To his Wife.
FRANCE, April 22nd, 1915.
Things very peaceful these last few days. Weather charming. We've got the Band out and I shall cease writing abruptly at 3 to go and hear a few "chunes," with which we are going to rejoice the villagers. Bombardments in the distance the last few nights, aeroplanes in plenty---mostly our own I regret to say. A German being warmly received is a very exciting sight from the point of view of those safe on terra firma---exciting but hard to follow. The intruder is so easily mistaken for those French and British 'planes which go up to give chase, and the clouds of shrapnel shell smoke in the air drift so quickly down the wind together (though some still evenings they hang for a bit) that twenty watchers can generally evolve a totally different story of the fight.
We are running a couple of wards and a scaby ward but this only keeps one section busy at a time, the other two filling in the tedious "standing by" time with marches and drills---physical and stretcher---and occasional lectures which are more like pow-wows, everybody putting in their say. Gay and I gave one afternoon's entertainment, he describing the nursing he had seen at ----- when he was there and I the pleasant little operation that kept me so happy for a couple of hours.
Send me nothing but food, tobacco and light literature---not too much of the two latter. Thank your Mother very much for the cuttings. I can't find them at the moment, but Wright's coal tar soap one cake at a time would be most acceptable, also a little Fel's naptha. Be careful to send me no stores of things such as boxes of soap etc. Every blessed thing we possess has to be carried with us on our own backs. Some of the fellows get supplies of sugar sent them---a mere waste of postage---others six pairs of sox! If they are wise they give them away. Food can always be eaten if not by me personally by a small party convened by me, each member of which will assuredly invite me to his party when his box arrives---see?
Bless you all
April 24th, 1915.
1 am having a very lively time combining Corp. of Guard with pack store keeper. Have not slept or attempted to sleep since yesterday morning---five o'clock. I rather enjoy a night on Guard. There are two ways to look at it (i) a night's sleep spoiled and (ii) an adventure. I feel I've said this before---have I?
Weather is improving rapidly: days very fine and warm-nights cold and frosty. Washing is very cold work. Think of me stripped to the middle dabbling in a soapy brook before six a.m. and shaving in the shelter of a sort of young railway arch (it does not support a railway and is merely an architectural feature of our beloved home from---very far from---home). We turn in from sheer lack of light before eight and are most of us ready and glad to nip up at reveillé---5.30. I know I am often awake long before that, and---once awake---a stone floor, even when strewn with straws which show which way the wind blows, does not encourage late lying.
I wonder, dear, if you can get me some fizzy drink to mix with water---some sort of fruit salts---packed in a tin for transit. Bottles weigh so much in themselves. They had something of the sort at the advance dressing station which was very pleasant and---I should say---beneficial now that summer is acumen in.
Must finish---earlier post or something. Love.
To his Son.
April 26th, 1915.
Tell Vallie: My dear little boy I want to come home just as much as you want me to, but I can't for a long time yet, not till all the Germans have had their heads sat on, and all the Turks have had their heads sat on and, one or two Austrians have had their heads sat on---and that will certainly take the whole lovely summer and a bit over---but I think I shall see you again about the time when you have to light up before tea.
Send me heaps of messages my sweet.
To his Wife.
I suppose you will spend your holidays at Maidenhead, dear. It makes me so sad to miss a summer with you but it's got to be. I have real hopes of getting home in November. If Italy does come into it that will hurry things up enormously but I'm sure we can win without her. You know how enormously I believe in the winning spirit---well it's out here in big chunks, not only in our boys but in the French. The German humour seems to be one of gas mingled with amazement. They cannot understand us;--- chaplains going into the Trenches; our advance dressing stations carrying on week after week under fire---all the things that we take so matter-of-factly seem to puzzle those Germans who are flung by circumstances from their régime into ours. Above all I believe our N.C.O.'s shock them. I heard at first hand of a German something-more-than-mere-man who said that the way our N.C.O.'s fraternised with the men was swinish! My informant---a Corporal R.A.M.C---.had heard him say it. He merely quoted the Bosch without much appreciation of the excellence of the humour, and I am convinced he was not inventing it.
