Letter Thursday 10th December: Outterstene
I have not had much chance to tell you anything about the War in the last letters I sent you as the Officer had to read them. I will tell you as much as I can in this one as I am going to put it inside a small parcel I am going to send you.
In the first place I am very sorry I did not know I was going to come to this place when we left Ypres. If I had known I would have brought all the Souvenirs I had there with me. I didn’t know where we going, I thought we were moving to another part of the firing line but as the Germans got “fed up” trying to take Ypres they sent us back for a rest. The first we have had since we landed in this country.
We cannot carry much with us when we move from place to place the only thing I had left when I landed here were this German mug, a Pocket Lamp and a knife I got off one of the Kaiser’s Guards at Ypres. I am also sending one French cartridge, one English cartridge and one German. I will also send you all the rest of the Countries engaged in this war when I send you some good Souvenirs.
I will also try and send you one of the Dum-Dum bullets the Germans are using. I had one but lost it. I also had a helmet belonging to a German officer but I left it at Ypres as I did not know I would have the chance to send it on to you. I will send on plenty when we go back to the firing line which I think won’t be long now but I may tell you, Tom, I am only sending this small parcel to see if it will really go home, if it does not it won’t be much lost.
There I also some German money, one or two Mark notes- a mark is worth 1/1d, two marks 2/2d and so on but as it is paper money I don’t think it will be handy as a souvenir till I send you some good ones. There is also a German penny and half-penny, not much, but you can give them to anybody you like as souvenirs. I will send you all some good souvenirs as soon as I can. I only want to see if this parcel will reach home.
I wish to tell you Tom that nearly every letter I have sent home to you I sent home by one of the wounded. If I sent it through the ordinary way one of my Officers would have to read it and if I said anything about the war he would burn the letter as it is not allowed.
When I sent you the last letter, I said very little about the War as you would see. I also sent one to Jim Pye. I have just heard that it was burned as Jim asked me to let him know if I needed anything. More as a joke than anything else I said the thing we needed most out here was Keating’s Powder. If Jim has not got my letter it was burned for saying that, so you can see we are not allowed to write much, if we send them through the proper quarter. If there is a way to get a letter home without it being read, I will find it out. Trust a holeborer to find a back way out.
Speaking about Keating’s Powder what I said in a joke is really quite true. We try our best but we cannot keep ourselves clean. We have shifted our shirts every day but we still get them. You would laugh if you saw us sitting with our shirts off searching for them. We often take our shirts off and stand where thousands fall, and Tom I am not joking, but what can we do. If I was to put on a clean shirt today it will be as bad as ever tomorrow, but that is nothing if that was all we would be well off.
I will now try and give you some idea of what is happening here. We left the Aisne on the 16th of October and the French Terriers took over our Trenches. We came right up to St. Omer by train after passing through Paris. All the British Army came up to Belgium where we (The 1st Division of the 1st Army Corps.) joined forces with the 7th Division which had retired from Ostend.
In the first place an Army Corps is composed of 2 Divisions. The 1st Army Corps is composed of the 1st and 2nd Divisions. A Division is composed of 3 Brigades and each Brigade is composed of 4 Regiments and a Field Ambulance.
The 1st Division is composed of the 1st , 2nd and 3rd Brigades and we belong to the 3rd so we are called 3rd Field Ambulance.
The 2nd Division is composed of the 4th , 5th and 6th brigades and so on.
I don’t know if I have made this plain enough but you can work it out for yourself. Well, we of the 1st Division advanced in the direction of Brouges but when we came to Langemark on the 21st October we were not strong enough to drive the Germans back, so we just had to hold our own. We did so till there was word that the Germans were going to try and retake Ypres.
The French relieved us at Langemark on the 25th and we marched to Ypres to defend that town as the Germans were throwing the pick of their army against it. The most of the British troops were entrenched about that town.
It was here I saw for the first time the great naval commander Samson and his armoured car.
Part of our Ambulance took over a training school for boys, which was on the east side of town, (the side nearest the trenches) and made it into a Hospital. The remainder of us formed an Advance Dressing Station 500 yards behind the trenches. We in the Advanced Dressing Station collected the wounded and at night when it was dark the wagons came up and took the wounded from us. They took them to our other hospital where they were taken by Motor Ambulances to the train.
We stuck to our Advanced Dressing Station till our troops had to retire back a little to take up a better position.
All the time the Germans were shelling Ypres and we were 3 miles nearer the Germans than the town. Our other hospital was a half a mile nearer the Germans than the town and yet the German’s big shells were setting all the houses on fire. We even had some people who had stayed in the town all through the war in our hospital wounded and some were living in the cellars under our hospital.
In one house a man, his wife and two children were killed outright. The sister and brother of the wife, who were also in the house, were not touched but the brother was ill and we had to carry him to our hospital and send him off in the Motor Ambulance.
That was some of the sights when the Germans started to shell Ypres but the people had to leave and then the Germans knocked the town to blazes. There was not much of the town left when we passed through it coming back here.
To go back to our Advanced Dressing station we had 3 of our men of the 3rd field Ambulance killed then. That is 5 men we have had killed and 11 wounded since the start of the war. Our ambulance is about 150 strong, 90 Bearers and the remainder for what is called a Tent Section. We, the Bearers go out and collect the wounded and the Tent Section nurse and operate on as many as they can till they taken away clear of the firing.
