Flanders (Continued). Part 5


The stoic doctrine remains the only pillar of faith that can support the soldier, not by the skill of his arm or his strength, but by undoubting trust in good luck and sure Fate is he able to withstand a deadly sickness of disillusionment and horror of disaster.

If I had a confidence that the war would soon finish, I could think myself in Elysium, an Elysium of peaceful beauty. Association enters, for the park where we are resting has all the quiet elements which go to form the subdued landscape beloved of the moderns: a profusion of twisted, grey fruit trees rising over a grassy elevation to gleam pale against a fringe of woodland ; red-tiled farm-buildings on a structure of rough beams and yellowish clay mellowed by atmosphere to a fine series of warm-purple tints ; a broad-hatted peasant turning the handle of draw-well , brown cows grazing in the middle distance, with legs hidden below the grass-tops ; and an infinity of butterflies rising and falling among the flowers. When we wake in the morning, the peacefulness of the whole glides like a dream into the perception, and the contrast grows the more bitter … Read the rest

Flanders (Continued). Part 4

(On board the Hospital Ship) 19 October, 1917

You will remember the strong, hard faces, held in the unnatural light Brangwyn paints occasionally : that memory realised remains one of the most poignant of my experience. The night previous to the attack we lined up along the canal bank, and as I peered into each face to find my section, the harsh unnatural look was in all, that strange repellent tenseness of feature and expression caused by intense emotion – emotion not only of nerves strung to the utmost pitch, but of body, for almost every man had a dose of rum. The platoon officer, usually a quiet retiring lad, not over-confident, surprised me with a mouthful of curses for being late. It might appear bravado, but I think I was the only cool one among them, actuated by a sense of wonder at so much excitement. After all, the business had to be done, and there was no use burking it or flying into hysterics. The lucky, chosen men would come back, the others would not. That  appeared the sum total, in my modest judgement. Perhaps lack of rum caused this apparent indifference. From the working of his features … Read the rest

Flanders (Continued). Part 3

LE TREPORT, 16 October, 1917

Being in bed all day with nothing to do, I might describe that wonderful canal-bank at Ypres I mentioned some time ago, and also our march to Passchendaele, thus finishing the whole matter at once when memory is fresh. That march from Vlamertinghe to Ypres at night must remain the most romantic and exciting incident of my life, not on account of bursting shells or even danger in its slightest form, but through the uncertain nature of our road, and the warnings we received as to spies. My duty was to link up companies, our company being behind “C”. Whenever the men in front diverged from the straight track, I had to wait behind and tell the following which way they had taken. With the night pitch-black and a bewildering procession of G.S. wagons, transport, guns, and ammunition-carts all over the landscape, such a procedure was by no means a joke. If the company got lost through me, there would be a hot time in store : no reward, of course, if I was successful,

At sunset the battalion set out, each company with its set of pipers and drummers. The sky, from being a … Read the rest

Flanders (Continued). Part 2

(Written in Hospital) 

LE TREPORT, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now ; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days. As soon as he heard of the division to which I belonged, then it was all right:  the fighting divisions, if they don’t get much of a time in the trenches, are decently treated in hospital, have usually the precedence, and rightly, too.

I just want to tell you about the last affair.

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele of course, the officers told us the usual tale, “soft job”,  and I reckon it might have been easy enough if we had had a decent start. But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white. It was all the same to me: I … Read the rest

Flanders (Continued). Part 1

ZEGGERSKAPPEL, 10 October, 1917

The weather just now can be summed up in a word – wretched : not exactly wet, never dry, sometimes heavy thunder-showers, sometimes watery sunshine, placing a dead gleam on the pools and muddy roads. I have become so accustomed to “glabber”, that it must be knee-deep before it disturbs me. I think it must have reached that stage in the front-line.

We possess one resource, not too trustworthy duckboards: there is no fatigue more exhausting than stumbling over several miles of slippery boards with yawning shell-holes on each side, filled to the brim with foul water. The enemy usually has their range, with the result that they go up in the air every morning. Not lately, however, for his artillery has had a frightful time of it, knocked to pieces by our shells.

