“…Everything around it was shot to pieces, trees standing stark and naked, stripped of branches or shattered to splinters…”
Mr. W.E. Dobbs, France, Feb. 7, 1918
511 Craig St., Winnipeg, Man. Canada
Dear Lottie and Walt,
I’ve been trying for a chance to get a letter off to you for some time but up to the present there’s “nothing doing” and I’m going to start this one anyway and trust to luck on getting it finished.
You will notice I have got down to the etiquette of a lead pencil now for which I must apologize. My supply of ink is about done and until I can get a fresh supply (…impossible here) I have no other choice but the pencil and can’t afford to let any correspondence pile too high.
Since writing you last I’ve had a real soldiering (this of course I don’t want to reach Nell or Lil) experience. (There’s an awful row going on around me so I can’t be responsible for omission of an occasional word.)
When the battalion made the last trip “in” we (the band) were all settled comfortably with the expectation of playing for the Y.M. until they came out again, but “like a bolt from the sky” came an order about midnight that we were to report to the transport lines (about 6 miles away) at 1 o’clock the following day, and to leave our instruments where they were. We couldn’t imagine what had caused the sudden change in the arrangement but we hurriedly packed our “goods and chattels” and “beat it,” arriving just about on time. We were then informed that all bands had been ordered up the line with their battalions and we were forthwith provided with muskets and the necessary “musket food” (ammunition) and away we started, not knowing what was ahead of us.
After walking from 3:30 till 8 o’clock, taking of course the longest road and covering about twice the distance we should have, we reached the point where things began to get interesting. Fortunately, we reached our destination without mishap and found our quarters in the “infernal regions” of what had once been a large brewery but had been reduced to a heap of debris. Everything around it was shot to pieces, trees standing stark and naked, stripped of branches or shattered to splinters halfway up and the ground torn up something fierce, not a square yard unturned. I afterward heard that practically all this had been done by our own guns in taking the place and they surely did a good job. The basement where we were quartered had been fitted up with bunks and was, altogether, a good home. In fact, better than what we had left. It didn’t take us long to get used to our surroundings and every night we would go up to the front line on ration or working parties. We happened to strike nice moonlit nights which made our work easier, but of course gave Heinie a better view if we happened to stick our heads up. I had occasion once to get up and walk along the parapets about 50 feet and I had just stepped into the trench when he swept the ground on which I had been walking with a machine gun. You can bet I didn’t get up there again. Things were fairly quiet for the whole and we got out without any casualties and, in fact, only had a few in the whole battalion, which was pretty good for five days.
I didn’t have to get down to the work myself but as Hinchey wasn’t up I was in charge of the “gang” which was a unique experience in those circumstances.
Hinchey wanted to go up with us but they ordered him to stay back with the instruments and of course he had no alternative.
When we came out we went back of the line quite a piece to a rest-billet. We left about 8 p.m. and were marching nearly all night with full packs, rifles, etc. I have always pitied the poor beggars who had to carry packs while we would be marching practically light and playing. But after that night, give me a pack any time. I wasn’t nearly as tired as though we had been playing and all the other boys were the same excepting for a case of sore feet.
Well: we got our instruments and have since been non-combatants. Tomorrow the battalion goes up again but I don’t think we are going this time. Of course the officers aren’t any more anxious to have the band shot up than we are and if we should happen to lose two or three of our principal musicians it would surely put us “on the hummer” and they can’t be picked up every day over here, so they are doing all they dare do to save the situation.
I’ll make another attempt to finish this letter.
Our officers aren’t anxious to cripple the band so they have devised an agricultural scheme to cultivate a certain tract of land back of the line and raise foodstuffs. Ten of our best men (musically) are “kept” back to carry out this idea, the rest of the bunch having proceeded “up the line” with the battalion two days ago under the other sergeant. (We have two now but I’m still the boss.)
So here we are, spading over ground and trying to get the stiffness out of our muscles. We might as well be in the line permanently as trying to get along this way. Ours seems to be the only band that has to fool around this way although our C.O. says the trouble is at Div. H.Q. but all seem to be able to get around it some way.
Personally, I don’t give a “cuss” what we do if it will help to finish the bally business.
I don’t think I’m any more scared of the line than the rest of them and they can’t finish this and send us home too soon. Canada will be good enough for me in future if I have the good luck to reach it with a whole skin.
I don’t know what to think of the war situation. We are expecting trouble along the Western Front any day but the leaders seem confident that we have them stopped. Whether we have or not remains to be seen. One thing is sure, the longer the delay, the stronger we shall be, for the Americans are coming by the thousands and they already have a force here to be reckoned with.
I understand you are having some pretty severe weather in Canada which is unfortunate coming with the shortage in fuel. We are having comparatively nice weather here. Lost our snow soon after Christmas and have had more or less rain with raw piercing winds. We had a four-day march coming back from our month’s rest and it rained every minute of the four days. Oh: this is some life.
I’ve just stolen a few minutes to finish this letter when I should be out working and guess I’d better be getting back before I’m missed.
I sincerely hope this finds you all well as it leaves me fine p h y s i c a l l y, but—“nuff sed.”
Love to all, kind regards to Lil and Will
As ever yours, Garn
Selection from the letter collection of Sergeant Dobbs, to his sister Millie and his brother Walter
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum