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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, October 1916

Extracts from Soldiers' Letters

Extracts from Soldiers' Letters.

Wellington,21st September, 1916.

Dear "Spike,"—

Extracts from Alan MacDougall's letters will be of abiding interest to his old friends. These will be pardoned for thinking that when he died, Victoria College page 22 lost its most perfect student. In tribute to him, will you publish some extracts from certain recent letters of his which tell of the work he was engaged in and how he viewed it, and which unconsciously body forth those qualities of perception, faith, humour, generosity and noble courage which will keep his memory ever green in the hearts of those who loved him. At the end, with his friends in the line stricken down, he was lonely; and we do well to believe that he has passed into an immortal Fellowship.

I am, etc.,


On January 31st, 1915, he wrote,

—"What a business! Here I am with a 2nd Lieut's. rank trying to help a lot of decent London cockneys to train for the Front. I have volunteered for service abroad and we shall go as a battalion at the appointed time. We are known to the War Office as the 22nd Royal Fusiliers—recruited chiefly from South Kensington and the more savoury of its environs. Two of the four companies contain a large proportion of Colonials who find themselves amongst us by a rather devious set of routes and circumstances. It's too long a story to go into at the moment. I have no Colonials amongst my lot, who are entirely, as I have said, Cockneys. Their merits are cheerfulness and a variety of acumen peculiar to Cockneys; they grumble heavily at anything unusual but do it all the same and well too as a rule. They are a good lot and I am getting fond of them. We have been down here (in Sussex about thirty miles from Portsmouth) for over two months living in billets and training as hard and constantly as this execrable weather will allow. We have no rifle range—the most serious of our problems; and until we get one, or the use of one for a month or two, we cannot regard ourselves as efficient soldiers, fit for the front. The New Army has had to contend with many difficulties; the surprising thing is that it should have made such headway in the time given. I am inclined to think that the New Army will fulfil expectations if it gets a chance. The material is a vast improvement on that which usually goes through the British Army Mills; they have all got something to fight for now; and the nation is behind them solid as a rock.

page 23

The New Armies now muster one million men; we need at least two million. And I don't think we shall get them without conscription, or some form of it. Academically conscription may be a bad thing; but we must have the men. Every officer back from the Front hammers it in; the British Army has done well, but relatively it is a mere drop in the ocean—as yet. The French are looking to us in confidence for help; they refrained from criticism when we failed to send more than half the promised forces in the opening weeks of the war; they redoubled their energies instead; now they look to us to keep our word. There is something very noble in their quiet serenity—no boasting this time, but cheerfulness in abundance and unlimited self-sacrifice. I have a French friend now fighting in the Argonne; he tells me that France is transformed and that we don't know what equality means. The order to mobilise came to them as a relief and they mustered their forces calmly, knowing that unless England joined in they would be swamped, but still quite determined to put up as long and hard a fight as they could. Then England after three days of irresolution came in, and during those three days not a murmur from France. Their conduct throughout has been admirable. Then of course there are the Belgians. On the whole, I think it's up to Great Britain to save those who saved her, even if it means conscription and a decrease of profits all round.

I have enjoyed my military experience so far.

* * * * *

We are living in great times. I saw Guy Scholefield a month ago; he said that if he had had his choice of any period of ten years in London, the choice being spread over two centuries, he would have chosen the present decade (1908-1918) in preference to any other, and I believe he is right."

By the close of the year, he had been promoted to a Captain's rank, and after he had been in the front line trenches "from 100 to 60 yards from Fritz, opposite one of the famous names of the war," as he puts it, he wrote on 13th December, 1915:—"Here I am in billets after a short time in the trenches. We have been across the water some little time now and have made our way into the firing line by easy stages, sometimes by train, mostly page 24 on foot. The 'firing line' sounds exciting—so it is; but in a curiously positive and prosaic fashion. The ordinary army routine goes on uninterruptedly almost, in the trenches. Occasionally a shell comes in upon us disastrously and there's a wounded man to be taken back painfully through narrow and muddy communication lanes to the first-aid post. The evacuation of casualties gives me more anxious thought than anything else almost; it's a dreadful business when trenches are wet and falling about one's ears. I had to bind up a case in the front line the other day; we couldn't get the stretcher up and he had to be helped and hauled and carried out. The men are splendid and equal to any task that may be set them.

