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Captain A. K. Haywood, Canadian Army Medical Service

Letter from Dr. A. K. Haywood, Captain in the Canadian Army Medical Service to a colleague in Toronto

7 March 1915

Opportunity is so scarce for writing letters that I hope you won’t mind if I combine them now for I never think of any of you singly and at the present time you are all in my thoughts quite often. This will be a strange letter but I will try and do my best. I joined the battalion a week ago today and it seems as if I have lived a life time. Monday we moved into billets about two miles from the firing line and Friday night we came into the firing line. The billets are billets in name only mostly pig sties and out houses of fares that are left in ruins. It is wonderful to see what man can endure. IO never really appreciated human nature until now. The men are glorious and so brave. It makes me feel mean and small when I think what they are going through and suffering. While in billets I made my sick visits starting at 9 a.m. and never finished till 3 p.m. visiting the different barns and ‘lean-tos’ and what sights they are. Sanitation is a think unknown to the French peasant at best and now is even worse. The Tommies have all sorts of ailments but mostly bad colds and pneumonia.

We marched to the trenches on Friday night or rather sneaked in. I took over Robertson’s dressing station and relieved him as out battalion alternates with him. This dressing station is a deserted house about 400 yards back of our trenches and is peppered with bullets at odd times. The first night I went into the trenches I will never forget. I had to cross a field lit up every minute by German rockets which they fire over our trenches. These rockets are followed by machine gun fire and rifle fire. I can tell you I know of nothing worse than standing in that same field under those conditions, you are so helpless. Finally I reached the trenches and rolled in. The mud getting to them and in them is beyond all description and there is, where the men do suffer. It is nothing less than awful to see these poor devils when they come out to draw rations and have their wounds dressed. No one who has not seen this can realize what it is like or ever appreciate what they will owe for ever to the men in the ranks who are here now and who are trying to follow the wonderful example set them by the English soldier who stuck out the winter under conditions never even dreamt of. I do hope I never forget the feeling I have at the present moment towards the man in the ranks. They may be troublesome in camps but here they are glorious.

My work is a sad one. I sit in this little hole all day and listen to shells from both side going over me. The stretcher bearers bring me the dead and wounded, starting their work after dusk. It is weird to know that they are carrying dead and wounded across that field and any minute may get it themselves. I am glad to say they have earned the praise of the whole battalion and have been warmly thanked many times in the short time we have been here. I have four of them in this shack helping me. The only light we have is a candle and shortly after dusk the room fills up, some sick, some dead and some wounded, all so covered with wet mud and slime that you cannot recognize them, but not a whimper. Those that can return do so. The wounded I send back to hospital and the dead I bury when the chaplain cannot come to us – and such wounds. Yesterday they shelled the trenches and killed three men; one lad 18 years old was blown to pieces, dynamite couldn’t have been worse. Most of them are shot in the head and death is instantaneous.

In my little house we are trying to make it more safe with sand bags for it will be shelled any day now and is just like paper. We may get time to get out but not if the first one gets it. At night I lay down on some straw and thank heaven another day has passed safely but as soon as the guns start early at day break I begin to wonder how long it will be before one comes my way. People say you get callous and used to it but it is a terrible feeling at first. The rain and mud is even worse than Salisbury, the food plentiful, such as it is; our spirits I hope are the best.

Give my regards to all and best wishes for yourselves and may the war end soon. A. K. Haywood.
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