Notes from Hector McDonald to his Levin Friends - Sidelights on War From Hector McDonald, formerly of the literary staff of the Horowhenua Daily Chronicle, the following letter, addressed to a member of the Chronicle staff, came to hand yesterday:
France, July 18, 1916.
“Fear of the censor forbids me telling you my exact geographical position, and I am compelled to certify that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but family matters. However, as we boys who left home together look on ourselves as one family, perhaps the censor in a generous fit will let me relate to you how we held a front line trench for the first time.
“We landed in France, and we were some weeks before we got to a town that is within a few miles of the trenches. We were billeted in this town about two weeks, and were just beginning to think that war wasn’t such a bad job after all, when we received notice to take over part of the line. My confidence, of which I possessed a good deal then, began to take wings, and I could hardly resist making a fresh will out. I noticed that the others, too, had developed a habit of tilting their hats and scratching thoughtfully. (We all scratch now; but its not through worrying over the military situation.) We didn’t get much time to worry over things, though, for we were given our final instructions (more of my confidence gone) and marched off. We passed through a shell swept village that cannot boast one whole building. Things were not so bad on the march, but just as I was beginning to feel like my warlike spirit returning we discovered that we were lost. Then Sid Smith came back to me and informed me that where we are standing was called Suicide Corner. I felt quite sure that we would be wiped out, but, a guide arrived, and in a few minutes we were in the communication trench. We eventually relieved the chaps who were holding the place and as there were not enough dug-outs to shelter the lot of us, Sid. Smith, Charlie Hook, young Glassford and I - accompanied by an officer - were sent down to the banks of the canal to rest. There we found a steel helmet with a couple of holes through it, also two spare rifles. That upset our plans, and rest for the remainder of that night for us was out of the question. When daylight came I was instructed to light the fire “boil the william,” but I didn’t understand coke, and I used so much wood to get the fire started that I soon had a fine column of smoke going up, and almost no time I had all the opposing forces firing at me and my smoke. There was no breakfast that morning. A new cook was put on after that, and when he wasn’t getting wounded he used to fry bacon and make tea (we lived well in the early days). We were shifted up afterwards, and given a bay in the trench to defend.
“The first day passed quietly, and that night Sid Smith and I, along with a lot of other chaps, went out in No-Man’s land as a covering party to some chaps erecting barbed–wire entanglements. The trenches at this part were only seventy-five yards apart, and as the Huns were sending up star shells by the dozen, I felt the most conspicuous object on the landscape. Shortly after the wirers started work, one of them got hit, and some men were told off to take him in, while three of us went with them to cover their retreat.
Of course we were obliged to crawl on, and with the wounded man groaning, the Germans were landing bullets all round us. Then a strange thing happened. I heard someone behind me, and on looking round I beheld three men crouching in the grass about ten yards away. So as one of them was sneaking up to me I pushed up the safety catch on my rifle and grabbed Charlie Hook’s foot just as he was going over a small ridge. He grabbed Sid Smith, and the two of them came back, and we three waited for the Huns to approach. We could see Fritz, Hans and Yaroah moving about, but they never appeared to get any closer; so after about half-an-hour’s wait we decided to investigate closer. With me in the rear we sneaked on the unsuspecting Huns, but to our amazement discovered that they consisted of two stumps and an empty rum jar. Then we were torn by conflicting emotions. We were pleased that it wasn’t the Germans, but we grieved over the emptiness of the rum jar. We soon got in then, and as it was nearly daylight didn’t go to bed that night. Next day we were told we could sleep; but the officer didn’t know me, for I couldn’t get to sleep no matter what I did. Then when night came I was put on sentry-go, and only the thought that I would be shot if I went to sleep enabled me to keep awake.
“The third day saw us again off duty, and we went into a dug-out to slumber, but alas and alack, just as we were passing into the land of dreams and nightmares I heard a huge gun fired. I sat up, and so did the others, and we listened horror-stricken as the mighty shell came at us.” We’re gone!”. I said; and one of the boys said, “Well, we’re all together!” The shell roared just above the dug out. And as we held our breath it burst in the Germans’ front trench. It was one of our own. Hundreds of times we had the same thing happen to us. You see, as soon as you get inside a dug out it becomes matter of impossibility to tell whose shell it is that’s coming. I think hardly any of the boys got any sleep at first, and everyone got quite nervy after a day or so. I remember one night a chap came to me and he took me with him and showed me a German lying on our parapet, I in turn showed a sergeant, and the sergeant shot him. As a consequence we had to put a new sandbag up next morning. Our officer too, one night, pumped about a dozen revolver shots into a stump, on the advice of Charlie Hook, who had just stuck an old hat on it!
“After ten days had passed according to the calendar (I think there were more) we were relieved and went back to our billets in town. Once there, we were able to read in the Home papers of our wonderful work in the trenches and our indifference to danger. Well, Stewart, boy. I must knock off, as I’ve got to go on guard soon; but I will write soon again. Remember me to all. Hoping to kick Wilhelm in the wummle, as the Scotch say. I remain, yours shakily, Hector McDonald.”
From the Horowhenua daily Chronicle, September 13, 1916.
Letter from the front
FROM A LEVIN SOLDIER
The anxiety of the relatives of Private Geo. France who was reported wounded some weeks ago has been relieved by the receipt of the following letter from Malta:
Imtarfa Hospital Malta, May 20th
“I would have cabled from Alexandria, but I was told that in all probability my cable would be held up and also that authorities were publishing a fairly detailed account of our wounds. I hope you have not worried or thought it worse than it really is. I had been in the firing line for a fortnight when I got it; I was lucky as a lot of poor boys went right out in the first hour or so. We got it hot and strong right off the mark and poor old Jack Mills and six others out of No.3 were killed before we were properly into it. When we counted up that night we found that we had seven killed, six wounded and one missing. It was bitter for a first taste, wasn’t it? And you know all these chaps are like brothers after being constantly in their company for months. Lieut. Bryan was very badly wounded, but even this is a let-off for him as we all expected he would be killed in the first fight, he was so reckless.
“After our second advance I was one of a party of five to carry ammunition and supplies to the firing line. We had to go about 800 yards under fire and had not gone far when shrapnel began to burst right on us, and although the boxes we were carrying and our rifles were splintered, my carrying mate was the only one hit. His name is West, he is in the ward here with me now. After binding up his arm we went on again and managed to reach the supports of the firing line and back again to the base. The next load of hot tea and biscuits was a bigger job as we had to go right to the firing line. We did not expect to reach there; the snipers soon got on us, and again my mate was shot, this time through the leg. This left only three and we had to drop some of the stuff. After another hundred yards I was hit in the shoulder. The other two were having a council of war when I started to crawl back.
“P.S. - We have not seen a mail for over six weeks. (No. 3 mentioned in the letter is No. 3 platoon A Company, Wellington-West Coast Infantry to which platoon most of the Levin boys belong.)
From the Horowhenua Daily Chronicle, July 2, 1915.
Story published in The Chronicle, April 22, 1986