* * * * *

We shall be in the trenches on Xmas Day, heigh-ho! I don't think there will be much fraternising this year. The Germans are too sick of the whole business. It is much more likely that a batch of them will offer surrender and eat us empty.

* * * * *

We are well fed and clad; frequently well housed in billets, as now, and always pretty happy. It's just as well to try and be happy in the face of the ever present possibilities of this life. The way we look at the facts is that if a Jack Johnson or whizz-bang is addressed to you, it will find you. The goods are always delivered—fatalism of a cheery sort. How one finds out the real men in this sort of work! the cool quiet ones, the gasbags, the dare-devils, the paralytic, the shirkers. From what I know of other battalions I conclude that we are to be reckoned fortunate beyond most in our personnel, both officers and men. We trust each other and we shall back each other.

* * * * *

People at Home send us out lots of comforts—Mrs. Mackenzie's sisters are jewels in this way and I don't know how to celebrate their names fittingly.

This war has knit us all more closely together and taught us lessons of unselfishness and charity. The cause is good, and the memory of our dead is cherished. The whole nation is resolute and calm and ready to bear any burden that aims at the speedy and final solution of the present chaos. One feels that it is well with our nation."

page 25

In perhaps his last letter—one written on July 19th last, just two weeks before his death, he says:—"It is curious how the vicissitudes and liabilities of this great storm alter one's scale of values. Most of us, if any of our crowd survive, will apply different standards to life in general after the war is over. In the meantime we take each day as it comes, and keep pretty cheerful. The next few days will see us in the South. The prospects down there leave us calm.

Most of the men whose friendship I valued at Oxford are on the lists, some dead, some grievously wounded. I don't think there is anyone of my real friends actually in the line except possibly a Frenchman; and it's weeks since I heard from him.

* * * * *

I am kept very busy these days. We are moving from village to village every day and this means work for me. Our original battalion has changed considerably. Few of the original officers remain and few of the men. My best subaltern, as fine a boy as ever breathed, was killed ten days ago. I haven't quite realised the fact yet; he was unconscious throughout—which was sad. His expression was more pure and serene than any dead man's I've seen—touched as it were with immortality. We buried the boy quite close to the line, amongst his men and I think all is well with him and them. The Bosch gave us about fifteen minutes for the service and then the machine guns spattered all around and we had to get off. Purely a coincidence, as it was all indirect fire.

We have some Gallipoli men in the Bn.—they say that the Peninsula was rotten; but the shelling and trench mortaring of this line is worse. An artillery barrage is just hell and men pass through it by a miracle. We have however the satisfaction of knowing that we are giving the Bosch as bad as he has ever given us; and he doesn't like it a bit. And so farewell for a bit."

Here follow remembrances to his friends. This is very probably the last letter he wrote to New Zealand.

* * * * *

From a letter of F. E. Mackenzie's, who is now in France, after being through the Gallipoli campaign:—

page 26

"You will observe that a line in the daily says 'artillery activity on the whole front' 'small raid repulsed,'—that is all. Well know ye that the trenches are only mud walls and sandbag parapets and no dugouts.

'A Strafe.'

We are all standing to,—ordinary evening stand-to, in the support line; quiet all day, not a sound; just going out to mend wire. Crash! one eight inch and six eighteen pounders are round us with flame on the instant. And then they start,—a hundred guns, I think,—rapid fire. Then great trench mortars and rifle grenades and machine guns. Crash! the whole bay disappears with its garrison. Perhaps six more big ones land behind and before, and that goes on for an hour and a half. The front line is a little ridge of mud and sandbags and blood. The air is reeking with exploding missiles and screaming with shrapnel and sweeping bullets. All communication trenches are blown in and wires out in half a dozen places. Reinforcements come up over the open and all the time the sentries strain out in the darkness and watch for the appearance of the Bosche. In the distance the bombardment rolls like thunder without intermission, but in the middle it is like "The Tempest" played on a Grand by a madman. The shrapnel bursts are like a running succession of staccato notes; the smaller trench mortars and howitzers form the middle theme, and the big stuff—eight and ten inch—form the bass chords. And they make the place rock and heave.

Well, the Huns didn't get in, though they got a bombing post in No Man's Land; there are signs of a splendid fight there, which of course was out of the shell area. And then the relief parties get to work. In the morning the report is perhaps 16 missing: at midday the digging party have brought it down to eight; at night still four missing.

Slowly fatigue parties rebuild the line and some other sector gets its gruelling. Of course the Huns get theirs too. Well, that is just a little raid. You wonder how anyone can survive, but, as you know, there are wonderfully few casualties in artillery strafes. The war can page 27 never be won by big guns alone. You feel a miserable helpless mite as you go round to help men or crouch in a bay knowing you must get it. You give up all hope and trust it will be quick. There are some wonderful deeds of heroism, some of which may perhaps be recognised. Our bit did not get the strafe very badly!

* * * * *

Extract from letter received from T. D. Hall, dated 12th July:—"There is still some feeling between Boer and Britisher here, so far as one can judge from one or two conversations I have had. Some of the latter have no time for anybody Boer. I gather too that the Hertzog element is still fairly strong here, and there are frequent rumours of trouble. The Boers are wonderfully tenacious of their nationality and General Botha himself will direct all his efforts towards maintaining in South Africa the Africander ideals, and hopes that the two races will combine to form a South African nation, an integral part of the British Empire, but having its own definite national characteristics. .... At Cape Town we had a good deal of time on shore and some of us took the opportunity of engaging a motor-car for a trip around the mountain—fifty miles. It is the finest drive I have ever taken—first along a coast road gradually rising up to the top of the mountain spur, whence we had a magnificient view of beaches and a sea of vivid blue. At Hout Bay we met a number of returned men from East Africa and had a talk with them. On Monday evening, Neville Wright and I, after a day spent sight-seeing at Grote Schuur and elsewhere, were given permission to go to a Peter Dawson concert which we enjoyed very much. On Tuesday we pulled out—after having heard of the beginning of the offensive which greatly excited us, as you may imagine."

* * * * *

K. S. Caldwell writes from "Somewhere in France." "I expect I had better tell you a little about our getting here. Needless to say the change is very much to everyone's liking so far, though the weather leaves a good deal to be desired. However, that will anon improve. "We folded our tents" &c. and left Egypt on the 5th April and, page 28 fortune of the right kind being specially attendant upon me, I was detailed for and proceeded with an advanced party to Port Said (the rest left from Alexandria) and embarked upon a magnificent Atlantic liner the "Franconia." Our run across to Marseilles was a five days' spell of unbroken bliss. The ship was unimpeachable, the weather faultless and our work absolutely nil. What more could man desire? We arrived off Marseilles Heads on Wednesday morning, butting into about as sweet a little gale as anyone could wish to meet anywhere. It put Wellington's utmost effort absolutely in the shade. This necessitated our anchoring on the Western side of the Harbour under shelter of the hills where we loafed all day. By Thursday morning the conditions had so far improved as to enable us to berth and disembark during the early part of the day. Here to our surprise and gratification we found that duties would detain us in Marseilles for some five or six days, so we proceeded to make ourselves comfortable at the best Hotel. In spite of our work and our unsympathetic English-Office superiors we managed to see the main features of interest in the city and had a really good time for a week. It is a remarkably pretty place in many ways but as far as inhabitants go, a most unholy mixture—still it was a great relief to get among white people again. One thing surprised me considerably and that was the roughness of the country—why it knocks Wellington all to pieces. Last Tuesday we got under way for the North, having completed our job. I am now comfortably settled down in a ripping little billet in a tiny village up north. Life, I can tell you, is so far tip-top up here."

* * * * *

N. L. Wright writes from "somewhere at sea." "It is good that we have had something to relieve the monotony and what I have seen of Africa has quite charmed me. I will start from our arrival at Durban, the most charming town I have ever seen. We reached this place on the 27th June. From the distance we could see ranges of hills backed by a range of mountains. As we drew near, the town appeared to be built on the flats at the foot of two converging ranges of hills.

