April 1918 WWI Issue

A Gentleman Unafraid

In a series of letters to his mother, an American fighting with the Canadian army in France described how his love of family and his religious faith had prepared him for his fate. 
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On the attack at the Somme, in northern France (91040/DPA/Corbis)

In camp, March 22, 1916.

The trenches twist and turn so, a precaution against enfilade fire in the event of the enemy’s occupying any position, that we seemed to walk miles before we reached our new destination. It was a new support trench about 40 yards back of the front line. Saturday night, I was on a “carrying party,” whose duty was to carry timber, wire, etc., from a material pile to the working party. Sunday night we went in again, and I was in a digging gang. Some of the new work had fallen in, and we had to remove the sandbags and dig down in front of the screens and push the latter out, wire them back, fill up behind them, and put back the bags. It sounds simple enough, but the digging was the worst I ever struck. Sticky mud that clings to your shovel, so that you can only get rid of one shovelful out of every three …

April 13, 1916.

A soldier must live from day to day, with no thought of the future, just a steadfast purpose of carrying out orders and being stronger and steadier than he naturally is; and faith and trust in God’s purpose make it possible for me. Do you not think that the war is making people less selfish in the world and in the United States? Surely it must, when in so many places people are sacrificing their dear ones and their money for a cause. Even if it seems to some more a question of honor and family, or national tradition, than justice or freedom.

I often think of the rank and file of the German army, and even the junior officers. They are suffering untold hardships, and showing magnificent bravery in the face of heavy odds, as much, or perhaps more, than the soldiers of the Allies …

Boulogne-Sur-Mer, April 26, 1916.

Dearest Mother,

The dearest old lady, who is a regular hospital visitor, has just been to see me and given me this paper to write to you. It is really the first chance I have had, for the sisters here are terribly busy, and one hates to bother them. I was wounded in the left shoulder by a piece of shrapnel, very early, about 12:30, Easter morning … Everything would be fine were it not for the fear of your anxiety. The wound is a small one, and has never given a minute’s pain. I was taken to a clearing hospital in a field ambulance, arriving about 6 a.m., Sunday, and left Tuesday afternoon, arriving here about 11 p.m. We came on the hospital train, which was a beauty. This is a lovely hospital, in a big casino, right on the seashore, and everyone is lovely to me. Yesterday the doctor removed the shrapnel, a little round bullet, so now I am all right …

(On his recovery, Abbey was given a commission and returned immediately to the front.)

December 18, 1916.

Dearest Mother,

I am in the trenches, my tour not being over until next Saturday; but I am not in the front line, but in the supports. We only stay in the front line three days at a time. I have just been reading over the little Manual of Prayers for Workers, which you sent me some time ago. It is fine, especially the plea for duty before everything. There is a paragraph by Dean Church on “Manliness—which takes for granted that man is called to a continual struggle with difficulties and makes it a point of honor not to be dismayed by them,” and “Quality—which seizes on the idea of duty as something which leaves a man no choice.” That is the quality which I need most now, the strength to do my duty, and I pray for it hourly, and I know that you do it for me, too …

Christmas Day, 1916.

Today is my second Christmas away from home in my 28 years. What joy it will be if God grants us one together again after this long separation! I am going to start by telling you where I am. Picture a little French village, with one long, narrow, cobbled street. At one end the street leaves the village and crosses over a deep railway cut and then wanders away through the rolling country. I should have told you that the village is on a hilltop. From the railway bridge, the street runs perhaps a hundred yards, then turns 90 degrees to the left and runs downhill … The houses are low, one-storied affairs of stone or white plaster, and tile roofs, and are lined right along the street … There are several larger houses, with courtyards in front with high walls. It is all beautifully picturesque in spite of my description … Altogether it is a very picturesque old place, and less than four miles from that famous streak of mud which separates the Allies and Germans. The men are living in the loft of the barn, a big lone place, and they have straw and bunks and brazier fires; but it is pretty cold and dark there just the same. Still, the magnificent spirit of making the best of grim situations keeps them happy and cheerful …

January 31, 1917.

I am writing this in a front-line dugout. This is our third day in the line, and we have three more to go, I think, possibly a few more. It has been quite cold and the ground is still covered with snow. Last night it snowed quite a lot more. It is a very pretty picture, and a new one to me, to see the trenches in this condition …

My letters do not seem to have any news in them, because there is so much to repress that I long to tell you.

February 21, 1917. Ash Wednesday.

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