LETTERS FROM FRANCE.
To his Wife.
FRANCE, March 18th, 1915.
Here we are in France---journey not finished yet. We had an ideal crossing---and a most amazing one. I believe every square yard of the: Channel has its own British T.B. Destroyer--- queer black shapes with rectangular outlines, hard and well drawn against the dark sky or streams of light from more distant warships. I never saw one in detail with the light upon it---, always in silhouette against the light. We steamed with lights out nearly all the way. I slept on deck---not over warm---but I kept getting up to see the latest sight as one or other called me and so kept warm.
We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, "duff" and coffee---having scraped an acquaintance with some of the engine room artificers who invited me to sup in the fo'castle. It was very hot in there but we supped in low neck. Great fun!
Bye bye---Love to my blessed boy---Try to read him as much of my letters as he will understand. I do miss him so and I want him to hear about me all he can so's we shan't be strangers when we meet next. Rubbish I know, but still I'm not quite joking. He's growing so fast.
An unfortunate officer has got to read this and a hundred more letters, so I'll cut it short. Bless you.
FRANCE, March 22nd, 1915.
We took four days to get here, but here we are at last. "Here" being a little hamlet of farms, estaminets and shops, with the usual Mairie and Church, into every barn and spare room of which we are packed like sardines. It is now Sunday. We have shifted our billet three times in the three days we have been here, each change being for the better until last night we were comfortable enough not to want to change again. The weather to-day is excellent. The first day here---Friday---was a mixture of sunshine, snow and sleet. It is still very cold at nights.
The journey was most amusing. A Field Ambulance is uncommonly like a circus in more ways than one, and, though the band have packed their instruments, it still retains its resemblance to one. I was on duty with a party in the hold of the ship at the port, sending up the loaded waggons on the cranes on Tuesday. The number of clowns running about and pretending to work was, perhaps excessive but they did it so funnily that it didn't matter.
From the port we came here by train, travelling in cattle trucks which, with plenty of straw laid down, are much more comfortable than ordinary carriages for a long journey---twenty-two and a half hours. Don't try to guess from that where we are because you'll never do it. We wander all over the map.
Between the night on the boat and the night on the train, we had a night at a camp half a dozen miles outside the port. That---Tuesday---night and last night were the only decent nights' sleep I have had since 1 saw you last Saturday. I feel amazingly fit never the less. Certainly I am a little sleepy this afternoon and we are all going to turn in early but, with the rest, I am feeling as fit as possible. Quite fit in fact.
We are rather drastically treated here: forbidden to go into cafés which---as the water is not to be taken unless boiled and the Army tea is quite undrinkable---is rather hard. Still we hope that the order is only temporary. We went into cafés up to yesterday---and very nice café-au-lait they give---or gave us too. A surprisingly large number of us are teetotallers. My Billet of eight contains six, and the remaining two---of whom I am one are T.T. for the duration of the War.
We had the good fortune for three days to have our tea and sugar issued to us dry which enabled us by obtaining hot water to make our own tea in our mess tins, but that's over now and the stewed dixie tea is all we can get. Au reste the food is excellent when one gets it. We are not yet established here of course. Still even our worst spell---about 40 hours without meat---was quite endurable as we had unlimited biscuits, jam, and cheese, and were able to get good tea and chocolate and cakes at a buffet run for soldiers at the station at the port.
We are much nearer the firing line than I expected we would be in the first few weeks in France, but far enough away for the war still to seem incredibly remote. Some Indian Cavalry whom we saw almost convinced me it was in India.
Sergeant Moss, Fisher and myself with Lieut. Sadler and the R.C. Padre came here in advance of the rest by some hours to secure billets. It was most thrilling, setting out in the dark, seeking our way to an unknown hamlet by dint of much knocking up of wayside inhabitants.
Friday I spent billeting with Moss in the morning and in the afternoon, Fisher and I were first on duty in a temporary hospital. Saturday I had to draw stores from the A.S.C. a great rumour shop. What you can't hear there isn't worth hearing.
I want now a Walker's Loose Leaf pocket book, size about this sheet of paper, (I think they're called Walker's Loose Leaf Diaries but don't know. The shop in Charing Cross Road next to the Hippodrome sells them), a small French dictionary---a copy of "Well made Dress Coat," some thin writing paper quarto or foolscap size, some thin "foreign" note paper and envelopes (not a great many), and later I shall always be glad of English matches, bulls eyes, condensed milk (Ideal), Craven mixture or John Cotton (medium), also my pocket book.
Heaps of love to my Baby and his dear Mummy and everyone.
To his Mother-in-law.
FRANCE, March 23rd, 1915.
We are having a most amazing time here: the whole countryside under strictest Martial Law; swarming with troops and supply-trains; under hourly expectation of aerial attack in one quarter or another; yet orderly, peaceful and apparently quite unafraid, with us lounging in every farm yard and by every shady wall, resting after our not very fatiguing journey here. It is like a pleasant holiday for the greater part of the day. I don't suppose it will last long though.
You might buck everybody you know up to come out and finish this war. It looks like an everlasting to everlasting business out here. The French people about here seem quite resigned to a several years' struggle. It needn't be that, though, if only England will buck up.
Love to you and Lal. I go on Guard to-night, so no sleep for me till the next night. I don't mind.
Sunday, April 11th, 1915.
Thanks very much to both of you for the quid. It will be most useful when next we are in a town large enough to support a restaurant. I have put it aside against that happy day.
We were in such a town only last week but under such conditions that we only left our headquarters for an hour in two days. At present we are back in our Monastery, inventing rumours for each other, and swallowing everything we are told about our next move by the sergeants, who are as great rumour merchants as ourselves.
I am writing in a hurry to catch a 2 p.m. post. Envelopes were only issued at first parade this morning and only "green envelope" correspondence is to pass to-day. Most of the time between first parade and 2 o'clock is not available for letter writing.
Our chief entertainment here is coffee and aeroplanes---frequently under fire now.
Love to you all.
To his Wife.
FRANCE. March 25th, 1915.
We haven't had much to do since I last wrote to you. I had charge of a job after your own heart the day before yesterday, the cleaning of a stone outhouse and rigging up therein of a boiler wherein to boil the clothes of scaby patients. The outhouse had apparently been occupied by cattle for some years and then---for two winter months---by Indians and, besides heaps of filth in the corners and much loose straw, some relicks of fires and so forth, there was a solid, heavily trodden stratum of filth, some six inches thick which had to be dug out before the brick floor could be reached. Gods! how it stank! sour, putrid, and Oriental by turns. We got it all out at last, though and the old boiler---which we had found---rigged up. I had 12 men on the job and I took them out and stood them coffee afterwards. They had earned it.
We are allowed into cafés now---at certain hours---11 to 2.30 and 6 to 7.30.
I am just off to meet the post. Hope there is something for me by it. I'll keep this open in case.
Post not in yet. I must finish this or I shall miss the outward bound one. We have had our third issue of tobacco to-day, and yesterday---it having rained all day and the men being rather damp---a ration of rum was issued. I had a whack but never again. It was filthy. Half the T.T.'s turned out for some; regarding the first issue---as I did---as a rite not to be missed. Their antics afterwards were a study. There's no denying it warms you. We were all well frozen waiting for it---but hot coffee is I think a much pleasanter means to that end. I am drinking all the café au lait I can get. They make it beautifully about here. Not with heaps of chicory as at Bernaval.
The cooking is improving greatly, the tea for two days having been really good-but, oh, for some milk in it! The night I was corporal of the guard, I had milk from the S.M.'s tin.
To his Mother.
FRANCE, March 27th, 1915.
Your post card and letter received. Of course you know it is not always possible to write from here.
We have been in this village a week now, shifting about a lot, but still not absolutely moving away. We have founded a temporary Hospital and moved it again. Fisher and I handled the first case---a pleurisy one.
We are cut off from all news here. ---Latest is Tuesday morning's announcement of fall of Przchemysl. We live on rumours. The general impression is not one of a victorious army---or indeed an army at all---but rather of a great industrial district, rather unsuitably housed---a more or less improved industrial district perhaps. The impression also soaking into me is that, unless a miracle occurs, it harbours an industry that will go on forever. The other side of the German lines is spoken of by the peasants as if it were separated by an English channel or a Pyranees rather than by a destructible barrier of men and guns. I am not pessimistic, but I do wish England would buck up. You see no young men here not one. The women are doing all those things the men in England seem to think can't be done without them; and doing them well. The farms are thriving---the threshing, long delayed, is now being done. Cattle, poultry and rabbits are everywhere in spite of many losses.
Certainly this usually poor and squalid part of France looks poorer and squalider than ever, but in the essentials of livestock it is not greatly so. I have seen some---to me---very distressing sights of farm machinery---threshing machines, seed droppers, ploughs etc., left to rust and ruin, but not by the smaller peasants, by the more important folk who departed for safer neighbourhoods when the war broke out.
I was corporal of the guard night before last. The night watches are very strange. The sun sung down by a crowd of our men half a mile away in a barn, warbling music hall ditties; then a slight shower and a crescent moon crossed by many clouds, a curious murmuring, gabbling chant---women with candles, praying to the Madonna at a shrine near by---then long hours of silence broken by the occasional whirr of a motor or motor ambulance---one bearing a case of "Pottermain Poisoning" so the A.S.C. driver told me. Towards dawn faint guns in the distance---so far off that a loud snore in the guard room drowned them easily even to me standing outside. I've no idea where they were. Forty miles away probably. Still they were real guns and most impressive therefor.
To his Son.
FRANCE, March 30th, 1915.
Hullo Vallie! I'm in France at the war at last. How are you? We are having such a funny time all sleeping on straw on the floor---think of that when you get into your little cribblecot to-night.
I am sitting writing this on a sack on the ground with my back against Jack's. You remember Jack the cook? In front of me are all the horses in rows and rows tied to pegs driven into the ground. They are tied by the head---the way Modestine used to be---to one peg and by the hind foot to another peg to prevent them turning round and kicking each other. They don't like having their hind foots tied and pull at them and swear with their ears and top lips. You remember how your Modestine used to swear with her ears. They try to kick too, just as she used to do.
There are soldiers all about here all busy shoving the Germans back and shoving the Germans back and SHOVING the Germans back, and sooner or later we shall shove the whole lot of them right back into Germany over the Rhine---which is a big river---bigger than the river at Maidenhead---RIGHT back into Germany and off their feet, and then we shall sit on their heads severely until they have had enough, and then the war will be over, and we shall just have to tidy up and come home and I shall come home to you my Darling and the Blessed Mummy and the nice flat at St. John's Wood, and oh, I do hope it will be soon because I want to see you and Mummy most awfully.
Good bye my precious, please give my love to Gram and tell her I wish I could have some English Turkey. And please Vallie send everybody you can out here to help shove, because the sooner the Germans are shoved over and the more of us there are to sit on their heads, the sooner I shall see you all again.
To his Wife.
FRANCE, March 30th, 1915.
Sorry not to have written yesterday. We made a move which occupied all day; my beautiful boiler house left behind for the next comer. We are now housed in a small Monastery which is also a farm. The whole 6th is in one building and a devil of a squeeze it is too. All the men are on the top floor under the roof---a regular forest of beams. I had just room to be at length last night and no more. I could touch seven men without changing my position. We had a little straw and just our one blanket apiece and it was too cold to sleep except in snatches. I found some water in my mess tin hanging by my head frozen this morning.
The weather is curious, freezing every night and cold winds but out of the wind and in the sun it is now (noon) quite warm.
We hope---that is C Section hopes---to push on soon leaving A as Hospital Section at this, our base. I don't know if we have any ground for this hope. It would be very nice. I am sure we should be more comfortable cut up into sections under our own section officers.
It's only ten past twelve and I am starving for my dinner. We had an inane religious service in the open this morning at 8.40. For some obscure reason we were sent forth to it without our greatcoats and standing at ease we nearly froze in the cutting wind. All the infantry present were greatcoated. I suppose it was a slip on someone's part. It's a bad principle that makes two hundred uncomfortable for one man's error.
Oh! I'm hungry. You can send me some cake or chocolate as soon and as often as you like, if I am going to feel like this long. I can smell the stew cooking and I fancy there are onions and carrots in it. Hope I get a LARGE helping.
Heaps of love to you. The rest is for my ducksome.
FRANCE, April 1st, 1915.
I started a letter yesterday-before the arrival of the long letter and the parcel and, being interrupted to help unload a cart waggon (let's be accurate) I put it in my pocket. It was greatly injured at the treatment. I enclose a copy because I want to rub it in as written and because the original is almost unreadable.
I am sitting by the gate watching for the supply waggon which will also bring the letters. I do hope you have written to me---- "
Copy ceases. It's getting too affecting. Really dear, though, I do wish you would write to me every other day at least and arrange with Mater to write on the intervening days. A letter makes the most amazing difference to my state of mind. When I get no letter I am a downtrodden worm put upon by my superiors and hated by my inferiors. When I get a nice long letter I'm it.
