The Sweet Escape

May 1, 2001 by Legion Magazine


by Jennifer Trewartha

 

During World War I, my grandfather, Private Thomas P. Harris, served as a medic with 6th Field Ambulance, Canadian Army Medical Corps. By Christmas 1917, the young man, who had been born in England and raised in Montreal, had seen action in France and Belgium. While at the front, he continued to write numerous letters to his British sweetheart, Gladys Gillett. Those letters–along with the wartime correspondence he wrote before he was sent off to the front in September 1915–were eventually passed on to my father who recently loaned them to me. Very quickly I became absorbed in the life of a man who died 45 years ago–the year after I was born.

Gladys was 18 when she met Tom, in England, and I remember her telling me about riding on the back of the motorcycles of servicemen, with her long red hair flying out behind her in the wind. Her beautiful red hair was one of the features that attracted Tom. Indeed, he spoke of her as “a pretty girl sitting on my knee on the bus, with her lovely hair all streaming down her back into my eyes. And all the time unbeknown to her and the other passengers, I was kissing it.”

My grandfather’s letters are a mixture of a young man’s romantic passion for his sweetheart, and the excitement, boredom and horror of war. As a stretcher-bearer, he was certainly in the thick of it, but his descriptions of warfare and life in the trenches are generally light. I did come to understand though that teams of stretcher-bearers from field ambulance units were responsible for collecting casualties and carrying them to regimental aid posts or advanced dressing stations.

This work was highly dangerous and exhausting because stretcher-bearers often had to struggle along muddy trenches or in the open under enemy fire. However, my grandfather didn’t focus on this during his letter-writing sessions. Instead, his concentration was on Gladys and his hope for a better life after the war.

France

Jan. 15, 1917

Dearest Glad,

I decided that while I am alone in the dugout I would talk with you. I have spread out all your photos, six of them, on the box on which I am writing. If I hear anyone coming down the trench, they will quickly be put back in their case. Meanwhile, I can sit and look and dream.

Jan. 16, 1917

Dearest Glad,

I was very rudely interrupted in the middle of my dreaming last night. I won’t say “letter” as I was sitting for about an hour with your photo in front of me and a pencil in my hand, dreaming. Some one stuck his head down the dugout and yelled: “Stretcher case!”

Goodbye dreams.

Some job we had too, believe me. Black as pitch. Couldn’t use the trench, so took a chance and went overland. Lost our way and had to get a guide. Over our knees in water most of the time. Then Fritz opened up on us with a machine-gun. We flopped in a shell hole and with one accord my whole squad started singing: Gicka doola, hicka-hoola. Must have been rather funny to an outsider, if one had been there. Four of us in a shell hole, lying down from a machine-gun. Star shells going up and an unconscious man on a stretcher, groaning on the bottom of the hole, the whole four of us singing ragtime and we were drenched to the hips and lost into the bargain. It took us two and a half hours to get that (stretcher) case down to our aid post and when we hit the road, we had the stretcher on our shoulders and were singing The Girl From Honolulu.

I think it’s the satisfaction of getting a wounded man out safely that makes us so cheerful that despite the discomforts, we arrive singing. We had some bombardment again tonight, our dugout was doing a two-step….

Fred went down the line to go on leave…. God, how I wish I was going with him. To imagine in about three days he will see you–and me out here. Oh girl, when will the time come when I can see you whenever I want? When will the time come when I will feel that I want your advice, your sympathy or your presence and I will just maybe have to go a few yards and be with you. To be able to kiss you when I want. To draw you down beside me and put my arms around you whenever I want…. To see you and touch you and kiss you whenever I want. And to talk to you and to hear you talk and sing all the time.

Still, I suppose, I must be patient. Such wonderful happiness must be earned, and God knows I am earning it. Meanwhile, it must continue in dreams. But the awakening is so very hard. Every day away is one day gone–one day wasted…. I will try to repay your waiting by devoting myself to your happiness. Until that time comes, I suppose we must be content to know I love you and you love me. Please kiss me sweetheart, and now once again let me kiss you.

Goodnight dearest Glad.

* * *

All through 1917, Tom’s letters to his dearest Gladys were full of great excitement and adventure. Later, the tone of his correspondence changed, becoming much more serious. Early in the year he wrote to Gladys to say that “if a man honestly loves a girl, he would make any sacrifice for her.” However, after he was wounded in May 1917, he writes to Gladys to say that he won’t leave the front because he believes he is “doing a man’s job” by helping to save men’s lives at risk to his own.

* * *

May 24, 1917

Sweetheart,

It seems somehow fated that I shall always be causing you a certain amount of worry. It is two weeks since I wrote to you and in my last letter I said I would write soon. Two weeks have passed and all the time I knew you would be worrying as to how I was and yet I couldn’t write…. But dearest, I must ask you to believe that if I could have written I would have done so. I have quite an interesting story to tell you when I next see you.

I suppose my health first. Well, I guess I am just about well now. The wound is all healed up and the arm OK. Occasionally, I feel a slight effect of the gas–nothing much. I have left hospital and am back with my outfit and I am hanging around our own hospital, although really I feel well enough for duty.

