Your letters generally arrive two days after they are written, a letter dated 24th gets here on the afternoon of the 26th. I still ride occasionally & had an exceedingly good time yesterday afternoon when we got a gallop for about a mile across country, it was really great. I was riding an old nag of the Adjutant’s which has since then being doing duty in the medical cart, & was jolly glad to get someone on its back again, instead of the shafts. The result was we fairly flew. The weather is glorious & getting very hot; the corrugated iron roof of the eligible mansion does it’s best to remind us of the fact. Up in my dug-out I live in shirt sleeves & go about hatless, its much the best. By the way should anybody be desirous of sending anything out here in the way of sweets, large peppermint bullseyes are very acceptable in large quantities, they take the place of “tabac”. In fact armed with a bullseye one can pass the most offensive cow without turning a hair.
Another four days are gradually coming to an end & I am starting this letter before we actually start back for our rest-huts. An awful calamity had overtaken one, a calamity so world shaking , so far reaching in its effects – that I only dare mention it with bated breath, a calamity that causes me exquisite agony each morning during the two hours devoted to my toilet. It is not often that I deign to cast my eyes upon the offensive Hun & when I do it is only through the medium of a periscope. Two days ago I raised my periscope to view the distant scene. For some ten seconds I gazed & then – Crash! Some sniping Hun had put a bullet clean through it. Four metal portions, one of them almost as large in circumference as a boot button, lodged themselves in my visage, one narrowly missing my nasal organ. I picked out the pieces, they were not very deep, not very large & not at all painful. But the agony, the blow to my pride! —— I am keeping very well & fit & continue to evade shells & bullets of the Huns, not one of whom have I yet set eyes upon even through a periscope. Our chief occupation during the day is to watch the poor Huns trying to bring down our aeroplanes, they do make such rotten bad shots, miles & miles away from their target as a rule. Our people don’t seem to care where they go, they first fly on over the lines & on into the great unknown. The Hun Airmen are not so brave, they first poke their noses over so to speak & then scoot back for rear of being caught. We are all wondering what the Germans will be able to do with these asphyxiating gases, not very much really. After all gases are rather doubtful things & may do as much harm to them as to us, if they are not jolly careful about which way the wind is blowing at the time.
The weather has become really good & for the last two days I have been working in shirt sleeves, & managing to keep quite warm, not to say jolly hot. I have not been living of late in the HQ farm but in a dug-out just behind the line in a hollow out of sight of everywhere — coming down to H.Q. for dinner only. The dug–out is about 8ft square with a table & chair built into the wall, on which rests a telephone & just a few eating utensils. Across the back runs a long shelf & down the side two bunks, one on the floor, & one suspended from the ceiling. These are home–made by myself, & I think they are really works of art. They are constructed of two long boards & two cross pieces nailed to keep them the right distance apart, & thus forming a sort of hammock on which one can put one’s air cushion & repose in perfect comfort. The only other article of furniture is a fairly comfortable chair which I looted from a farm nearby, that is to say if three walls, some broken tiles & a couple of dead cows can really be called a farm. It was potted at daily by the Huns & I thought it as well to rescue this chair before it finally perished in the ruin. It’s a good dug-out & a place fairly convenient for the H.Q. officers when on Trench-tour, so that either the C.O. or the Adjutant or Major Martin have been up there with me. I sleep there jolly comfortably & spend the whole of my time in the open air, in fact the four days “in” are better than the four days back in billets. At present I am afraid “leave” is no go, & Subalterns of ordinary Infantry Regiments don’t carry dispatches so there does not seem much chance of reaching England yet. But never mind I am nearer Dover than you are, so think of that.
The weather remains fairly good & there is no reason to suppose that our next tour will be any less enjoyable than the last. I have got a ripping dug-out as I believe I told you & its my intention to stop there as long as I jolly well can. The men also find plenty to do to amuse them in French life, & one or two really funny things happen. The other day most of our people were in their dug-outs when they started shelling us. Heads peeped out everywhere after the first round, & one fellow seeing his Officers standing there calmly looking on, got up, waved his hand majestically & said in a loud voice – “Let the war continue”. It is the duties of sentries to say – Halt! Who are you? & on receiving an answer to say – Advance one & be identified. I have been asked to be “identified” – indemnified – indemmited & intimated. On one occasion a sentry could not recognize the man so said fiercely ”Show me your marriage lines!”
We were “had” again this time and stayed in for five instead of the correct four days. The reason was that there was a young battle in progress away on our left on the night of which we were to have been relieved, which made that operation undesirable, not to say impossible.. According to all accounts the “affair” which was quite a small one ended very well for us. It did not last long but was excellently planned & carried out, & resulted I believe in our people finding themselves in a piece of line hitherto occupied by the Huns. We ourselves have had quite a good time on the whole; the weather has been good for the most part & is now absolutely perfect. We have returned to our wooden huts, & during the four days rest one can sleep in peace. There is one thing we cannot get here that I really so miss now the hot weather is coming on, & that is a decent drink, all the water is filth & one gets sick of the continuous tea, coffee or cocoa. Even Perrier is not much catch here & the “vin ordinaire” seems to be pretty poor stuff. I suppose Dad could not collect ½ doz bottles of Bass, & send them out labelled “body belts” could he. The latter is to prevent them being stolen by the A.S.C. as they undoubtedly would be if their presence became known. An occasional bottle does find its way here occasionally, & I believe one was sold the other day in Bailleul for 5 francs. They have built a beautiful dug-out just behind the support trenches – in a hollow out of sight of everywhere, & I spend a good deal of my time in it. I have fitted up a chair, table, two beds & can live there very comfortably. It is really considerably better than being right back at HQRS because that is out of range of aimed shots but collects all the strays, & the area is quite dangerous all round there at night, whereas up in the dug-out there is never a bullet comes near one. They have shelled us once or twice & must have dropped altogether two hundred shells in our area without hitting a single man, even on the little finger, which seems marvellous.
Just a line or two before we go back to the land of stinks in other words the trenches. We go in this evening, this time for four days, at least we sincerely hope that there will be no extra extension as there was last time. Last night we were just getting into bed when a Zep. came over flying fairly high. The brutes dropped several very large bombs on a neighbouring town (Bailieul) without seeming to do much damage & then sailed away again. It was a curious experience altogether. We could see & hear the beast but were absolutely powerless to do anything against it. Our anti air craft guns opened fire on the way back, but it was very high & I don’t think they made much impression. The four days rest seem to have gone very quickly though there has really been nothing much to do all the time. I have been for one or two rides with the C.O. & am gradually getting fairly proficient in the gentle art. I have bought through the Army a pair of what are officially known as Canadian boots — they are large & waterproof up to just below the knee & quite good things I think.
I have at last for time to write you a letter & tell you some of our experiences during our first douche of Trench Warfare. First of all as regards the Regiment. It has done well, no excitement, no fuss, no rapid firing, in fact the Germans never realized that they had new Troops against them. The men behaved splendidly throughout & even when it became known for certain reasons we had to spend a fifth day up there, there was scarcely any grousing at all. They are curious trenches, really not trenches at all, but gigantic breastworks very safe & topographically situated so that one can get in & out, & from one to another in broad daylight. During the five days the Regiment lost only 3 killed, & four or five wounded – none very seriously. Back at HQRS we had no casualties, the only danger there is, that if we show lights by night, or smoke by day they will realize that it is inhabited & shell the place without delay. HQRS is a farm house & a couple of barns in a square with the usual refuse pit filled with all manner of unspeakabilities in the middle. The roof is shelled to bits & the un threshed wheat is beginning to sprout, emitting a most ghastly sour stench. The whole place simply reeks — it’s awful. Just across the road is another farm burnt out by German incendiary shells. The weather has been fairly good – some heavy showers but in between bright sun & a glorious sky; the trees are beginning to come out, & the birds carry on as usual just as if there was nothing strange happening. I am keeping very fit & well & did not particularly want to get away after my five days, would just as soon stayed in fact. As it was as soon as I got back I strolled into the garden of a house I had never seen in my life before, & fell up to my waist in their filthy “Cave” or manure pit, filled with liquid slime and filth. I had to have a cold swill down a 3 a.m. this morning in the open air with nothing on. Now however I am feeling considerably cleaner & fresher though my clothes are not quite free of the foul odour. We shall go in again on Tuesday night & from then until next Sunday you must not expect any letters.
