A stretcher bearer on the Western Front, 1916

John (Jack) Barrett, an Irish engineer who enlisted in the British Army in World War I, spent several months on the Western Front as a stretcher bearer. He described some of that time in a letter to his cousin Mary Meagher. Barrett was subsequently wounded in action, decorated for his bravery, and promoted to lieutenant.

In 2013 Mary’s nephew, Dr. John Meagher, discovered the letter tucked among a stack of family papers. In the excerpted version below, some minored its have been made for readability, but inconsistent and erroneous spellings have been retained.

 –Jack Barrett, Cricklewood, London

11.3.16

Dear Mary,

I began a letter to you dated 22nd Feb., but unfortunately never had a chance to complete it. I never was a motorcyclist at the front. I have to make a breast of that lie first. I was a common infantry man and for 7 or 8 months was a stretcher bearer with infantry. The incident I am going to talk of is of a common enough kind. The Germans had made a dent in the Ypres salient and got possession of some open rising ground in which their presence was very unwholesome for Ypres and us.

To the 3rd Division (ours) was allotted the task of pushing them out. On June 15th we paraded with two days rations and on as light order as possible and marched with an hours rest 10 miles to Hooge, a ruined village S. E. of Ypres. A stray aeroplane shell from the German side robbed us of our adjutant and one man during our rest. We got to Hooge under cover of dark at 12 night and took up our positions in assembly trenches (trenches especially dug to house extra troops for an attack). There was a fearful squash everywhere and some confusion in settling down in the dark. The Germans became aware of the unusual mass of men and shelled us in spasms, but there were but few casualties during the night, No sooner did the first streaks of grey dawn come than a few light shells from our guns hissed over. They are such as might pass over at any old time of the day and aroused no comment, but they came again and again and were each time added to so that within 10 minutes of the beginning of the bombardment hell seemed let loose and for 2 hours and 30 minutes with one interval of 20 minutes to cool the guns, on the most beautiful June morning that was ever disgraced by the pranks of man, a tornado of metal crashed into the German position 250 yards in front of us. I cannot describe the tumult nor the deafening noise, nor how the ground seems to be torn and to rise and heave and hit you when the heavy shells break at the distance from you. I can say that the sight of 92” shells falling fascinated me. They are plainly visible as resembling long pokers and attract one’s attention by reason of the scream of their rotating motion and the crash of their explosion. The faster gun shells one cannot see, but their scream is more vicious, while their explosion is not so terrifying.

During this bombardment I was not a bit heroic. I had a very unsoldierly pity for the poor devils opposite and was worried by such trifles as the difficulty of understanding why some birds who hung around did not fly away from such an inferno. The dust, smoke and grime and fumes were wafted in a gentle breeze towards us and concealed us, and when the signal to charge was given we left our trenches and got to the German position without more than three casualties.

A charge is not what one pictures nowadays. It is a very orderly leisurely advance begun with a rousing cheer, the last 20 yards being rushed. In the open ground we came on some bodies that had been there since May and our reflections, if we had time for any, were not of the merriest inasmuch as one bullet could put any of us in the same plight. There were three hit between the trenches, one had his forehead split and was beyond help, the other two had trifling wounds. These went back with two S.B. Keeping the stretcher for future use, I went to the German trench, and to my surprise saw no opposition to our entry, but what a chaos! The trenches were so broken and the trees so smashed, and everywhere men broken and maimed, mingled with sandbags and with a stare of fear fixed on their features by death. The sight of that trench shall live with me forever. Some dugouts had apparently been blown up with 500 or more men in them. In some cases the men were unscratched, but always there was the extreme pallor of fear on their faces and two men had by some extraordinary trick been blown out on the barbed wire in front of their own trench.

Five or six others were buried beneath a huge layer of broken sand bags and dugout material, and though it took some time for us to realize [it] and quite 5 to 10 minutes to extract them, they lived. I had my own work cut out in collecting those who received wounds for by the time we had settled down to put the trench in a state of defence, rifle fire had become brisk. One officer had a bullet wound which crossed his forehead, cutting the skull and piercing both eyes. He was evidently doomed but to give him every chance, his orderly and I carried him back to the reserve position to be dressed by the medical officer. During the passage we were fired on by quite a number of rifles and afterwards when searching for a missing man in the open some of us had a taste of warm fire, but then were able to lie down and crawl in the grass and weeds.

While this and the repairing of the trench went on, the Germans were massing artillery and men for a counter stroke. About 4 p.m. the crash came [with] a curtain of shrapnell fire bursting over our front trench. (I heard a staff officer reckoned 200 shells per minute to be the rate of fire.) During the bombardment I used the stream bed to get to the front position. Stretcher work was for the time impossible and there was left only the possibility of painting wounds with iodine and covering them with field dressing.

In some dugouts as many as 5 or 6 men were killed together and in one or two cases there was nothing left of a man. It is pretty horrible for you to be told these things and I would not do so but that I think you would prefer to know the whole rather than a part of what the business is like.

In time—7 or 7:30—things became quieter, but now the few shells which came over were gas shells and most neauseating tear causing stuff. We had respirators (it is a serious crime to be without them at the front) and they served us, but for stretcher work, of which there was plenty, they proved very inconvenient. One gets so hot from the caged breath and the eye piece (mica) normally not clear, becomes so fogged as in the evening light to blindfold one. I reached the dugouts which served as dressing station and hospital finally and found nearly 80 wounded there. One of our chaps to whom I was very pally had been killed instantly by a shell and lay [with] his face turned to the sky and a suspicion of a peaceful smile on it. MHQ

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue (Vol. 27, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: ‘What a Chaos!’

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