Lest We Forget
London N, Eng.,
Oct. 1, 1916.
Here I am again, back in good old Blighty, and do you see where I am? When they told me on the train last night that we were headed for Edmonton I nearly fell out of bed, but I guess this burg was old when the Hudson's Bay Company first thought of establishing their fort on the Saskatchewan.
I spent two very pleasant days in Boulogne and was rather sorry to leave. But France is not England, and the dream of every wounded soldier is to get to Blighty. There is something about this little old island that grips a man. The history and romance of it have grown into the very soil.
I suppose you'll want to know about my trip over. I think I'll go back to Tuesday morning and give you the whole story, that is, the whole of what I saw, which is, after all, a very small part of the whole story.
Here let me remark in parentheses that a new day has dawned since I wrote the above and during the night just passed a Zeppelin was brought down within sight of the hospital. I didn't see it. I spent the night in a weird nightmare - an orgy of bursting shells and flying shrapnel and dead and dying men. I expect the cheers of the millions of watchers contributed much of the noise I heard in my dreams.
Well, now for the story. I must omit all details or this letter will never end. We went into the trenches last Monday night - one week ago - expecting to go over the parapet at dawn next morning. A special trench had been dug by night out in No Man's Land and into this the attacking party filed shortly after midnight. The work of our airmen in the Somme has been magnificent. Not an enemy balloon or plane had discovered that little trench and any shells that landed near it were accidents. Very grateful we felt to our airmen when word came that the attack was postponed until twelve-thirty.
All morning we crouched in that little trench and all morning our artillery played on Fritz's trenches - the steady pound, pound, pound that draws crows' feet beneath the eyes of youth and makes gibbering maniacs of strong men.
Slowly the morning dragged on. Two Fritz balloons appeared and were hauled down suddenly as our planes approached. Shortly afterward a third came up, remained stationary for a few minutes, then burst into flame and plunged to the ground. Men stirred and swore with wholehearted satisfaction. Officers and NCO's called warnings in guarded voices. The movement stopped. Silence reigned again in our little packed trench.
Noon came. Strained faces whitened beneath the grime. Men swore softly and drenched their rifle bolts with oil. All the time the artillery kept up its terrible hammering. At twelve-thirty came one of those inexorable pauses that will occur in nearly every bombardment. In the heavenly calm a long sigh of relief shuddered along the trench. But it was the calm before the storm - only a few seconds, then rifle fire broke out from our lines. "They're beating it already." Every man's hand was on his rifle; every eye was watching for the sign to move. Then all **** broke loose. Rifles, machine guns and field guns flung a solid mantle of sound over No Man's Land in which no individual sound was audible. Our barrage had started.
Under the barrage system, I must explain, the artillery throws a heavy curtain of fire onto the enemy's front line under which the infantry advances across No Man's Land. Then the barrage moves back and the infantry follows. There is no wild charge. The barrage moves one hundred yards in two minutes and the men must go equally slowly or they'll run into our own fire.
Watches in hand, the officers waited for the time to attack. It came. A wave of the hand and we were out. Oh, Mother, I wish I could describe the advance over the four hundred yards that separated us from the Huns. Britain's bulldog blood has suffered nothing in the custody of Canada. Canada's sons could walk into the blood-dripping jaws of **** and snap their fingers as the wolf fangs closed on them. As calmly as if on parade, that long irregular line moved forward. Firing, walking forward, firing, forward again, and all the time that infernal noise. Great shells dropped only a few yards away, hurling men and mud and shrapnel into the air but they had no individual sound - one got the impression that they were silent. Men fell here and there, shells burst and blotted out several at a time, but not a man faltered, not one looked back. A "tin hat" (shrapnel helmet) flew high in the air just ahead of me and I found myself wondering about its owner. To my right a man suddenly dropped his rifle and beat the air frantically with his hands as if he had run into a swarm of bees.
And then we were up to the barrage. If men were only machines and could be controlled by levers, the barrage system would be all right. But they're not. A full three minutes before the barrage lifted, we were in Fritz's front line. There was little resistance then. A bunch of bombers flung hand grenades until not a man was left - an isolated scrap here and there - soon over and the trench with a couple of hundred prisoners was ours.
Then followed a few fervid hours of desperately hard work, attending wounded, sending prisoners back and putting the trench in shape for defence. When darkness came, a working party was sent out to dig a communication trench to the rear. By the light of his flares Fritz saw us and opened an enfilading artillery fire. Our sergeant and several men were killed and we had to retire. I reported to the officer and went back with orders to wait 'til the fire slackened and then go out again. Half an hour later we were at it again. What we had previously done had been very thoroughly undone, but we went to work. Then Fritz discovered us again and, leaving three dead men and carrying two wounded, my little party once more went back to the trench.
While I was reporting to the officer, a large chunk of flying dirt hit my head. Sick and dizzy, I lay down in the bottom of the trench.
About this time Fritz decided to wipe that piece of trench off the map. Crash! Crash! Crash! With nerve-shattering regularity the great shells landed along the trench. The air was full of flying pieces and the trench was full of dead and dying men. Reinforcements came along the trench and paused while the officers consulted. Moaning pitifully, a wounded man crouched down beside me. Crash! Crash! Crash! The strain of lying there waiting for death was terrible. The reinforcing party got orders to move. Some little confusion in the dark caused them to bunch right in front of me. "Spread out, lads! Open out along the trench!" But the NCO was too late. A shell crashed into the trench and a score or more of men paid the supreme price.
My first thought was the certain knowledge that I was dead, also that I was glad of it. I think it was a hot stream pouring over my face and head that roused me. My head was pinned tight to the ground, a weight pressed terribly on my chest, I couldn't move my arms, nor, at first, my feet. A few seconds' working got my feet free, though. Somebody passed along the trench; I cried out in a voice I didn't recognize as my own, but with head lowered, the man flew past that place of horrors, on the run. Ensued a frantic struggle on my part to rid myself of my burden of dead men. I succeeded, rose to my feet and stood still. The sight that met my eyes in the starlight will be with me as long as I live and breathe. In front of me the shell crater, six feet or more deep and blown clear of everything in the bottom, but around the top a score or more of stark, silent figures that had been men, but a short time before - whole bodies, pieces of bodies, single bodies, piles of bodies, all stark and still. Not a sound broke the silence while I stood there - not a shot, nor a shell. For a few seconds some magic hand held up all the hellish forces that were playing over that tortured land.
I waited, scarcely breathing, for something - waited; it seemed minutes that could only have been seconds. Then it came - invisible, intangible, but nevertheless, very real. Something came to that place of desolation, stopped a moment and passed on again, and I was the only living witness.
A shell crashed into the earth close by; the vicious "ping" of the sniper's bullet and the death rattle of the machine gun joined the chorus. The spell had lifted. I went down the trench to find the stretcher-bearers.
And now, Mother, I had better quit. If nurse comes along she'll find my temperature up and my pulse going about a hundred to the minute. I should not be writing of these things at all, but sleeping or waking I cannot stop thinking of them; so why not write?
Don't worry about me the least bit. I'm not at all badly hurt and don't send any parcels, as I will be out of the hospital before they could get here. Write to the address at the head of this letter and if I'm not here they will be forwarded.
"Mary West", by the way, is the name of the ward I'm in.