“…we comb our hair with a piece of ice.”
Miss Millie Dobbs, France, Dec. 26, 1917
25 Howland Ave, Toronto, Ont., Canada
I’ll bet you are beginning to think I’ve been “snapoohed” or something on account of not hearing from me sooner, but…although I have had one or two opportunities to write the conditions and weather would not allow it.
I must apologize first for using pencil but I find that any ink supply is about done and it’s not easy to replenish it here, hence the pencil, which also goes faster.
We have real winter weather here and I wouldn’t doubt that we have had colder weather so far than you have in Canada. Something unusual, I am told, for this country. Things froze up tightly about three weeks ago and life since then has not been pleasant. We usually have to sleep in old barns or empty buildings or almost any place we can lay our head out of the rain. Where there’s straw or flammable stuff we aren’t allowed to have a fire of any description and you can guess we miss it somewhat, especially when it’s freezing outside. At these times the only place to get warm is under the blankets and then you need three or four sleeping together to keep each other thawed out.
It’s very exhilarating to get up in the morning, peel off the extra clothes in which we usually went to sleep, break about an inch of ice on the wash-dish (usually the first old tin can you run across that is large enough) and proceed to perform your ablutions. There isn’t much sleep left when we get through washing and shaving. We comb our hair with a piece of ice. There is one consolation though—we can take a brisk walk.
…So you see even though I sometimes have a chance to write, if I sit down for about ten minutes my fingers get so numb they refuse to push the pen, pencil or other implement of lithographics and unfortunately I’m not like you to be able to “write under all conditions” as you say.
I wish I could thank you sufficiently for the nice box you sent me. I unfastened all the wrappings, opened the box and the first thing I took out was an orange which I proceeded straightaway to eat.
Everything was fine and useful and the box was in such condition that you would easily think it had just been bought. The cigars I saved unopened for Christmas but have had such good luck these last few days that I haven’t needed to use them yet, but they will surely be enjoyed to the limit.
Just two days ago I received your registered letter containing 25 francs and I could scarcely believe my eyes seeing good French money all the way from Canada. Whilst I don’t like the idea of taking your good money, I realize the spirit in which you sent it and will surely use it to good advantage, mostly on “eats.”You were wise to have got French money which few people think of doing. I’m carrying a money order now which Nell sent me before we went to Belgium. Can’t cash it as it must be drawn from a French post office and they seem as scarce as “snowballs in H—.” It’s nearly worn out now and I doubt it will be legible when I get a chance to use it…many thanks indeed for the nice box and the notes and I will think of you when spending them as I did when I was devouring the contents of the box or the portion that was “devourable.”
I suppose you think we don’t get enough to eat when I write in that strain, but we do. We get enough to appease our hunger which, after all, is good for us, but as I explained once before our food is very plain, no frills whatever, and sometimes I get a desire for sweets or cakes, which I presume would correspond with a drunkard’s craving for drink. The result is if I have any money I buy them, and money doesn’t go far on such things here, for pastry, etc. is a luxury to the French people. This is what I mean when I speak of “eats”; the rest of the stuff is “grub.”
I have been very fortunate in getting parcels for Christmas which have been reaching us for the past two months. Some got their parcels off early and they reached us in shorter time than those mailed later.
I received, besides your parcels and Nell’s, a box each from W.B. Sunday School, the W.B. War Workers Daughters of the Empire and a box of cigars from Dr. Dupraw, so you see I have been fortunate and of course we share our boxes with those less fortunate fellows, some of whom have no friends to send them anything. I am glad to say though that these poor chaps are rare exceptions.
…Walt told me in his letter they were sending me one but I haven’t received it. It is rumoured that a mail ship from Canada has been lost and if that is true possibly his parcel was on that. I think we are fortunate in getting our mail so regularly for they have some queer old chasing for it at times.
I presume you were home for Christmas and I trust you all had a jolly one. I pictured a good many times, the gathering as I could see it, and no one wished more fervently to be there than I did if only for the day.
No doubt you were wondering how we spent Christmas here.
There was no work for the battalion of course but we were out before 8 o’clock, playing carols, etc. and were playing for a good part of the evening. The battalion went to a lot of trouble and expense to get extras for the dinner and considering the prices (imagine a small turkey from 10 upward) and scarcity they did exceeding well. We were allowed two good-sized turkeys and a large plum pudding for the band which we had to get cooked ourselves. We were fortunate though in getting this done easily, but our chief trouble was to get some place in which to eat it, for we didn’t relish the prospect of eating “Christmas dinner” in an old barn.
After searching nearly half a day we located a fair-sized room in a saloon and rented it for a couple of hrs. for 10 francs and here we had the spread.
The tables were decorated with our mess tins, (for we had no plates), loaves of bread, tins of jam, etc. When the turkeys were brought in Harry Thompson and I started to do the carving with a couple of dull knives.
After much hewing and tearing we finally got them torn asunder and then the bunch went after them. We had turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, plum pudding and sauce and anything else we wanted to buy. We wanted to buy a whole lot of stuff but there isn’t a store in the whole “bally” place, so we were “out of luck.” I think everyone had enough to eat, for there was also bread, cheese, jam and a few tins of preserves. Personally, I was as full as though I’d eaten the usual annual dinner of indigestibles and as someone passed around a box of cigars, we “finished up” as the occasion called for.
I had a little running around to do in the afternoon and wrote a letter to Nell which occupied the time until supper. In the evening, we had a big sergeant’s supper at which they had a very nice spread…and the affair wound up in a big “booze party” as these occasions usually do and I was one of the very few that could walk home straight. I didn’t stay for the whole proceeding but “beat it” about 9:30 and left them to shout their heads off.
…Allowances must be made though, for some of these fellows have spent 4 Christmases here thinking each one would be the last and it’s no wonder they felt like “forgetting” for a night. I am enclosing one of the programs which I thought you might like for a souvenir. Don’t get shocked at some of the items.
I am also enclosing another piece of brown paper which may puzzle you so I will explain. This is a piece of a wrapper from a parcel which you sent me some time ago. One of the boys wanted to send a souvenir home to his wife in Toronto…so he used the same wrapper. He received a parcel from her yesterday, and in it was a small package with this wrapper, address side out, and the writing you see on it. The package contained a couple of pkgs. of Chiclets. I cut this portion out and if it reaches you, will have crossed the ocean four times. Some travelling, eh?
Well Sliver I feel as though I could go on writing all night but I’m getting abused because I’m sitting right were one of the boys wants to make his bed so guess I’ll have to “beat it.”
Very best wishes for the New Year and what it may bring to you.
Yours as ever, Garn xxxxx
Selection from the letter collection of Sergeant Dobbs, to his sister Millie and his brother Walter
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum