Letter; 5th January, 1915.

Tuesday 5th January: Gorre

Dear Tom,

I received your welcome letter all right, for which I must thank you and Jim Roberts very much. You have all been the best of pals to me since this terrible war began and I hope I never shall forget you at all. I hope we shall remain the best of friends till the end.

I have one sorrowful statement to make. I know it will be a great disappointment to you and Jim as it was to me. After all your trouble and expense, the Thermos flask, when it reached me, was broken and not a drop remained in the bottle.

I daresay you would think that impossible, and I thought so too, after the way you had it packed. It could not have been better packed but in spite of all your care and trouble, not to mention expense, it was broken. The glass inside the flask was broken and the contents had run out. Some soaked into the sugar so when I tasted it I had the taste of Whisky. The box was not broken in any way, just somebody had dropped the box and the glass had got broken.

The Cocoa and sugar was all right. We have a cup or I should say canteen of it every night. It is very good in the cold weather we are having just now and it is a change from the tea we have for nearly every meal.

I may say Tom that the parcels coming from home get a terrible rough passage before we receive them. It would make you weep to see some of the parcels arriving out here. One of our chaps got a parcel from home yesterday and the only thing he actually received of it was the paper the parcel was rolled up in; the contents had been squeezed out of it. Yet my bed mate received an ordinary cardboard box with some bun inside and a half pint of whisky in an ordinary glass bottle rolled in paper and it arrived safe, so I had a drop of Scotch off him.

So you see, even the best-packed parcel got smashed to nothing while one that was badly packed arrived safe and sound. Very few arrive without being damaged in some way or other and some never arrive at all. Some take six weeks to come and some only six days.

We have had to put up with a great many disappointments in this war and one more or less won’t make much difference.

The only thing I am sorry for is it will be a disappointment to Jim and you after all the trouble and expense you were put to but never mind Tom. Tell Jim I wish to thank you and him for doing your best for a pal.

I am sending the flask home to Mrs McFarlane along with the Christmas gift we received from Princess Mary and the postcard we received from the King and Queen. I told her she might see if she can get the flask repaired. I don’t know if they can put a new glass inside it but she can see.

While I am on about parcels, in one of your letters you were telling me you had received my postcard telling you not to send any more tobacco as I had plenty. You said the postcard arrived too late as you had just told the man to repeat the order. I am not quite certain but I think that was what was in your letter. If that is so that is another parcel “gone west” for I have not received it. I received a 1lb tin from you and a quarter pound from Jim Pye, so if you sent me a second lot, it has gone astray. Not that I am in need of tobacco or cigarettes, I have plenty. We are well off for tobacco and cigarettes and have more than I can smoke in a month, thanks to everybody at home, also the Daily Sketch. This is just to let you know if you did send a second lot of tobacco I have not received it yet but if I have made a mistake, I don’t mean you to send on any more just yet.

When I do need anything like that I won’t be long in letting you know as I know you would wish me to do so, so I will finish talking about parcels.

I was going to stop writing about parcels but I have just looked at your letter again and you were asking if I had received a parcel from Walter Ferguson’s sisters. I am sorry to say I have not yet received it but as we have not received any mail for 3 days (I don’t know what is wrong) I might receive it any day and will let you know if I do. I received the Xmas present and expect Bob Wyse would let you see the letter I sent him; also Jim Pye. I sent both their letters back with the wounded so you will have an idea what like Xmas and New Year was just the same.

The German artillery is very quiet here. Our artillery is far superior to that of the Germans here, which has not often been the case in this war though you might have seen different in the papers. We often laugh when we read the papers out here and see some of the reports of the war.

The day after Christmas the Germans sent over six Coal Boxes to let us know that they were still alive and as usual two of the six dropped into our hospital or rather Advanced Dressing Station we have here. We had a good many sick and wounded in it at the time but none of them were injured. We were not so lucky, one of the drivers of our Ambulance Wagons was killed on the spot and one was wounded while an officer was wounded in the face; though not much. So you can see we are in the thick of it again.

We are about 2 miles from La Bassée. We relieved the Indians who have gone back for a rest. There has not been very many wounded, we are getting more sick than wounded as the trenches are knee deep in water though the papers often say different.

The only wounded we are getting are men going up to the trenches and being hit by snipers.

There is a terrible lot of sniping going on here. We have to watch ourselves when we are out and trust to luck.

