9 November, ’16.
My very dearest Lal, —
The last letter I wrote was the green envelope one, two or three days ago. We have been particularly busy one way and another; one thing, we have moved from the convent into billets in small cottages. It’s very funny; there’s a long row of cottages by the coal mine, just cheap, rather sordid-looking places all exactly alike, same as the rows of small houses you see in England. Each has a small back room on the ground floor just eight feet by twelve feet in which ten men live somehow. The people who live in the rest of the house you never see, as they lock the connecting door. One backyard for each company is used as a cook house, and at meal times you file over with your mess tin. Of course, some houses are better than others, cleaner; and maybe one is lucky enough to get the French people to boil coffee in the morning and odd things like that, but those places are very rare. Mostly all the people are phlegmatically indifferent, and don’t seem to take any interest in their own lines, any more than any one else. It’s rather a good thing we are so closely packed, as, the floor being brick and the places fearfully draughty, you have a better chance of keeping warm at night. The weather is awful; dull, heavy skies, rain most of the time, and mud. We’d be wet all the time, but we got an old can, punched holes in it, and have made a brazier for the room. It’s remarkable what a difference a little fire makes.
The other night, we went on a working party up close to the lines. You wear your tin hat on these expeditions, and go at night. After you’ve walked six miles or more, the latter part with a shovel and maybe a pick as well, you feel as though you had enough, even before you start the night’s work. On the way, we passed through a fair-sized village, every single house which I saw being shattered, the church in the square just having the four walls standing. Of course wrecked villages have become monotonous; but when you see one first, the desolation and waste of it all strikes you very forcibly. A thing I noticed particularly was that, at a cross road where all the corner houses were smashed flat, a little wayside shrine, like you see in every village, with its large crucifix was absolutely untouched. I hear this is very common all along the line. Curious, isn’t it? When we arrived this far, the flare lights sent up by Fritz and ourselves were very bright, and looked only about a block away; but of course they were much more. These are sent up continually all along the line, playing in the air over “No Man’s Land” for a few seconds, lighting up everything very distinctly. Quite a little firework display; but you don’t think of it that way.
Our work was digging a narrow trench to put a water pipe into the front line. They have had it all along; but recently the frost froze it up, so the engineers wanted it buried a couple of feet. We all strung out and were given twenty feet apiece to dig. I guess you would have thought it rather weird, digging away there in the dark, in the distance machine guns tapping away exactly like woodpeckers. They loose off a few rounds every few minutes on roads, and where they think there might be working, or ration parties like ours; also now and then you hear the sharper crack of a solitary rifle — a sniper at work; but you hardly notice these things. You are too busy with your bit of work and getting home again. By the time you have done the return march you feel as though you had done a pretty good night’s job, the march being by far the hardest part.
This morning we were out on the range. I did fairly well at rapid firing, but rotten at the other part where you take your time. Later, we were at the bombing school — live bombs, now, of course. This evening we get paid — fifteen francs. Hardly a fortune, is it? But enough to buy two decent feeds, anyway. While on that subject, I cannot impress on you too forcibly the importance of parcels, regularly and often. Down at Boulogne, a parcel of eats didn’t amount to much; but up here they are just Godsends, absolutely. Down there, if you wanted anything nice you could get almost anything from a Sister or an orderly, but here the rations are the same every day, and awfully monotonous; cheese, jam, stew — that’s all. And lots of hard work all the time. Most boys get parcels very often indeed, and naturally your own crowd all share up alike. Last night, one of us got a cake, chocolate, cafe au lait, etc., and sitting round the old brazier we were quite happy for a time. Even if you had a lot of money, you couldn’t buy much, not in a small village like this. There are Y’s, of course; but they are too far away, when you come in late at night and tired. . . . By the way, will you find out if there are any books on the subject of trench first-aid? It will have to be some that were written since the war of course. The first-aid books generally sold are no good for up the line, as they don’t take account of conditions under which the work has to be done. If you find anything that you think may be of use, I should like to have it.
Let me know that you are happy and well.
Remember, always, I am yours.