Letter 21st June: Fouquieres
Dear Bob, Tom, and all the rest of the boys,
I am now taking the chance of answering your last letters. Your letters, Bob, are that good I wish I could write one-half as good; if you were beside me and put into writing what we see and hear out here, it would be a letter worth giving the boys.
I am sorry I am not a better writer or I could give a treat but I just do my best and be as plain as I can.
The first thing I want to say is that I wish all the boys who have either gone to the Dardanelles or come over here to Flanders-belonging to the class- the luck that has carried me through so far. I could not wish them more. Out here from the start, in action nine months and come through almost without a scratch. If that is not being in good luck, I do not know what good luck is.
You know what I mean, Bob. I wish them the very best of luck and hope they will all return safe and sound, and that we will all be able to have a chat together, and tell one another what the pen (in my case pencil) cannot write.
I am still keeping my Diary, but not being in the habit of doing so, I do not know the right way. I am, however, keeping a note of the names of places and what we do. I write each day’s doings each night or the following morning should we be out all night which is very often the case.
In one of my last letters, I referred to an officer of the Indian Engineers who behaved so heroically after had both his legs blown off. I am sorry to say he died. As you will know, Bob, the shock was too great.
I am very glad Tommy received the two shells all right; they were picked up about half a mile from where the officer fell. I had a few German Rifles and Rifle Straps then, but as you may know, nobody is allowed to send home a German rifle, but I could have sent a strap if I had known at that time. You can tell Jim I won’t be long in getting one the first time I come across any and will send it on. I will have something else to send on also as a Souvenir to yourself and Mr Allan. I am busy making them in my spare time, getting another man to do the soldering of the parts together. It is one of the French Air Darts, a German Cartridge, a German and English bullet, an English or French button and a French Souvenir on the front of a German Cartridge. They are made into a Paper Knife, and I hope you will accept it from me as a small return for the goodness you have done for me and mine. I hope before this is over to be able to give almost all the boys a souvenir of this Great War, and I also hope to thank them all personally when I come home, for what they have done for me in these trying times. I wish to thank yourself and Jim Pye for what has been done for my wife. I cannot say what I would like to say but will try and tell you if ever I come home from this hellish affair.
The last letter I sent, if you remember was written on 8th May, and we were then at a place called Richebourg St. Vaast. I told you in that letter we were to make an attack on Sunday morning. Well, that attack started about 5 am. We of the 3rd Field Ambulance had formed a receiving Station about a mile and a half behind the trenches. The artillery was grouped around us, and when they opened the bombardment we could not hear ourselves speak. We made ready to receive the wounded, and our C.O. wanted to get further up, but the General would not allow our Motor Ambulance to do so as all the roads had to be kept clear for the Ammunition Column. This made it all the harder for us as we had all the further to carry the wounded to the Receiving Station where the Ambulances were, and to do even that we had to make use of all the bye-roads, as the main roads had to be kept clear. You will understand, Bob, that Ammunition comes first, then Reinforcements and after that the Wounded. It makes our work all the harder, but it is the way in warfare.
After about one and three-quarter hours, the guns stopped for a minute and then started again. That was the time our Troops made their attack. Two Regiments of the 3rd Brigade and two of the 2nd Brigade, the remainder were in support. The four regiments were the Munsters and South Welsh Borderers of the 3rd Brigade and the Northern Lancashires and Kings Royal Rifles of the 2nd Brigade.
Well, to tell the truth, it was a failure. The four regiments were cut to pieces before they reached the first line of trenches. The Munsters suffered the most, having only one Officer left when they came back. To give you an idea, in front of our trenches, between ours and the enemy’s there was a bit of a ditch or small canal about 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep over the surface; for about 2 feet above the water barbed wire was stretched. Some of the charging party had to carry wooden bridges to lay across this, and, as far as I could find out, all the time our shells were bursting in the German Trenches, the Germans were lying safe in deep dug-outs behind them. When the guns shifted on to their second line of trenches, the Germans ran back to their first trenches so that when our troops charged the enemy was lying in wait for them.
One man, who was in the first charge, told me the Germans were lying over their trench waving their arms and shouting “Come on, we are waiting for you”, and they fairly pumped it into our chaps. The attack was stopped but the guns continued, and while this was going on, we had our hands full.
At 5.30 the wounded started to roll in. The car I am on was being used as a Dressing and Operating Room, and as there were plenty of doctors around it, I found work elsewhere. The other six cars belonging to our Ambulance took the wounded to Bethune as fast as we could dress and load them, but it was too much for us and extra cars had to be called from the other Ambulances of the Division-this was the 1st Division day, every man in the Division doing his bit.
When I saw there was plenty working round the car dressing and loading the other cars, I went off up to the firing line to assist the Bearers who were working hard carrying or assisting the wounded from behind the trenches down to our receiving Station. One of the first I assisted was the Best Man at my marriage. He had a nasty wound in the arm, cutting an artery. I took him down, dressed him and saw him off in one of the cars giving him a letter for Tommy Alcorn, which I had written the day before, and which he has since received.
Working as hard as possible, we could hardly cope with the rush of wounded. When the second bombardment and attack started in the afternoon, I was up at a place called Windy Corner (about 400 yards behind our trenches) and watched our shells burst in the German trenches. When this attack started we had about 200 stretcher cases at Windy Corner, and about another 200 wounded at our Receiving Station whom we had not managed to get away.
The second bombardment started at 2.45pm and the troops charged at 4 o’clock. The Black Watch and Camerons of the 1st Brigade and the South Wales Borderers and Welsh of the 3rd Brigade but they only received the same treatment; it was simply hell. The Black Watch and Camerons took the first line of trenches, but the Germans flooded them out, and at night we were just where we had started in the morning. The Artillery still kept up a heavy fire almost all through the night but no further attack was made there until the following Sunday.