The poem enclosed with your letter is extremely good and makes one think…. May I repeat one or two lines. What truth in the words. Her kiss, her tears, will haunt you in the strife. It’s too true, you try so hard not to think of her, as it would be better if you could forget for the moment, but always there comes back memories….

Your next letter in which you say you have received the field service postcard, tells me quite plainly that it caused you an awful lot of worry. I think I have already explained that when I sent the card I was so dazed and half delirious that I couldn’t think properly, much less write and it was the only way I could let you know. Once again dear I must tell you how sorry I now am that I sent it, as I now realize that it would have been far better to have waited until I was well enough to write and let you know I was OK. Always causing you worry. You say that you had prayed extra for my safety. Well sweetheart, the prayer was answered, as what happened to me could only occur once in a thousand times and me still here perfectly safe. The only bad luck I have had is going to hospital in France, as with even ordinary luck I would have gone to England–and England meant you.

I don’t exactly know how to answer your last letter. I have never been in a harder situation in my life and I don’t suppose I will again.

The girl whom I love more than anyone else and for whom I thought I would do anything she asked me to, has asked me for the first time to do something for her now, something that no doubt would stop her worrying and make her much happier and yet I don’t know whether I can do it or not. For hours I have thought it over, many times before I received your letter, in fact ever since I came back from leave. I wonder if I can make you understand.

Let’s suppose you were a big healthy boy. At the age of 17 or 18 a war broke out between you and some other country. You and your chums are all full of eagerness to enlist in the infantry. All of your chums do so, but through a defect in sight you are turned down. When you are sure you cannot get in the infantry with your chums, you manage to enlist in an ambulance as a stretcher-bearer. You meet a wonderful girl whom you worship. Eventually you go to the front to do your work as a stretcher-bearer. You take your share of the risks, but the risks you take are not nearly so great as those taken by the infantry. You have never really felt satisfied with yourself for being in an ambulance, until you have brought out some poor fellows wounded, maybe some of your own chums, and brought them out at risk to yourself. Well, you are in the firing for a long time, as you are extremely lucky. Always you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing good work and doing your share and you always remember the thanks the wounded men give you after you have managed to get them behind the lines safely. Well, your time comes for leave and you go to the girl. She asks you a lot of questions and for the first time you realize how hard it is for her, always to be in suspense and wondering if you are OK.

During your leave she tells you of this and asks you that as you have been out there so long if you do not think you could get a job further back from the line, out of danger, so as to stop her worrying. Of course you would do anything if it was possible to make her happier, but you explain to her why you would rather go back to your old job and you manage to make her understand your reasons.

Your leave finishes. You go back to the front after having had the most wonderful week of your life. After you have been back a few months it happens, but as usual you are lucky. Your companion is killed and you are knocked unconscious. You know nothing until you wake up on a stretcher. Then when you get full control of your senses, you think in earnest. Suppose you had been the other man and you had been the one killed? Well, as far as you yourself are concerned, it wouldn’t have mattered, as there was no pain, no suspense or anything. But how about the people left behind. Your mother and father and the girl. It would have caused them an awful amount of grief. You guessed right away that you would hear from the girl, asking you for her sake and possibly for your mother’s sake too to get, if possible, a safe job. How you dreaded to receive that letter, as you know that you would do anything else in the world for the girl.

Then the letter came. It was just as you thought. She said you had been at the front so long, been sick, wounded and gassed. You know that every reason she gives is correct and yet with all that, you somehow cannot give consent to do what she asks and what is worse you cannot exactly explain why you can’t do it. And then there is always a kind of feeling that after the war is finished she would be far prouder of you and think much more of you if you do not do as she asks but stick through it, if possible to the end.

Dearest, perhaps it was unnecessary to tell you all this but I wanted you to try and understand how hard it is to say “no”. You know dear, if it was anything else at all you asked me to do I would do it willingly for you.

What would the few chums I have left with me say if I quit now?

Dearest, there is no need to worry about me for some time–that’s honest. I am and shall be perfectly safe for some weeks as I am still convalescent. As you know, I love you very, very much.

Tom.

June 12, 1917:

Sweetheart,

I do not feel any more effects of the gas, as the gas I got was very weak and most of it was what they call tear gas. You say that the next thing to being together is to receive a love letter and I most certainly agree with you. I love to hear you say you love me….

It’s rather hard to explain what I mean, but in the midst of everything out here, the monotony, the horror, the work, whichever it happens to be, there comes a nice letter from you–for a few minutes you are lifted out of it all and it is not a world of horror and things military, but just a world containing me, with you being nice to me. And then after I have finished the letter, the memory of those precious few minutes with you lingers and makes me a lot happier than I was before.

And now, little girl, let’s go into that wonderful land of memory for a minute while I take you in my arms and show you how I thank you for your letter by kissing you many times. You may do as you wish and put your arms around my neck and kiss me in return. I hope always to try and deserve your love.

Tom.

* * *

I used to think war history was dry and boring, but now–thanks to my grandfather’s letters–WW I is alive for me. Tom died of throat cancer at age 59 in 1955, but I feel I knew him as a young man. Although Dearest Glad married Tom and became a Canadian citizen in later life, she remained a thoroughly British lady until she died recently in Montreal at age 96.

Because of my grandfather’s letters, Remembrance Day and the poem In Flanders Fields mean so much more to me.

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