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Transcript of a Letter from Second Lieutenant Gamble, 23 December 1915
Please remember that all transcripts show what is written on the page; spelling and grammatical mistakes are not corrected.
December 23rd, 1915.
I think I wrote my last letter on the 17th, and
will go on with my doings from there. The following day
there was an ominous and heavy calm; the guns were comparatively
quiet; it seemed like huge clouds gathering for a storm. The
air was nasty and heavy, and all sorts of rumours were flying
about; and this promised outburst was realised with a vengeance
On Saturday, then, I took advantage of the
temporary calm, and had another look round Ypres. It is really
a wonderful sight - weird, grotesque, and desolate of course -
but most interesting. I expect the place will be flooded with
sight-seers and tourists after the war, and they will be
amazed by what they see. The ancient ruins of Pompeii and such
places will be simply out of it.
Willis (a topping Officer who was attached to us,
and who was very badly wounded on Sunday) and I went round the
ruins of the Cathedral. It must have been a magnificent
building before the strafing, and was reputed to have some
wonderful stained glass windows. We found that there was only
a fragment of this glass remaining, and that it was in a very
difficult place, but we clambered through heaps of shattered
stone-work and debris, up a rickety and tottering belfry
staircase, swarmed the remains of a window-frame, and obtained
a few splendid pieces of this glass. These will, I guess, be
valuable some day, and are certainly already historic. I've
got them safely stowed away in my kit, and hope to get them
home safely as a souvenir. I also got some fragments of a
17 inch shell which had burst amongst the Cathedral ruins the
Sunday is another day which I shall never forget;
In fact the whole of that week's experiences must ever be
glued to my memory. It was appalling!
At about 5.30 a.m. I was aroused in my dug-out by
a gas-helmetted and scared sentry, the sound of voluminous rifle
fire and big guns, and above all a choking feeling.
Our dug-out was already full of gas, and for a
moment the terror of waking up to such a situation properly put
the wind up both Eyre (who shared my dug-out) and myself.
I could not at first find my gas-helmet, and began to splutter
and choke, but eventually I got it fixed on, and went out to get
to business at once.
And how terrible it was!
The gas was rolling across towards us in thick
whitish-yellow clouds; men were running about with their weird-
looking gas-helmets on, and shells were bursting all around. It
was, of course, quite dark, and as each shell burst, it caused
a tremendous crash and a horrible flash of fire.
As I emerged from my dug-out, there seemed to be a
hundred big shells bursting lighting up everything. The
noise of all these tons of high - explosives bursting all
round was almost unbearable, and then to put the tin-hat
on it, every British gun in the vicinity began to pound
away at top-speed.
It took me some time to realise what was
happening, but I soon got information and orders that there was
a gas-attack on in the front-line and we were to man
the reserve trenches at once. A number of men were already
gassed, but we got into those trenches amid a huge bombardment,
and expected to see the Bosche coming across at any moment.
The men began to stifle and choke, and the shells were doing
a great deal of damage amongst our troops, but they stuck
The gas still came over in great clouds and the
shelling continued unceasingly.
They evidently anticipated a big attack, as they
were peppering all the roads, rails, and communications up
which reinforcements might be brought, and were simply
battering our reserve position to nothing. They seemed to
be using every big gun they had, and were sending over
every kind of shell from a 17 inch. down to a small whiz-
bang. The noise was appalling and nerve-racking, and there
was no cessation for 3 hours. Then the gas began to thin,
and the shelling toned down, and the joyous news came through
that our two companies in the front line had repulsed the first German attack.
We "stood to" all that Sunday morning
strained and waiting after 3½ hours under gas and shell-
fire and without food, and then came the order for us to
go up to the front trench to relieve the Companies who had
had a shocking time. We'd already had a lot of casualties,
and Willis was horribly wounded early on, and Iveson knocked
out by shell-shock. Iveson had recovered splendidly by
the time we went up into action however, and we'd just
got the Company formed up and were starting up the road
from our reserve trenches, when we got a "Jack Johnson" right
into us, and laid out a lot of good fellows. We had a
nasty job getting right up, but we manned that front-line,
and were ready for the Huns coming over. They did not
attack again on Sunday, but we were on the watch all night,
and early the next morning, they gassed again, but we did not
allow them to get into our trench, and all day Monday, we
potted away hard, until by the evening the show seemed about
over, and the Germans gave up the idea of getting through.
They gave our line a furious strafing to finish
up with though, and Eyre got two wounds in the hand and back,
and another 16th Officer, Hickson, had been gassed previously.
Well, we hung on until late that night, and then
came out; of course getting shelled and machine-gunned coming
out; we got back behind about 2 a.m. on Tuesday. We had
been without rest or food for nearly 48 hours; been under
gas for over 3 hours at one time, and an hour at another,
and on a rotten nerve-stretch all the time, and I just
collapsed, but am all right again now, except for sickness
and headache, owing to that devilish gas.
Our casualties are bad, but the men were
absolutely splendid, and the Divisional General has
complimented our Battalion on the way we repulsed the attack
and stuck the horrible experience.
The effect of the whole show on one's nerves
defies definition, but with all those millions of tons of
high explosives flying about, it seems as if something must
break in the head - but one just hangs on and hopes.
The gas is also past description! Of course
our Battalion only got a part of the attack, as it was on a
large front, but we got just about the worst part, and we are
all so glad that we did well.
I suppose it would be just mentioned in the
papers at home that "there had been a gas attack on the
Western Front, which was repulsed", but people will never
possibly realise a hundredth part of what it means, and what
the troops are going through. I wouldn't have thought it
possible that humanity could stand it, but one does somehow.
I've only given you a rough idea of the show.
Shall have to leave the many details till I come home.
By Jove! What a lot I shall have to talk about!
Your last parcel arrived to-day. Got through
in record time, so that I have now got both your Xmas
parcels, and am delighted with all the good things.
Please thank everyone who sent things. I am
not able to write half as much as I did before, but the
reason is obvious, as it takes one all the time to keep up
to scratch in this - the hottest fighting spot in the world.
One thing I must tell you, before I stop and
that is about a little bit of diversion during the gas
attack. I had just been bandaging up a couple of wounded,
when one of them called my attention to a couple of big rats
which were staggering about on their hind-legs as if drunk.
It really was one of the funniest sights imaginable. One
usually only gets glimpses of rats as they scuttle rapidly
by (during the day), but these two were right out in the open,
and their antics were too quaint. They were half-gassed of
course, but strangely enough it was one of the things I
remembered best after the show was over.
One good thing the gas did was to kill a lot of
the little beasts.