by Valerie Wilson
Imagine you are trying to write a letter by candlelight while your fingers are stiff with cold. You are sitting on a battered petrol tin that is slowly sinking into the mud beneath you. It’s raining…it’s been raining for days. You are exhausted, hungry, soaked to the bone and sick as a dog. There is thunder and lightning in the sky above. But you can’t tell the difference between the thunder and the sounds of exploding mortar rounds—except for the ones that whine directly over your head and thud into the ground near your trench. Your name is Garnet Dobbs and you are…somewhere in France. You pencil in the date, Nov. 24, 1917, and begin…” Dear Sister…I am as well as can be expected.”
Sergeant Garnet Edmund Dobbs served with the 21st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in France, Belgium and Germany from 1917 to 1919. He was a musician—a bassoon and saxophone player who acted as second in command to bandmaster Reg Hinchey. There were 30 musicians in Garnet’s band. Their music helped the weary and injured trudge 20-mile stretches between camps… “good old band, good old band,” or bolster the courage of men charging the front lines. When they weren’t making music they acted as stretcher bearers and helped the wounded to eat, write letters to loved ones and all too often, make peace with God and spirit.
Born Jan. 24, 1889, in Belleville, Ont., Garnet was 27 years old when he enlisted with the 155th Bn. on Jan. 4, 1916. He was five-feet-10-inches tall and possessed of a fair complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. He transferred to the 6th Reserve Bn. for additional training prior to sailing with the 254th Bn. on the SS Olympic, June 2, 1917. Before leaving England for France on Aug. 28, 1917, he was transferred from the 6th to the 21st Bn. He was awarded the Good Conduct Badge on Jan. 4, 1918, and discharged from the army at Kingston, Ont., on May 24, 1919.
Shortly after Garnet returned home to civilian life in Belleville his wife Nell passed away, leaving him sole caretaker of their adopted son Ted. He married Edna Gartley on March 29, 1928, and they added three children to the family; Bob, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1949 at age 16, Bruce who died in 1987 at age 49, and Dorothy, (presently Dorothy Bowes). Dorothy has two daughters and one son, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. There are a total of 27 direct descendants, 24 still living.
Garnet operated Dobbs Plumbing and Heating from a shop at 12 Victoria Ave. in Belleville. Dorothy says her father had two business mottos, “The Little Plumber Around the Corner” and “One Trip To The Job.” He worked six days per week.
During the 1960s he was Associate Editor of the Communique, the 21st Battalion Association postwar newsletter.
He died on Jan. 18, 1966, at the age of 77.
Garnet’s wartime letters, a total of 40, were written to his brother Walter and Walter’s wife Lottie and their daughter Helen (Winnipeg, Man.), and to his sister Millie (Toronto) who he lovingly refers to as “Sliver.” Dorothy first set eyes on her father’s letters following the death of her brother Bruce. She generously donated the letters to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa where they were added to an archival collection of remarkable letters written by Canadian soldiers who served overseas during the First World War.
In his letters Garnet describes his experiences in the mud-drowned horror of Passchendaele and the obliterated landscapes of Belgium. He wrote from water-logged trenches and from billets that were more rubble than shelter. While enduring the most unspeakable conditions he wrote about loneliness, sorrow, frustration and hope. His story is one more reason why Canadians honour the memory of their veterans with respect, humility and gratitude. Legion Magazine and the Canadian War Museum are pleased to share with you 26 of his letters. We encourage you to join our online community and use this blog to comment on Garnet’s letters and Canada’s First World War experience.