Letter 20th March: Bethune
I am taking the chance of writing you a few lines as one of my old chums (Bob Farrell) out here is going home to Aldershot; him and I have been chums out here, as we were also chums in the Black Watch before we transferred to the R.A.M.C. He is transferred to the Royal Engineers as a Signaller. They want all the Signallers they can get for the New Army.
Well Bob, at present I am in Bethune, though I am not supposed to tell you this. We have just come in after being relieved at Richebourg and Festubert by No. 2 Field Ambulance. We were collecting the wounded from the whole of the 1 st Division.
We were at Richebourg when the 3rd and the 8th Divisions took Neuve Chapelle. If you look at the map you will see we are not far from it.
The 1st Division were told not to advance that day just to hold on as there is a great amount of water in front of the 1st Division trenches.
All the guns, large and small, round about us were going like hell that day the noise was terrible! We could hardly hear ourselves talking. It lasted for eight hours all told.
Some of the 2nd Division attacked at Cuinchy but received a terrible cutting up- mostly the 1 st King’s Royal Rifle Corps. They got caught in the wire in front of the German trenches. I don’t expect you would see that little bit in the papers. They lost over 200 killed and wounded and did not manage to advance at all.
They had to come back to their own trenches, what was left of them, and the wounded were left in front of the German trenches. The Germans threw petrol bombs at them and burned them-that is the truth, how they treated our wounded that day-that was on the 10th of this month.
Things have been very quiet since then. We have only had a few wounded each day or night.
I will try and give you an idea of how we have been working it this last month. When we came from the rest camp Labouvriere we made a school in Bethune our Hospital. As we were to work the whole Division (the other two Ambulances were still resting) we had two cars at Festubert, one all day at Richebourg and another on all night. The other two cars were at Essars, as were our billets. Richebourg and Festubert are under shell fire from the Germans but Essars is safe.
As I am now orderly on one of the cars that we have in our Ambulance, I have always to be with my car and we had one day at Festubert bringing the wounded from the Dressing Stations of the 3rd Brigade to Bethune.
We had always to be ready there; if a serious case turned up then we rushed him down to the hospital in Bethune the next day.
We were on duty all day or all night at Richebourg bringing the wounded from the 1st Brigade to Bethune but the next night we had a night off at Essars. We carried that on all the time we have been up here, but taking it all over, things have been very quiet here except for one or two days when the Artillery rattled it into the Germans.
We are back now for a day or two for a little rest as our Division is coming out of action in a day or two.
I don’t know the next part of the firing line we will be going to, but I hope it won’t be long before we are there again. It is more dangerous work, but it is better than being back for a rest. It is no rest at all-harder work than when we are in the firing line and the excitement of it there passes the time.
I don’t expect there will be many more rests before it is finished, as the good weather is coming in, and we will have to start and drive the Germans back.
Though Bob, we are going to lose a terrible amount of lives yet and the sooner the people of Great Britain make up their minds to lose those lives, the sooner the war will be finished.
I might be one of those lives, and if I am I can’t help it, though I think I am one of the lucky ones and hope to be one of the lucky ones till the finish.
Don’t forget Bob, we have the Germans beaten in a sense but it will take time to drive them into Berlin. I think it will last the full twelve months, so expect the finish about the 5th of August. It might be before but I don’t think so.
At times, I would like to be in the trenches with a rifle with my old regiment, the Black Watch.
I once tried to get back to them out here but they said they need all the men they have for the Ambulance. It is a rotten job at times but somebody has to do it.
Just to give you an idea, when we are told we are wanted up at a Dressing Station, if at night, we have to make the car crawl up in the dark while a bullet or two whistles through the air, but very few shells come over at night. We get plenty of them through the day.
After we have the car turned around they bring out the wounded and put them in the wagon.
If they are serious I sit inside the car along with them and the cars have to crawl back about a mile till it is safe to light up. Sometimes I have four stretcher cases in the wagon, all delirious, trying to get off the stretchers at once.
One time I had to hold one of the Irish Guards down with all my might and he died before we got to the Hospital.
Other times it might only be slight cases, and then I sit beside the driver and give him a hand to make out the road in the dark. The drivers of these cars are only here about three months but they have had a good insight into what we have had to go through. They were telling me the people at home have no idea what it is really like out here but I told them there will be worse to come.
I have just heard our Artillery is going to bombard La Bassee tomorrow (Sunday) and I expect it will be like this all along now. They are not going to give them any rest. We will take La Bassee before long. It is an important junction of railways and we have lost a terrible amount of men trying to take it already.
I don’t know if I have any time to tell you more news just now, as my chum is going off, and I want him to post this letter in England.
Thank you for your kind letter and I hope you will be able to make this one out. I enjoyed reading your letter and you can copy this one out and give the boys a read. I hope they are all keeping well.
Thanks also for the Snap Shot, it is good. If I had a camera I could send you some nice Snap Shots but I am not a photographer. I can only describe what I see. I have always kept my Diary up to date, and try and put everything in it, But Bob, one man sees very little of this terrible war, he can only see what is happening where he is.
Glad to hear Jack McDonald has been made Sergeant.
I will now have to finish as my chum is waiting.
Thanks for the poems. Tell everyone I was asking for them.
Hope to write another letter soon
From your old pal, J. McF.
Excuse the writing in this letter as I was in a terrible hurry. Had a good laugh at Jack in your letter.
One thing more I saw Winston Churchill on the 30th of January about 200 yards behind the trenches at Cinchy, that is near La Bassee and have seen the Prince of Wales a few times in Bethune. I was to tell you this in my last letter.