A few hundred yards behind the first lines.
My dear Mr. Butler: -
As I had a spare moment tonight, I could not think of a better way to use it than to let you and Mrs. Butler know a little about us here. I must apologize for my handwriting, but sitting on a rickety cot and writing on a suitcase held on one's knees does not tend to improve a naturally rather poor writing.
We left New York on June 19th and after a thirteen-day sea voyage arrived in England. From England, we wasted as little time as possible getting down here, but arrived just after all the activity from the June offensive was over. However, all the boys who were here then in this section were decorated with the Italian "Croce de guerri" for consistent hard work and shortly afterwards, we were given two front line posts after the colonel had been requested by the chief of the section that we be given an opportunity for first line work. I might add that this section is the only American Ambulance section in Italy which has actual front line posts.
|I have just begun my four days at Casa Cento. It is a small farmhouse, not more than a quarter of a mile from the lines. All around it, sandbags and rubbish have been piled up and inside, the rooms have extra supports to hold the weight of the second story which is full of earth and rubbish.|
|One of the first things that one notices when one arrives here is the predominant smell of chloride of lime. It is used liberally to cover any refuse which may be lying around and is also an important part of the little burying ground which takes up about half of our back yard.|
|I saw them bury a man this morning. Personally, I am quite hardened to it now, but a line about his burial might show you what things are like here more vividly than pages of other details. Four men came in with a stretcher on their shoulders, and a man, with the legs of his trousers slit open so that the surgeons could get at his wounds, his shoes off, and a handkerchief over his face, lay on the stretcher. A priest in officer's uniform walked behind. The stretcher was laid by a grave. Three other graves near by were being filled in. The dead man was lifted off the stretcher and placed on a blanket. Without further ceremony, he was lowered into the grave, then a quantity of lime was put in and then the earth. To say the least, it seemed rude, but war does not allow time for delicacies.|
At present, there is little or no activity here, as I guess the gunners on both sides have turned in. They make war in the most leisurely fashion here I ever saw. Nothing ever happens during the heat of the day, nor after midnight, but usually about dawn and about 4 P.M. the music starts. This morning, they shelled the neighborhood until about 10 o'clock with 152 and 210 calibre shells. That would be about a 6 inch and 8 inch shells in our way of measuring. One of the shots hit a casa near by and for several seconds after the explosion, one could hear the walls tumbling in.
This afternoon about 5 P.M., a captain and two lieutenants took me up to the lines with them. The dugouts in the support trenches were down behind a dike and looked extremely comfortable - large, dry and well built of sand bags and wooden beams. From here, we went up into the first lines. The trenches here were cut in deep solid sand which is kept wet by the river. Of course, the actual trenches are very irregular and in many places, the bushes on the ground above have grown across and formed an excellent camouflage. We went out into a number of observation posts. These are practically on the edge of the river and from there, it is very easy to see the Austrian lines on some places only about fifty and in some, a hundred feet away. There was not a sign of life visible though shells were going both ways overhead and occasionally, ta-ta-ta-tat of a machine gun would break the silence. Once we heard the gun and then the bullets went rather uncomfortably close over head, but up here one expects a scare or two every day.
When we are back at one of the evacuation posts, we live very comfortably. At one place, we eat with a major and his staff and have a soldier to get us coffee in the morning, or whatever else we want. That post is about five miles behind the lines and is where they concentrate the men from all these little front posts before they are evacuated to the permanent hospitals. We have two posts like this concentration place, two front line posts, and two posts which are half way between these four. Every four days, we have a relief. When nobody is sick, there are ten men at camp and ten men at post, so everybody is up here four days and then in camp four days. Just now, however, there are quite a few who have fever and so some of us have to take eight days at post and four in camp. There is very little to choose between the two - post and camp as when one is at camp, there is just as much work carrying men from one hospital to another or moving them back to bigger concentration hospitals.
It is pretty hot and there are more mosquitoes here, it seems, than in all the U.S. Also, I can't say that I care as much about the Italian "soldati" as I did about the French "poilus", but the officers, although they have different habits and manners, certainly do treat us well.
I suppose the school will be open by the time this reaches you and I hope you will have as successful a year as last year. Please give best regards to Mrs. Butler and remember me to Steve Hulbert and any others in the school whom I know. Perhaps you might have time, sir, to drop me a word which would be much appreciated. With my best wishes to you and Mrs. Butler,
I am always,
Very sincerely yours,
Harvey L. Williams.
P.S. It was a choice between this envelope or an Italian one lined with tissue paper with a pattern like a Japanese screen. I preferred this!