Captain Alan MacKenzie Gammell
These letters were written to Ethel Charlton, whom Alan dated before the war. She was a trained nurse and worked in the operating room at the Western Hospital in Montreal. Alan felt that he could be more candid with her than with his parents . Ethel was his most faithful correspondent, and they were married shortly after the war ended. These letters represent a small fraction of Alan's correspondence from the front. The rest are lost.
Somewhere in France, Oct. 18, 1915
[The Princess Pat's had just come out of the Frise front line on the Somme and moved to Morcourt (east of Amiens) where they stayed from October 16-23, 1915.]
My Dear Ethel:
Now that I have finished my tea, got a cigarette in action and am as comfortable as possible in an old stable, even if half the wall is off, I think I had better drop you a line or two. For tea, we had a pretty good meal -tea, bread and butter and a tin of peaches and a bunch of biscuits I had sent out to me.
Once again we are back at rest camp, after about a month's stay up at the firing line. Our part of the line was fairly quiet. Down the line a little way one of the other regiments was cut up a little but they only shoved a bunch of trench mortar over at us. They got a couple of our fellows and wounded four or five. One of our company got a splinter in the eye and we just heard that he will lose his eye.
We had a little scare the other night. Some of us smelt a funny smell and thought that it was a gas attack coming off, so we all hustled into our smoke helmets, but the attack was a false alarm. One of the boys was away from his post at the time and started running back. Just standing still in your helmet, it is fairly hard to breathe, but he was running and it was getting pretty stuffy for him. Thinking that he was gassed for sure, he stuck on his other helmet - we all carry two. By the time that they got them off him, he was pretty near suffocated. But was alright in a few minutes, none the worse for his scare.
The last trip up the firing line, I was stationed in a listening post. The one that I was in, was about 75 yards out in front of our trenches, but behind a line of barbed wire entanglement. We go out there just as it is getting dark, stay out for an hour and then are relieved for 2 hours. We quit the post at daybreak. It's some job out there trying to listen and see anything in the shape of German patrol or working parties. After looking and listening for a while you will have a great imagination.
I should have told you that we had to crawl out to the post which is a hole in the ground and just about your head above the ground. As I was saying, you think you see a Stein coming up, or a tree or post is moving, then you realize what it is. Perhaps you hear a sound, you swear it's a German-and gets plainer and you get scareder. It's almost up to you when you see that a rat is staring at you and you feel a great relief that it isn't a real German as out in the listening post you must not use your rifle.
You were asking about beds, yes I think that I could sleep in any place at any old time. I have slept on beds of rocks, earth, chicken wire, straw, in fact most everything. I have fallen sound asleep lying on the road while on march. We enjoy our sleep never the less. I don't know if I would be able to sleep in a regular bed as it would be too soft.
I hope that you are in the best of health and they are not working you too hard and that all your folks are keeping fit.
I remain yours as ever,
France, Nov. 19, 1915
Your letter of Oct. 8th arrived last night just after sending off one to you. It came a few days later than the one of the 19th.
I was sorry that I was unable to let you know about my leave before I was over and back. Ethel: was there anything that you wanted done for you in England? Now if there is, please let me know as I have friends of my sister, a Mrs. Ryan, who will do anything over there for me. It wasn't a silly question asking about leave, as I have done the same often. Wouldn't I have enjoyed sitting down with you to tea. Some time later though - "Apres la guerre." You're not a really naughty girl, but a dear sweet one and here's a few more kisses XXX for yours.
Thanks for sending the list of 244th officers. Ped Argue is the M.O.
Best love from
Flanders, June 9, 1916
[Written after the Battle of Mount Sorel in which 3,000 Canadians were killed.]
My Dear Ethel:
You will be glad to know that I came through our engagement without getting laid out. I was very lucky as we suffered very heavy casualties.
I am not going to write any description of it as it was too awful, and I want to forget it but I can't forget all the fellows of our bunch who are gone. They gave us a terrible bombardment for 11 hours. The worst ever launched against the British line. When we were given the order to go to our support line, our front line of trenches were completely gone. It was some job getting back overland, shell hole to shell hole. Fritz was coming over and we got a bunch before we got back. We couldn't stay too long as they were using liquid fire and smoke bombs. At our support line we made our stand and held them.
The fight occurred in a small wood. It was a sorry looking place with the tops of the trees all off and others were being knocked down with shells.
At the support line, it was a welcome change to have a chance to shoot at the beggars after having four hours in the bottom of the trench. I know of two that I saw keel over from my rifle. I hope that there was a bunch more that I didn't see.
My brother, Norman, was wounded in the back. I saw him for awhile as he stuck around to carry up ammunition until his shoulder was so bad that he had to go down. He had a hard job getting down to the dressing station as he had to crawl on his stomach for a long way. I was mighty glad when I had a note from him when he got to a general hospital. He is in a ward run by Harvard University. His shoulder blade is fractured and the splinter of the shell is still in his shoulder. He expects to go to England before long.
