“…good old band, good old band…”
Somewhere in France, Sept. 14, 1917
Mr. W.E. Dobbs,
9 Horace Court, Norwood, Man., Canada
Dear Lottie and Walt,
I’ve been trying for what seems like two months to write you but never see enough spare time to compile a letter—so here goes.
I have to write in chapters.
…the last time I wrote was just after we had been warned for France… We hung around camp for nearly a week after that, expecting to go at any hour, but were detained on account of a strong gale blowing and making the Channel too dangerous. We finally got our orders to leave and marched out of camp about 9:30 a.m. in the pouring rain. We had been out in it all day and were soaking wet anyway, so we did not mind it and everybody was in high spirits.
We entrained in the town and after travelling all night reached the port where we were to embark. (I can’t mention any names from now on.) We had breakfast and were prepared to go aboard the transport but the gale was still blowing and they wouldn’t take a chance, so later in the day we were marched 5 or 6 miles to a camp where we spent a couple of days with nothing to do. We left that camp about 2 a.m. and were ready to go aboard at 6:30. The Channel was much more quiet than when we had seen it before, but there was still quite a sea running. I understand that it is always more or less “choppy” and known as one of the roughest pieces of water in the world. We had only left the dock about 10 minutes when I saw first one and then another make a dash for the rail and I began to get pretty “blue around the gills.” I “fought like a Trojan” to keep my breakfast down but it was no use; in a short time I was helping the others “feed the fishes.” …If I have the good fortune to cross the Channel again I hope there is either a railroad or tunnel. Fortunately the trip didn’t last long and in about an hour and a half we could see the French coast and were finally landed on French soil, a fact we could scarcely realize.
It didn’t take very long to recover our “land legs.” Next morning we started on the 18-mile march to the base. Up to this time we had been carrying our full kits (heavy marching orders) as well as our instruments and believe me, it’s some load…but when we left camp today we were relieved of our packs and played all the way up and the boys surely appreciated it. Every time we’d quit playing you’d hear a chorus all along the line, “good old band, good old band.” We had heard a lot about this long march and were looking forward with dread to it.
The day was cool with occasional showers and we didn’t mind the march at all. We had quite a number of men…who had been casualties, some of whom had been over this march a number of times and they all claimed they had never found it so easy on account of the music and they surely gave us credit for it.
We didn’t know how long we were to stay at the base…an immensely large camp, one of the biggest in the world I am told.
…We left the camp the next morning after having added to our already heavy kits, a rifle, 120 rounds of ammunition, 2 gas masks, steel helmet. We marched to the train which was composed of all kinds…of cars… I have also seen some armoured engines… We were fortunate to get a large box car in which we piled our stuff, including our large music boxes and all told we had about 30 men. Perhaps you can imagine how we were packed in and what chance we had to be comfortable. We entrained about 6:30 a.m. and it was 12:30 that night when we detrained, having been obliged to make a long detour on account of a wreck on the road.
…We were still some miles from our battalion so we were billeted in a vacant school in this little French village. When we arrived at the school we learned there was a corpse in our room, a labourer who had struck a live cartridge with his shovel and been killed.
…They sent motor-lorries for us and we were brought up to the battalion at last, nearly two months after we first learned we were to come here.
I told you before that we lost 17 men when we left Canada but when we arrived here we found 8 or 9 good bandsmen waiting for us…so we hope to make a creditable showing. I didn’t bring my bassoon with me, brought the saxophone, and among our new men is a good saxophone player so I think they are going to buy us a new bassoon.
I am not very impressed with France as I have seen it so far. The country resembles Canada in many respects but the towns and people are filthy.
I can’t understand why these places aren’t full of disease. The public lavatories are merely little enclosures alongside the streets and everything or anything is thrown into the gutters. The kids are dirty, saucy and only half-clothed and all looking for souvenirs, chiefly pennies. It seems to be the custom here to have the barns next to the street and the houses back where the barns should be…where we would have a lawn they wade up to their knees in manure every time they go to the street. It is either this way or else the house is built so you step off the sidewalk into the front door and it’s very common to see chickens or even pigs running around inside the houses. Nearly every other house is a saloon…or eating house… They tell me the large cities such as Paris, Boulogne, etc. are really up to date and clean.
Everybody here is a walking “stockyard.” We had been fortunate enough to keep clear of vermin until we struck this place, but in spite of any care we can take we’ve all got them and it’s the dickens of a job to get rid of them—in fact almost an impossibility for nearly every place is fairly swarming…you might lie down alright at night and wake up in the morning to find whole families had moved in during the night.
I nearly went “bugs” the first dose I got of them but when I saw the condition of everybody else…it was some consolation.
Outside of this we have been pretty fortunate…three different places through which we passed were bombed within a few hours of our departure, with casualties.
We are within a very short distance of the front lines and only yesterday I was over several miles of ground that we have taken from the Germans, all torn up with trenches and shell holes. The battles fought in this vicinity will go down in history alright. Wish we were allowed to tell something about it.
As we were playing at the sports last Sunday who should I spy in the crowd standing around but young Bill Halls. I didn’t know his battalion was anywhere near us… He was telling me that Uncle Jack went down in the Vanguard when she was blown up. I couldn’t find his name in the lists and was wondering if he was still serving on her at the time of the explosion. (Editor’s note: The British battleship Vanguard was at Scapa Flow when she suffered a catastrophic explosion just before midnight, July 9, 1917. Investigators determined the blast was probably caused by overheated cordite stored on board. The explosion ripped apart the ship, causing her to sink. More than 800 sailors died.)
I sincerely hope you are all keeping in the best of health as this leaves me and hope to hear from you soon as I’ve had no mail at all for some time.
Am enclosing a p.c. (photo) of the band taken in England. You can see “your humble” standing in the back.
Love to all, Garn
Selection from the letter collection of Sergeant Dobbs, to his sister Millie and his brother Walter
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum