Letter to Alice Crump, 18 September 1917

Letter to Alice Crump, 18 September 1917

Sept. 18th.

Dear Girl,
We are in the line still, and it’s almost three weeks since our little ‘stunt’, when we captured a ridge from “Johnny”. and drove him from the high ground. I’m not sure whether I told you of that battle now, but somehow I don’t think I did, for I’ve hardly written any letters since August 26th, the date of our push. We have been so often in the trenches since then, and seem to have been so busy, that I cannot settle down to letter-writing. Last night I wrote to father and mother, and somewhere within the next four days or so, I ought to be able to finish this. Of course, you understand that at times it’s a bit difficult to write, don’t you, Alice?

Well, I am not going to give you an account of our last fight, for each battle is somewhat like the preceding one, although there are lots of new incidents cropping up and new experiences. It would be foolish of me to say that they are monotonously similar to other battles, because each one is so important and decisive a factor in the shaping of one’s existence. We don’t, or at least, I don’t anyway, go into these actions without reckoning on the likelihood of being napooed. We’re cool enough, of course, but anyone who has been in six or seven real scraps, as we have, knows what the chances are of coming out again.

This last time the doc and I had a fairly respectable little dug-out just behind the boys, but Johnny dumped the heavies round about it for two days running, and we had a devil of a job getting in our wounded. On one occasion a squad of bearers, four in number were just 20 yds away with a stretcher on their shoulders, when a dirty black 5.9 came shrieking over and wiped the lot out. His barrage was very heavy, for he was wild at having been pushed off the ridge, and it often happened that little groups of men were wiped out in this way.

It was an anxious time altogether, since he made four heavy counter-attacks to try and get a footing on the ridge. It was the determination and endurance of the brigade – it was only a brigade stunt – that drove him back each time with the loss of thousands of men. That is no exaggeration, it’s the truth.

That was the best piece of work the brigade has done since it has been in France. On the Somme, at Arras, on the Scarp and at other places it did its share well with other Scottish divisions, but, though at Arras we covered near on four kilometres with great dash, yet for sticking it out under such hellish conditions of shell-fire, rain, muck, and cold, this last was really a great piece of work. Imagine it, Alice, four heavy counter-attacks with the blinkin’ Boche determined to win back the trenches, and the boys lying on top of the parapet firing rapid and the machine guns ripping out! Behind would be the good old support of the guns with its rattling drum-fire and the boiling oil shells making No Man’s Land like daylight, when the Boche could actually be seen being blown into the air, hurled many feet sometimes by the terrific burst of a big shell. Sometimes our trench would be blown in by a big German shell, but if the lads were unhurt, up they would scramble on the parapet again, and blitter away with their rifles.

You civilians can have no idea what it’s like, and I don’t pretend to try and convey to you anything like the real thing. It can’t be described! People at home seem to think very vaguely of what really happens. They know that their boys are having a pretty hard time, and talk of the ‘horrid mud’ and those ‘nasty shells’, but my goodness, if they only knew what a strain it is! And yet, they must know and feel it too.

Even at the beginning of the war in France and on Gallipoli they didn’t know what concentrated artillery fire was. The gun-fire gets worse and worse each new battle. There must come a time soon when no man will be able to stand it. I can quite understand why it is that we have captured German prisoners who are absolutely nerve-shattered. When one hears the thousands of big guns on a few miles of front, and know that they are simply ploughing up the enemy trenches, then you may be sure that nothing human can stand it. Thank God, that Fritz doesn’t do it on the same scale as we do! Still, he is bad enough, and he tries his utmost to equal our artillery fire.

Well, I am going to bed now (which is a duck-board in a little funk-hole along the trench) so I must say goodnight. I hope to continue this tomorrow.