I have been faring extremely well lately, Roffe's people and Willet's people having so to speak got the range and started an ordered bombardment. Meat paste and cakes and biscuits and tinned fruits arrive by every post for some member of my "click" (you know what a "click" is, don't you?) and my "dominant personality" (Capell) being particularly assertive about tea time I come in for several shares. We are all very generous with our hampers---casting bread upon the waters we call it.
One thing I lack is good tobacco. I have decided that I do not care for the army issue. I live in the hope of some more John Cotton from Mr. Chamberlain soon---I gather from his letter I shall get it---also I look forward to the Rasp and Crown from you
By the way, next time you go to 72 fish out my clay pipe in case you can find it, and shove it in the next ensuing parcel. This is not important.
Letters, Letters, Letters,---thems what are. Love!.
April 30th, 1915.
Curious situations abound. Behold me sitting in Lieut. Dickenson's chair by Lieut. Dickenson's fire in the midst of Lieut. Dickenson's deserted patience (a game unknown to me: five rows and aces out) Lieut. D. having gone forth to the Regimental Aid Post on our L. Front to see a man afflicted suddenly with peritonitis. We are a party forming an Advance Dressing Station here at ----. We have just sent our first case (Sergeant shot through chin, tongue and neck---quite conscious---hit at three, remained in trench till seven, left us 8.15---in Hospital by now) into --- together with a request for two pounds of soda for the Bat. M.O. on our R. Front. (Thus our Motor Ambulances fetch and carry). I am waiting up to take the soda when it arrives up to the M.O. at his aid post behind the trenches. Why soda in the middle of the night? Gas, my dear. Les Bosches are now throwing chunks of gas at us. Nasty smelly trick, isn't it? We are replying in our nice clean British way with soda---at least so I thought at first, but the truth is that partially asphyxiated Tommies thrive on Sodium Bi---not the washing variety. I am going to rouse out Fisher (now sleeping peacefully in the billet in spite of a battery) to walk up with me when the stuff arrives. Lieut. Dickenson won't let me go alone. It is a lovely night---high moon almost full and a low mist over the firing line through which star shells (otherwise rockets) twinkle up occasionally. The battery near here "bings" out a shell every ten minutes or so. It is a noisy brute but some naval guns over a mile away are quite deafening even at that distance. The expression "tearing the atmosphere" really applies to the scream of their shells as they pass overhead. They do sound like tearing silk heard through a stethoscope. The prettiest sound of the night is a machine-gun a mile or so to our right firing short tap-tap tap tap taps like an over grown woodpecker. Understand that these sounds are only occasional only the scattered rifle fire being anything like continuous, and that so scattered that it is a mere background. Bing! from the near battery ---five minutes elapse---tap tap tap tap, another four or five-tap tap tap again---a slight increase in the rifle fire---Bahang Wheeeee! from the naval gun---ten minutes perfect calm but for rifles very faint and intermittent, tap tap taptap tap tap. This time from further off: the woodpecker's mate. Sh Sh Sh --- Sh --- Sh a German shell coming to look for our Battery.
Sh Sh Sh! Whap! Missed it by about half a mile---five or six minutes peace. Bing from ours. Bing again after a minute and two more bings rapid. Peace once more, the rifles a trifle fainter, one crack a trifle louder. Tap tap tap tap tap- --
That's half an hour not taken down of course but typified. I am looking forward to the walk.
I was interrupted in the above by message that more patients were coming down. We had to meet them. I got to sleep about one and was up again at 5.30 In fact I find I have only had six and a half hours of sleep (only four and a half without boots on) since 5.30 a.m. the day before yesterday. I am going to have a nap this afternoon though. Last night's walk up and back was delightful and quite safe. The Aid Posts are, of course, not in really dangerous positions. Only danger was from sentries. They get hypnotised by the rattle of the rifle fire and being awakened drop their bayonets smartly to the approaching stomach and say very fiercely but surprisingly quietly "'Alt!" I always obey. "Who are you?" I generally forget, which rouses suspicion. I then remember but stammer over it. The stammer produces a sympathy in the sentry who says apologetically and bashfully "p-p-pas Sflam-bublance---" Then with full consciousness of the ridiculousness of the remark "All's-well." That being said he calls after me in his natural voice suddenly rediscovered---" What's the time, chum?" I am sorry for sentries. They get so fearfully smitten with self-consciousness.
I really feel I am some use at last. I am N.C.O. in charge of party (seventeen including officer and the padre). Lieut. D. is a treat to work with. I have no one to share---or double--my responsibilities under him and he treats me as an intelligent human being not an escaped lunatic with criminal tendencies: the way certain superior N.C.O.'s seem to think their juniors should be treated. This is like being back with Barker again.
This letter written in jiblets. Thanks for your long one---a treat. Have lost Mater's address. Looking forward to tobacco. Army issue uncertain up here---we depend upon our Quartermaster at ----- whither the Sixth moved the day after I left with my party. They are rigging up a hospital there and must be having a hell of a time scrubbing floors.
Aeroplane fight outside-excuse me.
I really hate to miss them especially in a good light --- most exciting --- no result --- as usual --shrapnel wasted.
Bless you all-buck up tobacco. I am now smoking one of Lieut. Dickenson's cigars.
Still at the Advanced Dressing Station, expect to be relieved on Sunday, the plan being to relieve the personel of Advanced Dressing Stations in toto every week or even oftener. Since I came here the 6th London Field Ambulance have moved into --- and started work with a vengeance, ambulance orderlies coming out daily ---the motor cyclist going and returning, and occasional officers and chaplains coming out to pay us a visit, all bring stories of how we are turning the Ecole Maternelle into a hospital by dint of scrubbing brush and more scrubbing brush.
We, here, have done a fair amount of cleaning up too; the regulars having left this place in a state no Territorial Officer could tolerate.
I am joking of course, but oh we aye military, we Territorials! We aye thorough! The regulars are more than friendly in their attitude towards us, but they sometimes smile.
There is a gentle soul talking to me continuously all the time I am writing this---I must postpone.
This is a week of sensations but I really think last night will be unbeaten at the end of the war. It was by moonlight---almost full---that adds something, don't you think? I had taken three men in answer to a message incoherently delivered by a man on horseback, accompanied by two cyclists
"Man gone mad down at ----- They've got 'im in a little room---by the railway station."
We found him not raving but apparently asleep, wrapped in blankets quiet as death. A stretcher was brought out of the motor and about a dozen spare stretcher slings I had thought to bring---fortunately---and we debated a moment in the moonlight. What a curious group we must have been on the deserted station platform, standing round him! Then one of his chums touched him. You must imagine more than I can describe in this chatter. He raved and bit and beat out with fists and feet snarling like a dog---really like a dog---we got him on to a stretcher, and I lashed him on as gently as I could but very firmly. Once bending across him I touched his face with my sleeve, he had it in his teeth in a minute---and in the midst of it men passed going up to the trenches singing. They passed along the road not fifty yards away while a dozen of us held him down by arms and legs and hair, and muffled him in blankets and packed him off with two of our men and two of his chums to our snug little brand new hospital at -----. Aschcroft and I then set out to walk back to our station.
It was this walk in the moonlight with the star shells on the horizon and the rattling line towards which we were walking (the station lies away from the firing line from here) that provided the sensation. I was naturally impressed. Ashcroft is a good obvious fellow. He prattled wonderingly of "Wot would make a chap go off like that." He supposed he had been "too daring like" and it had "told on him." "These Engineers go mad very easy--- " etc. Can't you hear him---an old liner steward---a bit of a gardener---a silk hat maker last job---age about forty? The sort of man you meet fifty of in an hour.
We had to pass the wooded garden of the Chateau de -----. In the wood are about two score graves, half of our men and half of Indians ---Khdir's and Ali's----beautifully tended graves shining in bead wreaths and pine crosses. Over them in the moonlight a nightingale was singing loud and sweet. Its first notes were so close and so low that I was startled.
Eh bien, I can't express it. I feel as if for a week past a great super-human artist had been painting for me, in all the colours, and sounds and feelings and scents of creation, a picture of himself. He is Reality one moment, Mystery the next.
