For months past, it has been known to the whole army that a push was coming off sometime in June up Ypres way, and to anyone in that area it was apparent as daylight, for the preparations were stupendous and on all sides, evidence of a coming battle could be seen.
Great caves had been excavated in the sides of hills, capable of holding a whole brigade, deep dugouts within a stones throw of the front had been made to accommodate the different staffs and vast piles of rations, ammunition, wood and the million and one articles needed were stacked in all manner of secluded places.
For many weeks guns of all calibres have been arriving and taking up their positions and for weeks prior to the battle they roared hardly without cessation day and night.
At night it was terrifying, for not only did the bombardment seem more intense, but the whole landscape was lit with a strange blue light caused by chain of gun flashes.
All roads for miles back were black with traffic of all descriptions from motor cycles to tanks and from hand carts to lumbering G.S wagons.
The sky always carried its quota of aeroplanes and the constant work of the enemy aircraft batteries would cause at times, big patches of black cloud.
All the time we were preparing, the enemy was doing his damndest to hinder us. The few planes that ever crossed our lines did fine work, for our dumps, dugout entrances, railways, crossroads and billets were shelled with devilish accuracy and at nights he would throw over into our lines thousands of silent shells, which on landing emitted poisonous fumes, but thanks to our respirators the numbers affected by the gas were very small.
Every man of the thousands involved in the push, knew exactly what he was going to do, for the whole thing had been rehearsed, talked over and lectured upon for months past. Models of the area were on view, the men had been shown the ground they were to take from various vantage points and every conceivable contingency had been prepared for.
Thousands of telephone wires had been buried right up to our front line and it was the job of a number of our section to join reels of wire on the front line cable head and follow the first line of infantry across to a certain position in the Bosche second line.
The prelude to the attack was as dramatic as it was possible to conceive, for right to the very fraction of a second of the arranged time the earth shook and heaved as the result of the exploding of a chain of mines up and down the front. 10 seconds later the artillery threw in front of our advancing waves, a curtain of shells which left our infantry hardly anything to do, or nothing could stand under our awful fire and so they went on and on, past their first and second objectives and halted in the third with an absurdly small number of casualties, but the toll soon mounted up for the enemy rallied and made counter attack after counter attack, assisted by a galling fire from his guns, but it was of no avail against our men who stood their ground wonderfully and were able, later in the day, to make forward and gain their final objective.
My job was not with the forward party, but with the party who were detailed to watch the lines from our brigade dugout to the front line. The attack started at 3 a.m. and shortly after 5 a.m. our first break occurred, which necessitated me ascending a hill overlooking the whole scene.
All the way up, streams of men were moving towards the battle front, all carrying something, mostly 3AA shovels and water. Coming back were the wounded, the shellshocked and the prisoners, the latter looking anything but soldiers. Dusty, frightened, puny individuals, they were looking anything but a part of the so much talked about Prussian fighting machine.
The most noticeable thing was our balloons, scores of them tethered in a long line running back as far as the eye could see. Over the enemy lines lay a thick pall of dust and the air was filled with the ear-splitting noise of our 18 pounders which had just moved up and the horrible rattle of machine gun fire.
All that day up till 5 p.m. I was constantly fixing broken lines and just when things appeared a trifle quiet I was detailed as one of the party to relieve the men manning the report centre in the Bosche lines.
I can tell you it was a queer feeling walking across our old No Man's Land, a strip of territory that hardly a foot had trodden on for 2½ years prior to that day and later we reached the enemy front line or at least where it used to be, for hardly a semblance of a trench could be seen, due to our bombardment.
Just a mass of shell holes it was, with a litter of wood, concrete blocks and dead men. Somehow an enemy corpse seemed a natural sight, but later when I saw a number of our dead it was with difficulty that I could walk further.
Eventually we found a dugout which by some means had escaped destruction. It was made of concrete, yards thick, and the entrance carried a thick steel door on which was inscribed in German "Welcome." Mounted in a corner, with its muzzle pointing through a slit directed on our old front line, was a machine gun, the most deadly of all the Hun offensive weapons.
The late occupants had left, evidently in a great hurry, for not an article was missing and even such things as penknives and cigarette cases were lying about.
We all made a rush for souvenirs and succeeded in bringing a great quantity of things to light, including a dozen bottles of soda water, a quantity of dark and heavy bread, some bully beef, a few biscuits, a parcel containing a sausage wrapped in a Frankfurt newspaper and tin containing 100 of the finest Turkish cigarettes I have ever smoked.
From what I saw of the enemy equipment, rifles and other weapons, clothing and other gear, we have nothing to learn as any one article of our things is better than his. The one thing I saw that was any way superior to anything of ours was the telephone wire which proved to be solid copper, well insulated with rubber and covered first with silk and then with cotton.
I explored quite a score of dugouts and nowhere could I see any evidence of shortage of the things one reads about in our papers. Food abounded on all sides. The clothing was thick and durable and the use of cotton, copper, rubber and steel was in no way scrimped.
The battle rolled on throughout the night and we had various excursions running new lines and repairing existing ones. The excursions meant dodging from shell hole to trench, flat on the belly here and racing like mad there, crouching behind a rise perhaps or crawling down a ditch. It is a terrible strain this, shell dodging, and no man can do it or long. He either gets hit, shell shocked or collapses, so we were relieved inside of 16 hours.
What a relief it was to get back to our deep down dugout and flop on the floor away from the horrible sights, the awful noises and the stench and to sleep the round of the clock.
Five days we carried on before our brigade was relieved and I have no idea what exactly I did on each day, or how I did it. Among our runners, there were eight killed but the signal section came off lightly with five wounded.
The day we were relieved gave me a sight of what seemed Paradise, for after marching some two miles just innumerable dumps, gun positions, workshops, camps, wagon packs and the usual road sights we came to the brow of a hill which overlooked a wide stretch of perfectly green fields, dotted with belts of trees, tiny villages and church spires.
It looked so beautifully peaceful and lovely after the shell torn valley a bare two miles, that I half thought I was dreaming. It is in a village among those lovely fields where we are now enjoying a real rest, nothing to do but talk eat and observe the goslings and chicks around us which are as numerous as flies.
Your parcel could not have arrived at a better time, for it came right on the eve of the stunt and as I had not been near a shop for nearly a month, everything was very acceptable. The chocolate was a godsend and the safety pins invaluable to me as a lineman. The pencils, paper, soap, everything in fact was just what was wanted, so I am deeply grateful to you.
Something is wrong with the mails again, so I have nothing of yours to acknowledge, but am looking eagerly forward to being able to answer something in the next few days.
Best of love and kisses to you both,
Your loving son,