Letter From the Front
A CANADIAN IN ITALY
This is a soldier’s letter home, never intended for publication . . . an unposed picture of one Canadian at war
THIS is the first time I have done any letters during the daytime. I am doing this because I have temporarily worked myself into that blissful state where I have nothing to do in the past tense. This, of course, implies that I should be starting on that never-to-be-attempted pile of matters which one has always in the back of one’s mind to be done at the first opportunity.
But today, to hell with it. I am browned off. I want more men and they won’t let me have anypiore. Not until I sit down and write a “report” bn thé shortcomings of the War Establishment, which I have already done umpteen times. Since then, however, a new establishment has come into effect, some good points, but some very bad ones, and so the old battle goes on.
On the one side the work simply piles up, more and more coming in with every battle, and when the battle is bn you just don’t give up and tell the brigadier or any of his staff, “Look, old boy, sorry we can’t do it. for you. New establishment, you know.” Fie would explode in one’s face, and find someone who could do .it.
Not really so bad though. Sometimes I just have to sit back and have a good laugh, often at myself. I get all steamed up about g point in question, become desperate and unduly overheated, jump in my jeep, drive miles over what is supposed to be a road (I realize the driver knows I am mad by his grim silence and determined efforts to avoid all shell craters, refuse, and possible lurking places of unexploded mines, while at the same time showing his contempt for anything which might delay us), arrive at my destination, having cooled off in the meantime, and wonder what I am going to say after all.
At the moment the shop is loaded with work. The
men fall in for roll call at 07.00 hrs., break for 15 minutes for a cup of tea at 10.00 hrs., break for lunch at 12.00, siesta from lunch till 14.00 hrs. (because of the heat in the sun). If no siesta is allowed, starting at this time of year, the men become sun-worn, develop sun-sickness, spots before the eyes, lose appetite, have dizzy spells. This, of course, only is ,'true of men at a bench job, one.might say. Infantry, etc., can get under cover or keep moving leisurely. Work from 14.00 to 18.00 hrs., have supper at 18.15, and under present circumstances, when a battle is on, or following backloading from forward detachment, will work in the evenings until about an hour before dark.
The men are happiest when they are busy; in fact the more work they have piled up ahead of them the better they like it. Also, we are gradually “acquiring” more equipment, and putting better men into the senior ranks,so that there is a gradual improvement. The shop is humming away, engines running, generators, the hum of-compressors, thïe ring of steel in the blacksmith and steel shops, tanks roaring as engines and bogey assembly lays are tested and checked. Tractors, mounted cranes, breakdowns, and •all moving continually about from section to section. With a lot of work in hand the machinery lorries, lathes, grinders, instrument and armament shops are busy as bees.
As you will read in the papers, the battle line is rapidly moving away again.. Cassino, the Gustav Line. The Hitler Line.' These are never-to-be-forgotten names. (We are allowed to mention them now, but only thus.) Great and terrific battles, wellplanned over a very long period of time, and carried out with great skill.
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Many things come to mind with mention oí' places and formations at this time. How I wish I could tell you some of them. But lesser points are not security. The French colonial troops, so colorful, some with great preened red beards. The long knives and .
ferocious look of--native troops.
The Indian Divisions, fine handsome men they are, Aryans, with brown skin. Were they white, one could not distinguish them from a Tommy. Nearly all big fellows. Free French, who are a strange mixture of everything the French Empire contained, weird colors and habits. They have their girl friends with them wherever they go, and the girl friends are just as wild and unreal, some beauties, blondes and brunettes.
By contrast the Americans, with their light greenish uniforms and huge loose helmets, in the distance look like Germans in short jackets.
The Hun defensive positions are all about us. Of course, we avoid them completely. Driving along a sunken road, behind what were Jerry’s main defensive positions, it is weird to look into the narrow entrances to his underground positions. Miles of galleries and tunnels. Overhead timbering, walls and doors, floors, pieces of lumber and partitions which he stole from the Italian homes. These caves were his home, in which the Hun lived like an animal for months on end. Equipment littered everywhere. Helmets, rifles, great stacks of small arms ammunition, mortar bombs, shells, all the litter of war.
In a shell hole sits a German soldier, his cocked rifle across knee, looking very natural, shot between the eyes, just under the lid of his helmet. Many more unmentionable and unpleasant sights. In a dugout a German officer sits slumped across his table, a pencil in hand, caught by the barrage. Another lying on the floor, in the act of shaving as a direct hit got him, killed by blast and concussion.
