On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a massive attack in an attempt to defeat the Allies “before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale”, as expressed by General Ludendorff. Known as the Spring Offensive, its first objective was to breach the poorly defended French front at Arras which the British had only just taken over and had not had time to reinforce. Although the Allies were aware that a large-scale attack by the Germans was on the cards, its sudden launch came to them as a total surprise. It was the biggest German breakthrough in over three years: in just five hours, one million artillery shells were fired into the British lines and by the end of the day some 21,000 soldiers had been taken prisoner. On the Allied side, panic set in while in Germany 24 March was declared a national holiday. On both sides, many believed that the war was all but over. However, the Germans had one problem. Their advance had been so rapid that the supply troops simply couldn’t keep up, which resulted in a shortage of vital supplies. In the hiatus which followed, American troops began to pour into the Western Front and by the end of the month, half a million of them had joined the battle. Things now hung in a heart-stopping balance.
Have just received your letter dated March 9th and am so sorry you have had such trouble in finding me – I cannot conceive, “why in the world” Cox’s didn’t send on your last letter – Have been out here for the last 15 months! Will you kindly convey to your mother, (also yourself) my very deepest sympathies and how awfully sorry I was to hear of your Brother’s death.
“Longing for the old Bosche to attack”
Rather a coincidence which might possibly interest you, was: – that I spoke to your brother on the afternoon the day before he was killed, not knowing until I returned and saw him again at Batt. H. Q. that he was Pat Armstrong, mentioned in the “Mons to Ypres book”1 which you so kindly lent me. This particular afternoon, while wandering round the line prior to taking over from the 29th Div at Monchey near Arras, was where I happened to meet him, and where he gave me required information. He used to wander round in a very business like way, without Tunic, and sleeves rolled up (during the hot days) generally alone (without orderley [sic]) and known by everyone for his cheerfulness and his bravery. Have often heard of him spoken off [sic] by many units.
Now about the book, your Mother shall certainly have it, and will at once send instructions to have it returned – I took the greatest care of same (it being at home) and is locked up in my bookcase of which I have the key’s [sic] out here with me. If she is not in too big a hurry for about 3 weeks, I shall be at home myself, coming for 6 months (war worn officer’s rest) and then I will send it by registered post, personally.
As you suggest, I had quite forgotten your address, and often wondered and thought of the dream and the Ypres salient incident of 1915, also as to whether you ever heard anything from the one (Prisoner of War, returned) Van Mill of the 5th Canadians —. who was captured about that time. So you still visited the Rest House up to leaving Folkestone, I don’t think I should know anyone there now?
You ask me as to whether I have had a rough time since leaving Shorncliffe? “well, yes” we’ve been in for all the hard fighting during the last 12 months, but having it a little easier now that I’m on Brigade. Brig Gen Porter, who is our G.O.C.2 knew your brother at Sandhurst, and was only talking about him today, just before I received your letter. “It’s a small world after all.”
We are back in the position where we were last May, just waiting and longing for the old Bosche to attack – He will get a shock when that day happens! for the boys in the line are quite cheery and anxious for him to come. “Grand Lads” – every one of them! We are having exceptionally fine weather – the sun being awfully warm, in fact, one can lay out in the grass all day, in solid comfort, but it seems too good to last long.
Give my best wishes and kindest regards to your Mother, also accept same yourself, hoping I shall not have bored you by this lengthy letter.
Colin M [W?] Wood
P.S about my book – Tell your Mother, she may keep it as a souvenir of the Canadians. I have a similiar [sic] edition. C. M. Wood
Tuesday 19 March
I stayed in bed all day. I read most of the time, & finished “Derby & Joan”.3Tom was in bed in the morning & got up later. It rained a good bit. Muz wrote letters, & Heppie worked at the mats, & then they went out for a walk.
Wednesday 20 March
Stayed in bed for breakfast, & then got up, & went out with Muz, & we picked some primroses. Then after lunch I copied letters etc, to send to Rosie to type. After tea Muz & Heppie went out, & they walked to Castle Morton. Tom & I read, & I finished “Joy”. We went to bed soon after dinner, & Heppie did Muz’s feet, in bed. I heard from Mr Wood, who we used to know up at the rest Hut, & he talked to Pat on May 22nd, and says very nice things about him.
Letter from Captain Robert Gee, 86th Brigade Headquarters, British Expeditionary Force to Jess Armstrong
My Dear Jessie,
“It has had a most depressing effect upon me”
I know I am mean in not writing you earlier & I am just going to unburden my trouble on to you as I did to Pat. I don’t want to tell Mrs Gee or she will worry. We had a most gallant C. Sgt Maj in the KOSB named Skinner, he was wounded three times in South Africa & eight times during this war, had the VC4 & DCM5 & he got killed by a sniper two days ago. It has had a most depressing effect upon me & somehow it seems hard to shake it off. Yesterday we buried him & four VC (Col Douglas myself Sgt Molyneux & Spackman) carried him to the grave. It was really most impressive but for me, it came at a bad time as I go up the Line (for a few days) tonight. I know just as well as you how silly it is of me & I do feel so ashamed for allowing my feelings to get the better of me but there it is, I shall be jolly glad when it is over especially as I stand a chance of going to England for 3 months.
The good weather has broken & it is now howling with rain. Gen Cayley has arrived but I have not seen him as yet. I was unable to show Christian the Cross as he was down with measles but I hope to show it to him later. It was really nice of you to write to France for it is in France or anywhere from home that one needs letters. Percy Wilson is now Com of 2/RF & a real good show he had made of it, I don’t think he is quite fit yet but I [sic] gets along somehow. Now I must park. Love to Mum & all at home.
Yours affectionately Robert Gee
John Kendrick Skinner, VC
Thursday 21 March
Heppie went off to order the pony trap, & we started at about twelve, & we were going to Malvern, but then thought it was too late, as it was early closing, so we settled to go to Upton instead, it is about three miles. We shopped there, & then got back at about two. It was a lovely sunny day. After lunch Muz & I went to the post office, & then I wound the wool for the mats, all evening & did about sixteen balls, & got them all finished before dinner.
Friday 22 March
We all wrote letters all morning, then I took Dus: for a run, then we had lunch early & went in the wee trap to Malvern. It was very hot all day. We shopped, & got our ration cards & got our first lot of ration butter! We started to come home at about five, & had a lovely drive back. Then wrote letters & copied letters to send to Rosie. I went to bed at about 9-30, & Muz had her bath, & Heppie brought her up.
Saturday 23 March
Coppied [sic] letters all morning, & Muz & Tom wrote letters. After lunch Heppie worked at the mat, & Muz, Tom & I went to post letters, & gave them to a little girl on the road, & then went off to a wood, about ¼ hours walk from here, to pick primroses, it was lovely, made Muz comfy & she read, & we wandered about, & it was lovely & so hot. After tea I wrote letters, & then Muz & Heppie went out for a walk, & Tom knitted. We went to bed at about 9-30. I had a bath downstairs first.
Sunday 24 March
Muz, Tom & I went to church at Welland. After lunch I mended, & after tea Heppie went to church, & Muz, Tom & I went for a walk, across the fields, & brought back some wood for the fire. It was awfully hot all day. Mrs Reynolds went out for the afternoon, & we got our own supper, & washed up afterwards, & then I sat in the kitchen & read for a bit.