Dear Dad, I'll tell you a bit about what I saw......
SOMME FRANCE,August 21, 1916
Just a note before we go in again. We are bivouacking on the slope of a hill just outside Albert with its outstretching tower and the statue of the Virgin and Child leaning at right angles over the city. We are coming again at Pozieres, which at present is, and has been for some time now a hell. Last time went in we lost 9. 500 out of the Brigade of 1,200 and 900 from the 22nd. So you can guess what sort of time we have had and even now, with four lots of re-inforcements our Battalion, including transport, all details numbers 520 with the fighting strength of about 400.
I'll tell you a bit about what I saw whilst in and if you know that we are out of it and resting or in a quiet part of the line, you can tell Mum anything you think fit, but I don't want to upset her at all. We think that this will be our last stunt in the Push and are not sorry.
July 26 we are billeted at a place called Lealvilliers, about six miles from Albert, and at 3.30a.m. commence to march in. We reach Albert and have a rest and dinner and leaving our packs etc we march early in the afternoon in fighting order past the old original front lines where the Advance started. There is an enormous mine crater in the remains of the Huns' old front line, just in front of La Boiselle, or rather, where La Boiselle used to be. The crater is about 75 yards across and 100 feet deep, an enormous hole in the ground, and when fired, was supposed to have destroyed a stronghold and about 300 Germans.
The place still smells strongly of their remains. In fact, the stench is everywhere, and in places almost overpowering. We move up past battery after battery of guns, and under cover of darkness, relieve the 7th Battalion in the support trench running through the scattered bricks that was once Pozieres (I'm not sure how that is spelt). We were shelled all night but luckily sustained no casualties, but with daybreak, the bombardment started in real earnest and mostly all from big guns 6-8-10 inch howitzers, and soon our trench got it properly – men buried and blown to pieces, others with terrible injuries. Whilst answering the first call, a shell burst just in front of us, and sent huge clods of earth and debris on to us, but luckily we missed pieces of the shell. I was hit on the head and everything was black for sometime but I soon got it alright.
Norm Allen had his ankle hurt and was unable to stand so crawled into a makeshift dugout whilst we carried on with our work. The dressing station was half a mile away, about 200 yards of trench, 200 yards of no-man's land, then about 500 yards of road – the whole being shelled without intermission.
Our patient was a fellow who had been buried for about half an hour and was unconscious, but as we progressed, he came to and got stronger. So, as we were being shelled to some order and our progress was slow, I made him try his legs with my assistance so we made somewhat faster progress.
Then, over came about half a dozen gas shells all about us. At the first sniff I knew what was coming and found the patient had no gas gas helmet and, as I had my two, I threw him one over. By this time I was gasping and just had time to pull my helmet on. The gas is awful stuff and when I looked around there was our man bolting along a mined Sap in the wrong direction, and a sap full of dead men – Australians and Germans – an awful sight, and it was a long time before I could get our terrorised patient to his senses and bring him along.
Anyhow, we got through Fritz's barrage alright, then, after a short rest, started back to the trenches again. This went on all day, 50% of our Stretcher Bearers only came out of it, some were killed, others wounded, the remainder shell shocked and concussion.
We three seemed to bear charmed lives and came through unharmed but at about 5 o'clock we learnt that poor Norm Allen, along with a number of other, were buried, about 25 yards of trench being completely filled in and not a hope of digging them out.
Our casualties ended about this time but then the 24th began to lose heavily and we took down some of their men. It was decided about nightfall that they would withdraw our company from the trench and as we had lost every officer but one (who had to be sent from Albert), our company was ordered to do a bit of digging out in “no-man's land” and then withdraw to Sausage Valley (where all the guns were). Well, coming back after dark, we lost our way and wandered about for some time until we found the trench again so as we could get our equipment. Se we decided to wait for our company at the road, but as the shelling started heavily again, we took shelter behind a heavy concrete building constructed by the Germans but as we were enfiladed from two sides it was not a very good place. Whilst crouching there, I found that I was along side two corpses – poor chaps who also had been trying to shelter there – so I shifted to another side but there were more there also, and by this time I was about done so we went back by (..?..) and picked the company up later. I might say that the whole route from the trench to the dressing station was strewn with dead – some weeks old, here a leg, then some other part. Everywhere you looked were men blown to pieces, it was ghastly but my nerves went at last and when I found I was sitting against a couple that night, it finished me.
For the next few days we were on fatigue – going back and forwards to the trenches with bombs and rations etc, losing men each trip, and we also lost many men in the Valley as they were constantly shelling the guns.
Whilst there I found time to visit the old German front line trenches and explored their dugout system which is no less than marvellous. Whole suites of rooms thirty feet under, some of them papered, and with lino on the floor. All had electric light, in fact every convenience, and how the Tommies ever shifted them is marvellous. Some were still full of dead Huns and were unapproachable.
Friday August 14th. The 22nd received orders to charge and drive Fritz over the Pozieres Ridge, so toward evening, we made our way through the Saps towards the front line and hop off trench, but we were spotted and heavily shelled, and owing to some block were unable to move forward. So we had to retire and try another sap but there also we were blocked and in the end we were disorganised a mile nearly from our trench and with the preliminary bombardment just about to begin.
So the order is given to advance across the open to our positions. We Stretcher Bearers of course, were busy attending to the fellows knocked out in the saps and so are unable to go up with the lads.
Our preliminary bombardment was awful. You would think that the world was coming to an end, and only lasting three minutes on his front line. Yet many of our lads ran right over the remains of the trench, not knowing there was one or had been one there. The few left alive didn't put up much of a fight, the artillery had taken it all out of them.
All the while our artillery was playing his second line and in about seven minutes our next two waves went over and took his next trench. Our casualties were heavy, we were losing men from his artillery fire and from some machine guns he had managed to save. The Huns didn't put up any determined resistance and, at first, our chaps decided not to take any prisoners, but when they saw what a cowed lot they were they couldn't kill them in cold blood, and in all, took, I think about 200. Fritz kept shelling all night and in the morning counter attacked but did no good whatever – many of the men throwing down their rifles and putting their hands up. Some were allowed to come in, if they were lucky enough to get through our barrage, and a frightened lot they were too. All said they were heartily sick of war. Many could speak English, a lot French.
We Stretcher Bearers got it in the neck again, the chap that took Norm Allen's place being killed (Charlie McKinnon), Stan Fletcher wounded severely. In all, there came out of it five old bandsmen and one reinforcement bandsman.
Some of us got recommended for a Military Medal. I suppose I won't be able to write any more as it is just about dark and I want to find the Padre to give him this and see if he will get it posted for me.
I applied for a transfer from Hqrs to B Coy as the band is (..?..) and got it. Also I went up for stripes and now have two although no-one is gazetted until 3 months after. I may lose them as some of the minor casualties will be soon coming back and there are many non-coms amongst them. If I come through this I don't think we will be coming back here again but to a quieter part of the line.
I've just seen Dory Newing and had a long yarn to him. He wished to be remembered to you. Lcpl Smart has been left behind in charge of packs – lucky dog.
I must close now, sorry I'm so hurried. Your affectionate son, Charles.
Citation for Military Medal
Pte. Hugh Massey
Pte. Charles Tucker
Pte. Stanley Fletcher
Pte. Harold Allen (missing)
"For conscientious gallantry as stretcher bearers on 29th July* (*at Pozieres) when they worked continuously for over 30 hours under heavy fire carrying more than 50 cases to the aid post. They again distinguished themselves on the 4/5th August by their devotion to duty in carrying wounded men through the Pozieres barrages."