A redcap standing guard outside a Hun shelter, in which are great quantities of stores, Lugers, all boobytrapped. The men have learned not to touch anything. The new Canadian units out here recently, going into battle for the first time, are finding this out. You can’t tell them anything. They find out the hard way.
Going along a road there is a great roar behind. Black smoke rises. You stop, get out and run back. A tank has hit a mine. One man thrown clear, but there is no hope for him. Three others are still in the wreck. You are helpless. You cannot approach the tank because of the heat from the fire. Everything burns, even the metal. It is hottest.
The men in Forward Detachment bring back the story of Mad Maria. She is a pretty girl, completely out of her mind. Found hiding in a cave far underground, within the German lines, had been living there like an animal for months. She cannot be coaxed out of her corner when she is discovered. Is terror-stricken, runs and tries to get away from our advancing infantrymen. They send her back to medical aid post for evacuation to rear area.
In some dugouts the Germans never did come out. They are everywhere to be found. They have even boobytrapped their own caves, which are the graves of hundreds of their own men.
Up forward yesterday was at first puzzled by the antics of the local inhabitants. Bowing and mumbling at one. Looking over the jeep with great
curiosity. Waving at us. Of course, these people have just been liberated. They have had the Hun about their homes for years, were hiding in the hills or underground during the terrific battle; they are free now and want to demonstrate their feeling for us. It is a few months since we were rolling. One forgets. The Italians in our rear areas are quiet now. No cheering, no waving, except to the odd long column moving north. The old cry for “Biscotti” (biscuits), “Scarpe” (shoes) or “Pane” (bread) is heard again. The same dejected starving misery, which was temporarily out of mind during the winter months, when we were held back by the weather, regrouping.
Down to a South African laager a few days ago. Big fine-looking men. Surprised at what a large percentage are fair complexion. Neai'ly all have the wide sweeping mustache. Very jovial lot. Deep hearty laughter. All say “Ja,” and “Dis and Dat,” and have a very pronounced Dutch drawl when they speak. Saw some of them going into battle. They, as do the English, stand about discussing the pros and cons of the situation as though they were discussing a football match.
Going along a road the other day came upon some of our boys sitting in a ditch laughing and talking. Got out to ask them a question, then after I had spoken noticed the rank badge. They were Poles. Look exactly like any Canadian boy in our uniform. Nothing on earth can compare with their intense hatred of the Hun. Most interesting talking to their officers. A large percentage of those here—were through the Hun “Baptism of Fire” in their own country—were taken and held by the Russians, formed into Corps and fought in the desert. A German in a CCS, wounded, in a cot next to a Pole had to be moved to another place. The Pole tried to kill him. They take few prisoners, but are fair generally in treatment of them. Jerry has to really make an effort to quit before the Pole gives him the benefit of the doubt.
Occasionally we have a show for the men in the evening. Outdoor affair, the projector mounted, thereby screened, in the back of a truck, the screen in another. The men sit out on the ground in a semicircle.
The light cannot be seen, nor does the beam show up, except when the men smoke. So when aircraft engines are heard out go all the cigarettes. The smoke shows up in the beam from above.
The other night our show was interrupted five times. This was during a part of the battle ahead of us. Only when the guns start firing and the streams of flak go up does the show switch off. About the third time it was getting really hot. The German machines were hovering directly overhead, and flak was beginning to fall in the camp. The cry of “helmets” goes up, and you duck into your shelter for your tin hat. When they get really close you get into your slit trench. I was sitting on the side of my trench, with my feet dangling into it, watching the Jerry machines in the moonlight when they came close. One passed, slowly and lumbering, directly .over me. Queerest sensation. Could just make it out as it circled around to take another crack at something over the hill. Almost feel you could reach out and touch it through the glasses. Guns bouncing and firing like mad at them, but they never seem to hit anything; Jerry moving about as unconcerned as you please, dropping his flare to light up the target area, then the deep stunning thud and roar as the bombs hit. The brilliant scarlet and greenish yellow of the flak, as it streaks up, like thousands of stars coming out of hose
pipes. Once a bomb lands in the immediate vicinity you discreetly drop flat into the slit trench, lie on your stomach, push your tin hat well back on your head.
Actually, the flak is more of a menace than the bombs, except when you are the target for the bombs, of course, the flak dropping all about. One can hear it come through the air, dropping from above, with a queer whirring noise and a plop as it lands somewhere. Then the tiny pieces, which make no noise coming down, just plop where they land. Unless one is able to get under a tank or heavy-floored truck, the safest thing to do is stand upright, with your helmet on. Although these helmets are not so hot, but better than nothing. At night, sleeping in my trailer, when the ack-ack gets hot and close I get up, lean against the wall with my tin hat on, trying not to wake up too much until the flak stops falling, then climb back under my mosquito net and to sleep again.
