“…men and horses slipping off the road and drowning in mud.”
Mr. W.E. Dobbs, Somewhere in France, Nov. 24, 1917
9 Horace Ct., Norwood, Man., Canada
Dear Lottie and Walt,
It’s quite a time since I’ve had an opportunity to write you but will see what I can do now… Conditions here are not exactly ideal for writing… I am sitting on an old petrol tin with my instrument case across my knees for a secretary, in a little dugout. We have a fire. Oh! Yes, we have a fire, on which any pal is piling wet wood, and the bally place is so thick with smoke that I have to light a match occasionally to make sure the candle is burning and of course we are weeping copiously.
…Coupled with this I have periodic coughing spasms which shake the place to its very foundations (whatever that portion of a dugout is)… I have a cold, and whenever I go to speak the result is a ghost-like whisper—which gives…a funeral aspect to the scene.
…We have just returned from a little “sight-seeing” trip to Belgium and believe me we saw alright…the most interesting thing we saw was mud and there they have it in varieties and colors, and as for quantity…they had all the mud in the world right there for our benefit and we got the full benefit of it too. I’ll never kick about mud again as long as I live if they don’t send me back there. If you can picture men and horses slipping off the road and sinking right out of sight in the bally stuff, and in hundreds of cases, actually drowning before they could be rescued by their pals. I say if you can picture this (and I’m sure you can’t) then you can form some idea of what our boys (Canadians) had to go through when they started to attack the enemy on Passchendaele Ridge…it is probably ancient history to you now, how they licked the “everylasting stuffing” out of them and reversed the positions, driving the Hun right off the ridge and down into the marsh on the other side. I didn’t see the write-up in the Canadian papers but I’ve been told this was one of the greatest achievements of the war and the “old-timers” tell me it was by far the worst battle of the war. No one who was not actually there will ever know just what it cost in sheer grit and men and munitions and when I think of the poor fellows I want to forget the whole business.
We, the band, were working for the Y.M.C.A. during this scrape in their free coffee stalls. They had a chain of 3 stalls extending right up to within a short distance of the front line, these advance ones being in Heinie “pillboxes,” (for heaven’s sake don’t let Nell get ahold of this dope) and it was our duties to brew tea or coffee and serve it out with “eats” to the wounded men and assist them in any way we could, from holding a cup for them to writing a letter or anything else.
My stall was just at the entrance to a big advanced dressing station and here we were kept busy for 24 hours a day for 10 days, three men on the day shift and two on the night, and I’ll tell you your heart would ache to see the condition of some of the poor chaps as they came in there, and in hundreds of cases I saw displayed that wonderful spirit of the Briton that is going so far to win the war. Many of them, all shot up and smoking cigarettes, talking of what they were going to do in Blighty, and lots of the poor fellows would never see Blighty I’m afraid.
Quite a number of fellows came through whom I knew personally and that didn’t tend to cheer us up any.
After the first couple of days the regular Y.M. man who was in charge was taken sick and transported down to hospital and I was left in charge of the place, and of course, after that, had no regular quitting time excepting when things grew quiet at night with the result that when we were relieved I was nearly “all in” for rest and sleep, but a fellow simply could not rest as long as there was a chance of helping a pal.
All the boys came out safely, though quite a number had close calls and one a slight shell-shock, and nearly all with shattered nerves, for you didn’t know if the next shell was going to hit straight and then good-bye. Now I’m going to ask you again not to repeat any of this stuff home. They think we had a nice “cushy job” “umpteen” miles behind the fireworks and that’s the impression I want to leave.
I might state here that our O.C. received a very flattering letter from Divisional Headquarters on the work of this band so I guess they must have been satisfied.
We were all heartily glad to get out of there and back to France again where things are bad enough but where you don’t have to use a boat to get through the mud. It rains here more or less every day but the mud has the decency to remain at a wadeable depth.
I had an opportunity of buying a great variety of souvenirs up there, silk goods, lace, etc., but unfortunately I went “broke” and before I got a nice start. Although pay-day was due they put us off until we got back here. I started out to see how my credit was but nearly everyone I approached “beat me to it” and I found everybody was trying to negotiate a loan.
However: I managed to get one or two little articles and I think I told you about one I was sending in my last letter. By the way: I almost forgot that I sent a “well” souvenir for Helen about a week ago, so don’t be surprised when you get it… I’ve tried to get you (Walt) some kind of a souvenir and I find it impossible to buy anything so have been looking out for a Heinie souvenir of some kind.
One N.C.O. in our battalion promised to try and get me a Hun automatic (they have some fine ones too) but the poor chap lost a leg last time “in” and I heard later that he died of wounds, so guess I’ll have to quit trying. It’s very difficult to get that stuff out of the country too.
But speaking of the souvenirs up there, I would like to see Lottie “turned loose” in some of that hand-made lace with a pocketful of money. I’ll bet she would go crazy in 24 hrs. You never saw such beautiful work and the making is very very slow and tedious. We watched one old lady working on insertion lace about 1½ inches wide and in half an hour she didn’t finish more than half an inch and her fingers were just flying all the time. We thought at first the lace was expensive but after watching this old lady we wondered how they earned enough salt at it. I saw one lady’s waist which had been ordered by an officer and was to cost $1.20 when finished and it was a feast for the eyes. Beautiful work.
About the only thing I would consent to go up there again willingly for would be to get some of that lace.
When we first came back to this sector there was a mad rush for mail, none of us having had any in a long time.
I succeeded in capturing 13 letters and a postcard. Not so bad, eh? Your last letter was among them.
One letter which I was sorry to get, on account of the news it contained, was from Nell’s brother. He got, I’m afraid, a pretty bad dose of gas and I don’t know just yet how badly he is. He told me in the letter he had just got his eyes open so I’m in hopes that it isn’t the chlorine gas, which is the worst. The other kinds affect the eyes mostly and are rarely fatal. I’m waiting anxiously to hear from him again. I wrote to Nell and made the case out as lightly as possible. I suppose the whole family will be in an uproar for he was the pet of the house. You never can tell when you’re going to get something here though.
I also got a letter from Bill Halls in which he stated he was getting along fine under an electrical treatment, but expected to be there some time. I guess he’s wise enough too, not to get well too soon, a mistake made by a great many fellows. Get me? The hospital leave is the big attraction, but they aren’t far-sighted enough to see what follows right on its heels.
Now Good Folks: I’ve really only got a nice start on this letter. I could continue writing until the end of the war (providing they call it off soon enough)… I’ve tried all sides of this bally petrol tin and I find that I’ve worn off or packed down all the soft spots, and you know this is not awfully “downy” at the best of times…this seat is damned hard and I can’t stand it—or rather sit it—any longer, otherwise I might use up their whole “blinking” pad and as this little one cost me 45 cts. I can’t afford it.
…I sincerely hope this finds you all “in the pink” as it leaves me, excepting for this miserable cold which I hope will be a thing of the past by the time this reaches you.
Kind regards to Lil when you see her and love to all as well as a few xxx for Helen.
As ever yours,
Selection from the letter collection of Sergeant Dobbs, to his sister Millie and his brother Walter
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum