
This is a good unit, one of the best in France; but — I don’t much fancy life in England. I’d feel all the time I’d be better at home, or in France, anywhere but Home Service.
I don’t know, of course, if I shall be able to make the transfer. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, for some reason; every obstacle is put in a man’s way. But I think I may make it, and I really hope I do.
Don’t be silly and think, because Bailleul looks on the map as if it were “right up”, it is. It’s located like this, [sketch of Bailleul in relation to trenches] and protected by hills. Naturally such a large clearing station (or rather stations, as I understand that they have recently made arrangements to accommodate the enormous number of one hundred thousand wounded) would not be in danger of shell fire.
It has another good feature: the Clearing Station Units will go home before the General and Stationary Hosps. — and, even if it were only five minutes sooner, it would be worth it.
A fellow came in, last night, with a fractured leg. He came down with a busted aeroplane from a height of two thousand feet. The officer was killed. It seems a tall story: but it was particularly marked on his “wound card” and the Royal Flying Corps would not make the statement, if it were not true. . . .
I have got another green envelope. My very much delayed inoculation positively takes place tomorrow night, without fail, and as the dose is bigger’n ever this time, no doubt I shall be a sick woman the following day, and not even in the humour to write to the dearest one in the world.