8 July, ’17.
My Dearest Lal: —
I have just been lying here soliloquizing on the curious ways some things work out in life, and how the devil it can be possible that all is working out for the best in this big world-cleaning. In my platoon is a human soul sent up from the Two Hundred and Umpty something Batt’n, who is just — nothing. No brains, no evil, no physique, no anything — just half born. Of course, nevertheless in a trench, worse — a danger to others. In a recent lecture in which the lecturer referred to the enemy always as the Boshe, he asked what a Boshe was! A job is open for a man to look after a graveyard behind the lines. He is given it, a heaven-sent chance to strike him off the strength of the Batt’n. Moreover, you can’t quarrel with the action. It is obviously correct. Yet — and yet — think! To be a degenerate is lucky. He will see his home in Vancouver; he will go home to all that home means, and no doubt talk largely of his experience — he made one trip “in”; and the man who is scrupulous to do his bit conscientiously, is physically fit, in other words a good man and a good citizen, he is the one chosen for the hardest part, his the life needed to pay. It won’t bear thinking about.
Think, all my life I have taken, always taken; never given. And now I must give, give all, all the time; and there is no quitting. It is a joke, drat it, and a good one.
. . . I have read all the best descriptive writers on the front-line stuff; but not one of ’em has ever given a description of trench life as it is. They confine themselves to the spectacular deeds: the attacks over the top; and weird stunts where men win medals. That isn’t this war at all; those things are all easy, as men do them when keyed up to the proper pitch. All those things are great events in the history of a Batt’n. For instance, my Batt’n only went over at the Somme, and has only pulled one stunt since: namely, at Vimy on April 9th. Yet when you hear the boys talking together of the bad times, those things are not mentioned; because they were not the bad times. They were easy.
The newspapers ring with the wonder of the Vimy achievement, yet I haven’t heard one say a word about our trip in May, when we held the line just by sitting, day after day and night after night, getting killed without firing a shot — just holding on. It wasn’t spectacular; yet that was typical of the whole war. That’s what it is; the other things are episodes, rare ones, and the correspondents make the people imagine that is what makes their boys’ lives at the front.
I remember on the day and the subsequent days that we were taking Vimy and the plain beyond, watching the ammunition and water going up to the boys as they advanced. Previously, vast stores of trench-mortar and machine-gun ammunition had been stored, together with water in gasoline cans, in a cave only a few yards from what was then Fritz’s front line. Fritz was quite wise to this cave, and guessed the use to which it was being put, so a battery of heavies was put on to shell round the entrance, day and night. The supplies were brought up and dumped in a heap near the mouth, and men with mules loaded and took them away, marching along right into the barrage which kept going perpetually further up, with the idea of stopping just this very thing.
The weather was awful; the ground was covered with snow; all around the mouth of the cave lay dead men, and more along by the dump, there being no time to move them. The string of mules would come up, one man to one mule, load up hurriedly at the dump, and file away into the row of black spouting craters which was the 5.9 barrage put up by Fritz. In time, they would come back through the barrage again for another load. The officer would count them, and say nothing, and every now and then go into the cave and telephone for new mules and new men.
This went on night and day — more in the night — for three days without ceasing. I know, because I carried the stuff from the cave to the dump, and every trip across that open strip of ground was an adventure.
Yesterday, I was reading an account of Vimy in Canada. He described it more or less accurately, missing, of course, the heart of the thing, the little things, as they all do. One passage he wrote from the Ridge, looking at the plain below, and casually mentioned “I saw a pretty bit of shelling” (by Fritz) “on a railway culvert.” Yes, very pretty. There is a railroad embankment there which once hid his big howitzers. Now, however, instead of strengthening it, he spends many shells trying to break it up. And there is a culvert which received some “pretty shelling” twice. On two separate trips in, I have occupied the funk hole nearest to that culvert, once on one side and once on the other. I have seen seven men knocked out with one shell there — truly “pretty shelling.” I have spent in all eight days and eight nights by that culvert, and run under it countless times. Not until some one can write and tell people what it means; to sit or crouch — or squirm — around in one place for days, under continuous fire, without being able to go away, will you people at home know the war as it is. But — maybe it’s as well they don’t know.... Sometimes the correspondents are really amusing, — as when they have us “laughing like schoolboys, before going on a raid”, and things like that. I may be wrong; but I don’t think any one has ever seen one of the paper men in the actual front line. And I have yet to see any man laugh, while there. The atmosphere is tense with something quite different; a raid or patrol is gone on with the seriousness which facing a quick death entitles it to. Men don’t laugh in the front line, ever. They “grouch” — a lot — about the food, the shortage of water, the weather, the insects, and many things besides. They kick like hell when our guns open up from behind on Fritz’s line. Yes, I mean that. I guess you’ll wonder why that makes us sore but it does — damnably. Because — Fritz will retaliate. He may suspect a raid. If so, up goes his S.O.S. amongst all the other flares, and down comes a barrage of heavies. Ours increase, the air throbbing and alive with the screams and hisses of different calibre shells, punctuated with the harsh tapping of hundreds of machine guns sweeping the open. It dies down a little, then increases worse than ever, finally to die down for good, when all goes on just the same — only that tense, whispering sensation in the air which is there all night, every night. For an hour or so, out of the dark, parties of four go down the trench, muttering and swearing, carrying some-thing — “Look out there — gangway for a stretcher.” The dead stay where they are, with a rubber sheet or an old sandbag, to cover their faces. Later, maybe that night or the next, a fatigue party will climb over the parados and scratch a grave a few yards from the trench, cursing the flares, and flopping, as Fritz plays a machine gun casually, just on the off chance, all along the ground behind, as a man might play a hose on a lawn.
These graves are not marked. How could they be? Some one takes all the letters and things out of the pockets; eventually, if the man who has them doesn’t get blown to pieces, they reach the Quartermaster, who sends them home. Some one writes a letter, and that’s all. No advance, no spectacular raid, not even repelling an attack. So many dead Heinies, so many dead Britishers. And so she goes. And such is “a trip in.”