page 29

The entrance to the harbour is narrow and on the side opposite the town there are whaling slips. On these slips were two huge whales and we afterwards found out that this is an important whaling centre. As we drew in between the two breakwaters we could see the harbour opening out. It is very pretty but shallow in many places and so not safe. We were afterwards marched down to the beach, which spreads out in front of the whole city. On our way back we passed along the Marine Parade. It is very fine. It fronts the finest lot of hotels I have ever seen. For beauty and variety of architecture, nothing in New Zealand can compare with these. I was surprised at the large number of hotels, but this is really a seaside resort for the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. During the winter months, when snow falls at these places, people flock to Durban and all the hotels are filled. We were dismissed and looked out for a rickshaw but had to take a tram car (which was free to us). We had a look round the city and were chiefly struck by the beautiful Town Hall. It is really a huge place, about twice as big as our new Parliament Buildings. On the whole it is a very progressive and finely built place. Next day we got leave from 9 a.m.–2 p.m. as the boat was due to leave early in the afternoon. We were advised to visit the Berea or the residential part of the town. So we took a tram car and set out. It was a most delightful ride and a beautiful one. The houses were mostly very fine, quite a different style of architecture from our houses. They are built here as cool and airy as possible, so that wide verandahs and high rooms are popular. The vegetation is really gorgeous. In this tropical clime the flowers are mostly bright-coloured and large. There was one large flower about 10-12 inches across, searlet colouerd; another creeper has long golden bell-shaped flowers and others are equally beautiful. On the way we stopped at the Zoo, which is much larger than our own and of course of more interest to us because of the strange animals. On our way back to catch the tram, a lady asked us to afternoon tea, but we could not spare the time. The people at this place really treated us splendidly; quite a number of men were from New Zealand having settled here after the Boer War.

page 30

Athol Hudson writes from the Mediterranean Sea. "I believe we are off to War in earnest at last. Anyway you will know long before this reaches you. To-day we passed the Greek island Crete, and saw snow-capped mountains—a welcome change after Egypt's sand. Everyone was sick of Egypt, the 7th Reinforcements had been there since November—five months of it they had, while we of the 9ths had found two quite sufficient. Of course it was interesting, these places always are, and Cairo was an education in many ways. For about a month we were camped on the east side of the Canal. All the shipping came through at night; each liner had a powerful searchlight on its bows, which lit up the banks for a mile ahead. As they passed our pickets the passengers would throw cigarettes at the troops, while our men wrapped their letters round cartridges and threw them on board, trusting to the picker up's posting them at the first port. Everyday, aeroplanes used to fly overhead on their journey to the Turkish lines some 100 miles away. I think the Turks realise that we are too well prepared for them to even hope of making a successful attack. The lower class Egyptian would interest you; his commercial instincts are highly developed, though his methods of satisfying them lack refinement. In the soldiers he sees a good thing and makes the most of it. Curiously enough he can always pick the new arrivals and fleece them accordingly. On our first day in Cairo, three of us went for a short drive in a "garry" and after some discussion decided to leave the fare to the driver. 40 piastres he said (8/.). Well, we thought we would give him 15, but seeing a native policeman handy, asked him what the total fare should be. Now the native policeman never allows himself to be allied with what he thinks the weaker side, so he manfully supported us and said 3 piastres."

* * * * *

K. Henderson writes from France. "The shelling is something awful. Artillery has made leaps and bounds since the beginning of the war. One can have no ideas of what high explosive shells are like unless one experiences it. The other afternoon another officer and I were caught in a communication trench in the middle of a German strafe of 5.9 inch high explosive shells. We had to lie flat down on the duck boards and couldn't move for twenty page 31 minutes. These enormous shells are coming over every few seconds—some bursting in front of us and some behind—we got absolutely covered in earth. The concussion of the explosion is something awful. When it was finished we got up and thanked heaven that none had actually landed on us. One had landed in the communication trench about ten yards further on. The nervous strain was awful. About seventy shells must have landed within a radius of fifty yards while we were there. ... N. S. Johnson is away just now at a school for a month's course. He left at beginning of the month. Ken Clayton is still alive and kicking."

* * * * *

Extract from a letter from A. B. Sievwright:—"Things have not gone well with this Company since we reached France, especially as regards officers. As a matter of fact I am the only one left of those who came from Egypt. Two have crossed the great divide. One is detached for another Company, and Capt. Narby, our O.C. went away on the 16th with appendicitis. He will probably be away some time. Thus, by a process of exhaustion, I am O.C. of the Wellington West Coast Coy. holding a few hundred yards of the great Western Battle front......My duties entail general supervision of the trenches and I am always on the move, and what little sleep I get is broken. I have a couple of hundred men to look after—clothe, work, feed, sleep, besides the getting up of everything for our defence. I wish I could give you details, but that cannot be till "aprés la guerre." But this I can say—my men, N.C.Os. and officers are just great. They are in fine spirit, wellfed and well-clothed. They know we are on the winning side. They see that we are masters of the air—for they have seen duels in the air victorious to our side, and also the falling in flames to the ground of balloons used by the enemy for observation. It was indeed a grand sight to see four of these destroyed by incendiary bombs dropped from aeroplanes. Our men also see that we are putting over shells at the rate of 5 to 1. Our Artillery is superior to that of the Bosche. They have seen the trenches of the Hun pummeled by our devastating trench mortars and sand bags going fifty feet in the air. Our machine gunnery is excellent and our snipers have done so well that the Hun daren't show an eyebrow over his parapet.

