Monday, February 25, 2013

24 October 1915 Somewhere in Belgium (near Ypres)

Dear Father and Mother,

Sunday noon and I have just come off of a 24 hr. guard over a prisoner and had to stand or lie on a stone floor all the time with a draught that nearly blew us along the floor coming in under the door.

As you will see we have crossed back here again although we are not in the same village as before we went across the border to that rest camp at the chateau. That was supposed to have been a rest camp for us as well as the patients who were there but it wasn’t very much like it and so while we are here we are not supposed to do too much until we take charge of the dressing station.

It is a beastly cold and cheerless place here. We are crowded 25 men to a small hut without a fire or windows. If we want any light we must open the trap doors in the wall and then it is so damp and cold that we have to close them to keep the wind out. I am propped up against the wall on my bedroll of blankets trying to get this written before dinner. I am afraid I am not going to get it done. My fingers are so stiff that I cannot write very fast.

Some of our men went up to a ruined city last night and were to bring back some bricks to use as a pavement to keep us on top of the mud around our huts. They got into a sculptor’s yard and filled their waggons with marble slabs in a few minutes and then searched around the ruins for a couple of hours. It was very light (on account of a full moon and clear sky) so they brought back quite a few souvenirs. Some of them even got going through the ruins of the famous ‘cloth hall’. I guess you have heard of it and where it is. I am going to try and get on the next fatigue forty that goes up. It is only about six miles by the main road.

There is not very much doing here these days and only a few cases are brought in every day. A man of the RFA whose battery is attached to our division had one of his legs amputated in our dressing station night before last. It seemed too bad for it was only an accident. There are a pretty large percentage of the wounded men who come in who are only hit by accident and some of them are maimed by themselves purposely so they can get back to the hospital.

I got your letter and parcel of sox. They are sure dandy sox and the brown pair are just fine. They fill up my big boots to perfection. The film was in the other ones ok but I guess you have my other letter saying not to send any more as my camera is in the custody of the Col.

The mail has just come in but there was nothing for me. I think it is the advance part of another Canadian mail.

Dinner is all over now and I am going out for a walk so I’ll ring off and get this posted so that it will go on tonight’s mail. Have not got the parcel Mae spoke of sending. Probably it will be on the mail that just arrived. I am feeling fine and am getting fat as a porpoise. Hope everyone at home is well. Tell Verne and Norma to write.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

16 October 1915 Somewhere in Flanders

Somewhere in Flanders ( near Mont Noir, France)

Dear Mother,

This is Sat. morning and I have a few minutes to myself so I’ll try and get a line or two written home. It seems a long time since I have written a letter home but it can’t be more than a week and a half.

Harold Skilling
c. 1915
Well I got your letter on Monday I believe and sent a card home acknowledging it for I have been so busy that there has been no time to write a letter.

We are in a French chateau conducting an officers’ rest station. It is a sort of hospital for officers who are suffering from nerve trouble or shock. Most of them are pretty fussy and require a lot of attention and even our own officers who live here are making a picnic out of it.

It is a 4 storey building and is situated on a high hill so that it is a splendid outlook over the country around it. I am going to try and get some cards with a picture of the place on it and will send one or two.

A funny thing occurred last week when our section came over here to relieve the section of the 4th Field Ambulance who were here. When I was going through the house I ran up against Billy Redburn. His section was on duty here before us. I hope that we will be able to get out of here next week for I am not struck on the job. We have to take our turn at it no doubt though.

I got most of the papers from home but the one with my letter in, I got from Billy R. I had no idea I had written two columns, but if you are ever going to put any other of my letters in the paper, I’ll have to take more time in writing them so that I can correct them etc. The letter I sent home about my trip to London was a good deal different from the one appearing in the paper.

I am glad that Maude was feeling better when she went back and I hope she gets real ok again before long. I got Mae’s letter the other day and was very glad to hear from her. She is getting along splendidly with the “mill”. (?)  I guess when you all have read my letters you wish that I could use one too. Well I have been compelled to write in so many different positions etc. that I can’t write half as well as when I left home.
Tell Mae to ask Geo. if he knows a Dr. Burgess. He comes from Owen Sound and is one of our Captains. Someone was saying the other day that he only graduated a short time ago. “Red” Irvine’s name is Harold Irvine and comes from Sarnia.

Has Bill enlisted yet and what has he joined?I suppose he will be writing me soon and telling me all about it.

Things are very quiet just now but the big scrap that Mae referred to in her letter occurred just on our right. I do not think any Canadians were there. The noise of the bombardment could be heard plainly however and it was simply terrific. The booms of the guns sounded like distant thunder, and they kept up their roaring incessantly for hours at a time. For five days since coming here there has been heavy bombardments going on in that same district and if the nights are clear, the star shells and flashes of the guns can be seen distinctly.

An officer of the 20th Battalion came in here the other night and he is in my ward. Capt. Hedges is his name from Toronto. He told me that where his Battalion is now was held by the Princess Pats and where a lot of the fighting has been done. He says that the stench is something awful and when they are building up trenches that need repair or new ones, that often they come upon bodies buried there. The place is simply alive with rats and mice. This officer is just suffering from shattered nerves and says it is a recurrence of an attack he  had before.

We are having a comparatively easy time here but I have long hours. I have been put in charge of a ward to see that things are looked after and cannot get out hardly at all. When the fellows get back home, the fellows say they will be first class chambermaids and bellhops. Ha ha!

