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Full text of "A Canadian subaltern, Billy's letters to his mother"

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A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 



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Gra^j, WiliiaYV) 



A CANADIAN 
SUBALTERN 



BILLY'S LETTERS 
TO HIS MOTHER 




LONDON 
CONSTABLE AND COMPANY LTD, 

1917 



RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED TO 

THE BRAVE OFFICERS AND MEN 

OF "BILLY'S" BATTALION 



PREFACE 



At the earnest solicitation of friends I am 
publishing these letters, which were written 
without any attempt at literary effect and 
intended only for a mother's eye. I am 
sure my son will be pleased if they are the 
means of bringing even a passing pleasure 
to those whose dear ones are now at the 
Front, to those whose loved ones have 
made the supreme sacrifice, and to any 
others who may read this book. This be 
my apology for offering them to the public. 

''Billy's" Mother. 



A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 



November 23, 1915. 

Well, the great adventure is on. We 
sailed out of St. John at noon to-day amid 
a perfect babel of noise. We have on board 

with us the , a detail of Medical Corps, 

the , and a detail of the Construction 

Corps, troops in all. Between the 

bands of the units, the bands in St. John, 
the shrieks of what seemed a thousand 

tugs which bobbed beside '' a regular 

bedlam '' best describes the send-off. Every 
pier looked as if it had been generously 
salted and peppered from one end of the 
harbour to the last long dock ; I say salted 
and peppered, for the sea of faces and dark 
clothes gave it that appearance. Well, 
anyway, away we steamed out into the 
East. 

I can assure you. Mother, I felt rather 
proud of being in khaki as we marched 
through the thronged streets. The bands 
playing martial airs seemed to send little 
shivers up and down my spine, and, I 
guess, awoke some of the old primordial 
instinct of the caveman, for it sure seemed 



10 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

glorious to be onjthe way to fight. I 
know you dear ones would have been 
proud, too, of me and the men. I say 
the men, for after all Tommy is the most 
important man in the Army and our 
whole battalion behaved like nature's 
gentlemen in St. John. However, out we 
steamed on a sea like an epergne base 
— not a ripple hardly. Of course, we 
didn't have much time but I managed to 
stand about four p.m. and watch the 
last grey humps of Canada fade into the 
waves, my last glimpse of my native land 
for some time to come, and do you know, 
dear, that despite the fact there lay all my 
associations, my love and everything that 
any man holds dear, I can't say I was 
sorry, for ahead there is something that 
dwarfs all those details. 

11.30 p.m. — Have just passed Cape Sable 
lighthouse, the last link with land, flash- 
ing in and out of the night. A beautiful 
night, clear moonlit water, and just enough 
breeze to send a salt spray up over the 
bows. 

Wednesday Evening. — Nothing new to- 
day. The ocean like a millpond all day 
and not even a roll to this old packet. We 
have a few men who are seasick, but I 
think they must be awfully upset with 
something for it's smoother than Lake 
Ontario. 



BILLY'S LETTERS ii 

Later, — I have just taken a turn on deck 
and the wind is getting up, also the sea, 
and a small look at the barometer informs 
me she is at 29. The ist Officer says it 
looks like a storm, so I fear me there is 
dirty work aboard the lugger this evening. 

Friday Evening. — This discrepancy is 
due, not to seasickness, but to the fact 
that I was on guard from 10 a.m. yesterday 
till 10 a.m. to-day, and in about as bad 
weather as I really care ever to see. It 
started in Wednesday night and blew a 
regular gale head on, for thirty-six hours. 
There is no use in my trying to describe 
it for I can't. Suffice it to say she was a 
real storm. My clothes are not dry yet, 
being soaked through and through. Every- 
one was seasick, and if I could describe the 
indescribable horror of men crowded to- 
gether as they were in those days, I know 
you wouldn't believe me. Oh ! it was 
horrible. Sick by hundreds lying around 
anywhere gasping for air. Some slept on 
the decks in a drenched condition, spray 
sweeping over them, and of thirty-nine 
men on guard I finished up with nine, the 
remainder all being sick. The stench below 
was something to remember, and oh, how 
I longed to take some of the men up into 
our comfortable quarters. I was up for 
practically twenty-four hours and on deck 
two out of every six hours most of the 



12 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

time, except when making rounds on the 
bridge, and my descriptive vocabulary 
fails me when I try to tell you what the 
tail end of it was like early this morning. 
We have a slight list to port — coal moved, 
probably — and she heaved and plunged 
like a broncho in the huge waves that 
drenched me clear up on the bridge. One 
man of the crew was killed, washed off the 
ladder leading to the crow's nest into the 
forward winches. Broken neck. He was 
buried this a.m. However, it has quieted 
down now and to-night is smooth again. 

Saturday Night. — By the way I forgot 
to mention that I must be an Ai sailor, 
for nearly every one has been ill but my- 
self. I have eaten every meal and enjoyed 
them and never felt the slightest squeam- 
ishness, even at meals, despite the fact 
that ** the Captains and Colonels departed " 
(apologies to Rud) from the table very 
hurriedly at times. There is no news 
worthy of mention. We are again on a 
sea of glass and it has been bright and 
warm, in fact warmer than I've felt for 
two months, and we're in mid-Atlantic. 
To-night it is like Summer, and others who 
have crossed before say it is colder in July 
than this trip. Just at present we are 
cleaving our way into a road of silver, for 
the moon is shining directly over our bows, 
and it is a wonderful sight apparently 



BILLY'S LETTERS 13 

moving up a shimmering carpet right to 
the old man of green cheese fame. At 
least that is the impression recorded by 
me. A carpet of silver and grey lace, like 
one of those red and black ones from the 
sidewalk to a church door at weddings, 
dancing ahead and only the lap, lap, lap 
of the waters as one stands on the fo 'castle. 

Monday Evening. — Nothing very new, 
my dear, to write, just the old monotony 
of the voyage, which, when it ends, will be 
a relief. The sea has changed, and from 
a head-on affair has turned about and we 
get her abeam ! result, a roll in place of a 
pitch. We are beginning to get into the 
war zone more than before, and expect on 
Tuesday and Wednesday to be near it if 
not right in it. 

Wednesday Morning. — Yesterday we had 
a parade with life-belts on, every man on 
board, and also lifeboat drill. It is really 
our first taste of what is sure to come later, 
that is, having to calmly face the possibility 
of death, and do you know it really didn't 
seem to bother me at all. I suppose the 
thoughts of it for months and months have 
somewhat dulled any sensibilities of '' yours 
truly." 

To-morrow we expect to be in . 

Billy. 



14 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

In Camp, England. 

December 5, 1915. 
Dear Mother, 

As you will see, we are here. Since 
sending the sort of diary I wrote on board 
boat, we have simply arrived and come 
here. As we came up the channel in the 
grey of the morning it surely looked good 
to see land and the cliffs of Land's End 
and Cornwall. The whole channel was 
dotted with small steam trawlers used as 
mine-sweepers, and then after we passed 
The Lizard, and our signals were taken 
from the shore station, out of the distance 
came six torpedo-boat destroyers tearing 
along at forty miles an hour and surrounded 
us. Ahead, just over the horizon, steamed 
a huge cruiser. Well, anyway, just after 
lunch we steamed into Plymouth harbour, 
a rare old spot indeed, filled with historic 
memories and its history checkered with 
incidents. Devonport beside it is a huge 
naval dockyard, and revenue cutters and 
naval tugs with tenders soon surrounded us 
and our baggage, etc., was removed to 
shore. As it was very late at night when 
we arrived we remained on board all night 
and started off at 9 a.m. 

Two naval tugs named after two Ply- 
mouth heroes, Raleigh and Drake, con- 
veyed us to shore. Between frowning 



BILLY'S LETTERS 15 

walls of grey stone, with here and there 
guns nosing their way out, we landed on 
a quay and entrained in a long English 
train. At eleven we started, arriving at 
8 p.m., but just to dissect my feelings or 
to describe to you the journey, is a task 
I can scarcely begin. You know every- 
thing was so different that my head fairly 
ached from madly turning from one side 
of the coach to the other in a vain en- 
deavour to see everything from barmaids 
to ruined castles, my first glimpse of 
either. The quaint old churches with their 
tiny graveyards ; the infinitesimal quad- 
rangles of yellow, black, and red, called 
fields ; the moss-covered banks and ivy- 
clad houses ; the oaks festooned with ivy, 
mistletoe and holly all in red and white 
bloom ; the villages and towns all the 
same, checkerboards of roofs with houses 
identical as if they had been turned out of 
a machine ; the shapely hedgerows ; the 
quiet-looking sheep, and wild-eyed cattle ; 
the rabbits scurrying at the train ; the 
pheasants in hundreds, with here and there 
a heron guarding a tiny pool ; the funny 
little stations, yellow, exactly like the ones 
in toy train sets, the white lines between 
green ones signifying a road — all these are 
jumbled up in my mind into a hodgepodge 
of pictures that is so conglomerate I fear 
me it will take some time to sort them out. 



i6 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

Of one thing I am certain, however, that 
England is exactly as described in anything 
I ever read and it fully '' lives up to its 
picture-book reputation/' I little wonder 
that England has produced Chaucer, 
Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, and after 
looking at a grey and ivied church with 
its old belfry and the funny grey slabs, 
some aslant, some flat, some erect in the 
iron-palinged graveyard, I can realize how 
the Elegy was inspired. 