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Yesterday afternoon the Bosche opened with shrapnel very suddenly just where I was directing some strengthening works. There was a scatter, and luckily none was hit, but I got around a sand-bagged corner just in time. A few nights ago I took out 20 men to put up wire in front of our line. We were just finishing when we were spotted and the Bosche opened with a machine gun, after putting up flare lights to locate us. We all dropped flat on the ground, but that was little protection as the ground at this point is perfectly level right up to the opposing trenches. However he stopped after a burst or two. We had just finished when along came the rat-tat-tat of cracking bullets again just a couple of feet over our heads. When the gun paused I ordered the men in over the parapet, while my N.C.O. and I waited behind to see them safely in. They got in all right and we were just following when swish swish—they came again. My nose was on the grass in about 2 seconds and I got the fright of my life when a bullet struck an iron standard just at my side. Another pause came so the two of us moved back slowly and carefully. I was just crossing an old trench when the machine gun opened again. I dived head first straight into that old trench—but it was soft and slimy. I was covered with mud from head to foot. It was simply a miracle none of us was hit. The fellows treated the whole thing as a joke and were ready to go out over the parapet the next night to continue the job. However there is one pleasing feature about warfare in France. We live well. Just listen to our daily menu—breakfast, 8 a.m., Quaker oats, fried eggs and bacon, and toast with as much tea and bread and butter and jam, as we can manage. Lunch at 1 p.m., soup made from tablets with barley added, followed by meat and vegetable hash. Dinner at 7 p.m., roast beef and roast potatoes, and onions with stewed (dried) apricots and sago or rice. In addition we often get cabbages, rhubarb, cherries, gooseberries and even strawberries from orchards round about our trenches. Our orderlies wander about and do well at the foraging game...... It seems strange getting the English papers in the trenches. But every night about midnight I get one of the best London dailies sent to me by my Quarter-Master Sergeant when he sends up the men's rations. Thus for instance I get Monday morning's paper at mid page 33 night Tuesday. Sometimes it is the "Daily Telegraph" or perhaps the "Daily Mail" or "London Times."

F. L. G. West writes from School of Musketry, Hythe, Kent. "I'm a worker at last, after nearly 9 months' sick leave, and to break me in gently I have been taking a course here. We work from 9 till 5 and have about 5 exams.

Down here we are quite close to Dover (now noted in the geography books for its Sunday Air Raids!) and to Folkestone. I was in the latter place yesterday and while sitting at lunch in the Hotel Metropole on the front, saw my first ship sunk! There are crowds of destroyers and small trawlers and things about, but this cargo steamer turning over, caught our eyes and we watched it disappear gracefully. Then everybody went on with their lunches! And in the morning's paper there were two lines "Dover reports "St. Cecilia" sunk (Lloyd). Shows how used we are getting to boats going down! Don't even know whether it was mined or torpedoed. I expected to see a few German aeroplanes, but evidently they had a holiday this Sunday.

From one or two things I hear, I have not the least doubt that a landing is expected on the coast soon. I hope they make up their minds quickly as I am only here another week!

West also writes from Salisbury. "I have at last again been declared "fit for general service"; but so far I have only got as far as the "Command Depot" at Codford near Salisbury. From here I pass to the Training Camp at Sling and from there in due course (which means any old time in the next 6 months) I pass to France. Salisbury Plain is a great spot at this time of the year. On the night of my arrival two of us went into a field adjoining our camp and picked 54 varieties of wildflowers in bloom. There are about a dozen camps or blocks of huts for about 1000 men each near where we are, and only about two of them are occupied. The air of desolation and the thoughts it gives rise to almost make me break into a poetical lament on the passing of K's. army:

"And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return."

But its much simpler to steal from Keats.

By the way, it is Keats, isn't it?