INTERESTING LETTER FROM THE FRONT
Letter from Sergeant Edmund L. MacNachtan, son of Lt. -Col. Neil F. MacNachtan, C. V. O. Cobourg, Ontario
France, 22nd March, 1915
This is the first opportunity I have had to sit down and write a real letter for months, so I am going to take advantage of it (Germans permitting).
I was down to our wagon lines when I last wrote (March 2nd) but now I am up within a few hundred yards of our trenches. We have a 'forward gun' (which is a pleasant little surprise for the Germans in case they should break through our infantry). In case we should open fire, it is a good deal of a 'forlorn hope.' We cannot come into action until after our own infantry have fallen back to a line of trenches beside our gun. This would allow the enemy to get within a few hundred yards of the gun before we can fire. You can imagine how long we would last. The orders read ‘To serve gun untill ordered to retire, then retreat with sight, elino and breeck.' They should read 'serve gun until the crew is dead and then retreat,'
There is a sniper very close to us and he pays us a great deal of attention, he was so close to our gun one night and the house we sleep in that I could hear the empty shells from his rifle click on the ground when he rejected them. He put me down on m face six times between the gun and the house we sleep in, a distance of probably two hundred yards, while I was mounting my guard.
We have all had many narrow escapes from the brute. I have been out two or three times looking for him but we cannot locate him. He has a mighty snug retreat wherever he is. We cannot see a flash from his rifle and only a very subdued report from his rifle. He probably has a silencer.
The 4th Battery have been very highly complimented on its shooting by Colonel Morrison. We have raised the ******* with the German trenches. We put a shell right under one of their guns and blew it up. The German artillery open up on our batteries or trenches; we put up with it for a while then we get mad and go after them; we retaliate by blowing great gaps in their trenches and entanglements. We fire over the heads of our Canadian Infantry, some of whom have told us that the effect of our fire is wonderful. We give to them in salvos and the infantry tell us that they cannot see the trenches for smoke of our shell bursts. When it lifts there are great stretches of the parapet blown away and they can see Germans scuttling in all directions for cover like rabbits.
We celebrate St. Patrick's Day in great state. It was the biggest day's work we have had since we came up to this position, the noise was deafening. I was out here at the 'forward gun', quite a number of German shells burst close to us; there were four in particular. 'Coal Boxes' or 'Jack Johnsons' , one burst about 40 yards beyond us and one about twenty or thirty yards short but dead 'on line' for our shack, two others dropped unpleasantly near us but failed to explode. We could hear the brutes coming long before they reached us; they make a dull sort of rumble like a locomotive. It is a creepy sensation to know they have you in a 'hundred yard bracket,' have a line on you and you are waiting for the next round to blow you to pieces. However, that 'next round' did not come, the one that burst short of us threw huge clouds of earth over us in showers. There 'Coal Boxes' get their name from the sooty deposit they leave on the sides of the hole made by the burst. The 'pets' they have fired at us are either six inch or eight inch, weighing ninety to 120 pounds and filled with high explosive. Thereby hangs a tale or rather a joke. One dropped across the road from our billet; this particular one fell between two infantry officers who were standing talking. The concussion of draught (or perhaps pure scare) knocked one of them down, but neither was hurt, not even a scratch. We dug up the shell which had gone fourteen feet into the ground took the 'sting' in other words the percussion primer off and soaked the shell in water for two days before examining it. What do you suppose we found in it? Instead of the deadly high explosive compound we found one quarter of a pound of ordinary black powder - they had forgotten to fill it. This shell goes back to Canada to be placed in Cobourg Armoury. They (the enemy) have the billet at the battery registered, dropped 14 Pro Shrapnal on us the other day. You should see the place. The tile roof is conspicuous by its absence of tiles, the floors and doors are riddled with holes from shrapnel bullets and nearly every pane of glass broken. Apart from this they did not do much damage. One of our fellows was struck by a bullet near the eye and one of the rifles has a splinter as big as the end of a finger embedded in the stock. You should have seen the scrimmage, men came shooting out of windows, doors and haystacks on the jump. We had to laugh in spite of being scared stiff.
No parcels have yet reached me. Please send me a pound of Hudson Bay tobacco, two pipes, some cigarettes and some Canadian matches. It is impossible to buy anything smokeable here and our issues are very small.
I saw Major Beattie a couple of days ago. He looks very well and seems to be getting fat on this life. He is very popular among the men. I also met Major A.E. Kirkpatrick, of the Queen's Own, who wished to be remembered to you.
Regarding the Battery work there is not much to tell you. The drivers are a couple of miles behind us. We have just a gun crew, a few spanes and a couple of cooks up here. Concealed positions are used of course. We have built very solid gun Epaulments at this position with sand bags, sods and brush, even planted trees for concealment. The wagon and limber are placed on either side of the gun, then we build up the walls on the sides about four feet high with sods and sand bags, put a frame work 2' x 4' on top and covered with sods and sand bags so that we have a very snug and very protective gun position.
There are a couple of splinter-proofs behind us in case of a heavy bombardment. It is a splendid position, the fact that we have never been 'found' goes to prove it, although several shells have burst about us. It is all 'indirect method' with aiming points, angles are worked out with bearings taken with Prismatic compass, so we cannot see the effect of our fire, maps are used most exclusively. We have Observing Officers in the infantry trenches who control our fire by telephone. Aeroplanes are used a great deal for observation. There are three or four flying above us all the time. They are fired at a good deal by the anti-aircraft guns somewhere in the German trenches in front of us but cannot locate them. They have not done any damage to our machines while we have been up here, in fact their shooting seems very wild.
We get orders at all hours to 'stand to.' 'Major Halston sends his best regards.
EDMUND L. MacNACHTAN.
4th Battery, 1st. Brigade. C.F.A.