Letter 1st April: Bethune
I received your welcome letter and parcel all right and don’t know how to thank you for your kindness. You have been very good to me since I came out here nearly eight months ago, and I hope to live to come home and thank you one and all for doing what you have done for me.
I am very glad to say that I enjoyed the contents of the flask all right; also the other luxuries as well for they are luxuries out here. We don’t always get what the papers say we do, though we are very well fed for an Army at War.
Some days we get plenty of food while on others we have to live on biscuits.
Of course, it is not the Government’s fault. Just to give you an idea. We have a Hospital at Bethune, our Stretcher Bearers are at La Coutre (that is about 6 miles nearer the Firing Line) and as I write this I am on what we call an advance post. We have one Motor Ambulance stationed here along with two Bearers to assist us. If any serious cases arise they are taken to hospital at once, but if not serious they are kept here till 10 o’clock in the morning when the rest of the cars come up and clear away all the sick and wounded that have gathered in the Dressing Stations during the previous 24 hours.
Well, our food supplies go to the Hospital in Bethune, there they take what they think is their share and send the remainder on to us at La Coutre. Here we do the same and send the balance on to the men nearest the Firing Line. So you see that the nearer one gets to the Firing Line the less food one gets. It should really be the opposite way about.
Well, Tom, this outpost we are on is only one-half to three-quarters of a mile away from Neuve Chapelle. The 1st Division has relieved the Division which made the great charge and took that place.
I don’t think I will call it a village; it might have been one but not now, our artillery has smashed it all up. It is a terrible sight. We are not a mile and a half in front of it, though I saw in the papers that we are. Our front line of trenches is only three or four hundred yards in front of Neuve Chapelle. We were a mile and a half but the Germans are now in the wood that the Indian Troops charged through that day.
As far as I can make out, from the men in the trenches our Brigade relieved, this is a true statement of affairs. The Artillery shelled the German trenches and village and at a certain time, the Infantry were to advance and take the first line of trenches. The Artillery were then to lengthen their fire on to the second line of trenches. Everything was to work by time, but whether our men were too eager to get at the Germans or the Officers lost their heads, I don’t know. As far as I can make out the Infantry took the ground that was to have taken three hours, in three-quarters of an hour. The result being that our Artillery were dropping shells on our own men. Also, the Infantry being so quick in doing its work, the Cavalry was two hours late. Therefore we lost a terrible lot more men than should have been the case had everything gone well. We did very well, however.
I was over the ground the other day and through Neuve Chapelle- at the risk of my life. I was trying to get a Helmet or two for you boys at home. I am very sorry I did not get anything worth sending home. I saw one or two lying in pools of water in the trenches the Germans had been driven out of but as they had no badges I did not bother with them. I picked up two 13lb shells the Germans had fired at our troops as they entered Neuve Chapelle. I am going to send them home and hope you will have them as soon as this letter.
I don’t know if I will manage it, you were saying in one of your letters that the Government was stopping everything being sent home but I have been making enquiries and have been told they are stopping the troops from sending home French souvenirs but not German ones.
These shells are full of shrapnel and they are timed to burst in the air. The nose of the shell blows off and the shrapnel spreads out in front but if it hits a house or anything else it bursts all up and the shell is blown to bits, so I was very lucky to pick up these two. I am also glad I was not there when they burst.
I am sending them on to you, Tom and if the boys would like to keep them in the Ambulance Room I will also try to get a German Rifle and Bayonet and a helmet if I can possibly get them home. There are also some German Cartridges and clips inside one of the shells. I had, of course, to take the charge out of them before I could send them off. There is also a dart which the French Airmen use; I received it from one of them; they drop thousands of these darts when they come across any German infantry close together.
I want to give you an idea of how brave our Officers are. On this outpost, the other day we were sitting having our dinner when a shell burst just the other side of the road. Someone shouted there is somebody hit so we left our dinner and rushed out into the road. A shell had burst about 10 yards up the road making a hole in the ground 4 yards wide and 2 yards deep. An English Officer (attached to the Indians) and two Indians were in the hole. One Indian was dead, the other dying and the officer had both legs blown off.
You might not believe this but he stood on one stump and pulled up the other one, had a look at it, did the same with the other one, and then told us to look after the other two first.
There were only 3 R.A.M.C. men near hand, with our motor driver, but with the assistance from the 4th Seaforths we got them out of the hole and after doing the best we could with the field dressings we had, we took the Officer and one man to hospital. As we were dressing him up on the road side the Officer-both legs clean off, one at the knee the other just below- looked down at his stumps and said: “This will spoil my football.” He kept himself up well and did everything he could to assist us. You would hardly think such a thing possible but it is true. I only hope he will pull through. Everybody present, soldiers and all, talked about him and the way he took it.
