I am safe in England, I am in the best of health, and expect to remain so for some time to come. I know you are worried beyond all reason, but you must be patient if my letters are few… There are many rumors, but the army is a veritable hot box of falsity. Possibly you hear many terrifying reports, but until they are verified by Washington you may rest assured that they have no foundation.
England is certainly a beautiful country. It is not the wild beauty of America, but it is a cultivated, neat, clean cut beauty, the result of hundreds of years of plowing and pruning – of careful, precise gardening. The villages are crowded, but they are so neat with narrow lanes, square gardens of pink and purple, and their infinite numbers of thorn and yew hedges, that one becomes attached to them at first sight.
Most of the women and old men (they, together with the children, are all of the inhabitants left in the towns and cities) are rather conservative, and are pathetically serious. They realize the fullest burden of the war. Our men are light hearted. Last night as our regiments marched into camp along a white rock road, I could see little groups of women and children huddled along the way in the dim light, and I know that those people were almost overcome with emotion. I heard several sobs, and heard one woman exclaim in a whisper, “Isn’t it grand?”
A rain here converts the ordinarily beautiful outlook to the dreariest landscape imaginable.
The other day I saw the ruins of a once stately castle. It appeared to be an antique structure with far reaching walls, moss grown and age stained…
The castle itself was Destruction symbolized. So complete was the ruin that it would have been almost impossible to restore it or even ascertain the plan of architecture. Not a wall was left as a monument to the structure –all were razed. A castle it was, but now it is a blot of debris, a conglomeration of splintered spars, shards of stone, broken brick, and shattered tile. Red poppies bloom at the edges of yellow pools fringed with green scum and the flies hum their monotonous music there. A black cat slinks among the beams in the evening, and ghoulish rats run riot there at night.
A case of procrastination is easily contracted out here, especially in the washing of clothes, the returning of borrowed books, and the writing of letters to those from whom has received no word for a long time.
Sunday I took a hike of ten miles to some famous battle-fields. One can walk for miles in that country, and see nothing but devastation. Even the roads are destroyed and the lorries do not attempt to traverse those parts. I walked for two hours, and did not even see a poilu or a British Tommy.
The trenches there are deep, eight and ten feet some of them, and the fields are honey-combed with shell holes. Every clod of that ground has been turned. Unexploded projectiles lie half-buried in the loose-piled dirt and chalk. French guns with bayonets fixed and pointed to the old frontier are dropped on the other side of the barbed wire entanglements, just as they were thrown by their owners. White crosses stand everywhere. Some bear the name of the fallen but usually an aluminum plate bearing the simple inscription “Allemand Soldat” or “Francois soldat, Inconnu” is all that is left in memory……
The trenches are but the alley of great underground cities, where whole battalion of wet, wretched, lice-eaten men are housed. I walked down a communications trench covered with heavy timber, soil, and sand bags. It was an ill-smelling, gnat-infested place. On each side one could see man-made rat holes framed with boards and leading down flights of crumbled steps to utter darkness. One can smell dead men there.
Someone just opened the door, and my candle flickered so that I could scarcely see to write. It’s getting late and censor is swearing so write often
NOVEMBER 23, 1917 | FRANCE
We have seen some of the more serious side of war the last few days. As I may have mentioned previously, something seemed to be in the air…
We had eaten—were discussing the probability of a drive, when, without an introductory shot of a big gun or preface of a hammering machine gun –the bombardment broke in all its awful, rumbling detonation. The push was on. But soon the whir of propellers blended with the rush of wings, for flocks of birds, stretching in long wavering lines across the sky, swept over us. They seemed frantic as they sped –they knew not where they flew, they only sought to escape destruction – and it was rampant at the front.
Then came the aftermath, I had seen the troops march up the day before – a solid khaki wall of sturdy Britishers. I saw them coming back the next day in jerky little rattling cars, over an unsteady track. Brave, forbearing lads they seemed – white and mud-stained – but firm in their proud fortitude. One boy held out the bloody bandaged stumps of his arms as the train came by. I was working on the track and I had an unusually good opportunity to observe every train and its contents. Some few wounded Germans were among the British, but they were ostracized in some corner. I was sorry to learn that they were handled harshly by some who could not distinguish between the Prussian policy and the people.
The dead still be on the field near us, and are to be seen if one wishes to satisfy his morbidity. One young Irishman was on the field up there for three days watching the body of his brother who fell at his side in the charge. He is heartbroken but is to be given a short leave that he may shake off the horror and recuperate.
You people back there have more sympathy with these things than we. Even though a soldier does not go into the charge –whether he goes over the top or no, he loses sympathy with the human element in war by association with those who “don’t care.” So many that he forgets the human elements, and thinks of death as a permanent incapacity and a wound as a temporary disability. After one hears of Tommy tell of his comrade falling mud and blood bespattered behind him, of Fritz crying, “Mercy Kamarad” to receive a glittering blade of cold steel for his labor, of the gas at the Somme and the shells at Ypres, he rather loses human sympathy and watches all unemotionally and mechanically.
One cannot realize that a situation is serious until it is brought to his doorstep in the shape of red-hot éclat, clots of clay and an assortment of debris. When he stands and sees a few geysers of terra firma rise fifty feet in his front yard, hears the bits of shattered chalk and wood rattle on his “tin-hat”, he suddenly becomes overcome with an overwhelming desire to leave and with his gas mask trailing behind him, he makes for the high hills surrounding a little tin-roofed camp somewhere in France!
During the attack, I had presence of mind enough to observe the effects upon those around me. I confess that I was some what taken aback after several shells struck, that my knees were cold, and my remarks abnormally jocose. While some of our boys were running out of the immediate shell area (the only safe thing to do, unless there are impenetrable dug-outs available), I was greatly steadied to see some British troops marching to the front line while the earth was being gutted by the roadside. Not a man flinched, not a file wavered, not an officer moved aside. Steadily – unflinchingly the formation moved up the road with the possibility of being annihilated in the flash of a second. When one sees just such sights as these, he must say with Kipling, “And Tommy, here’s my best respects to you.” You may think what you will of Britishers, but you’ve got to give it to Tommy. You can put him in the trenches and he’ll stay there till he rots; you can starve him, you can scold him, but he’ll fight like the devil just the same. He is slow, but his dominitable beef is irresistible, and his bayonet chills the firmest line of warm patriots. “Fritz” is a fighter, but he can’t bear that cold steel…
I wish someone would send me a package of insect-killer for body vermin –or some dope to put the lid on graybacks. I am not infested, but some of my dear friends have proved themselves to be inhabited. One of the men here has a bellows sort of a box with which he could spray his clothes with powder. Don’t be worried over our unsanitary conditions. Everybody is more or less “chatty” in bloomin’ France. We have three changes of underwear, we wash every three weeks without fail, bathe every week whether we need it or not, and still we are annoyed by baby “Boches.” Please send the powder – just a little bit for emergency.
We have had no mail of late, because of the drive. I presume we will have some soon.
I saw a corps of Irish go to the trenches once. I shall never forget it. They were packed into the open narrow gauge cars – troop after troop. They laughed in their light hearted way, sang their songs– not lustily nor boisterously – but lightly – a natural lyrical effervescence – and puffed at their cigarettes very nonchalantly. One might think they were out for a day’s picnic had they not been bound by their battle harness –that they were out on a holiday excursions instead of short, perilous trip to the trenches where they might live with the moles in their burroughs at night, and stand hip-deep in muck from frosty morn till chilling eve. And as the cars rolled away, the little band of bagpipes played “The Wearing of the Green”, and the drums rolled like musketry and beat like willing hearts on some remembered field in Erin.
…I have changed much since I have been out here. Of course I went through several revolutions, mental of course, before I adapted myself to the new conditions. Perhaps you have detected the conflict in my letters. .. New doors open at every turn of my experience and I suffer another revolution of ideas. Perhaps you will not agree with the things I realize every day, but I think you will. My puritanical spirit resented the new order of things as I first saw them but I am understanding as I go. Things that were once repulsive are becoming mere facts which I may look upon with no disgust, analyze, and balance.
My views of religion, morality, and life have all changed –none to the worse, I hope, but I feel more at ease, more myself, I feel a burden lifted. Of course, I am unsteady, unsettled in many things, but on the whole, I feel broader, more sympathetic, more tolerant…
….When a man has seen the country raked with shells, huts go up in flames, men fall around him, and has stood in No-Man’s land with everything behind him and nothing but the mass formation of the Huns coming over the hills in front of him with only a pile of coal and a shovel to divert his mind, he is inclined to forget the easy going life he left. But that was months ago, and is better unsaid. We are living a very normal life at present. Outside of that, there is nothing to report.
I moved my billet from the silent gray house across the street to the cozy little back room of this place. There is more life in this house. One has a sense of companionship here – and the house has an atmosphere of occupation. Over there I could not overcome the dismal sense of loneliness which the utter emptiness of the great cluttered rooms invariably produced. No matter how big a fire we built. Or how boisterous our talk, the light flickered in spacious corners and high, scarred walls, and our laugh echoed from distant rooms or long, gloomy hallways.
The civilians occupied the place two days ago. I came in at evening to find everyone gone, and an old woman (old as the house, she seemed) peering about the gloomy rooms with a candle held above her head. The poor old soul was glad to see me, told me leave what I could not carry until the next day, and led me away on a tour of inspection. She led me to the cupboard, opened the door to the empty shelves, and told me that the Boche had taken all. She told me how many plates, glasses, and knives and forks he had taken; how many dresses had gone for plunder, and how he had broken up her furniture for firewood. She fumbled about the trash on the floor, musing on fragments of china, on buttons, and letters, and snarled like an animal when she found fresh evidences of the Germans’ destructiveness.
It was a wet, miserable evening, and the troops were marching past in the mud on the sludgy road, and I was alone in the house with that old wrinkled woman. The rats squealed and scampered through the littered rooms, and the candle light gleamed on the wet stones in the hall-way. I could not help thinking of home. What a contrast! Soft-carpeted floors, deep cushions, clear, steady lights, and the gleam in darkened rooms on polished oak and red mahogany! Starched curtains, clean sheets on light springy beds, white dresses, the benediction of all-pervading warmth, running water! Happy voices, music, books, and children! O, one cannot realize what it all means until he has seen what we see, and live amidst. Of course you know what it all means, for you have seen the rough edges of life. But the children do not know.
But enough of this sermon. It is too depressing. We are looking forward to the Spring, for we expect to blow in with the spring flowers. Home! Home! Home! We talk of nothing else. It is not good for us but we do it nonetheless.