18 August, ’17.
Somewhere before Lens.
My very dearest girl, Lal: —
I am anxious to get this out because on Monday at four-twenty we go over the top. It doesn’t sound or look much when you write it, does it? But it’s — well — a serious undertaking. I want to tell you something first of the big battle. As I write, maybe even you are reading of our big show, a success out and out. What we thought was going to be only a minor affair has turned out to be one of the big things of the war.
Last Tuesday night we came in. Just as we were leaving, it started to pour, and we all thought that once again Heinie’s lucky weather man had come to his aid. It cleared up though, and right along the weather has been glorious.
Things had been very quiet all day, but just at the moment that we reached the place where young R. was killed, he opened up with gas and H.E. — a terrific strafe, and we were right in it. It was pitch dark; shells were dropping all round; the din and screech was terrifying. For a second, I was afraid there was going to be a stampede. The fellows got a bit rattled with the gas, and grabbed for helmets. The only thing to do was to rush along through it, as he wasn’t shelling beyond the town. I could see clouds of gas coming out of fallen shells, but to get my mask on would have meant dropping my stretcher. I decided to run, and hold my breath. Just then I fell on my head in a new shell hole, stretcher on top. When I’d scrambled out, I was alone. I was scared some, I must admit; but I charged ahead, got there safely, stretcher and all, and joined up, put my mask on for a while, and soon we were out of it, with the shells all bursting behind us. It was touch and go for a minute, and can you believe it — not a man was hit. How I’d have managed if there had been casualties, I dunno’ — not in all that gas. Thank God there weren’t any!
. . . . At four-twenty A.M. you’d have thought the earth had cracked open. My God, it was marvellous! I don’t know how many guns we have, some say one to every three men. Maybe a thousand, maybe ten — I don’t know. With the first roar we manned the trench and began to move along to our places some few hundred yards further up the line. No power on earth could keep us from getting on the parapet to have a look. It was too dark to see the men advancing behind the barrage, but the line of fire — ye Gods! Try to imagine a long huge gas main which had been powdered here and there with holes and set fire to. The flame of each shell burst and merged into the flame of the other. It was perfect. It was terrible. The flames were dotted with black specks which were bits of rock and mud. Never has anything been seen like it. And to think on Monday morning I shall advance — me — behind just such a line of fire — into what?
Well, we arrived at our trench and just manned it. No shell came near us; we were quite out of it all. After some while, the barrage died down. Only the scream of the heavies overhead and the whirr of planes and the heavy crump, crump, crump of Fritzie’s shells behind us searching for batteries. He might as well have tried to shove the sea back with a broom.
Later, news filtered through from wounded coming back, and engineers, and old men. All the objectives had been taken, all the counter attacks broken, such and such a batt’n had lost heavily, another lightly — and so on. Hill 70 was ours, and the villages and trenches consolidated. Canada had proved herself again. But it is not another Vimy; this is no walk-over, it is a pitched battle. Heinie hasn’t quit yet, is hanging on desperately. His air service is better, he comes down and fires on the trenches; but his counter attacks lack spirit, and no wonder. Our guns — my God! If you could see them — and they say each gun only fired three shots a minute, and they are capable of firing twenty! This isn’t war; it’s murder. There are as vast numbers of prisoners this time, as at Vimy; but the dead are piled in heaps.
On Sunday night we go to the jumping-off trench, his line of Wednesday, and attack. At four-twenty on Monday morning — and that’s why I want to write to you (and to Billie).
Luckily I am in the first wave, and taken — that we lie out in the open in advance of the jumping-off trench a ways; and, as we have only five hundreds yard to go, we should be on him before he gets to work on us with his guns. Holding it after we have taken it, will be up to us. Any wounded in the jump-off and in the open I must leave for the second wave, though I guess I’ll hate it. In fact, I won’t do it, if F. or any one gets it. I suppose I’ll be busy most when he puts his barrage on his lost trench. We shall take the trench, that goes without saying. . . .
All the boys are very optimistic — and say, “There’s one thing, we are just the very guys that can do it.”
Sure we are.
(All the Heinie prisoners I have seen are about eighteen years old, not more, and those who have seen the dead say they are all the same, just kids.)
Our grub is rotten, just when it ought to be good, I should think — only bully and biscuit, no jam or butter, and about a little spoonful of dry tea. I am writing this in an old Heinie dugout — just outside Loos. It’s full of rats and, as in all of them, the floor is wet and we have no coats or blanket; but I have salvaged a board to lie on, and, with my rubber sheet, it isn’t so bad. Shell proof, anyway. The worst of it is, we have no tobacco or candles.
Well, Lal, old pal, I’ll finish this. Whether I see you again or Billie, the next few days will say. I think I’ll be able to keep my nerve and do what’s right. I hope so. I wonder what you’ll be doing, Monday morning. I’ll be thinking of you all the time, waiting for the barrage and the signal.
You’ll know all about me, if there’s anything to know, by Wednesday or Thursday, I guess. Let’s hope it’s a hospital bed in Blighty. The main thing is for me to do what is expected of me. Do what you would do. Don’t let’s say anything about anything really nasty happening. It isn’t going to. I don’t feel morbid, or downhearted, or anything; in fact, most hopeful. I hope F. pulls through. I’ll be awfully worried about him.
Kiss and love up our little Billie for me — lots and lots and tell her I am thinking of her too — a great deal.