Mrs. Small's nephew, young Shearer, is reported missing, but I am afraid he is gone. I was in the same bay of the trench as he was, after we retired until night, and then I had to go farther down the trench in charge of another part of the trench; at that time we had no officers of our company. He isn't out with us now and nobody knows what happened to him. He must have been buried by a shell. [Harold Ross Shearer - 4th University Company - killed by shell fire June 2, 1916. Body was missing and his name listed on the Menin Gate. Body later recovered on battlefield and now lies in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery.]
We are out from the line now. I hope that we stay here for awhile.
I was very glad to get your letter the other day. Glad to know that you will be back at Western [hospital in Montreal] as you sure must have had a hard time of it.
Will say bye-bye for now, best regards to all your people and hope that you are in the best of health. I hope to hear from you soon again.
Yours as ever,
France, Dec. 11, 1916
Just a few lines to let you know that I am still in the land of the living.
The Canadian mail has been delayed somewhere so there have been no letters from Canada for quite awhile but I expect it in any day.
The last trip up to the front line, I lost my fountain pen, so I have to go back to the pencil again.
At present, I am back quite away from the firing line taking a week's course. It is a general one, including bombing, Lewis Gun, Stokes gun, wiring, bayonet fighting. They work us pretty hard but to make up for it, I have a dandy bed. What do you know about it? I have a fine feather mattress and clean white sheets to get in between. Class to me, eh!! Even if it is only for a week.
The last trip up at the firing line, we had an interesting time of it. We made a lot of small raids and patrols. [In] one of them, a few went over and killed a couple of Bosche and brought back a trench pump. Now we kid them saying they have to make another raid and bring back the pipe for the pump.
I was out on a patrol to catch a Bosche who used to come down a disused trench. But that night, I think he must have decided that it was unhealthy out in No-man's Land as he didn't make his appearance. So we had to return empty handed.
How is Charlie getting along in the army? I suppose that by this time, he is a full corporal or a sergeant. [Charlie Charlton, Ethel's brother was with the 244th Battalion. He later transferred to the 14th and won his commission in the field. He was seriously wounded at Canal au Nord on September 23, 1918. He survived the war, later drowning at Lake Traverse, Algonquin Park, in the 1930s while working as one of the partners of the Lake Traverse Lumber Company.]
You mentioned in one of your letters awhile ago about having a birthday in Sept. and feeling old. Believe me, when my birthday comes along on Dec. 30th, I will feel like an old man, having spent two of them out here in muddy old France. Never mind, the war will be over someday ???
Well Ethel, by the time that you get this letter, there will be snow galore. I wish I could see and be in a real good big snow storm.
My, but wouldn't I like to be able to take you to a real good show and then give you a few real and true kisses instead of sending some crosses to you (XXXX). But better that than nothing.
Best regards to them all at home and hoping that you are well. Please write soon again.
Yours with love as ever,
France, Christmas Day, 1916
My dear Ethel:
Well, here's another Christmas almost over. My second one in France and here's hoping that it is my last one out here.
Was awfully pleased to get yours Dec. 6th, it arrived on Christmas Eve. It was good of you to write when you are tired after working so hard. I can imagine how they keep you busy in the "operation room."
I hope that you spent a good Xmas Day. We certainly had a pretty good one considering the place that we spent it in. I will tell you what we did and ate, so you can judge for yourself if it wasn't a pretty good day.
First of all, the regiment is in the firing line and our company in close support. It has been a fine day, the sun shining, but a high wind blowing. We didn't stir out of the bunks in the deep dug-outs until 9 a.m. this morning. Then we had breakfast consisting of tinned pineapple, porridge and bacon and one egg (they are very hard to get around here.) During the remainder of the morning we censored the men's mail and visited our sergeants. After lunch, a couple of us went around and visited all the company headquarters in the firing line, which took us most of the afternoon. While making our rounds, we saw numerous Bosches as they were celebrating Christmas too. There was very little strafing going on all day.
Dinner was our real treat as we had a couple of chickens which we managed to get after scouring the whole country around for them. We had to boil them as it was impossible to roast them on an open fire and believe me, our cook did them to a turn. First we had caviar on toast, then some beef soup, followed by our boiled chicken, mashed potatoes, tinned asparagus and beans. By the time that we were thru that, we were unable to have any plum pudding so finished off on coffee and some cigars which the Mount Royal Club of Montreal sent out. So don't you think that I did pretty good as far as the grub went, considering we are at the front? But just the same, it was nothing like being at home for Christmas.
New Year's Day, we will be out for a short rest. I believe that the officers of the whole regiment are going to have quite a spread.
You will have to write and tell me how you spent the day. Charlie [her brother] would be home for most of the day, I presume. Did Bruce or your sister get in too?
Many thanks for the kisses. I took them as a real Christmas present. I only wish that I had been able to have them in person but "après la guerre." I am going to collect them all. Ethel, I only wish that I knew when this old war would be over, but nobody knows. There is a lot of talk of peace, but I don't think myself that it will come before next summer after we have given Fritz a merry time of it this spring.
It is time that I quit writing. Hoping that your mother and sister are all well and that you are well yourself and not working too hard.
With best of love,
Yours as ever,
P.S. Hope to hear from you soon. XXX