Well, we arrived at a depot at 8 p.m., 
pitch dark, and were met by staff officers, 
who escorted us here about four miles. 
This is under the famous Aldershot com- 
mand which has 200,000 troops in it and 
there are several camps. We are the first 
battalion of '' Canadians," as we are 
called, to be here, and the other units 
turned out, and cheer after cheer went up 
as we marched in. There is a Brigade of 
the Royal Sussex, the Middlesex ; then 
regiments of Argyll and Sutherland High- 
landers, Irish Fusiliers, Gloucesters and 
others, all famous English corps. There 
are twenty odd thousand in this camp 
with room for seventy. Each platoon has 
a long building to itself and every con- 
venience that one could imagine . Water, hot 
and cold baths, electric lights, game-rooms, 
large, bright, airy mess-rooms, concrete 
walks everywhere — in fact it is a revelation. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 17 

We oificers have splendid quarters. A 
large house for mess with huts of eight 
rooms, four to a room, at rear a fire-place 
tiled in each room, and bath attached, so 
we are not too bad. 

However, if I tell all the news at once 
I won't have anything to write for next 
time, so will close. With fondest love to 
all. Billy. 

Have just remembered you will get this 
about Christmas, so will wish you all a 
very Merry Christmas and Happy New 
Year. That's all I can send you just now, 
but when I get up to London will send 
something more tangible, but you under- 
stand my position. There are no stores 
here. 



In Camp. 

December 14, 1915. 
Dear Mother, 

Received the letter you wrote ad- 
dressed to Army P.O., but have mislaid it 
for the time, so cannot name date. How- 
ever, as I want to catch the Canadian mail 
will just ramble on. 

Since I last wrote you I've had so many 
impressions etched on my brain that it 
will be a very incoherent affair, this letter. 



i8 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

You know everything is so totally foreign 
to the style of life I've been accustomed 
to that it is staggering. However, my im- 
pressions, muddled as they seem, may 
make reading. Ever since childhood I 
have studied opposites, and I suppose that 
one of the first impressions a child gets is 
light and dark, after that heat and cold, 
and it's about these latter I wish to write. 
The cold over here is a very good cold that 
is true to type. It is cold and goes clean 
through, and the heat differentiates from 
any heat which heretofore has caused my 
corpuscles to quicken, by doing the exact 
opposite of the cold, viz. it fails to pene- 
trate. I am convinced that if there was 
enough of it, it would be jake, but the 
great aim and object of the nation here 
seems to be to heat the chimney. At a 
time when the slogan is, *' Conserve the 
national resources," they are per second 
shooting sufficient calories of heat out into 
the wide world (through chimney pots) 
to make Hades an air-cooled six-cylinder 
self-starter, and Satan to resign. Their 
grates are pretty, but as purveyors of 
warmth where needed fail to suit '' yours 
trooly." This is at least one of the most 
vivid impressions I have and a poignant 
regret as well. That much for the knock. 
Now for some boosts. She surely is a 
land and as I told you measures up in 



BILLY'S LETTERS 19 

scenic investiture better than any scenic 
artist's stage production ever could hope to. 

Last Wednesday we took part in Brigade 
manoeuvres with the 117th Brigade of the 
EngHsh Army, doing about eighteen miles' 
march. It was the first day in which Old 
Sol deigned to lighten his lamp for us and 
a beautiful day for marching. Between 
miles of hedges, along roads Uke pavement, 
by tiny rivers, over quaint bridges, through 
hamlets with typical inns as laid out by 
Dickens & Co. and by a Smithy shop under 
a chestnut tree that might have been the 
one Longfellow wrote about. The hedges 
complied with all regulations, draped in 
fall grandeur, punctuated here and there 
by a red exclamation mark in the form of 
a holly bush and from which at intervals 
scampered a sleek-looking grey hare or 
else flew up a scared pheasant. Anyway 
it was a day I will long remember, one in 
which picture after picture was limned on 
my memory in indelible colours. 