Standing Room Only
Thousands of prisoners coming in. The cages are full. Standing room only. Crack German troops some of them. The Para Div. The Hermann Goerings’. These are the Huns. And they are just that. They are killers and butchers. Murderers, who have raped Europe. The misery and hatred of millions can be seen in their eyes. They are afraid, are fighting desperately to ward off the punishment they will get when freedom comes to those they have enslaved. This is not propaganda. The troops don’t like war pictures, don’t need propaganda. Just talk to the Poles. Look about you at the misery and undernourishment, the poverty, and feel the hatred of the oppressed. Stand face to face with a man who has been in a concentration camp. Seen Jews butchered and beaten to death in the streets while the Huns laugh. Men who have actually been passengers on a German extermination train, onto which were loaded small children, packed into cattle cars so that they couldn’t move, no sanitation, no water, no food, crawling with lice, and left to die on sidings in the mountains. Or put into mobile gas chambers, their bodies dumped into old mine shafts. Just because they wanted to be free, or were Poles or even Austrians who objected to being flogged and kicked about.
The stories and newspapers leave a lot to one’s imagination, the unprintable details which the average reader wonders about. But out here, from the refugees and Allied troops we hear all these details, from men who have been through it, seen it with their own eyes.
The brutal beastliness, and innate cruelty of the Hun is in every one of them. The young ones especially know nothing but what they have been bred and brought up on. They are killers, just that, and so long as they live, in any land, they, hundreds of thousands of them, are going to be a problem. They know nothing but war and the Army. It is their natural state. They are trained and accomplished bullies and brutes who know how to treat the underdog. Supermen, they think. But they are at the same time brave and fearless. Quite a combination.
An Intelligence Officer told me that one cannot talk to them. They are human machines. Even as prisoners they are the same. Stiff, inhuman, according to our standards, automen, to whom the thought had never occurred that they might someday be
taken prisoners. Better to be dead. What is going to become of these people? I often wonder whether our governments have taken this into consideration in their plans for the postwar world.
Certainly these so-called human beings cannot be let loose in the world. They are past the age where they can be trained to another life. They are, truly, better dead. And many, many are to be seen thus on this line where we now stand. One feels no pity for them. One simply looks at them in a detached sort of way, and wonders. They are not all like this, but they are all Huns when they hold the whip hand. And yet there is a queer streak of sportsmanship in them, which occasionally appears.
I cannot describe the deadly hatred which the Germans have brought upon themselves in Europe. It is everywhere, deep and terrible. More so even than our papers and magazines tell of. The things they have done are completely beyond comprehension to us.
That is why there is no need to bolster the morale of the troops. To see them in action is amazing. Cool and casual. One of our officers putting a bridge across a stream during an attack. Jerry throwing all he can at them. The wisecracks and humor never stop coming. Men are dying all about them, tanks firing and fighting. A tank hit, on fire, pulled out of the way. Help the crew if you can. If not, curse and pass on. You can’t stop. A tank hits a mine. Message goes back. Up comes the repair crew. They move their Recovery Tank alongside the hit job to protect them from shrapnel and small arms fire while they do a quick repair. Yes, and even a welding job if necessary and there is any point to it.
These are the men who are fighting for what they think is right, and none but the shell-shock cases would quit until it is done. They are brave, magnificent and fearless. One does not fully realize what freedom really is until in a place like this where one is up against the results and conditions which caused the war. Here there is no more talk, no nonsense. No policy of appeasement, no pacifism or isolationism. War and the battle are the final outcome of talk and opinion, when neither man will give in, but stands by his way of life to win or be destroyed.
For us to read that Quebec votes for isolationism against conscription is unbelievable and incredible. Our unpreparedness at the beginning of the war, and the question of appeasement, are, to those of us who have seen the war, criminal. To those who will not fight for freedom and the right to live as we see fit, our men say, let them leave Canada—they are not worthy of those who have died that they might so be free men, not entitled to the protection they are getting, hiding as they are behind the shield of those wbo are fighting for their country.
Well, these are our thoughts, the things we see and do. I wish I could say more about the battle, but that is forbidden. You will see most of it in one way or another in the papers. Put British troops in the lead of every big break-through to punch the hole, mentally add a Brigade of Guards to the tough spots, and you have it.
Must close now and get on with the war. Will write again soon, and hope these thoughts and doings of the Canadian boys out here will help give you an idea what they think about and how they feel about it all.