I have just eaten your Easter egg & it was very nice indeed. Tell Mary I have also eaten hers & thank her very much for it, I have not time to write to her now. One of those eggs had a terrible adventure yesterday. I moved some of the things on my table to make room for my shaving water & knocked it into my bath. I quickly dived in after it & managed to catch it before it was drowned, as a matter of fact the silver paper prevented it from getting wet or soapy. At any rate it was very good to eat, which is the great part.
(Easter Day) Dranoutre
We have left our last billets which were really comfortable & where I could always get my morning bath, & are now in wooden huts, quite comfortable, but somewhat short of water, & the ordinary comforts, good beds etc. To-night we are off into the dark unknown to take our little bit a very nice comfortable, & safe little bit it is too. The Germans are quite decent people, & casualties are few & far between. HQRS where I shall be are about 2 miles behind the lines so I shall enjoy myself in comparative safety. The telephone wires are all laid & all in good condition, so all we have to do is to hook our wires on the end of theirs, & there we are. This morning I managed to get to a celebration at 7.45 about a mile from here, quite a nice service taken by a fairly high Church parson who had raised two candles & a crucifix from the local Church, & made a very homely & good service out of the large room at the back of an empty “estaminet”. Later on our own Brigade Padre turned up & conducted an Easter Service with just a few familiar Easter Hymns. A curious business – a plain of mud with the regiment in hollow square, Officers in front all with rifles. In the centre the parson & a few men to start the singing. In front the occasional reports from our “heavies” mingled with local Church bells singing for Mass – & over all a steady drizzle.
My riding is getting on well, in fact I can now say with perfect truth that I can ride by myself provided that the nag is not ferocious & does not shy at everything it sees out of the ordinary. I went for an 8 mile ride by myself yesterday & did not come to grief at all. I hear that the whole area within a two mile radius of our Trench HQRS is simply mud & nothing but mud, so I am rather puzzled to know what exactly to wear. We are only in for four days & then out in these huts for four & so on ad infinitum. The great point is that our time of instruction is now ended & we are treated entirely as regulars.
My riding is going on splendidly & I now consider myself quite a young horseman. I have still managed to “retain” – that is to say my head & other portions of my anatomy have not come into contact with the ground during more periods when I am supposed to be a cheval. As you may have noticed I am rather proud of that last phrase. I have taught the Adjutant to play picquet, & the Doctor is also an expert, so I can get a game pretty well whenever I want one now.
All the men’s letters have to be censored, & some of the things they write are too curious for anything. If anything untoward or extraordinary happens they all sit down and write about seventeen letters each – full of fearful exaggerations mixed up with terms of marvellous endearment, & all available spaces taken up with innumerable crosses, over some of which I have to place a neat little “J.D.Hills”. Some of the recipients must wonder who I am. I often try to imagine how many young ladies there are who simply hate this unknown person who prevents their lovers from saying all that they would like to say – “because ma letter will be red by that senser”. They all begin in the same way – “Dear—- I write this hoping it will find you as it leaves me at the present in the pink.”
A very fine body of men passed us on the road today — they were a party of the 9th Lancers; the present French warfare does not give Cavalry very much chance so they just loaf about somewhere & go for occasional rides to keep their horses fit. We also saw some of the N.H.I., North Irish Horse which is one of the finest yeomanry regiments in the world – they looked like careless lot of ruffians, who would not mind going straight at anything. By the way Mother was asking the other day whether the “month’s leave” story was all a “plant” – it was not on my part though I should not be surprised if it was on the part of Division. Mention of the word Division reminds me of the fact that I hear the whole lot have now finished their instructional Trench Course, & we shall probably go up into the line pretty soon. Personally I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if we weren’t there by Easter. By trenches please don’t imagine me sitting or standing up to my knees in water in a very cold trench. My place is at Hqrs. About 1000 yards in rear working the telephone exchange & I shall only go up at nights, just to visit my “out stations”. As a rule the signalling Officers’ job is a safe and comfortable one, & I value my skin much too highly to run into any unnecessary risks.