In this road outside Ypres nearest the Germans, 6 Divisions of British troops had taken up position and all the wounded and food and everything else had to use this road. I can tell you it was a job to get up and down that road in the dark. It was impossible in day time owing to shells dropping, but it was as bad at night with snipers.
6 Divisions would normally mean 18 Field Ambulances but all the other 17 were sent away back clear to Ypres. Our Ambulance was left to do their work because we had a fine big place for keeping the wounded in till the Motor Ambulances could get up to take them to the train. Don’t think I am complaining about doing all the work, it was an honour for us and the 3rd time No.3 Field Ambulance has been mentioned in dispatches. It was hard work while it lasted but it saved other Ambulances from risking a lot more lives.
General French inspected us here on the 1st of December and told us we had made a name for the R.A.M.C. as we had stuck to our hospital through the worst part of the siege of Ypres even when half of the hospital was blown to pieces. In one day alone we had 700 wounded and for the 21 days we were there we had an average of 400 per day. Some work there for hardly 200 men and we went out and collected them, brought them in the wagons to our hospital and dressed them, operated on as many as possible and loaded them into Motor Ambulances. We had about 1 hours sleep in every 24 all the time we were there, so as General French told us we had earned our rest and as there were plenty of ambulances to relieve us we were sent back here.
The worst was over by that time. Our troops had beaten the Kaiser’s best soldiers. We had a great many Prussian Guards wounded in our hospital. We also had the London Scottish in our hospital. Nearly every regiment out here went through our hands but we are getting a good rest now.
We have been in this quiet little village from the 18th of November. We left Ypres on the 17th and marched here. It is about 28 kilometres or 17 1/2 miles south of Ypres. It is about 6 miles into France from the Belgian frontier and about 10 miles from the firing line. We can still hear the big guns.
The King and the Prince of Wales passed through here on the 3rd of December; we lined the roads and gave them a good cheer.
Things are quiet about here just now. We are all waiting for something to turn up. There are very few of the British troops in the firing line just now. They are all lying back here in reserve. They reckon about 90,000 British troops are here. You see we stuck to the firing line until the enemy was spent, then our troops were able to dig good trenches and then handed them over to the French. We lost a great lot of men as we could not get a chance to dig proper trenches earlier but the trenches were like houses before we left, so there is very little killed or wounded now.
We have lost a terrible lot of Officers and the young ones that have come out to take their place are just as brave but have not the experience the ones we lost had.
We have all got the fur coats here. We are like a lot of wild beasts. We all have plenty of clothes, under clothing, boots and everything like that. I also have plenty of tobacco, so have all the boys here. So we have nothing to complain of but the different places we have to sleep in makes us well (lousy) but we won’t be long in getting rid of them when we come home.
Some of our officers have been home on leave since we came to this village but there is not much chance of us getting home for a day or two, until it is all over.
You were saying in your letter the Russians would be the first in Berlin. Don’t be too certain of that tom. We might be there just as quick as them once we get the Germans on the run. If we had more men we would have been there by this time.
I may say I started from the capital of Scotland; Edinburgh went through London going to Aldershot, passed through the capital of France- Paris and we are going through the capital of Belgium then Berlin so I will have a fine tour. However I don’t think the Russians or us either will get to Berlin. I think it will come to a stop just as sudden as it started but we will just have to wait and see.
You were also saying Martin Williams is in Le Havre but unless he is sent up to the firing line I won’t have much chance of seeing him but I am always looking out to see if I can see anyone I know. You can bet I won’t let anybody pass me if I know him. I am sorry I have not seen anything of Jack McDonald or any Boys from the Kingston. I don’t know what Division McDonald is in but if I do come across him I will let you know.
I am glad the class is going well. I wish it every success and will try and get some good souvenirs for the next competition. I should have liked to have seen your turn-out on Flag Day, I bet it was good. I may say we don’t sing Tipperary now, we use the same air but different word, and here it is:
It’s a long way to go to London
It’s a long way to go,
It’s a hard job to land in London
As the German Emperor knows,
Goodbye German Empire,
Farewell Kaiser Bill,
If you don’t know the way to St. Helena,
You jolly soon will.
I think this is a long letter and it will take you some time to read it and make it out. Excuse the bad writing and the very bad spelling for I never was a good scholar but if you can make it out that is the main thing.
I was very sorry to hear about Jim Pye. I hope he is keeping better. I won’t forget him and you all the rest of the boys for what you have all done for me. Accept my best thanks and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and as happy a New Year as you can have under the present circumstances. I hope we will all be back at work before the next one.
You were asking me if I needed anything special, Tom I don’t know how to thank you but there is nothing I need. I have plenty of clothes, boots and tobacco. The only thing I would like is a tin of Cocoa and a little sugar for which I would be very thankful. You see we are all going to get a smoking outfit off Princess Mary for Xmas. If we had half the tobacco or cigs we have now on the retirement from Mons we would have been happy.
The only thing we can complain about here now is the weather. We have had snow and frost here but it is all mud-mud everywhere. Now I don’t know what more I can say but will be able to tell you more about it all when I come home.
I hope you will get this letter and parcel alright.
From your Friend,
P.S. Unless Tom, you could send some of the “hard stuff” in a flask, as a bottle would break, we would not have a drop for the “Old Year Out and the New Year In”