Have I mentioned the spy we saw in uniform, being marched away under armed guard---swaggering but unable to swagger in a straight line. I shouldn't be surprised to hear he was no spy and got off---but he swaggered and he was frightened. That was what I saw.
I went up to the ---the H.Q. this afternoon and saw two men buried. Their chums were so particular to dig them a level grave and a rectangular grave and parallel graves, and to note who was in this grave, who in that, that my mind, jumping to questions as always, was aching with why's which I wouldn't have asked for the world ---almost as if the answer---you take me---would disgrace me for not knowing it already---brand me as lacking some decency the grave diggers had.
Oh Lord the mystery of men's feelings.
May 6th, 1915.
1 want you to send me at once Bell's Standard Elocution (Mrs. Carpenter has a copy which I will return if she will lend it). I also want "The Revenge" and Henry's speeches---the one about England and the one beginning "Upon the King" and the Charioteer's speech from Euripides (Gilbert Murray's translation). Oh Lord, what is the play? I suppose I must do without it. Send the others at once though. This is really important.
I am back at our Main Dressing Station (you would call it a Hospital but we are modest) in the pretty little town of ----- six miles behind the line.
To his Mother.
May 10th, 1915.
1 feel very wicked: not having written to you for well over a week---but you make allowances, don't you?
Returned from the advanced dressing station (and jolly sorry to leave it) yesterday---Tuesday, and am now at our main dressing station in ---- (my own blacking not the censor's). I object to using dashes, they interfere with the punctuation; so I describe this charming little French ---very French---Cathedral city, six miles behind the firing line as ------.
I was amazed when I got here to see what a workman-like place the old 6th had made of these blocks of school buildings. Tents and cooking trenches in the three playgrounds, medical wards, surgical wards, orderly room, operating theatre and "dressing room." I am on duty in this "dressing room," and operating theatre (the staffs are interchangeable necessarily) from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with two hours off daily.
Patients arrive at all hours; generally in twos and threes---frequently in fives and sixes (the last invariably at meal times). They are carried into the dressing room where boots etc. are removed (this saves the operating theatre from dirt), and then transported to the operating theatre where their wounds are inspected and dressed and where every man receives an injection of antitetanus anti-toxin. Septic wounds never go into the theatre at all but are dressed in the dressing room. Nasty things they are. We evacuate our cases pretty fast. The medical wards are quite independent of our surgical. B section looks after them---they get a lot of work. We have a so-called infectious ward but the more infectious cases, like measles, diphtheria, etc. go to a special hospital by special "yellow" ambulances. I fancy our "infectious" ward contains nothing more dangerous than scaby cases. It didn't a day or so ago anyway.
My only complaint against present existence is the length of time between reveillé and breakfast---nominally 5.30 to 8 (that's bad enough) but actually 5 until you can get it. Parade for duties is now 6 a.m. and to be shaved and cleaned up for the day before six demands a five o'clock arising from the one blanket and great coat on the floor we call bed. Then, though breakfast is nominally eight, a certain number of ward orderlies etc. have to wait until 8.30 every morning. Of course we take this waiting in turns.
My chief work to-day has been unbooting wounded heroes and giving them beef tea. Though this afternoon I donned the white gown of a grand inquisitor, sublimated my hands and assisted with a couple of dressings; shrapnel (beastly stuff) wounds all over the place.
This letter extends over a day and a half with at least a score of interruptions. This is not an exaggeration, there is a man reading the Telegraph to me---only to me---even now; he doesn't mind my going on writing, so I suppose I mustn't mind his reading. Oh, for an hour's absolute privacy in the twenty-four!
To his Wife.
May 12th, 1915.
1 can't write more than a few lines now. Have had a "rush "---our little operating tent alone had fifty cases, at least, through in a night and a day. Most of them shrapnel. Many serious. But Oh, my Dear the pluck of them! and the amazing cleanness of their bodies under the muddy khaki and sweat and blood drenched vests and shirts. Few were of our Division---, most regulars. Hard ruddy little Scots. A bloodstained kilt, my dear, is a sight to make a painter gasp---such colouring! and in the white acetyline light of our tent!
