World War 1: Letter from Ypres
This has been my first tour on the frontlines. We are to assist the French forces stationed in the Ypres area of France. We have been under heavy attack for a while now, and just yesterday the Germans gassed us. Cowards. They couldn’t come out to fight us man on man. Instead, they sent gas at us, forcing the French troops to route. We were only able to hold the line by urinating on our handkerchiefs or dipping them in the water in the craters and trenches.
Giving the conditions, it’s better to piss on them then to dip it in the water here.
There is infection everywhere. Men are blown apart or shot to pieces, and the bodily fluids and limbs are left where they land. The food is awful, some sort of rock hard bread making up the majority of our diet. We have no proper latrines, and instead have a designated area in the trench where we relieve ourselves. The rats are huge, crawling everywhere and eating the bodies. They are no longer afraid of humans, and some are even so bold as to steal food right out of our hands!
Some of the men have gotten a nasty disease that eats away at their feet. The boots that we are issued do nothing to keep the water out, and instead trap the water around our feet. Unless we can get our feet dry, they will begin to rot. There is nothing you can do once the rot has set in: already, three men in my unit have had to be sent home because they’ve become amputees.
I’m dreading what will happen in the days ahead. When we attack, we are ordered over the top, and simply sprint towards the enemy positions. Survival is because of luck, nothing more. If you make it to the enemy trench, you shoot men and watch them die just meters away from you. If you manage to capture a trench, you’ll be forced to fight back against counterattacks. You don’t always hold the trench;
sometimes we’re forced back, and we have to run back through no-man’s land to our own fortifications while the Germans fire at our backs. Worst of all, our rifles don’t fire half of the time, and more than one soldier has died while he frantically tries to un-jam his gun.
Some men are terrified of fighting. Their minds snap, and they twitch and tremble constantly. They won’t fight, or listen to orders. They’re broken soldiers. Most of them are executed, unless they have an injury that gets them sent home.
I don’t think that I am so far gone that my mind will become broken, but the war is taking its toll on me. Everyday, you wonder if today is your last. There is no time to get a good sleep, as shells fall throughout the day and night. There are always gunshots and grenades exploding, men yelling and dying, lives ending every minute of every day. It all begins to blur together, and I have become exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally as well. I do not know how much longer I can take this.
I have another day on the front lines before I can go back to headquarters and hopefully get some decent rest. Some of the soldiers are talking about the Germans attacking tomorrow. I hope we’re prepared, and I hope I make it through the assault. There’s nothing as bad as this.
1st Canadian Division*
*Disclaimer: Letter is a replica and is not, nor should be, treated as a primary source of information. This is only a letter written many years after World War One by a history student attempting to highlight the life of a Canadian soldier in France and his experiences at Ypres. Do not treat this article as fact, rather as a creative attempt to recreate the horrible conditions that a soldier at Ypres would have faced.