This place is a small farm house, on the main road from Estairs to La Basse about a half mile from Neuve Chapelle. Our Engineers have made a small wooden railway from this farm which runs across the field right through Neuve Chapelle to the trenches. There are little wooden trucks which the troops shove along. All the rations are taken up to the trenches in these trucks at night and we are using them for bringing down the wounded.
They had to do this as the Germans had the road what they call “taped”. The men call it Suicide Point, shells drop on this road every few minutes. Of course, it is dangerous on the railway too, but it is not so big a mark for the enemy’s fire. Only last night one chap taking the rations up was shot through the stomach. We rushed him down to hospital but I don’t think there is much hope for him.
We get a laugh now and again; the men call the railway the Grand Trunk. When the mail bag came up last night for the men in the trenches, one chap dropped it in one of the trucks and off he went up to the trenches saying he was the Flying Scotsman, and he looked it too; he had a kilt on.
We heard a few big shells pass over our heads and knew by the direction they burst that they were not far off from our Bearers at La Coutre, so when we were taking down some wounded- we have to pass through La Coutre- they told us the shells had dropped in the house next to them killing two artillery men and wounding four.
As our outpost is 4 miles nearer the Firing Line you can see that even men 4 or 5 miles from the trenches are killed. Of course, if you are within “reach” of the guns, you are in what would call the firing line and sometimes the furthest back get the most shells at them; especially if lying near the artillery.
That just reminds me, the artillery were telling me they have more guns up here than when we made the last attack. We have seen the guns coming up every day- Long Toms too as I expect there will be another big affair here shortly.
I do not know if I have ever mentioned in my last letters about Ambulance work here. We very seldom carry the stretcher the way we were taught; we usually carry it on our shoulders, four men to each stretcher and for dressing wounded we have just to put on the wounded man’s first field dressing. I have used mine over and over again when a man has been wounded in two or more places. As far as first aid is concerned I have forgotten a lot. You see Tom, it is the rough and ready sort of business out here and get the wounded away from the Firing Line as quickly as possible- to hospital of course.
When they get to hospital, which is often under shell fire, they are operated upon if necessary. When we had that big run of wounded to our Hospital in Cuinchy- 429 in one night we had five doctors working (under shell fire) that night and they performed 205 operations, smart work!
I hope Bob Wyse received the letter I sent home with my chum; I did not manage to put into it all I should have liked. I had to write it in a big hurry as my chum was waiting to go off but as he told me you will all have a read of this one, I wish to let him know I had a good laugh at some parts of his letter about “Johnny Walker”. He will know when he sees that I enjoyed his letter all right.
I hope to have a go at some of the competition papers when I come home and hope to give the boys some of the kind we have had out here. I also received the copy of the “Express” from Bob and after reading the report, which I think was very good, I had a good laugh at the police court cases.
I don’t know if I can say any more just now but will send this home with the first wounded man I run into at the Hospital. I don’t care about sending letters through the Censor; he would scratch out half of this one. You can hand it to Bob, he is the Censor at present. It is a very good idea duplicating these letters as it saves me a lot of worry now seeing he will put any of my mistakes right, though it will take him some time. I often wondered what the boys would say when they tried to read some of my letters. They would be wondering if I had written them in my sleep. I hope you will pass this letter on to my censor.
I am also sending a photo. I don’t know if I will be able to get more than one or two as the man who took it is a Priest and did it as an obligement, so we cannot ask him to make a dozen or two for us. It is a photo of four of our cars (we have seven in our ambulance) and all the drivers and wagon orderlies. Some cars have two drivers but I am on a car with the Corporal of the Drivers and there are only two of us on that car; it is the one on my right-hand side as I stand in the photo. This photo was taken a few days ago when we were resting in Bethune. I hope to send one on in a day or two and will send it to the Censor. I don’t know if I will manage anymore but will try. You see Tom, I don’t know who to send things to, you boys at home have all been so good to me, but I will do my best for you all.
I also wish to thank your boy for his pipes; they were not broken. I am using one myself and have given the rest to the boys and they are now “swanking it” with them, as a clay pipe is something out of the common in the Firing Line. But I don’t think they will stand long if a shell comes over and we run for cover. I expect they will get broken.
I have also to thank Jimmy Pye for his “deoch an doris”. There were four of us and it made a fine nightcap.
Tell all the boys I was asking for them. Will now close.
If you hear anything about another attack near Neuve Chapelle you will know I am there this time.
Give my love to everybody.
From you old friend, Jimmy.