I'm dead tired---can't stick to the subject, will postpone letter till to-morrow.
The rush has slowed up. It was wonderful while it lasted. The roar of the guns in the morning warned us what was coming. Nearly all our men were sent up to the bearer stations (advance dressing station) I was kept here to work in the operating tent. I was awfully disappointed at first but the view we got of the attack from our operating table was worth staying here for. We had some of the cases under chloroform. I'll try to tell you all about it one day---I can't now.
I feel tremendously fit. Started a bad headache half way through the rush---we had a lull at about sun-down and cleaned up ready for the next convoy---then I had a splitting headache but I curled up for a nap on the floor at eleven among the empty anti-toxin bottles and was roused an hour later, feeling as fresh as a daisy. Worked through from then (about midnight) till ten last night when I retired into my corner of C. Section billet, failed to get to sleep there owing to some returned bearers trying to tell me what they had seen, and came forth again to the erratic bell tent I put up some days ago. There I slept well until six this morning. As I said before I am feeling tremendously fit.
Love to all.
May 15th, 1915.
You are wrong---you cannot guess from my mention of gas where I am.
We are tremendously busy. Have turned a very convenient old block of school buildings into bright clean wards and operating and dressing rooms. A dressing room is to all intents and purposes a minor operating room. The more it resembles the best operating theatre in London the better. All ours here are amazingly light and lofty and we have cleaned and whitened them, floors walls and ceilings, till I, for one, am really proud of us. We have as yet experienced no "rush" such as must accompany any big attack, our brigade being on one of those sections of front that cost a life or two a day and supply a couple of dozen real casualties in the twenty-four hours at the outside. Of course we have sick as well. Health generally excellent in the division, it seems. No enteric, typhoid or dip. as far as I know. Favourite diseases boils, scabies, impetigo (nasty thing impetigo but quite a trifle if taken seriously enough). I think our feeding makes for health in the main---though I am convinced that if a man ate his full ration every day for a week, he would perish miserably. Half pound of jam per diem! Heaven knows how much meat! Do you wonder I asked for a fizzy drink? By the way it is just what I wanted.
I find I have dissertated. Half way up the page before last I should have said that we are looking after two brigades, in fact we have had the pleasure of being the first of the 3 Field Ambulances in the division to do active work, one of the others standing in reserve with their brigade and another---poor devils---having settled down to look after the divisional washing. We trembled for a week under the fear that that might be our fate.
I really am awfully bucked with our place here. Three blocks of buildings each a quadrangle around a gravel playground shaded by trees just breaking into green. Rooms very lofty with windows (enormous windows) on two sides. Concussion of big guns combined with Fisher's efforts as a window cleaner have supplied fresh air, as well as light per these windows. The No 1 dressing room in the surgical has lost every pane of glass bar two. (Fisher not responsible.) In the playgrounds we have erected tents (you should have seen me wrestling with a new and unshrunken bell tent---to the great amusement of the Sergeant Major---in the fading light last night. The unholy thing seemed to have about a dozen flaps too many.
We, ourselves, are packed into rooms in the 3rd block; six feet by two feet of floor per man is about our allowance but there is heaps of room in the 1st and 2nd block where are the wards and if ever a rush comes we shall not be unprepared. After their experiences at the beginning of the war that has been the one cry of the Medical Corps. Be ready for a rush! The Regular Field Ambulances in this town tell highly coloured tales of the hundreds of cases a day some of them were faced with. "Evacuate! Evacuate!"---that of course is the cry. Get your cases on across France to the bases---or across the Channel and be ready for the next. As soon as a man can be moved, out he goes.
I was "at it" from 6 a.m. till 3.45 yesterday and from 5.15 till 9.30 in the morning in the operating theatre (doing very little but still "at it"). In the afternoon moving down to the medical, which we took over, exchanging departments with B Section. This is supposed to make for general efficiency---very likely it does but it also makes a lot of work. In the evening we and B. were both so horrified at the state the other had left their wards in, that we turned to and scrubbed the whole place out. C. Section thought of it first. So I think we scored.
As a matter of fact B. are a jolly good section (and so are we) but we think we are a shade better (and so do they).