I had to hand in my Kodak so don’t send any films. I was going to send it home but the Col. is keeping them for us in case the order is cancelled so we can have them when we are going home.

Sometime now if you can, will you send a box of doughnuts or biscuits. Don’t send any soft stuff like tarts etc. for they get some rough handling and only send stuff that will keep as it takes about 3 weeks for parcels to come through. Tell Mae not to send any medicine or drugs as I can get all those things here as we carry a goodly supply and also we get chocolate or at least can buy it. Our rations consist mainly of bread, bully beef stew and cheese with jam, on occasion a tin of butter (so called) but we never get butter and cheese on the same day. If you send any sox be sure that they are good and thick especially in the heel, and only 1 or 2 pair at a time.

Well I had better ring off and I’ll try not to keep you waiting for so long for another letter.

Am feeling ok as the picture of myself that I sent to Ettie (Redburn) will show even if I do look mad. Hope everyone is ok.

Your loving son,

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

1 September 1915 Otterpool Camp, Kent

Harold writes a letter to his mother from the hospital where he is working. The last pages of the letter are missing.

Harold Roy Skilling front right
Otterpool Camp

5th Field Ambulance, 2nd Division Canadian Expeditionary Force
Dear Mother,
This is Wed. night and I am on duty in the hospital but have a few minutes of spare time tonight so must try to get a short line written home.
We have been very busy all week and today in the hospital has been busier than ever and we are crowded to the full capacity of the hospital tonight. It has been a rainy day, and also there is a big review by the King tomorrow so that is one of the reasons for a big sick parade. Orders are out in some units around here for the big inspection tomorrow, but there is not any out for us yet so I can’t give you the details.
Things are getting pretty well cleaned up now and all our equipment has been received. The transport have all been issued with new waggons and watter carts and we got our 3 horse ambulances as well which are all we will get here. The motor ambulances of which we are allowed 7, are in France now. (except 1 which the Col. uses as a joy car.)
The last time I wrote I was out on manoeuvres and did not have a very good opportunity to write much and did not feel very much like writing anyway as I was just about “all in” from the cold and thought I would have to report sick, but the next morning I was nearly better. We came thru’ our operations ok and went through a scheme of billeting in Ashford. Our unit was put in a brewery and the Col. was tickled but we were not allowed inside. He is a regular old soaker, but is better now than when we first came over.
Before I forget, I am sending my watch home. (The one I got from the boys) It does not fit in the case, I don’t think, and besides is not strong enough for the knocking around it gets. I was downtown last night for a few odds and ends and got a 13/ Ingersall wristwatch with luminous dial. It is a good reliable time-keeper and stands all kinds of rough usage. You can keep the other one for me and if you can get it fixed, it will do for some one to use. I would have gotten it fixed only the jewel shops around here are so rushed that they can’t accept anymore work to be done in less than a month.
In case my letters from the front will be very strictly censored, could some of you arrange to sent a film for my camera every so often, say once a week. They cost 20 cents and are no. 127 for the vest pocket Kodak (folding). I am going to try and get them sent out with men coming back and trusting to them being sent home. You will have to get them developed as I am not taking a developing outfit with me. I had thought I would like to take it but it is going to be too bulky and as we are only allowed 1 kit bag and 35 lbs. in that, I don’t know what we are going to do with our big boots for they comprise nearly all that weight in themselves.
Here comes a case so I’ll have to ring off now and finish this the first chance I get.
This is Thursday evening just after supper and if I am going to catch the Canadian mail for tonight I must post this right away.
Well the big review is over and we were praised by the King. He said we looked better than any division he had yet inspected that was leaving for the front. He rode past our unit on horse-back about 11 o’clock a.m. and was accompanied by Kitchener and a score of staff officers. They made quite an imposing sight as all the prancing horses and distinguished men with their khaki uniforms trimmed with red. He passed directly in front of us and he scrutinized us closely as he rode by. Kitchener is a very heavily built man and wears a heavy brown moustache. I had always heard him described as one who seldom smiles, but his face was wreathed in smiles as he passed us. (I suppose it one of pleasure at out good appearance, eh what?)
It threatened to rain all day as it usually does on inspection days, but kept off pretty well until we were on our way home and then it started to pour. We got a good soaking as we had to march about 3 miles in it.
Altogether there would be about 22,000 reviewed, and they certainly showed well today. They presented arms at the Royal salute like one man, and there was not a movement as the King rode past. After the inspection they “marched past” in double columns of fours (eight abreast) the massed bands of the division playing regimental marches. At the conclusion of the inspection, and previous to the “march past”, “three cheers” were called for. When a person overhears 3 by 3 from a division of soldiers, it is not soon forgotten. It just seemed to quiver along the whole line, which extended for about a third of a mile and was 4 companies deep and then burst into a big roar.
When we got home all thoroughly wet from the inside out, and outside in also, we were met with few words of praise from the Col. when he was dismissing us. When he had finished conveying the message of Gen. Turner, he said that as we were not standing at attention when the Gen. came around after the inspection to give him this message and instead we were eating out lunch, which was contrary to orders, he would give us as punishment 1 hr. of standing to attention today and half hour every morning instead of physical drill. When we were dismissed everybody just booed and gave cat calls etc. It was ….
( More details on this incident after the King's inspection may be found on pages 50 - 53 in "Stretcher Bearers...At The Double" by Frederick Walter Noyes )