No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess dear, I can hardly realise that it is already a week since we parted: time passes so quickly in these forward areas. I suppose too that the two nights sleep I lost on the return journey have helped to make the week seem shorter. I have now had two letters from you, darling… the ones written on Sunday and Monday. I feel happier now that our ‘lines of communication’ are operating once again: I detest being out of touch with you… even if only for a day or two.
I keep wanting to talk to you about my leave: I could talk endlessly about it, but I fear that I will become melancholy if I do, so I think it will be better for me, and you, if I just keep my memories and use them for my dreams. It was lovely at home, Jess. And now that I know we have such a delightful little ‘ray of sunshine’ to gladden our lives I feel happier than ever. And your handling of the wee chap… I cannot tell you how much I admire you dear for the manner in which you are rearing him… But really, I never had any doubts: I always knew that our baby would have a splendid mother. I am glad to hear that his cold is better. It is horrible to recall those two mornings when he couldn’t breathe properly. I think his condition would have alarmed me very much had you not been so calm and unruffled about it.
In my letter of yesterday, I told you of my arrival at a certain church: we are still in the same location… still living under these rather unreal conditions. In some ways, the whole situation is fantastic:- one of those little episodes which can only occur amidst the chaos of the front line during war. When we reached this tiny village… travelling via a German town which has been almost completely obliterated… there were already some infantry in the place, and they had naturally occupied the best billets… i.e. the dingy cellars and few remaining ground floor rooms of the local cottages. We had to be content with what was left. But it is surprising how we adapt ourselves. My troop tanks had to harbour in the churchyard, amidst the gravestones and debris of the church. So we naturally explored the church itself and found one or two corners which remained dry during the rain. And those corners are our billets. My ‘bedroom’ is the floor, between two rows of pews, and beneath the organ balcony. The organ is rather battered, but still capable of groaning and wheezing when the bellows are pumped.
The interior of the church is a ruin… with enormous wooden beams from the roof laying across the pews; bits of plaster images all over the place; the altar laying face downwards amidst a pile of broken wall; gaping windows, and odd relics such as priests’ clothing and adornments in various odd corners and cupboards. Some of the lads are sleeping in what was the vestry: but there are enormous holes in two of the walls, so the elaborate carpets and tapestries used in the church have been used as screens to cover up these holes. The result is a sleeping chamber worthy of Hassan himself! (perhaps the 15th century Persian ruler, Emir Hassan?) But I fear Hassan would have been horrified to see his precious carpets roughly nailed to walls, and cut where necessary, merely to keep out wind and weather.
The abundance of wood in the church itself is a great blessing to us. Our ‘brazier’ is rather a glutton for fuel, especially in this cold weather, and it is very nice having an almost endless supply of wood nicely ‘laid on’. When we arrived, the church yard was simply a mass of shell holes, broken grave stones, shattered trees, and slit trenches… the latter having been dug in the walks between the rows of graves. But now it resembles a poultry farm. Hens are so plentiful in the neighbourhood, that the lads have been bringing ’em back alive, as well as dead! At the moment, there are at least three independent hen runs amidst the ruins of the graves… each owned by different tank crews. The hen runs have been made by running lengths of wire netting around convenient grave stones, thus forming enclosures in which the hens seem quite happy. I don’t suppose they realise they are scratching and searching for food over the bodies of long departed Jerries. One fellow has placed his two live hens down inside one of the slit trenches… with a wooden cross from one of the graves as a perch. In the adjoining slit trench, is a British steel helmet containing part of a man’s head. “Another poor bastard ‘had it'” I heard someone say of this gruesome relic.
There are civilians in this area… and already some of our lads have scrounged some food from them… principally home-cured bacon and ham. And yesterday someone shot a small pig… and hanging from the arm of a cross on a grave, I saw a skinned rabbit: it provided a ‘knife and fork’ tea for one crew! I suppose it is appropriate that men whose business it is to kill should behave with complete contempt for the dead. That is the position just here, anyhow. One of yesterday’s “jokes” was the nearby body of a mutilated German which was being eaten simultaneoulsy by a hen and a cat. And still the fellows enjoy eating these hens!
The weather has been a little better today. Yesterday, there were minor blizzards and snowstorms every couple of hours and it was very cold, but today it has only snowed for a few minutes, and there has been blue sky most of the time. Our ‘Typhoons’ have made the most of this fine spell and have been buzzing around all day. We like to see them, as I have told you. Another news item today concerns our captive hens… They are laying eggs already!
Writing conditions are not so good, dear Jess. But I must say a few words. Firstly, it has been a wretched day from the weather angle. Low clouds, misty, and fairly heavy rain almost since dawn. I got very wet during the day’s journey, but have now managed to ‘dry-off’… thanks to a fire we have rigged up in this dilapidated Dutch house… just one of thousands of similar houses over here. When we arrived, it was difficult to tell whether the inside was worse than the outside. The rooms were full of debris… bits of brick, plaster from the ceilings, broken furniture, broken glass, and piles of crockery, papers and clothing all over the floors. But we have made the place ‘habitable’ somehow, and now there are eighteen of us billeted in the four ground floor rooms. In my room, we have the added luxury of a fire… a weird looking affair made up from all kinds of scrap iron unearthed from the attached barns etc. Anyhow, it provides warmth, and that is all that matters. For fuel, we have piles of small logs, already sawed up by the former tenant, and about two hundredweight of ersatz coal… similar to our ‘coalite’.
Our live hens were a problem when we set out this morning, but these lads of ours are never daunted… they simply packed them in the tanks. On my vehicle, we travelled with two hens in a small wooden box… and on the troop-officer’s tank, they carried five hens and a cock all in a single sack! I believe they clucked like hell on the journey. But here is the irony of the business… When we finally halted, it was found that the two hens in the box, the ones with reasonable comfort, had laid one egg between them, but it was broken… whilst the six birds in the sack had produced two eggs en route, and both were intact – not even cracked! My crew were very peeved to have lost their one egg, but they have spared the hens so far. At the moment, they are enjoying the luxury of a temporary chicken run by the side of the vehicle. I hope they have laid again by morning, otherwise I fear they will end up in a casserole… leaving their feathers scattered all over the neighbourhood. The graveyard of our former billet resembled a minor snowdrift this morning: it was littered with the feathers of… well… dozens of plucked chickens!
There was another letter for me this evening, Jess. I think I have now received four since we parted. I don’t know how on earth you do it: but it is lovely receiving so many letters. Life is always good… even over here… when I have your daily letter to look forward to.
I must go to bed now, dear one. My spare time has been very limited today… and it is now too late to say more.
Good night, Jessie Mine
Always – in love