FRANCE: THE FIRST TIME
By Hugh Laughlin
School principal Hugh Laughlin of Chilliwack, B.C., pulled no punches in letters home from the front lines during the First World War. He enlisted with the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion, formed at Winnipeg. These excerpts were culled from letters written to his brother concerning the April 9-14, 1917, attack on Vimy Ridge; they were first printed in The Chilliwack Progress in October of that year and again in April, 1988. After the war, Laughlin came home to his wife and two children and worked first as a game warden and later as a liquor salesman. He died in 1960.
I wish I could go home now. I have done what I wanted to do when I enlisted. That is to feel that I had a go at the brutes who murder women and children.
I feel perfectly satisfied now to quit, yet if I were younger and had no wife and kiddies, I should not mind going back tomorrow. It is the real thing there. You feel you are among men and real men. And it is surprising how many real men there are when it comes down to it.
That old muddy tunnel felt like a bit of heaven when we were once inside. Mind you, I had not slept since I got up on Sunday morning and this was Tuesday midnight.
I could scarcely drag myself. I was wet, covered with mud and feverish, but we had to go on and no one grumbled as we were winning, and every once in a while more prisoners would come in as the boys explored new dugouts.
How I hated that next trip out to that line again. We got back about dawn. A scanty breakfast and more work.
I did not think a human being could stand it. Everyone was bearded, haggard and besmeared or coated with mud, but there was victory in their eyes.
All day Wednesday we worked. Eight o’clock Wednesday night we lay down for a rest in the mud. By the irony of fate, four men were required to go for water and I was one of the unfortunate. It was a long trip, in places slop to the knees.
When nearly there, we came under gas shells and had to take shelter and put on our gas masks. It was midnight when we staggered back. Two of us cuddled together for warmth and at 2 o’clock were pulled up for the attack on the “Pimple.” I believe we were all half stupefied.
What a load we put on, as if we were going over to stay or die. That Pimple meant a lot to us and to Fritz.
We filed out of the tunnel and marched along the foot of the ridge in places waist deep in slush. That is no exaggeration. There were no front lines left on either side here.
Everything, including barbed wire, was destroyed by artillery fire. We took up our places as silently as possible in shell holes. The first two waves–I was in the second–were in what had been no man’s land.
We were spotted before we reached our places and Heinie sent up a Fourth of July celebration of fireworks. It was awe-inspiring, even as the rifle and machine-gun fire was terrific, yes, and terrifying.
I did not feel frightened. Somehow there is no time for fear when it comes right down to it. We knew we were in for the toughest proposition we had yet tried to solve.
We lay low in the mud, safe from bullets, and the artillery fire was modest. We were all settled by 4 and had to wait till 5 a.m. It began to snow (April 12) and blow, and continued to do so for half an hour, a soft, sticky white snow.
We were warmed up by floundering through the mud, but soon were chilled and shivering. How we prayed for the barrage to open. I remember the officer asking the time. It was three minutes to 5. That three minutes seemed an age, but at last it began.
I cannot describe it. We heard the shrieking shells before we heard the reports of the guns that fired them. It was just beginning to grow light, and ahead of us some 70 yards they were bursting, throwing columns of dirt in the air.
That was our signal to move. No one spoke a word. We fixed our bayonets, pulled the rags from our rifles and filed out into such a shower of bullets as I never hope to hear again. I was fully resigned to the worst and fully expected it.
We wallowed forward, men sticking in the mud and having to be pulled out by their chum. I was fourth in our squad. A bullet passed my cheek so closely that I thought it hit me. I clapped my hand up – no blood, only mud. Another passed through my tunic sleeve, grazing my wrist.
Soon the fellow in front of me dropped and rolled into a shell hole. I thought he was killed, but he was not. Soon the next one ahead dropped and I stumbled over him.
Just then, the little officer fell face down. He was killed. Then the first fellow’s brother, who was ahead of me, went down, killed.
I got past the second German line when something like a sledge-hammer struck me on the shoulder. My rifle flew one way and I went down on my face, my steel cap falling off and splashing into the water in a shell hole.
I rolled over into it – the shell hole, not the cap, the water covering my legs. I fished out my shovel and used it to cover my face. At first I did not realize where I was hit, but soon located it in my shoulder. I found I could move my fingers and forearm and began to congratulate myself on my good fortune.
Just then the enemy opened up a barrage to cut off the reinforcing waves. I thought the jig was up. There was a shower of dirt falling on me. I had just got my breath when another burst beside the first nearly smothered me for sure.
I clawed the mud off my face when I got my arm free, and at last managed to get my mouth clear. I could scarcely get my breath.Fortunately, no more came so close, and after about 20 minutes of it the barrage ceased as suddenly as it began.
For an eternity, I waited and watched and longed for someone to come. After five or six hours, a chap poked his head over the rim. I knew him and hailed him. He spent over an hour….to cut my harness loose, and finally got me out. I left my belongings buried in the mud.
Everyone is keen as mustard to go to France the first time.