Topic: July 1917 letters (3) from France (WWI)

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During a meeting of the Patriots Defence Force Motorcycle Club in 2009, Patron Allen Coster shared the following three letters from his Uncle Stewart. Published in the 57th Hauraki News (2009 11).

Does this article look wrong? Click here for an archived version.

 

6th Hauraki Insignia

France, 10/7/17

My dear Amy,

Just a line or two to let you know I am still in the land of the living but at present not in the line. At present we are having a few days spell and it was 

Just before we left England we had four days leave. I went to London and in those four days there was not much of London that I did not see. I was through the Tower of London, St. Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Parliament buildings. I saw Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace, Chrystal Palace, Hyde Park. Went for a row in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, walked down Rotten Row on Sunday morning. I saw Richmond Park, Hampton Court, Dulwich Gardens, Kensington Museum, the London Zoo, the Royal Exchange, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, the Strand, Pall Mall, the Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, London Bridge. I was out in the slums of London in the East End near White Chapel and Poplar. The conditions were horrible and poverty everywhere. I was up the River Thames on a lovely Sunday afternoon, the trip was magnificent.needed too, but long ere this reaches you we will all be where the whizz bangs fly.

However about the 4th or 5th of June we crossed the Channel and arrived in France and we could plainly see that we were drawing near to the seat of war.I have not time to describe all but tis sufficient to say I saw just all that was possible to see in that time. London was of course crowded with soldiers, some back from the trenches and some going to the trenches, some on leave from the various English Camps.

The country here at present is magnificent. There is nothing in N.Z. to equal it I don't care where one goes and judging by the harvest this year France will not starve and I think that England might learn a lesson from her. There are no fences, or very few, the country right up to three miles from the front line is in either wheat, oats, beans, peas, potatoes, clover, marigold, hops and there is not a waste piece of land.

As I passed through the country on the way up to the line I could not blame Germany for wanting it for it was perfect but when for the first time I stood on a modern battlefield and saw the ruin and havoc and desolation caused and still being caused by German and our shells that flew overhead, some of them landing in crops of wheat and mangolas (?) I realised for the first time the awfulness of war.

I could not describe Messines Battlefield to you if I tried for the havoc and ruin baffles all description. Just imagine all those Aspen trees around your place torn, smashed and uprooted not a branch on any one of them and of those that stood only a portion of the trunk remaining. Imagine those paddocks around your house for a mile or more on either side so smashed up with shell fire that not a blade of grass is to be seen. Imagine the shell holes to be so close together that it would be impossible for one to stand on a portion of the ground that was not broken by shells. Imagine broken barbed wire entanglements, broken trenches and smashed dug-outs and here and there a small wooden cross marking the grave of a soldier perhaps or I saw in one or two cases those crosses broken and the grave smashed by shell fire. It seems horrible to think that not even the dead can rest and be untouched by those damnable (pardon the expression) shells.

Scattered over the field I saw .303ammo, hand grenades, old broken rifles. German equipment of all description, unexploded shells, dead Germans and half buried bodies.

However, tis all in the game but it seems that nothing can stand against the terrific fire of the artillery. I saw an Aspen tree the size of one of those near the Old House at your place completely uprooted and lifted in the air by a big shell so you can imagine what chance a trench would have. However many live through it but I sometimes wonder how they manage it.

But however, enough of the war. I received eight newspapers and fourteen letters in the last mail from New Zealand so I am not doing so bad. Your letter was one of them. It was good of you to write, Amy, because letters from home are worth a lot.

In a recent casualty list I saw that A. L. Vickers had lost his left hand. I suppose it is Laurie. If tis so then back to N.Z. he will go and in spite of the loss of his left hand he is lucky.

Well, Amy, I am lying in the shade of an ash tree on the edge of a crop of wheat. Tis a warm sunny evening and not a sound disturbs the stillness. Tis hard to imagine there is a war on. In the sky overhead are sailing four of our planes. The wonderful control they have over these machines now. Tis beautiful to see an aeroplane high up suddenly spiral dive to right near the ground then glide along and up and off again.

They come down head first at a terrific speed spinning round like a cork-screw. Tis truly wonderful. However Amy I must close now for I have other letters to write and the chance does not always present itself.

Remember me to all at Home and to Uncle Neil and Auntie Grace. Tell Uncle Neil I want turkey for Christmas dinner 1918. I can live on anything now and do not much care what I eat and can sleep anywhere and anyhow but when old N.Z. sees me again I'm afraid I will be a bit too particular.

How is                         . Does he still persist and have you squashed him. Poor fellow he  must, like all of us learn by bitter experience but his intentions were good and who can blame him if his aspirations were high. "He who aimeth at the sky etc."

