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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

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.

(D/DLI 7/238/1)


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 Sunday.

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

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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 
previous day.

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

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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 
it wonderfully.

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

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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

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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.

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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.