In fine I am convinced we are as good as any regular Amb. in France, barring experience. Our very mixedness and number of different employments in civil life making for efficiency in the multifarious jobs of a Field Ambulance. Plumber carpenter, clerk, navvy, cook, groom, motor driver---just as useful as nurse or doctor.
May 17th, 1915.
Have been on night duty these last few nights. We have cleared out all our wounded from C. section block and B. is receiving the stray night casualties, until the next rush, so night duty at present entails keeping awake without excitement or work---a dismal business. Last night though the Germans put a dozen shells or so across right into the town here, peppering our Quartermaster's bed with the second. He had left it on hearing the first. Later, shells injured a few unfortunate civilians: women and children of course. I believe one woman is dead. Our patients in the medical ward slept through it. We have about a score in our medical ward and the scaby tent, but they supply no entertainment to the night duty man.
Fisher and most of my chums are up at the advanced dressing station at present (we take it in turns up there), and I am thrown upon the older members of the 6th, very decent chaps indeed. I like most of them. I'm not sure I'm not glad to have got away from the Chelsea set for a bit (though we expressed great sorrow at being separated), if only to improve the acquaintance of some of these fellows. They are curious, hardened, sinners some of them in the matter of being in to the exact and stated second---taking leave (this when in England) when not granted it, etc.---things we, who joined since the war, would no more think of doing than of assaulting the Sergeant Major (the unthinkablest think I can think of), yet withall they are ever so much more competent than we are and the Powers who punish them for their peccadilloes don't mix up peccability with incompetence.
From all this don't deduce that I am meditating a few minor sins of my own. I am merely giving expression to a humiliating sense that there are in the 6th many men much better than I am at everything, except conforming to regulations who have been passed over for the stripe that I have obtained, chiefly by cleaning my buttons, shaving before parade and generally clicking my heels about the place, while they stood akimbo instead of at attention, and occasionally indulged a natural propensity to break irksome regulations.
To his Mother.
May 21st, 1915
Don't write as if I neglected to write to you! I think I do wonders. If you only knew the difficulties in the way of letter writing in this outlandish place. Do you realize that except in the three-quarter hour off that we have between "off duty" seven and being in billets by eight we never see chairs or tables---and then only if we get first to the crowded cafés or estaminets can we sit on or at them. We billet as a rule about forty in a room or attic the size and style of your attic over Hazlemere!-plus a strong floor. At present we are in a schoolroom which is mercifully cool. Attics get so appallingly hot and stuffy. We sleep on a waterproof sheet on the floor (more often than not out here---even in attics---the floor being a tiled or stone one) and have one blanket each for covering. This we eke out with our own clothes.
We are having very hot days now and a lot of glaring sun which gives me a bit of a headache most afternoons. I am thinking of affecting smoked glasses. I wonder if they would be condemned as unmilitary. There are no heights to which the inane vanity of the army cannot rise. Fancy these idiotic moustaches that we all have to grow "to make us look soldierly." Did you ever hear such rot? There is something of the old Wellington, who stuck up for the white (and tight) neck cloths because they gave the men such a fresh colour, in the British army of to-day. I fancy it will suffer some in this war though.
I have seen a lot more of this town. It is ---as I have said---nearer the front than -----" and south thereof, and well within range of the enemy (the front of our hospital shows traces of recent peppering by the fragments of burst shell), and yet the streets are full of people and the coal mines and works all hard at it. That is the strangest thing about these folk. Even up to a mile behind the trenches, peasants live on, keeping a little bit of their garden going and not even complaining as they lose this or that shed, horse, or crop, by a shell. In some cases they even live on in one end of a house after the other end has been wrecked almost over their heads. Only right up in such towns as, you know where, and the two similar in a line south of it (which I visited at Easter) does one tell that everything has been driven out. These towns really are deserted and have been so for months, but now that we are pushing beyond them steadily I expect the more peasant-like of the inhabitants will be trickling back, before it is anything like safe to do so.
