17 July, ’17.
Last night, we moved from our comfortable chateau to meet the boys in the place where they were coming out to.
It is a large town, the biggest I have seen within the shelling area. Here, there and everywhere in different streets I noticed shell wrecked houses; but, with the town being so large, it isn’t as noticeable as in a small village. We were billeted in houses which had been evacuated by civilians, though these are very few. The majority are occupied by women, children and old men. (Since I commenced this page four shells have dropped within about five hundred yards.) Try and imagine, say, Second Avenue — our street is about like that as near as you can compare anything of the old world with the new — the sidewalks gone, the houses dilapidated for want of paint, bits chipped off most of them, the front garden fences all gone and rank grass and weeds choking up everything, most of the windows gone, the whole effect most down at heel and frowsy looking. In front of each house where the sidewalk was, is a hole in the ground, which is a dugout, reinforced with timbers. When a shell comes particularly close, the civilian and military population walking down the street at the time can dive down into these holes, for the moment, then crawl out and continue along until another comes. Needless to say, the women don’t wear white shoes and dresses, and “dignity” is forgotten.
After all these months of war, the civilian population have got callous, seem to be able to judge the distance of the shells to a hair, and altogether seem far less interested than the soldiers. The shops and estaminets are all open, and in the Y.M. is a free cuisine nightly. The children walk about unconcerned, selling chocolate and spearmint — and “Ingleech Newspapairs” and never look up unless a shell actually hits in the street. The ground shakes perpetually with our own heavies which are hidden all over the town.
Next day — (or rather evening).
As I told you before, the Division just now is baseball crazy. The thing causes the most intense rivalry — even Generals attend — and the winning team gets a trip to Paris where they will play games against American teams. The rivalry between Batt’ns. in everything, line work and games, is at all times intense; a sneer at a man’s Batt’n. is a fight at any time. We kick about our crowd amongst ourselves; but don’t let an outsider agree, or it’s bad for him.
To lose a piece of trench is like losing a game through being a quitter. It’s fine, the spirit; I love it — it’s like school and college. I guess this would puzzle Fritz, wouldn’t it? This spirit —
Today has been a confounded nuisance; the polishing is getting on every one’s nerves. We even have inspection in the afternoons now; it’s done to such a limit that entrenching tools have to be cleaned, and both sides of brass buckles, and so on — all for an hour’s inspection by some General or other. All the officers seem to be going crazy and harass the fellows to death. We’ll soon be glad to get back to the front line, to get away from them; there you only have a lieutenant around. This evening I had a very enjoyable time; the band plays most nights in the “Grande Place” as I see it’s called — some name for a small village green! You can sit around on the grass and read and listen to it. The French peasants and miners’ wives and children all turn out, and, as it’s a quiet little back water of a place far from the high road, no motors or transport going along stirring up the dust. . . .
I think I ought to finish this and mail it.
Long before it reaches you I shall have experienced once again the nerve-racking old whizz — ker-ump of Fritz’s little shells. I have had a good rest — a peach. Only four men out of a thousand got leave, and I was one. I am sure I never felt better, stronger, brighter, in my life; and my nerves are as good as ever again. In every way, I am far better equipped to face things than I was before the big show in April. I have seen things at their very worst, which is some comfort anyway, and I do not think, from gas to machine guns, old Fritz has anything new for me. “It is written”, and all I can do is do all I can for the boys that get hit, and do my darndest not to get napooed myself. Maybe a Blighty will come my way, before the wet weather; then I shall have an opportunity to exercise all my winning ways to obtain a dear little cease-fire job. I have heard it said a man coming back from a trip to Blighty on holiday dreads the life ten times more on his return. Well, I have carefully analyzed my feelings, and I can truthfully say I am less afflicted with “funk” or “cold feet” than I was the first time I set out to go up. In fact — and I am rather surprised myself — I haven’t the least bit of funk in me just now. I may have when I get there; but I’m inclined to doubt it. Of course, no amount of understanding or brains will save you from the one which is yours; but a knowledge of shelling at its worst considerably helps you to do instinctively the safest thing unconsciously, in an ordinary strafe.
Another thing I have which is invaluable to me in my particular branch, that is, the confidence of every man and every officer in my outfit in my being on the job when I’m wanted.
I know I have this; I think, too, you will be glad to know it. It is nice to feel that you are trusted and maybe — liked.
The only thing for you to do, too, is to “carry on” and carry on with the biggest and bravest heart you can. You can do this, I know; you had always the better of me in facing hard situations bravely.
We have been told officially there is hard fighting ahead. There is. I know it — you know it. I think we are on the eve of some big things; the place we are going to is going to figure very largely in the news. The Canadians have won a great name. I am not speaking with prejudice. They have all the dash and spirit of the other Colonials; but — and a big but — they can be relied on not to get excited or go too far; in other words, to obey orders to the letter.
All I have previously said about wanting to get away from it all, of course still goes. I’d give anything to; but I want to go legitimately, if that is the right word.