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal … Read the rest

Flanders. Part 6

The CANAL BANK, YPRES,  6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in a molten sky and slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream : I was lying in hospital, trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I. had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.

ZEGGERSKAPPELL, 5 October, 1917

White Heather appealed to me, even if it were only that it described life in Glasgow, the lonely life of lodgings, removed from the crowd and yet in it where one met it by the causeways and brushed past it in the walk, foreign to … Read the rest

Flanders. Part 5

VLAMERTINGHE, 17 September, 1917

You will have read of Belgium in every newspaper dispatch and every book written on war. The best I can do is simply to tell you what I experienced and suffered more or less patiently. The country resembles a sewage-heap more than anything elsė, pitted with shell-holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project. It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death-traps, for drowning is almost certain in one of them. I remember a run I had at the beginning of this week – for dear life, if you like. Five of us had spent the night patrolling and were returning to Brigade H.Q. when the enemy sighted us and put a barrage along the duckboard track we were following. Early dawn broke in the east, and a grey light filtered eerily through dim cloud-masses to a desolate world of brown, touching the skeleton woods strangely, and blackening the edge of ridge where the German trenches lay. First one shell dropped ten yards behind us, then one came screaming so close that we … Read the rest

Flanders. Part 4

COURCELLES-LE-COMTE, 12 September, 1917

This morning the Colonel summoned the whole battalion to the concert-hall, a ruined house with a roof of yellow tarpaulin. We knew perfectly well what was coming. A fortnight’s training in bombing, firing of rifle-grenades, shooting at disappearing targets, and practise of assault-formations going in waves over a hill, gave us an inkling of hot work in front of us. He told us of the traditions the division stood for, the high position it held in the regard of the Army Commander, appealed to the courage of an army which had triumphed at Messines, Vimy, Arras, and Ypres recalled to us the German treatment of our prisoners, and of harmless Belgian and French civilians, violation, seduction, murder, until it appeared a sacred duty to die fighting in such a cause. At the last he warned us solemnly of the penalties attached to cowardice in the field. “If the Hun shells too heavily, side-slip, but for God’s sake don’t go back. We have him by the short hairs, and it only remains for us to make a finished job. We have all had fierce time punishing him and making him pay for those desecrations of human hearths … Read the rest

Flanders. Part 3

COURCELLES-LE-COMTE, 8 September, 1917

Indigestion is troubling the battalion at the present hour. One day we scouted down a flat valley bottom, along a tree-shadowed road, across a spare wood, to a square copse. In the wood, an orchard of rosy crab-apples was discovered. We spent an hour replenishing stomachs and filling balmorals with the sweet, acrid fruit, and lay in a shallow trench sunning ourselves for an afternoon. From that time there has been a constant succession of fruit-patrols to all parts of the compass, each armed with a sandbag, which is always filled either with apples or pears. The child-natural element revives in war : prejudices, social veneers, little delicacies of taste and manner of life, choice actions dictated by a particular regard to decorum, become merged in a quiet comfort-seeking in the slightest gift, even a crab-tree studded with minute apples.

A morning-wash in the green water of a shell-hole, a thankful moistening of lips in a vile water drawn from a chlorinated tank, an attempt at china-cleaning by a handful of dewy grass, a sharpening of razors on a rife-sling show how casual is the whole business. I have admired a fine sunrise between my legs … Read the rest

Flanders. Part 2

COURCELLES-LE-COMTE, 2 September, 1917

One can never decide definitely about anything there : there is no time, even for decent thinking ; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty, the same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system : one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance. This week I had a slight dose of influenza, but got over it without after-effects. Too close to the ground ! I wonder how the poor idealist would look, picturing a starry world of imagery across the roof of a dug-out.

How delicious it would be to have a crisp, clean walk across-country and get rid of the rubbish in the system ! A breath of the pure air about Tinto would be worth an infinity of lime-juice drinks, but then, Tinto has faded away back into Elysium, and the wanderer would have to sprout wings to reach his … Read the rest