I am on a rotten dull routinal job now. My duty is to collect the men for evacuation to other Field Ambs. or back to clearing hospitals into little parties, to see that their "tallies" are readable (which they never are), that they have their kits, etc., and then I have to watch them for fear they may get lost before the convoy of motor ambulances can gather them up and take them to wherever they're bound for. My dear mother, they do take some watching. Serious cases of course are no trouble. They stay put on their stretchers, but we have scores of minor cases: dental cases, cases for the convalescent companies, deafs, eyes, boils and skin diseases, and they all stray alike. The deafs in particular. They drift away, find a retired corner and fall asleep. Enter the convoy, loaded---one short. Private McGuiness! (not a fake name) no answer. Private McGuiness, as loud as I can shout. No answer. PRIVATE McGUINESS! in chorus by Lieut. Dixon half a dozen orderlies and self. Result three patients suffering from shock in a back ward have fainting fits and the cook misses the meat he is chopping and brings his finger along for treatment in the operating theatre. Dinner is late, the convoy goes without McGuiness who wakes four hours later and asks where he can have a wash.
Bye-bye. Cheer up. I shall be home in a year or two, if all goes well.
May 23rd, 1915.
I am up at the advance dressing station again at the moment of writing I am up further at a point we call "Welsh Chapel" (every place about here has its English name). It is about a mile up from our advance dressing station and is used as a sort of Guard Room and Quartermaster's
Stores for the trenches which are out at the back I have been up to my eyes in work (at the main dressing station in " ----- ") since Sunday morning when the British and French attack began (or rather when its fruits in wounded began to reach us. The actual attack began on Saturday night). Nominally I have been on night duty in the operating tent, but naturally with wounded and wounded and wounded flowing in neither night nor day duty means anything. I had had eight hours sleep in three days, when heavy fighting out here developed and the message came down for more bearers, so out I came with a dozen others by horse ambulance (time two a.m.) and going on on foot just as day was breaking, found a Regimental M.O. in a room in a gutted house with some half dozen wounded and two or three dead on the floor about him. His own regimental stretcher bearers were carrying and carrying the long mile down to a spot where an ambulance could meet them, in comparative safety. I gave a hand with my party of six and between us we carried down two: you have no idea of the physical fatigue entailed in carrying a twelve stone blessé a thousand odd yards across muddy fields. Oh this cruel mud! Back in "----- " we hate it (the poor fellows come in absolutely clayed up), but out here, it is infernal.
It clings and sucks at your boots; weighs you down; chills you and, drying in upper garments, makes them chafe. The dead lie in it in queer flat---jacent---attitudes. They nearly always look flung down rather than fallen, their feet turned sideways lie flatter than a living man's could, and the thighs splayed out lower the contours of the back. An unrelieved level of liquid mud seems to be the end of war.
I have digressed from the history of to-day. We carried two poor devils down and I got our advance dressing station M.O. to allow me to take a horse ambulance up---right up to Welsh Chapel for others---whom we did not wait long for. It was a sporting gallop up the torn road. I don't know when the last four wheeled vehicle had been so far up but the Germans are falling back steadily now and unless a shelling of the road occurred we were quite safe.
Oh the din I am writing this in dear! There ought to be thousands of wounded on both sides if noise counted for anything, but here I have been for over an hour without a call. We are supposed to be relieving the regimental stretcher bearers until noon so that they can get some rest. They have been carrying for about two days with only cat naps between jobs.
Later. Same place.
Just off back to the advance dressing station. The guns are still making an unearthly din. I have counted eleven German dud shells. Tseau---ooo---oo-you wait for the bang and nothing happens---loud cheers.
Advance Dressing Station.
We went on carrying during the afternoon and evening of yesterday and late---
----come to work it out this is not "next day" but day after next---
We finished that first day here carrying down from a point on our L. called the Keep a point very like Welsh Chapel which is on our right. Most of our men stuck it till 4 a.m. but I and my party, who had had the morning spell, knocked off before dawn and went back to the Adv. where we climbed into a loft and dropped. We slept just as we were---I didn't even take my mac cape off---dead beat until I was roused by the floor under me throwing me gently into the air, a matter of three inches and receiving me again in a way that revealed my hip and elbow protuberances with rousing painfulness. Our biggest siege guns about 500 yards away had opened. Every shot flung us all up like pins on a banjo.
