February 11th 1917.
Naturally there would be much “Wailing and gnashing of teeth” in the house of Gray, when their son had been reported wounded, instead of what should have taken place, a special holiday.
I’ll bet you all smiled when “full particulars” came through, if they did. “Shell wound, right buttock” is what they have on my casualty card.
Where else would I get hit anyhow?
Just another example of the Huns unfairness in battle, he smote me on a “noncombatent” part of my person. Anyway, I was lucky, as it was the safest place to get hit, and I had nothing to impede my progress to dressing station No.1, on the contrary I had a decided fill-up to my speed, which was necessary in the extreme, as Fritz was shelling and sniping the (Safs?) all the way to the “station”, and was not to any the least a “Primrose Path”, or a path of peace. In fact, about the time I was hit more men failed to reach the goal than actually got there. I was one of the lucky ones and on the way I stumbled over a good few of unlucky ones, lying about the (Safs?) and almost blocking it up in places.
But I suppose you would like to hear the whole story right from the beginning though I’m afraid there is little beginning about it. The first I knew that we were in a “stunt” was about this time last Sunday morning. Jack Wilken came to my dug-out and told me that C Company (my company) had been detailed to act in support of the 13th Battalion (N.S.W.) in a night attack on the German front line, our object being to capture the said line, and hold it against counter attacks which “Fritz” would sure to launch against us in the event of our occupying his front line.
Well, it is well known in military circles that in case of a night attack, providing all goes with the intended swing, the attacking party that “hops over” as our boys put it unless they meet with determined resistance, in the enemy’s trenches,( a very uncommon occurrence) get off extremely light as far as casualties go. But in that case the supports inevitably get a nasty knocking about, in fact owing to the enemy’s barrage being concentrated on them, they are extremely lucky to “live and tell the tale”.
All this we knew, so, unlike book heroes, we were bemoaning our fate and most of the boys were saying real nasty things about the people in authority, and when you come to think of it, it was hardly fair as we were just out of the front line, two days, where we had put in one day longer than we should have(five days) and A and B Company had been out over a week and they only did four days, D Company hadn’t been in at all, as they were reserve company, this time.
But anyway, “Their’s not to reason why”, and after all it was “Patting us on the back” to give us the job, so we polished our bayonets and worked the bolts of our rifles to make sure that no hitch could occur and waited the coming of orders to move up into position.
At dusk in the evening the Company lined up in platoons and each was given two bombs and a stiff “nobb” of rum. Both combined to make a good “emergency ration” and I felt all right under fire till the effects of the rum worked off, I wasn’t a bit “nervy” till then.
As soon as the moon rose over the snow, we marched off up to the line in single file along the “duck board” track which stretches for about four miles across what at present is snow and ice, but what originally was a sea of mud. “Duck boards” (by the way) are gratings of wood about 2 ft 6" wide and these “gratings” alone make progress possible on the Somme at this season of the year.
There now, Dad, I let something slip, but after all you must have guessed where I was before this.
When we reached the front line, or about half a mile in rear of it, we halted, and waited to see if “Fritz” had wind of our movements, but beyond a few machine gun bullets, and an occasional shrapnel shell, everything was quiet. Of course he was sending up flares every now and then, but that was nothing as he always provides the artificial light, on the Somme unless he is going to attack.
Presently we moved off up to the front line, each with a box of bombs and a rifle besides a full supply of ammunition, and the best of luck.
We filed in behind the Thirteenth boys, who were standing on the firing step, with bayonets fixed and a rather anxious look on their faces. We waited, leaning up against the side of the trench for our barrage to open up on Fritz and everything seemed to be waiting with us, for the circus to begin.
Then it began. Eighteen pounders first, then the big guns away to the rear, “swish, swish” went the shells, over our heads to “lobb” 150 yards away, bang on the enemy front line.
Two minutes only it lasted, then over went the thirteenth, and up we stepped into their places. Then Fritz ‘s guns started. It took him about half a minute to drop them in the right place, then when he had the range the concert started.
