A Letter From the World War I Front

Walnut Creek Historical Society shares a letter — sickening gas, shelling of ambulances and draining the trenches — from a Canadian soldier that makes us appreciate Memorial Day again.

In the spirit of this past Memorial Day, the Walnut Creek Historical Society shared a 1915 letter from the front that opens a window into what World War I was like.

This came from archivist Sheila Rogstad, who transcribed the letter from Roy Robertson, a Canadian engineer in the British Expeditionary Force, to his cousin Lizzie, who was married to the son of Hiram Penniman on the Shadelands ranch that now houses the Walnut Creek Historical Society. The May 11, 1915, letter from France was addressed to Mrs. Lizzie Pennaman (sic) care of the Concord post office. Rogstad said she didn't know if Robertson made it home.

Dear Cousin Lizzie,

    This is indeed a belated hour to write and thank you for those nice salted almonds which you sent me. Jim Fraser got them and carried them about a long time before I saw him and got them from him. It was very kind of you to send them.

We do a lot of moving about and are kept pretty busy. Being in the engineers our work is varied — building and repairing trenches, building barbed wire entanglements, draining the water out of the trenches (trying to make water flow up hill in a flat country.) making hand grenades land mines etc and acting as infantry as occasion demands.

A great part of our work is done at night as we can work around in front of the trenches in “no mans land” there, when we wouldn’t last a minute in the day time.  At night each side keeps sending up flare rockets which light up the neighborhood with a greenish white glare and you bet we lie flat where they go up as anybody seen in front has a machine gun turned on him or a fuselage of rifle shots.

Our Canadian Division has been moved about to various places in the line so we have seen a lot of the country.

We had it a bit bad in front of Ypres, Belgium, starting April 22nd where the Germans by means of gas got through our allies trenches on our left flank and got in behind our division, which was holding the front end of a long horseshoe of trenches. The boys did mightily fine work, those in the trenches holding on and the reserve battalions smashing to the left at the Germans as they poured in about 5 to 1. It was really only the bayonet charges, which kept them back. One party of Canadian being short of ammunition (difficulty of getting it up) just lay there and got up and charge whenever the huns got too close.

One village was lost to superior numbers and retaken about 6 times. It is said the German dead are lying 5 and 6 deep in the dugouts and trenches there.

You cannot imagine the racket made by the continual hammering of the artillery and the exploding of shells. They had their artillery concentrated and threw in shells from three sides into the horse shoe, some “coal boxes” some J. Johnstons and shrapnel. Each comes in with its own peculiar noise – from a railway train rushing overhead to the whistling shriek of bag of the shrapnel.  I saw one hole where a coal box (17 inch) had lit and I think it is no exaggeration to say it was 20 feet deep and 35 feet across.  The (Germans) usually set a building on fire every night so as to light up behind us. It was certainly a weird scene going up to the front line at night. Ammunition limbers rumbling up, motor ambulances rushing up and down- wounded lying about ticketed and waiting to be taken out.  The noise of the shells dropping in, the unpleasant sights sometimes resulting, the sickening smell of the g-gas – the acid from these shells smarting your eyes. And throughout the quiet unexcited movement of troops.  We had pretty good opportunity too observe as we were up nearly every night laying out trenches and helping dig in – building wire entanglements- loopholeing houses etc. We would be busy working at one side of a field and the g- doing the same in the dark almost at the other side.

There is no use my enlarging upon the unchivalrous behaviour of the evening as you would probably not believe it, but I have seen them myself shelling out ambulances which had large red crosses on – in day light. They also snipe our ambulance men picking up wounded – bayoneted our wounded left in a dressing station between the lines. And one man has sworn on oath and handed it to his chaplain that he saw a Can. Highlander crucified with bayonets in the village I referred to above.  Incidentally it is said there are 20,000 dead in the fields round about that village, the great majority Germans. Their losses have been terrific as they were held back and numbers of time caught in massed formations.

I am not trying to make this letter a beastly morbid one but just to give you a description of what an attack is like. Certain parts of the country Belgium and France we have seen were occupied by the Germans and it is a shame the things they did and the pleasure they took and still take in smashing every thing they see.  Just for the fun of it. The poor Belgians have had to put up with a lot and to see the tottering old dames living about in their ruined houses (& some villages had hardly a whole pane of glass in town) certainly riles you.

I am enclosing a couple of cards I managed to pick up – of Ypres which will give you a fair idea of the result of shell fire.

I must close, as this is a terribly long epistle. We are at present having a rest in the rear, at a farm house, with the pigs and hens. We are all quite confident of winning this war. It is only a matter of time.

Give my regards to any of our relatives you may see. I had calculated to go to the Exhibitions at San Francisco this year but this war turned up.

                        Your affect. cousin,
                        Capt. N. R. Robertson


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