We have some French civilians up here repairing the roads and they have made a good improvement but the country is terribly flat and they cannot run the water away. I am sorry to say three of the civilians were killed and two wounded by a shell, so you can see they had them very near the firing line.

We are sleeping in a bit of a school or what is left of it. There are no windows so you will know it is not very warm and no fire in it but we are all cheery and hoping for the end of the war.

You will remember in my last letter I was telling you about Ypres. Well, two of our N.C.O’s have received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for that affair. They don’t know what they received it for, neither do we, though we wish them luck. It is the old story of the army, the privates do all the work and the N.C.O.’s or the officers get the honour. We, the Bearers did the work at Ypres even going out without N.C.O.’s or officers but it is always the same. I think the men who ought to have got the D.C.M. should have been those who were killed in the Ambulance or rather their relatives.

I would like to tell you about a letter I saw in one of the papers about the troops at Christmas having lighted candles in front of the trenches and the Germans having the same. Also, it said they came out and shook hands with the Germans and exchanged buns and cigarettes and offered to play a football match. Well, Tom, take it from me, such letters are a lot of rot as far as the trenches here are concerned. We were up at the trenches on Xmas Eve about 8 and 9 o’clock and we were sniped at like anything. On Christmas day we were up there from 9 am till about 4 pm and we were sniped at all the time and if one of our men put his head above the trenches the Germans would have sent him to his long sleep Xmas or no Xmas.

So I think the men who wrote letters like that never were near a trench or some parts of the firing line were very different from here or any other place I have been in. Take my tip and don’t believe all the yarns you hear in the papers.

Of course, there are some jokes in the trenches such as getting up a ‘stookey’ man or something like that but for the rest well you can believe it if you like.

There is word of the 1 st Division going home after Kitchener’s Army comes out here but I don’t believe these yarns. I expect we will be out here to the finish. I don’t care one way or the other; I would like to see the finish so as to complete my diary.

I am just after reading a piece of poetry in “John Bull” of 24 th October about “Stick it, Welsh”. I remember the affair quite well. It was at the battle of the Aisne and the Welsh who are in our Brigade were holding a position that if the Germans had driven them back the whole of the 3rd Brigade would have been wiped out, our Ambulance along with it. But the Welsh stuck it; the Welshmen are good fighters. Almost all our Brigade are Welsh Regiments.

We cannot advance here owing to the country being flooded. If it were not for that we could advance easily as we know there are very few Germans holding the trenches in front of us.

One regiment of our Brigade charged one of the enemy trenches the other day and captured it. There were only half a dozen Germans in the trench and a machine gun. That will give you an idea of how many Germans are holding us back. Though we captured the whole of their trench we could not advance as we could not get our guns and heavy wagons along the roads; so we are stuck here.

We have had to pull men out of the mud who were up to their necks in it and had to cut the trousers off them and leave their boots and trousers sticking in the mud. It is no joke as we have to take these men to hospital as it destroys their nerves.

I have not much chance of getting many souvenirs till we start to advance. This is the quietest part of the firing line we have been in yet. When the roads dry up and Kitchener’s Army is out here, we won’t be long in advancing, then I will see what souvenirs the Germans have. I am trying to get a pair of Field glasses to send home and hope to be able to send all the boys a souvenir of this war. I won’t forget Mr Allan or Jim Roberts the next time I send anything home.

I am very glad the Class did so well in the Examination. I am always glad to hear about them all. I see Jim Rice’s was to the fore again, he is always there or there about. Tell him I am glad to see he is still keeping to the fore. Tell all the boys I was asking after them. I also hope the boys who joined Kitchener’s Army had a good time when they were home at the New Year. I hope to see some of them out here soon for the sooner they are out here; the sooner the war will be over.

They will find a difference out here in carrying a stretcher as it is impossible to carry it any distance in the hands. As for carrying it steady, well when you have to duck shells and move up and down in shell holes you can see the wounded have a rough passage but it cannot be helped. We do the best we can, four men, to a stretcher; we carry it on our shoulders as we have to carry it for two miles or more. We cannot put it down on the ground as the mud would go right over the stretcher. As for going over ditches, well we just wade right through them, so you have an idea what good drill is out here. Some days our shoulders are raw flesh but they are getting hard now with constant use.

You can tell Sam Miller I am getting on all right and was asking for him and Carson. Glad to see by your letter that Martin Williams is keeping better. I have never seen anything of Jack McDonald yet or any others of the Holeborers. If you hear anything of them let me know in your next letter.

Thanking you all once again for your kindness.

From your old friend,

J. McF.


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