“French mortars”, "Rum jars”, "swish bangs”, "shrapnel”, "high explosive”, “G-jumps”, and common shells, all together, and as hard as he could let us have them.
Needless to say, I was absolutely terrified and tried to screw myself into as small a size as possible, crouching on the bottom of the trench with my head in a small hole in the side of the parapet. I could smell dead men in that hole, and I could see a portion of a dead man about 3” from my nose, but that doesn’t worry me in the least, all I wanted was to get under cover and the first shell that took effect in my portion of the trench, killed one of my mates, and wounded my Sergeant and Corporal and three others, and it burst nearest to me.
I didn’t get a scratch though the parapet above my head was ripped to pieces, and a large splinter just passed my right shoulder. I felt very funny after that, I can tell you, but that was only the preliminary, as it were.
Shells were dropping all around us. Jack Wilken and I were huddled up together, each trusting to the others good fortune.
A few yards further down the trench, one of our chaps was praying aloud, and I remember telling Jack to forgive me for being a coward, I was so frightened.
Then the German prisoners began to come over. One or two at first, then they come over in mobs. None of them had a bit of fight left in them, though they were bigger and more healthy looking than we were.
One of the Huns in particular attracted my attention, he reminded me of you Dad, till I covered him with my rifle, then he just dropped with fear and his hands shot up above his head, and he bawled like Bill used to after a good spanking. Of course, I felt sorry for him, but I could not tell him that I wouldn’t hurt a mouse, and I don’t suppose I looked anything but ferocious, considering I hadn’t shaved for a month and I hadn’t washed since I shaved.
Well presently as I was sitting with Jack in the bottom of the trench, I felt a whack like as if an elephant had kicked me. Then I felt a hole in my trousers about the size of a half crown. It didn’t dawn on me that I was hit for a while. When I “jerried”, I told Jack and he said to “Bunk for the dressing station as hard as I could lick”. Of course I took no second telling and went down as hard as I could “rip”
On the way I stumbled over dead men, and half dead men, and halves of dead men, and at times I stumbled over and mixed myself in their blood. I didn’t trouble much about the blood, it is marvellous how quickly one gets used to it.
When I reached the D.S. I forgot I was wounded, as there were so many worse off than I, so I fell to bandaging and making them comfortable as if I had been used to it all my life. I think a lot of chaps thought I belonged to the R.A.M.C, the way they asked me to bandage this and was it a Blighty wound.
After a while the wounded cease to come in and then they had time to examine me. Of course I couldn’t see how badly I was hit and I thought it was only a scratch, but the Sergeant in charge wanted to put me on a stretcher. When I said I could walk alright, they thought I was trying to do the “hero stunt”, as there was a goodish hole in my stern.
But the fact was it looked a good deal worse than it was, about 50 times worse in fact, because though it really was a big piece of shell that hit me, only a small piece stayed in, the rest must have worked out as I bolted to the dressing station.
Well after much bandaging at different stations, next day I managed to arrive at the railway line, where I was entrained and detrained at various places till I got here to Bologne, and here I am going to stay as long as I can hang out, I don’t want to see another gun fired as long as I am alive, that’s the truth.
The sisters look after me well and call me “Australia”, this is a Canadian Hospital and not many Australians come here, I might go to Blighty but I don’t care, as Bologne will do me for the present. I am suffering a little from shell deafness and I intend to get that eliminated before I go back. Of course they won’t be able to cure it altogether.
Well Dad, I think that is all I have to say about how I got hit, and though I haven’t said much, it has given me considerable effort to write this much, not from any physical reason, but because somehow or other the matter of that last Sunday night’s work is very distasteful and my mind always becomes uneasy when I think of it, a feeling that I have never experienced before, I think I know now why some chaps don’t like to talk about their experiences in the trenches.
Never mind Dad, we are going to finish the war this year and Fritz is going to get the time of his life. The happiest time of my life will be when I first hear that peace is declared. No, not the happiest for that time will be on the day I arrive home in Australia and see you all again.