I must close now, Amy,

Goodbye Cousin mine,

Best wishes and fondest thoughts

 

From Stewart

_______________________

(date unspecified)

France

My Dear Amy,

While the opportunity is here I am writing in answer to your letter to me which I got by the mail about ten days ago. Tis needless for me to tell you how pleased I was to hear from you but I am afraid this letter will not be a very interesting reply. However I will do my best but if I ramble from one thing to another just please excuse. Though the pen may be mightier than the sword, to my hand tis less familiar.

At present we are well back from the line but it is the usual calm before the storm may be a local one like the cyclone in Huntly, short, sharp and terrific. However the country here is very quiet and beautiful, the quiet shady roads, the quaint old-fashioned French farm houses, the trees and the hedges and the harvest in stook all over the countryside makes a scene that makes one think that war is a nightmare of the worst form.

I am sitting in a stook of wheat this lovely Sunday evening. The day has been warm and beautiful and this is a perfect end of a perfect day. In a harvest field close by two girls and one old man are working, a few soldiers are strolling down the road in their usual careless manner. A French farmer is driving a big load of sheaves along the road and sitting on top of the load are three little kiddies. A girl is leading two cows home to be milked and stalled for the night. A motor ambulance rushes past and disappears in a cloud of dust and the warm evening sun shines over the harvest fields and the quiet countryside making as perfect and as beautiful a scene as I have ever seen. Tis hard to think that a few miles away the awful destruction and desolation of war is going on, that the guns are growling and shells are disturbing the quiet of this Sunday evening with their long drawn scream and angry explosion, that hourly human lives are being destroyed or maimed and all because a few men decided that it should be so.

The magnitude of the war, the awful sacrifices and sufferings that it brings in its path you cannot realise but France is a land of suffering and sorrow truly drenched in blood and tears. As one walks along the smooth metalled roads under the shady trees in the quiet of the evening he for a time forgets war and all its horrors. Wherever one goes in France and at every cross roads and quiet corner can be seen an image of the crucifixion of Christ. These images placed there long ago are truly symbolical of the suffering of France now.

I can see nothing pleasing in the sight of an image of a human being pinned to a cross, a look of anguish on his face and a crown of thorns on his brow. Surely one sees enough crucifixion of life and happiness here without seeing it symbolised at every corner. However it shows the intensely religious spirit of France which has probably never been greater than now. Every Sunday morning whether wet or fine the people old and young go to Mass and then come home and work in the harvest field doing their duty to God and their country. One cannot help but admire the cheerful courage with which they carry on with their work right up to and even in front of our lines. In many cases the girls work in the harvest fields while overhead scream British and German shells. I will relate the case that I saw myself. We were returning from the line one morning and on our way we crossed over a paddock of wheat lying in sheaves on the ground. Our batteries were hidden along the edge of the field and the Germans were doing their best to whack them out and the girls in the field between our guns and the Germans which were, of course, several miles away, were stooking this wheat heedless of the fact that shells were bursting in among the stooks. I was amazed, but still if that wheat was not harvested those people starved during the winter. It was a choice of two evils one a certainty and the other a possibility of escape. All houses here are of brick and tiled roofs and to see some of these houses which are under gunfire is to realize to a slight degree the sufferings of some of the French people here. Their houses smashed to pieces, a mere heap of broken bricks, their nearest and dearest on earth killed what have they to live for? Is it any wonder that their moral life is lowered. Tis impossible for some people to rise above the circumstances and when all that makes life sweet has gone they go down - down - deep down.

However the old world will turn right side up someday I hope. As far as the end of the war is concerned it will not be this winter that is certain and I think the less said about it the better. As Lloyd George says, "Let us cease jabbering and get on with the war" but again as he rather poetically puts it "The sun still shines bright on the banners of the Allied Armies on the Western

Front." So cheerio and lets hope that it will soon shine bright on the Homecoming. A young man proposing to girl said,

"I will love you till the stars fall."

She said, "Longer."

He said, "I will love you till time and eternity are no more." She said, "Longer."

He said, "I will love you till the end of the war." And she said, "Oh my darling."

So we all have different opinions on the matter and no one is sure.

Well Amy, there is a lot that I could tell you and no doubt if I was at home I would do so but out here with thousands of miles of rolling ocean between us it is, to say the least, chilling. Of my experiences in the line, few though they are, I do not feel like writing. Probably you know that poor old McKinnon is killed. A better fellow I have never met and all who knew him felt his loss as only a soldier here can feel the loss of a good comrade. Of the company that I came over with forty are now killed or wounded out of one hundred and twenty. The strain on ones nerves during a hot time in the line is heavy but one does not feel it until after he comes out and then the reaction sets in and he feels a peculiar depressed feeling as though he does not care what happens and many lads to drive away that feeling go to an Estaminet (?) and get drunk and some people cry out about the immorality of a soldiers life. Tis a great pity some would not come out here and live under circumstances that are neither pleasant or congenial and certainly not conducive to the growth of all that is noblest in ones nature and then perhaps they would remain silent or wonder at the morality of a soldiers life.

By the way just about five minutes Sir Thomas McKenzie paid a visit to our sleeping quarters in this old French Barn just here, passed a few remarks about our comfortable quarters asked a few of the boys the same old questions "How long have you been here?' "What draft did you arrive with?" "Were you in the Messines Battle?" smiled indulgently but cheerfully and strolled out of the gate and out to his car and departed. Of course it will be in the paper probably in a couple of days about Sir Thomas' visit to N.Z. troops on France etc. etc. However he came - he goes - he forgets and we forget and the world wags on and the guns growl as much as ever.

Last night, Amy, another young fellow and myself decided that we would combine the gentle arts of peace with the sterner work of war so we helped two French girls stook the wheat. They could not speak English nor we French so it was rather a dumb show. However we enjoyed the work. It recalled other days when life was more congenial. I do not know whether our efforts were appreciated or not but I have not yet forgotten how to stook wheat.

This a.m. I helped a French girl milk and found out also that I could still milk cows. I got a big bowl of milk for my trouble so I will repeat the performance some other time. The old French farmer here and his daughter were carting in wheat this afternoon and about a dozen of us decided to help. We had just the one horse and cart but we took charge and in true colonial style carted in his wheat for him. It looked more like a picnic party than anything else but it was good fun. Enjoyment can be found here if one looks for it and after all, Amy, no matter how bad the circumstances are tis a poor heart that never rejoices.

Last night we had a concert in a big YMCA Marquee under the trees. It was good and I for one enjoyed it very much. The YMCA has done more for us out here than any other institution and they deserve all the support one can give them. I've seen their huts smashed by shell fire often. They follow up as close as possible to the line and to get a hot cup of tea and a packet of biscuits just after leaving the line has, I have sometimes felt, almost saved my life. They are good, real good. You will never hear a N.Z. soldier speak other than well of them.

Well Amy I think I had better close now. I hope you are all well out there and I also hope that it will not be long before this cursed war is over and we are all home again. That I hope, more than ever for my peoples sake for I know only too well how they must worry. A few years of this life would turn a man into a morbid pessimist a curse to himself and to all others. However I should not complain, I am content to take life as it comes and live each day by itself. There are times when one is almost afraid to think of the future.

Au Revoir Amy, remember me to all at home. Gladden your own little corner of the world even if the road is rough and stony; though the way of life seems long, still smile on and all will be well

And I will still be

Your affectionate cousin, Stewart.

 

_________________________________

 

(date unspecified)

The four days before I left the line for leave it rained and heavy too.

The conditions were awful I was wet to the skin for four days. The trench was wet and up to the knees in mud. The ground was loosened by bursting shells and the trenches kept falling in in places. Men were lying in the mud trying to get sleep. Shell fire smashed the trench and in every little hollow men were lying trying to get as much cover as possible from bursting shells.

One wet misty morning at 4.45 we attacked Fritz. In the early dawn our bombardment was magnificent to watch. A sigh of relief when it was over. The shell fire was the worst of it all. To get to work on the Hun with rifle, bayonet and bomb is not so bad but to sit crouched day and night in a wet muddy trench and hear nothing but the scream of shells is not pleasant and to see your comrades boys you have associated with in N.Z. blown to pieces dying of wounds in the mud and to realise that it may be your turn next is also not pleasant. One of the boys in my section was hit in the face with a piece of shell and half his face taken off. Two other boys in the same section trying to get some sleep in a hollow they had scooped out in the trench - a shell landed between them. The sight was awful. Torn flesh and blood and mud all mixed up and that was all. It produces a queer feeling in those who see it.

The guns I knew were there by the hundreds but they were ominously silent but the men were by them and the ammunition was there and Fritz was to get it soon, very soon. At 5.55 the word came "Get ready". Just once I looked at my loaded rifle, just once I thought of home, just once I wondered how the day would go and with a terrific roar that was appalling our massed guns broke out. The scene as we moved forward was awful but magnificent. I shall never forget it. Of all that happened then I have only a hazy recollection but I was mad and out to kill. More than one German paid the price of poor old Willie's life that day and it was with a feeling of fiendish joy that I used that rifle and bayonet. All primitive instincts were on top but I thought it was a glorious morning.

There was one incident I saw that I shall never forget. A Hun of about 18 years of age lay on the ground and one of our boys stood over him with his bayonet on the Huns stomach and he was saying, "I'm going to kill you you..." The look of terror on that boys face was awful and he was screaming for mercy. I could not see him killed. It was too much like murder. I knocked the bayonet aside and dragged the Hun to his feet. That incident, I will never to my dying day forget but I suppose it is one of many in this land where human life is so cheap.

But enough of war. It is bad enough at times to see it without writing about it so I will ring off.

 

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A version of this article was archived in August 2016 at Perma CC https://perma.cc/H63Z-FHZU.

 

 

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