In the following letter sent to The Luton News by Cpl Cyril Gray, 7842, Royal Army Medical Corps, 6th Field Ambulance, one may gather an excellent idea of the real British soldier as he is on the battle front.
After referring to a previous letter in which he told of his hospital work up to the end of September and a wish to go to the firing line, Cpl Gray wrote: "Well it was not very long afterwards that 12 of us were ordered to join the 6th Field Ambulance then at Ypres. It took us several days on the 'train' which consisted of good waggons. Our favourite pastime was to sit all day, and sometimes during the night, with our legs hanging over the side watching the scenery.
"It was glorious weather then, and to our shame, or perhaps it was our mischief, we ransacked a railway waggon containing apples when we once stopped at a siding. But we made up for it later on because, as we got nearer the fighting area, we came across refugees in hundreds. Not one of us had got any money to give the poor creatures who had been driven from home, but we had two tins of army biscuits and our bully beef which we threw to them while our train was one the move. The consequence was that for the next two days we lived entirely on apples and potatoes, which we cooked in every conceivable way, but we didn't mind.
"At a station about six miles from Ypres we had to get off the train as we were told that the line was being shelled farther up, so it meant a march for us. We marched behind the Scots Guards to a road which parted not far from the actual trenches.
"The Guards were halted, and the officer then said to our NCO: 'I wouldn't come any further with us tonight, as you are not really to be attached to us, and we are going into action straight away'.
"We turned back and slept in a field that night. I say 'slept'. It was as wet a night as it is possible to conceive, and we put our waterproof sheets on the grass and it was not long before we were in the land of dream, notwithstanding that 'Jack Johnsons' and heavy shrapnel were falling very close..
"But we did not sleep long for one after another we woke, drenched to the skin. We were in a state, for we dare not light a fire to dry ourselves so we just had to walk about to keep ourselves from catching cold. We were glad when the morning came, and with the morning the news that the same Scots Guards whom we had followed (and would have kept following but for the officer's warning) had been 'cut up' the night before. We all felt how near a thing it had been for us.
"But worse was to follow in the near future. On the next day we attached ourselves to the 6th Field Ambulance. During the day time we lay in our wet clothes and every one of us slept like a log. When darkness came we 'fell in' with stretchers.
"We knew the time had come for us to see the 'real thing,' and it was not long before we found ourselves in the trenches of our Brigade. We took all the wounded they had, put them in the ambulance to be whipped off to the hospital for treatment, and returned to the farmhouse we used as a billet. It had been horribly knocked about with shells etc.
"About six o'clock the next morning we were preparing to get into 'bed' (overcoat with haversack for a pillow). Looking through the space where the window had been, we saw 11 horses killed and a man wounded by a 'Jack Johnson'. When I say we were on the verge of having the 'wind up' (another name for shaky knees), I don't think I am far wrong, because it was in our farmyard, and we realised what a near thing it had been for us. But we hadn't time to think much, because right on the heels of that one came another, very much nearer this time, and it killed another horse and chopped the hind quarters clean off a pig.
"Despite the seriousness of the situation we couldn't help laughing, because the pig was squealing as I've never heard a pig squeal before, and it only had its forelegs, and it was using them to the best of its ability to 'run'. It was indeed a comical sight at first, but too painful, so we fetched a Turco to shoot it out of its misery. I may say that we had pork for a considerable time, so we proved that it is an ill wind that blows nobody good."
Cpl Gray's letter continued: "It became so hot at the farmhouse that we were ordered to vacate it, which we did in record time, and we hadn't been out of the farmhouse two hours before it was a heap of broken bricks. Then we commenced to dig dugouts, and I must confess that we made a very poor show of it because none of use could dig properly, but it had to be done. In the end we made a hole to resemble (as far as possible) a dugout.
"For the next week we did our work as usual but one night when we were somewhat slack a fire broke out at a house about 300 yards from our dugout. We all did a sprint to see the fun, as we thought, but to our horror we found people there. They were all got out safely, and we were standing waiting for the roof to fall in, when I heard a dog whining. We all tried to find it and I eventually found it with its foot wedged between two staples.
"The poor animal was tugging away, meanwhile gradually getting roasted alive. I got it away and I found that it had put a joint out, besides being scorched almost bare. I treated it like an ordinary patient, and after it got better it always followed me to the trenches at night. Once an infantry chap took a fancy to it and kept it for four days, but it found its way back to me, and it hasn't left me since.
"We got through our work at Ypres without any serious mishap, and marched a distance of about 18 or 20 miles to Hazebrouck for a rest. We were there for some time and getting restless, for we wanted to get back to the firing line. We next went to a town near Le Bassée, and have been there ever since. Nothing more exciting has happened except the great charge at Neuve Chapelle and Givenchy. Our Field Ambulance did some rattling good work there and we were going to the trenches in broad daylight for wounded. It had to be done. I think we were all very lucky to get through it all as safely as we did.
It was there that I got my first and only mishap, which was a little bit of skin clipped from my index finger, and I thanked my lucky stars that it was no worse, but, of course, it is all in the game.
"I have found since I've been out here (nine months) that is very much to a chap's advantage if he is able to do a bit of foraging and cooking on his own. Very often I have been to the stores to draw the meat raw, and then cooked it together with three more chaps' rations and made a real good meal, whereas we should have had ordinary stew.
"I have made myself a field oven which consists of a biscuit tin put over a hole in the ground and air passages underneath and at the back of the tin and wet clay put all round it to keep the heat in, and I may say it acts extremely well. I find that the Army biscuits make fairly good flour when they are ground, and I've very often made myself and chums a 'jam duff' with this flour, so it is plain that a chap is better off if he can 'shift' for himself.
"When we are not so busy we can always find some sort of amusement to pass the time away, and now that the weather is here, it won't be such a hard job to get 'French leave' to have a bathe in the canal.
"I daresay that we area long way behind the people at home with the latest songs, but we make up for that by having our own. There are many comic ones, but they are mostly songs to march with, such as 'I don't want to get killed, I want to go home' to the tune of 'I'm too lazy to live, too lazy to die'. No, the chaps out here are not backward in getting a song put together. And they have found that by singing a love song or sentimental song to 'marching time' it produces a most comical effect.
"A scheme was once started to enable the chaps out here to get home on a short furlough. Several did get home from our Field Ambulance, but it was stopped for some reason, much to the disappointment of the troops, but we all eagerly look forward to the time when we shall come home again. But before that can happen we have much serious work to do, so we all set our minds to do it, and it must not be forgotten that the more chaps who we can get out here the shorter the war is going to be, and the work will, in some degree, be easier for all concerned.
"I'm sure that if the chaps at home could see what is being done out here, and what there is still to do, they wouldn't hesitate to join the colours."
[The Luton News, May 13th, 1915]