We scrambled down and took refuge on the paved floor below and after five minutes of that left the falling---gently falling---ceiling overhead for the open where I for one slept on till seven in spite of the unholy din. It was most like a nightmare of trombones---a strepitant blare of metalic noise. Still---in the open---so weary were we that we slept through it after a fashion. It is much worse when one is under a ceiling and between shaking walls.
During the day things quietened down---I went into "----- " (same old "-----") as orderly with horse ambulance and returned with motor and the fun started again at sundown as the weather improved (it had been dull all day interfering with our advance).
What a night and morning-----
Interrupted and resumed.
I cannot remember the order of that night---carrying down from the keep---intense weariness, accompanied by sickness. I brought up everything I hadn't had for supper and chucked bearing for a bit I remember.
Two trips into " ----- " with wounded---a lead and opium pill for little Mary---and an adventure which I cannot describe for the life of me. The quite middle of it was spent crawling about among the beastly dead in a newly captured German trench with a very non material minded Roman Catholic chaplain who- Oh---'Tsno use. I can't do justice to it or him. I only remember that I felt a great affection for that trench when once we were in it and tried to crack a joke to that effect and the R.C. wanted it explained. Oh Lor. Oh lummy! I also remarked that it faced the wrong way---meaning of course for us with the Germans over there---but he pointed out that it hadn't been built to protect from that direction---
Do you understand all this?
Anyway I'm back in " -----" now and after a few hours' rest by order of the S.M.---an order I carried out very indifferently owing to a company (250 men) visiting our billet during it and chalking out places in the adjoining---but not partitioned off---part of our top-floor. I am on for the night as pack store keeper. I shall not pack store keep, though as now---at midnight comes an order we are to evacuate this lovely hospital we have made! Shells have certainly fallen very close (the nearest in the guard room fifty yards away) and that is the reason given. It's hard luck though when we've spent a month perfecting it and getting it as clean as a new pin.
We have moved across " ------" to another school and spent the day getting tents up rooms scrubbed, etc. etc. etc. Patients began to arrive at 9 a.m. and all was ready for them. I am building an incinerator.
One of our naughty wicked transport men has been "crimed" for cheeking a sergeant and I am put in charge of him. We didn't happen to have a corporal of the guard---or a guard---when he was sentenced so one has had to be appointed and I'm it. Rotten job. Strong inclination to give my prisoner a cigarette, which of course I mustn't do.
I was corporal of the guard for the night, but my work was hospital rather than regimental. At about midnight we had to turn out of the guard tent to make room for a dying man who was becoming delirious and could not be kept in the ward. He tried to get up half a dozen times during the night and early morning and we guards supplemented the orderly (nurse you understand) in his efforts to keep the poor fellow quiet---not a difficult job, he was quite sweet and reasonable---only unable to understand why he couldn't get up and get some tea going. Between these spells he sang softly over and over again "Artie White," "Artie White " in an ascending tritone
over and over again. He is singing it now as I write outside his tent in the sunshine.
Our guns are roaring like the sea in the distance. We are advancing, but oh! the price! The Germans are shelling at long range occasionally---
Hullo---here's a new horror! We are to leave here now! 48 hours work wasted. It is one of the anomalies of modern war that an advancing front imperils its rear by inducing the retreating enemy to concentrate long range guns thereon and we are to fall back while our advance dressing station very likely presses forward.
Now for a night of work again loading waggons.
I haven't had my boots off for eight hours in the last seven days. I haven't had one unbroken night's sleep in that time. Many naps totalling I should say four hours per twenty four have been my portion but I have just had some lovely stew made from McConachies' Army Ration of meat and vegetables and a cup of tea and I feel as fit as a fiddle.
God bless you darlings.
The whole front just now is one Hell of mud and weariness, such as I never conceived possible, and heroic medical officers sorting the dead from the living and struggling, struggling, struggling, against chaos.
There isn't a regimental medical officer upon this sector who doesn't deserve to live in comfort at the country's expense for the rest of his life (V.C.'s be damned).
Letters from France, continued
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