I'm writing lightly but it's curiously true. The psychology of a Lance Corporal on Active Service is a wonderful thing.
Things are going on very well now. They even issue us matches and the papers are given out quite regularly.
Concerning grumbles---I am bound to do a certain amount. We are awfully subject to fits of depression all of us---and to anyone with a hump many of the minor ills of active service are very galling because of their resemblance to unnecessary impositions---Jack calls it their unstandupagainstableness. When you have a hump, an officer, who loses his way and has to ask it of passers by, becomes an incompetent idiot who will probably lead you straight into the German lines the first time you go out. When you feel cheerful---that is to say when letters have been arriving freely---it is merely a link between men and officers to find that the latter are fallable. Someone else with a hump is reproved for lack of charitableness, if he says anything such as you yourself were saying yesterday.
It's an up and down business, but oh! the Hump of yesterday! I believe I even hated Willet.
The Bishop of London paid us a visit on Monday and gave a very good address. I like the old chap. It was a curious service---several battalions sent such men as could come---the R.F.A. and Engineers were there and some others. We formed a square---in the centre was a transport waggon the far side of the square was our band. We led off with a few words from the Bishop. London sent us its love (Bless it). Then a hymn. Then a Liturgy from the Russian slightly adapted ---excellent and went very well indeed.
"Master, Lord God, Father Almighty and Adorable, meet it is and right to bless Thee, to glorify Thee, and to offer Thee with a contrite heart these our humble supplications."
Good beginning, isn't it? And then:
"And for those also, O Lord, the humble beasts, who with us bear the burden and heat of the day and whose guileless lives are offered for the well-being of their countries, we supplicate Thy great tenderness of heart for Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast, and great is Thy loving kindness, O Master, Saviour of the World."
Isn't that nice? After that a sermon of sorts---another hymn, "God speed you all" said his Grace and we went back to work.
I have found---in an outhouse we were cleaning to serve as a store---under a foot of stale straw a little blue gray box that looked familiar---and on it in gold letters was Taylor, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow! The shop where you bought me my amethyst set!
The parcel arrived quite safely. Nothing in the letter was superfluous, the Dictionary is perfect
And I love you very much.
To his Mother.
April 2nd, 1915.
We have now settled down (to settle down on active service only means that the necessary arrangements for a stay are made). We "settled down" last week in --- and cleared out a few days later. We have now settled down in a Monastery in a village in a mining-cum-arable sort of country. It is very like some parts of Durham in appearance. We have given the old place the. first scrub for---I should say---several centuries and have turned it into a hospital, barracks, stables, with officers, men, and patients all under one roof---rather a crush.
Aeroplanes are every day---almost every hour---occurrences, and bombs are dropped here and there about the country in general in charming profusion. They seem to do amazingly slight damage---especially to the military (either men or works). The civil population suffer slightly but apparently no more than does the London public from traffic and fires.
We can hear the guns nightly,---when the troops keep quiet. They cheer me up enormously --dispel the feeling that there's no progress being made. "Surely a noise that can be heard all those miles away must do some good" ses I. I want to get the damned war over and get home to certain people---our mutual acquaintances---and to work. I'm sick of being out of it at home without being really in it out here. Still I suppose we are some use.---We must be or they wouldn't pay us and feed us---feed us very well too as army food goes. It gets monotonous at the best. My chief objection is the Thé-à-la-chloride-of-lime. I am longing for a good cup of tea again. The chloride of lime in ours comes from the watercarts. In theory it sterilizes the water and then settles, leaving no perceptible flavour. In practice, it may sterilize the water all right, but it resolutely declines to altogether settle. Sufficient remaining in solution to flavour tea very strongly. The water drunk cold is quite inoffensive. Our water cart men may find out a few wrinkles soon which they are not yet up to. At present they are erring on the side of hygiene,---which is quite satisfactory in this land of cess-pools, latrines and mud , now rapidly dessicating and drying into very fine and---I am sure-very buggy dust. I prefer buggy to germinous, don't you? Dixon---who is delightfully Irish---simplified the whole micro-organic world into "the bugs get in through the cut and etc."---and it has stuck. He---Dixon---is now a very energetic Quartermaster. Some Quartermaster, I tells yer. If any other unit can be robbed to feed the 6th Field Ambulance I'll back him to rob it. And if any other unit is out to rob us---as of course they are---in this highly adaptable army---he'll scotch 'em. if any one can. Of course war hath her victories and the other side---the other unit---must come off best sometimes.
(Aeroplane over head.)
The funny thing is we never mention or think of the gentlemen the other side of the firing line. Supplying them with shells per rapid transit; watching them, shifting them here and being shifted by them there; is just our industry, our occupation. Our enemies are the fellows in the next barrack room who pinch our straw, the 5th Field Ambulance who dare to consider themselves our equals. The sergeants' mess is our mortal foe three days a week and our sworn ally the other three (I am assuming a dies non occasionally). We make war upon certain cliques---(Anglicé Clicks) and against certain cafés where they wont give more than 50 centimes for a 6d. bit.
That's us. We're a rum lot.
To his Wife.
I am very proud of the fact that I have managed to write five letters in the last seven days. Conditions are rather against letter writing at the best out here. Any way you won't get one now for three or four days, as we are off on a journey somewhere, leaving here tomorrow morning so don't worry if you don't hear from me for the best part of a week.
Journeys---our journeys---are always by round about routes to keep the main roads clear for the movements of motors etc and the main rails clear for the hasty movement of troops. We---(moving up more or less at our own time to depÙts) have to keep out of the way. It must be one of the most responsible tasks in modem war; keeping roads and rails free from obstruction. The whole 2nd London Division looks huge as you see it scattered over the countryside: one battalion in this village, another in that, artillery here, engineers there, but it is only one of some thousands (if the French official report is true, which of course it is) other such units all quartered in the North Western half of France. Imagine all of them left to go their own way to their next position. Imagine their huge supply trains and convoys of sick and wounded, each taking the road it thought best! I've seen the supply train for one Brigade (1/3rd of a Division) get off its course for ten minutes and the muddle that ensued and I'm impressed. Goethe saw the German and Exiled-Noble Army in a muddle and his description is very striking---it is of an army equal to about two divisions, modern, without motors or heavy guns.
I can't keep your letters and I feel there's something in one I have left unanswered. Always repeat unanswered questions---will you Dear?
The coinage hereabouts is amazing, not only British and French and Belgian with occasionally Swiss and Italian but also Indian quarter annas called "sous Indiens," English two shilling pieces called "pieces de vin'deu sous." Halfpence are just "sous." When we get into Germany I wonder if we shall drag the curious currency with us and mix it in turn with the pfennigs and marks. It's quite likely.
I feel very hopeful about getting things over soon now.
A lovely long letter from you. Thank you Darling. You've no idea how it cheers me. My Blessed Vallie---I'm so glad he is being good.
The parcel---fortunately---did not arrive with the letter. That saves me the trouble of carrying three tins of milk etc. on the journey tomorrow. I suppose it will greet me on arrival at our destination. Mater's friend sent me a whole pound of John Cotton! I shall be equipped with that and Lal's for a couple of months at least. I smoke more on some jobs than others. Cleaning out ancient stables is most expensive in tobacco.
The 6th Field Ambulance is the Ambulance of the 6th Brigade. Our Battalions are the 20th to 24th. I don't know if the censor will pass this. Still as you ask I will answer and leave it to him.
I simply must stop.
Heaps of love to you and all and to my Vallie---Bless him.
FRANCE, April 10th, 1915,
Absolutely my first opportunity to write since we left here (a draft of 20 of us) five days ago. We returned here---the Monastery---last night and I found your parcel (thanks very much) your long letter (thanks even more---I loved it) another from Mater and one from Mr. Chamberlain (of the tobacco) waiting for me.
I have had an amazing Easter: attached to a regular Field Ambulance (one of the old ones), half the time at the Main Station (which is also a French Hospital), the other half at the advance dressing station, only a few hundred yards behind the trenches. I have been in our first line trenches and seen German dead lying out between our barbed wire and theirs: poor heaps of wet clothes and mud. They had been there some time in a place equally inaccessible to either side.
The advanced dressing station was run by men who have been out here since the beginning; reinforced by drafts of ex-R.A.M.C. men from the Reserve. I was taken for a personally conducted tour of the dug-outs and trenches by a ginger moustached old sergeant with a D.C.M. who maintains in a strong Aberdonian accent that shrapnel is absolutely harmless. I have since seen three men newly struck by shrapnel and I disagree with him. On the other hand I have watched shrapnel bursting for a whole afternoon over the com-trenches and fields, across which reliefs were passing to and from the trenches---and going up later with stretchers I have heard No Casualties, and I can't help saying that shrapnel must be a very expensive way to take life. A shell burst in the back of the house wherein the advanced Dressing Station is, a few days before we arrived there. It smashed into the kitchen and exploded forward into the front room---the Officers' Mess. The kitchen happened to be empty and the officers were, by chance attending to a case in another room at the time. That sort of thing happens every day.
Of course I saw and experienced nothing very hot in the way of either rifle or shell fire---just the trench warfare of everyday of the month. We should have been in the commodious cellar and "funk holes" of the station if the shelling had developed into a serious bombardment. The men all slept in the cellar. We (five) elected to sleep above ground in a room next to the sergeants. Somehow their proximity made us feel that the danger wasn't so very great. The room was in the front of the house---the side remote from the German lines.
Shell fire is spectacular. Rifle fire is curiouseerie. The Germans "fire by the map," so our boys say. Their bullets have regular highways and byeways with a particularly pitted wall or a house corner converting most of them into blind alleys at last. I have stood with experienced old sergeants and men in the shelter of a wall and watched bullet after bullet hit the same brick in another wall a few yards away.
Firing by the map makes it equally possible to dodge by the map. The captain in charge took our lieutenant and myself across country as exposed as Widbrook Common, with bullets twinging like plucked telegraph wires across it. He seemed quite ---unconcerned and---between ducks---we emulated his manner. He picked a zig zag course avoiding the road altogether (a course I have since seen others pick across the same country) until---just where the fire seemed a shade too hot---he entered the communicating trench.
I have seen the Village of ----. I wish I could give you the name. I expected to find it a row of ruins flanking deserted lanes and roads.
I could not always distinguish roads from kitchens; estaminets from farm yards; interiors from exteriors. Not only was grass growing in the streets but in the paved floors of the houses, and where walls have been thrown down, their materials have been used to build other walls---barricades---across roads---rooms---yards and gardens---in one case across the railway, which occurred most surprisingly in what I thought was a large farm kitchen or outhouse, appearing under one such new battered-to-old-seeming wall and disappearing under another. Not only all this, but trenches and barbed wire entanglements which one associates unconsciously with exterior aspects, traverse street and roofless room and yard alike, joining cellar with cellar, until the whole village beyond the church is both maze and ruin.
The Church is the most amazing sight of all. Nothing remains of it but the high east end wall, the rest being sheared off at the window sills. This one huge pyramidal wall still stands clear white, supporting a super-life-size Crucifix. The village is absolutely deserted. Neither natives nor our men attempt to live there. One or two cellars are used as dugouts. The firing line runs a few yards outside it, and stray bullets tick little bits off it all day, while occasionally---as an observation post is suspected in this or that remaining wall---the Germans drop a few shells. My impression is that further bombardment can only simplify it. The present village with its constant imitations of a house turned inside out and exhibitions of railways and flowerbeds apparently on the wrong sides of the front doors is the last word.
I really must stop. Heaps of love.
FRANCE, April 15th, 1915.
The parcel arrived quite safe. The Walker's is exactly what I want---both for use and show. The Ideal is ideal. For goodness sake, keep me supplied with milk above everything. It makes the indifferent army tea quite palatable, and is moreover easily converted into fried bread or an early cup or an after dinner cup of really good cook's tea. A man with a tin of milk can go where he pleases and enjoy the best of everything. Men, to whom a tip of cash would be an insult (there are more than you think of such out here), can be bought body and soul for four drops from the can. The Germans with their characteristic lack of insight have not realized this. For Heaven's sake keep it dark!
This should be a letter to Mater but I am not quite sure where she is. You will let her see it as soon as possible, won't you dear? The poor Censor has groaned and the Lord has heard him and we are now limited to one letter a day. I am glad. I used to lie awake pitying the poor man who had to wade through all our effusions. Some of the fellows used to write half a dozen in a day---at the expense of uncleaned boots, unwashed teeth, in fact all the important private duties of a soldier on A.S. undone. You've no idea the time these things take under the conditions we have to do them under. The poor pumps of this neighbourhood are quite inadequate to our requirements and we wash, coram populo, in the neighbouring brooks.
You ask what is the most striking feature of the country under war. It is easy to answer: its peacefulness. Where I am sitting now is not twenty miles from the firing line. A more peaceful Sunday morning scene can hardly be imagined. I am on a wall between a garden and a farmyard. The garden, it is true, is a bit gone to pieces and our incinerator and rubbish pit sear it slightly---but we had these things in peaceful England; and they do not suggest the proximity of war. Flowers are growing this spring like every other, both in the garden and in the fields away to my left. Larks and other birds are singing. That is what you've got to remember if you want to visualize the front as it is. One takes for granted trenches, horse lines, ruined villages, great and small guns, khaki and grey dead, barbed wire, smoke and noise along the black wriggley line that the "Daily Mail" and Co. trace across their maps to show where our front is. You must convince yourself that there are skylarks above the sand dunes near Ostend, just as there used to be, pigeons in ruined Louvain, early butterflies in the air among the bullets, crows and rooks around Ypres, and Rheims, daisies growing among the Jack Johnson holes at Neuve Chapelle, violets in the ruins of Givenchy, primroses at La Bassée and so on. Nature carries on business as usual. I am just beginning to realise it on the little I've seen, and what is true here must be true all along the line.
I had a nasty spell last Monday, stood by at a long (hour and a half) operation on the skull and brain---trephining it is called. I nearly fainted twice but pulled myself together and went back as soon as I had got a breath of fresh air and a drink of water outside the room. The blood did not affect me at all. The infernal snoring and groaning of the poor devil under the anaesthetic seemed to hypnotise me. Moreover the room was very hot and I was holding a bowl of Methylated spirit---the smell from which is no help to a faint-feeling man.
It was touch and go with the man. A piece of shell and some fragments of hat had penetrated the skull. After the operation hope was expressed that he would be only paralysed. The next morning he was reading "Punch"! I felt better than I've felt for years when I saw him holding the paper in both hands.
The surgeons and doctors here are first class and, outside rush times when the cases come in in dozens, a man stands as good a chance here as he would in England. It's the minor cases in their earlier stages that don't stand so good a chance of quick recovery. Boils, sore throats, tonsilitis and co. do not receive the careful treatment we gave them at Hatfield.
I have only heard of two cases of cerebro spinal, none of typhoid. Disease seems to be well in hand. It is early to crow, though. The men everywhere make a hobby of getting clean even if they cannot keep so.
Your second parcel! Oh yum yum, Warren's Chocolate is it, why did I never taste it before? The cake too! I wish postage were lower, I'd ask for more.
Love to both your houses.
To his Son.
FRANCE, April 17th, 1915.
DEAREST LITTLE BOY.
How are you? Did you get my last letter? Mummy wont answer about it. She tells me that you are behaving beautifully. I am so glad to hear it. I've got your photo in the pretty frame with Mummy's tucked in behind you and every morning I say "Good morning Vallie" to it and every night I say "Good night." You look so jolly you quite cheer me up-but oh! I do so want to see you your real self, my baby.
When the War's over and I come home, Vallie, we'll have such a time. We'll get up early and get the breakfast all on our own and go for walks, and I'll take you to the theatre. I hope there'll be some fairies like the gold ones---do you remember?
The weather is getting hotter here. It hasn't rained today. Last night your Doody went for such a funny ride on an army waggon to a town a few miles away to fetch two motor bikes. It was very dark and all the people had gone to bed. Nobody was out except just us and our horses and a big railway that never goes to sleep but keeps on chu-chuing all night with supplies and troops, and sometimes a hospital train, taking away wounded from the front, where our men are biffing into the Germans and hoping---like me---to get it all over and get home to their little boys.
To his Wife.
FRANCE, April 19th, 1915.
Don't you worry about bullets, dear. My visits to the danger zone look like being few and far between and only at such moments as the danger is at a minimum. We don't take part in charges and countercharges in the R.A.M.C. and it is in these real operations that the casualties occur.
Oh my dear, I do wish you could have heard and seen the first evening I spent in the (more or less) sergeants' mess at that Advanced Dressing Station! There were only two sergeants in it, but the old nobility of the little party had acquired the habit of taking their evening tot of rum with them round a stove in the "dispensary"; one of the uninjured front rooms of the house, uninjured only comparatively you understand. There were no windows of course, and the ceiling had fallen in places on the occasion when a shell had smashed up the kitchen and officers' mess---both kitchen staff and officers being, by the merest chance, out at the time. There was also an improvised chimney through the wall, the actual chimney being out of action. In spite of this improvisation, the smoke from the stove, which they fed very generously with wood from a deserted timber yard near by, slowly filled the room and limited each sitting of the little parliament to about an hour and a half, by the end of which time, the strongest having given in, the weaker vessels accompanied him to the front door to watch the star shells light up the country opposite, and recover from their partial asphyxia.
I sat out two of these sittings. The elder of the sergeants lolled at ease in a comfortable chair one leg either side of the stove (the stoves hereabouts stick well out into the room). He was suffering from a carbuncle on his neck and wore a white bandage like a stock round his throat, gray shirt open at neck; usual khaki rather dirty; ragged red moustache and hair and a weather beaten face surrounded by an Aberdeen accent. That is my everlasting impression of him. A queer, clean, well bred little man whose lack of moustache made him look almost cherubically boyish, leaned most of the time over the back of his chair and punctuated his remarks, when they waxed a shade too preposterous, by offers to re-dress his neck or apply a hot fomentation.
He was a curiously acute young man, this last, very blasé. Everyone liked him and he seemed to like everybody---(I believe in these old parties that have been together since the first months one should say that the men love each other. You at home still associate love with demonstrativeness, though goodness knows why, and would think I mean they go on like Brutus and Co. whereas I really mean they feel towards each other as members of a family feel towards each other). Help! What a digression. They all seemed to like the blasé young man, leave it at that. I will continue this description in my next.
To his Mother-in-law.
April 20th, 1915.
If you want to hear from me occasionally you've got to write to me and keep up your end of the correspondence. I can't tell you what treasures letters are out here. They cheer one for a whole day of depressing work---and this is depressing work, you know, quite apart from being carried on under all the depressing circumstances of discomfort, homesickness, and exile---to say nothing of monotony of food which I feel more than I ought to. Our food is quite good, but oh it is unpalatable and monotonous!
I am rather unlucky this week doing two guards in the week. That means two nights up without corresponding days in, as compensation. I am also pack store keeper---a beastly job which I hate. Present state of book shows several shirts lost and many pairs of pants risen from nowhere to daunt me. It doesn't look military, does it? Fancy worrying about shirts with guns ever booming a few miles away, and hostile aeroplanes spying out our drying ground every fine evening. Still it's done---even under fire, unless you happen to get hit and then all responsibility ceases. This is again curious.
To his Mother.
April 22nd, 1915.
MY DEAREST MATER,
I'm sorry not to have written to you for so many days, but I haven't. known where to find you. You would have had a letter had I known.
Our section has taken over duties this week. Two of the four Corporals have celebrated the occasion by "going cooky," otherwise declaring possession of one or more lice and being quarantined in the scaby ward. I started the week as corporal in charge of latrines and general fatigues---a job I like as I can in it make myself mildly objectionable on the subjects of cleanliness and sanitation. After two hours of it however I was made pack store keeper, vice Corporal Walker gone cooky. One hour later the Corporal of the guard went ditto, and I am now combining pack stores and guard. It's going to be a beastly tie I can tell you.
Pack store keeper is supposed to take charge of all effects of patients admitted to hospital, and to see to the washing of whatever needs washing among those effects. I wish he had power to decide what needs burning.
Most of our patients are quite unambitious in their ailments: the usual boils, scabies, bad heels, etc., being nearly half their number. Somehow though, these minor ills seem to make menusually clean---careless of the interior of their knapsacks and haversacks, and the accumulation of old socks, bits of bread, letters, buttons and fragments of tinned beef at the bottoms thereof are very distressing.
Good news is very sparingly dealt out, isn't it? I suppose we shall sooner or later get through the Dardanelles, sweep the Bosches from Belgium, recapture " ---- " (our own particular hobby hereabouts is the recapture of " ---- "), and I suppose one of these days the steady weakening of Germany will make her a little too weak to hold off the rest of the world. I wish it would hurry up though. I have no hope of seeing any of you this summer-unless I come home before the war is over---a contingency which, curiously enough would not please me---unless it were only for a few days leave. Of course that I would like most awfully. Oh, for a few days every other month!
Must conclude this letter. It has been written in spells of half a dozen lines at a time between jobs.
God bless you all. My love to Dennis---can he talk any yet? ---wait a minute.
Wow! I was called by an enthusiastic washerman to view the dead lice on a patient's shirt after boiling! Like Queen Victoria "We are not amused." Lice, my dear, lice, not fleas or bugs. Ugh!
By the way, Crawfords do an awfully good box of biscuits for sending to the front. It is---I regret to say-called "The Hero Box," but other people like its contents. Such a box every now and then would go very well. The biscuits are just the rich and fancy sort we long for.
Letters from France, continued
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