It is something of the young man, should I now call him Lance Corporal Pettigrew, that he wrote again to his home so soon after his last letter.
Keen to share? Keen to hear from home? Or possibly fear? Fear of what he was beginning to see, to experience? A life, a world beyond a uniform, a flag and a rank. Life. And death...
Maybe his empathy to understand others, to understand the events, to explain what he was seeing was also revealing what others were choosing not to see. The horror of war. And his letters were his attempt to make sense of what he was witnessing, through words. Gilbert's words.
I mentioned in a previous letter the fixed style of eloquence attained by older soldiers in reciting their experiences on the battlefield. I marvelled at it, and wondered why, with their (in the majority of cases) limited education, they should be able to speak so descriptive of past events. Now I know? Wednesday Jun 16th will remain ever in my memory. It may be my lot to live through other days of warfare, terrible in the extreme, but never can they be more awful. We were only in reserve. But for hours we heard nothing except the indescribable roar of shells as they burst around us, and the answering peaks of our own guns behind us.
We advanced in the morning and the shelling commenced. One of our ablest and best-liked officers fell, mortally wounded by shrapnel. This cast a gloom over the whole battalion, for he had the sympathies of the men, solely because he was a soldier who had risen from the ranks to the position of second in command of a company. This, however, was only the beginning of the worst. As I say, with our advance commenced the bombardment. From ten o'clock in the morning until a long way past midnight the hundreds of shells fell. We, in reserve, received the full benefit of the bombardment apparently intended for our guns.
It was bearable during daylight, but when night came along a party of us left our dug-outs, whither we had returned, to bury a gallant officer and two sergeants who had given their lives in a vain effort to save him. It happened like this. A young Lieutenant, his coat off and sleeves rolled up, was directing operations, actually from the parapet. He lived unhurt through this, but a few minutes later shrapnel burst near him, and he was terribly wounded about the legs. He fell, and the two sergeants with a private soldier - the latter a South African man - immediately rushed out to bring the wounded officer into safety. As they reached him another shell dropped absolutely upon them, killing the officer and the two sergeants outright, and lacerating the man almost beyond recognition. He did not die, but it must be a long time before he is well. His brave action deserves official recognition, and it probably will be recognised. But these bare facts make of a gallant action almost a commonplace occurrence.
One really must see and experience shell fire fully to appreciate such bravery. But terrible as was the bombardment by day, as we stood by the side of fresh dug graves, reverently watching our comrades being lowered to their last resting place, in the dead of night, the shells veritably shook our souls. One wonders at the strength of one's nerves as such experiences are gone through. As if to give a brief despite to the German artillery, suddenly a hail of bullets whistled around us and over our heads. And immediately afterwards, the shells came again. Our gruesome work was over at last and we returned 'homewards.'
I overtook a stretcher-party. The soldier who was being carried greeted me as I passed, 'Hullo, my old dearie.' I walked alongside for a while, and enquired where my cheerful friend was wounded. He said, 'I've got a hole in my leg that I could put my hand in.' Continuing the poor chap said, 'It's nine months and a day since I stopped one before.' He had been invalided home because of this, and probably he was due for home again.
The day was not fruitless. I understand that several trenches were taken. A regiment of 'Jocks' (Highlanders) carried the day. They charged, and to use an expression of one of their wounded, 'the Alleymands ran like fury.' (One always speaks of the Germans as 'Alleymands.') One wonders at the fortitude of these 'Jocks'. Several of their wounded passed us, one, his face covered with blood, and his head bandaged, was singing as lustily as he could. 'Are we 'doon-hearted' No!' Such little scenes, quite commonplace though they may be, affect one tremendously.
I complained in a previous letter that I had nothing tangible about which to write. Today I must, of necessity, crowd a lifetime into quite a short space. I may enlarge upon the events of June 1915 later. I understand it was the anniversary of Waterloo. A hundred years ago on that day a war was raging such as the world had never seen. Today, Waterloo and the preceding and following events, are dwarfed. Both will remain in history, but no pen can, or ever will, describe the events of 1914-15 in all their awfulness. Perhaps it is better so. The result of the 'Civilised World - German War' must end for us, as did Waterloo. Right and might must conquer inhumanity and might.
Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser 26 June 1915 page 6