I know you and things about the house will have altered, but after all it will be home, and I haven’t been in a real home since I left home.
Well so long Dad Till next week, I haven’t had mail for 2 months but never mind, I will get it someday soon.
Love to Mother and Ede and Bill and all.
From your affec. son. Alfred.
A chap gave me a stripe to put on my left arm today. You have seen them? One of it each time one is wounded. I wanted to know if I had to wear it where I was hit.
After a few weeks, he was back to the front line at the Somme. After a barrage of fighting, from dawn to about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, it was a case of surrender or be shot down, as their ammunition had run out.
Alf’s haversack had been shot to pieces on his back, and his overcoat was riddled with machine-gun bullets, several grazing his hands and various parts of his body, but otherwise he was unhurt. Someone up the line put up a white flag and they climbed out of the trenches. They were taken to various camps, farms and factories through-out Germany, for the next 2 and a half years.
As reported in the local paper, from letters he wrote to friends, tells of his capture;
“We were surrounded and cut off by the awful barrage. The officer in charge of our platoon told us to sell our lives dearly and fight to the finish. So I said to myself, “Well, old blockhead, this looks very like the finish. Are you prepared to die?” Then something said to me, “This is not the finish, Gray. You were not born for this”. So I went on with my work, and every time a man went down I thought, “My turn next”. But a few hours later I found myself standing almost alone among the dead, and then I felt that I should some day see home and friends again.
But when I arrived in Germany my overcoat was like a colander. The two months which followed I had to spend working behind the German lines, and how I came through that time must be told when I come home. But after the Red Cross people got in touch with me I began to get regular food and clothes.
I suppose you are curious to know how I spend the time here. Well, I work all day and sleep all night, and that’s about all. On Sundays I clean up cook my dinner (which I couldn’t do at first for ‘Mother Hubbard’ reasons). But that is altered now as long as the parcels do not fail us. I am going to get my photograph taken, and send a copy to let you see how Alf is getting on in spite of the ‘hate’.
After the Armistice was signed, they were cared for by the Red Cross, who had to protect them from the civilians because they new the ex-prisoners now had food. They waited a month at Gustrow before being sent to Warnemunde, a Port on the Baltic. They boarded a Dutch vessel for a ten hour trip to Copenhagen, where they spent Christmas Day. Boxing Day saw them on the Dutch liner, Frederick the V111, and after five days arrived in England.
Alf stayed with his Uncle Frank Waters and Aunt Clare for his 32 days on leave. Frank was a Sergeant in the Police Force, stationed at the extreme point of the Metropolitan Police District, fifteen miles from Charing Cross, at the town of Uxbridge. Frank’s brothers were all Policemen in England, as was their father Edgar. George was a Detective Sergeant, Frederick a Constable and James an Inspector.
In 1915, My grandfather, Harold Gray’s, brother, Alf, enlisted, and together with several other Kyneton lads, went to Broadmeadows for their training. They were attached to the 14th Battalion. From there they were sent transported by ship to Egypt and later to England, where their training was completed on Salisbury Plain. They were sent to France during the winter of 1916-17. In February 1917, Alf was injured and sent back to No3 Canadian General Hospital in Bologne.
This is a letter written By Alf to his father, from the hospital.
Don’t ask me what all the lingo means I wouldn’t know for sure – except the (Safs?) I think is the sensors had scored that word out.
But yes you now can see where my sense of humour and my desire to write comes from.
I am extremely proud of This ANZAC, my great uncle Alf, – whom I never met – and hope soon to catch up with his descendent’s – whom I also haven’t met – to tell them so.
I hope you enjoy this letter – I did :O)
*This is why we remember them !
LEST WE FORGET !!
NB This is NOT my Fictional Writing this is an actual letter written by my Great Uncle Alfred Gray during his experiences in the "Great War – 1914-1917
I take no responsibility for any offense taken by the reader of this view be that in the language used or the opinion of my Great Uncle.*