Well, it took us from the first wounded man came in at 5.30am on Sunday morning till 11 am on the Monday morning without a stop (even for meals) to get the wounded all cleared away.
One good thing as far as we were concerned was that the German Artillery replied very feebly, only one “coal-box” dropping about 30 yards off our Receiving Station, though they managed to drop a few on the road. They were only shrapnel, however, and none of our Ambulance was hit.
We together with the whole of the 1st Division (or what was left of them) were relieved next day by the 2nd Division. The General said they had done what was wanted though it seemed to an outsider like me that we had practically thrown away two or three thousand men for nothing. I take it they were only testing the position; a few thousand lives here is nothing.
What they could not take with one Division that Sunday, they tried with three Divisions (the 2nd, 7th and Canadian) the second Sunday. They did manage to take a few lines of trenches, but again had a great number of casualties. Our cars were called out to assist in getting away their wounded though we were at another part of the line (Cuinchy). No attack was delivered there; the attack took place at Festubert and Richebourg. We were called out on the Saturday night at 10 pm to assist the 2nd and 7th Divisions, also the Canadians.
We were running the wounded into Bethune from Saturday night till Wednesday afternoon.
Sometimes we had a stop for an hour or two hours, about a quarter of a mile from the trenches, waiting on the Bearers to carry the wounded down to us. That was the only rest we had. We could not sleep; we had always to be ready, and the German shells were more numerous this time. They were dropping “coal-boxes” all round us. Our luck was in, though two of the R.A.M.C. were killed and some wounded.
I forgot to mention that we lost one of our Officers or Doctors on the 9th; he was doing M.O. for the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was a splendid chap, but a shell did it. We have only two Officers with us now who came out with us last August. A great many have gone home with shattered nerves.
We have not been doing much since that day, (13th of last month). We were at Beauvry for a week while our Brigade was at Cuinchy. We had as school there as a Dressing Station. We were relieved by the 2nd Field Ambulance when the 2nd Brigade relieved the 3rd. The day after we were relieved, the Germans put a shell through that very same school killing two and wounding five of the Ambulance men, so we were in luck again.
Our whole Division is now out of the action, and we are lying behind at a village called Fangueres-about 2 miles from Bethune. The Germans have been shelling Bethune lately, killing a few civilians. There is a big move coming off shortly. The whole of the 1st Army Corps is holding themselves in readiness. Some were even in the train bound for some other place, but the arrangements were all cancelled yesterday, and we are still holding ourselves in readiness.
I hope to let you know definitely before I post this letter; if I don’t you will know it has not come off until then.
I might send this by a chap who is a Driver of one of our cars, he has only been out about 6 months and is getting leave. I am making another try for a few days myself, but don’t know if I will get them. It seems scarcely fair the way they are doing it, some only a few months out here and getting leave, while Officers and N.C.O.s get it almost any time, but “Tommy”- well he does not seem to have the same feelings for his wife and children. If I do send it with this driver I won’t be able to tell you where we are going as we won’t have shifted by that time, but will let you know in another letter.
You were saying that the 5th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders were for Turkey. Well, I have just heard they are at Locon (near Neuve Chappelle) about 8 miles from here. I do not know if it is true, but if so I might come across them, or if we are here for another day I will take a walk up to make sure. I hope I do see some of the boys.
Another thing while I mind. You were asking about my Christmas pals.
Well, Bob, the last one of the 12 we had in that room went to England, to the R.E. he transferred out of here and got home. I suppose they will all have forgotten. I had a letter from that one in England. He is still at home. Some of the rest went to the base sick, and some have shifted elsewhere. You know, Bob, we have different chums here every day. The photo that I sent you and which I have to thank you for being so kind in giving to my wife?
Well on that photo alone, which was only taken about 3 months ago, the young chap sitting in front on the left has died, three others have gone down to the base and another three have gone home to join another Motor Ambulance as N.C.O.s (one of them being the driver of my car.) So you see Bob, our chums are always changing.
There is all told about 40 Officers, N.C.O.S and men in this Ambulance. Of those that I came out with last August, I think I am going to see them all off. I have never had a day’s illness except for a dose of cold in November, so I have been in luck.
I see by you letter Kirkwood and Mooney are still in England. We call them out here “lucky dogs”; I expect they are saying the same about us.
The old N.C.O.s who have been home on leave don’t half say things when they come back out here about the young N.C.O.s at home. We have a Corporal here (he was serving and a Corporal before the war broke out and has the D.C.M.) He goes home and finds (as he says himself) “Staff Sergeants” and yet he is still a Corporal. Some of Kitchener’s men, who enlisted after the war started and have never seen it, are Staff Sergeants. He has some cause for complaint, but for myself, I wish the young fellows every success as they will be our Army after this war is over, and no rank makes any difference out here except with regard to leave. The higher in rank on is, the greater are his chances of being killed. It is a fact and sometimes I am thankful I am a Private.
Another thing I wish to mention. I am still of the belief that the war will finish in August, and I have a feeling I am going to be right. I don’t think we will require to go through another Winter out here and I hope not. Some people seem to think that because we are still in France we will be a long time before we get to Germany. I believe Germany will collapse all of a sudden. Once we break through we will chase them as fast as we chased them on the Marne. You know Bob, one day on the Marne to the Aisne we did 36 miles, and could not keep up with the Germans; they retired so quickly. They came into France quickly and will go out a quick, and I hope it won’t be long now.
I see the French are doing well. My opinion of the Russians is still the same.
We are still resting in this village.
P.S. It won’t last another winter that is a certainty. I will give 100 to 1 on that. The first 6 months of the war was hell, the last 6 has been a picnic.