It was a great sight, too, to see with 
glasses from a hill all the troops in action : 
cavalry, artillery, infantry, signallers, 
cyclists and a large squad of aeroplanes 
which glinted and dipped here and there in 
the sunlight. We arrived back at 6 p.m. 
tired, but I sure had enough thoughts to 
keep me thinking, also wishing you could 
have been with me to enjoy all the grandeur 



20 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

of it. Picturesque Surrey surely lives up 
'to its reputation. 

Saturday most of the boys went to 
London, but Young, two others and my- 
self went to Guilford, some fourteen miles. 
It is a quaint old town modernized. Here 
it was that Henry VIII murdered Anne 
Boleyn, if you remember history, and I 
saw an old Grammar school authorized in 
1555 by Edward VI and still intact, as 
well as other old buildings. We went over 
by taxi. I had some purchases to make 
and I can assure you that a £ doesn't go as 
far here as a V at home ; as near as I can 
figure everything is seven-and-six. It 
seems to me a sort of national fetish, 
either five-and-six or seven-and-six, and 
I may add that your loving son was short 
changed for somewhere near $2 as well as 
I can figure. Of course this is a general 
thing and anybody with a maple leaf is 
game with no close season, so being pre- 
pared in a measure I am sorer than ever. 
A dimpled dame with a smile like Calypso, 
a voice like Circe's pipe and a complexion 
ct la Mrs. Gervais Graham, while selling 
me a nail brush, eased the harpoon into me 
so neatly that I never felt $2 worth of barb 
till some time after when my numbed 
senses limbered into action. It sure beats 
all how easy one is, and I always figured 
I was no simp ; but Barnum was right. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 21 

As I say, seven-and-six seems to be a 
fetish. At least everything that one 
wanted figured out at that price, except 
a pair of gloves which I could buy in 
Canada for $1.75 — here they ask only 
eighteen shillings ! Somewhere I had a 
vague idea that gloves were cheap over 
here. Say not so. 

There was, however, a marketable com- 
modity known as dinner, which we pur- 
chased at a *' Recommended Hostelry " 
and which was only six shillings and three 
pence. Wouldn't that cause your grey 
locks to curl ? $1.52 for a second-class 
meal in a third-rate .tavern served in 
eighth-class style ; but oh, as a recompense 
I had an opportunity of studying in her 
native haunts Ye Barmaid. A ravishing 
blonde type, evidently belonging to the 
Amazonian family, nearly always found 
in rear of polished mahogany raking her 
lair of crystals and towels. Habits affable, 
courteous, quick and usually gifted with 
a line of repartee totally foreign to any 
other species. So you see there was a rose 
to the thorn even tho' the stab was a little 
deep. I may also add that I was intro- 
duced to Mr. Brown's October Ale, and 
found that he is some kicker. At least he 
has much more kick than his cousin Bud. 
In fact Bud may be wiser but not nearly 
as strong. Well, dears, there is very little 



22 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

more to tell except that with the exception 
of one day it has rained almost continually. 

Love to and all the family, also 

remember me to anyone who cares. 

Billy. 



December 20, 1915. 
Dear Mother, 

Another week gone by and to catch 
the Canadian mail must write to-night. 
I've only had one letter from you since I 
came and no picture of you, Maw ; perhaps 
it has gone astray. However, 111 let you 
know later. 

To begin the chronicle of the week : It's 
just the same old story, so many vivid 
colours on my brain I cannot seem to 
start. However, I am taking a course in 
physical and bayonet fighting. It's all 
courses over here : musketry, bombing, 
artillery, entrenching or my own it seems 
— ^half of the Lieutenants are at one or the 
other. Mine is Swedish exercises. A wiry 
little Englishman puts us through (two 
hours in the morning and two in the after- 
noon) the toughest kind of physical drill, 
crashing hither and thither until I some- 
times wonder if I'm a bird or only a 
relative of the nimble chamois which I am 
told leaps from crag to crag. At any rate 



BILLY'S LETTERS 23 

I've been stiff and sore ever since I started, 
in fact there are a lot of muscles in my 
carcass that I never even suspected, and 
after four hours I say with fervour '' Straafe 
Sweden/' We start soon to give it to the 
companies, and believe me 111 get some 
action then. 

Something that made a profound im- 
pression on me was a big service here 
yesterday, 5000 men with four bands all 
in a little glen. Can you imagine 5000 
throats pealing out '' O Come, all Ye 
Faithful " and '' Onward, Christian Sol- 
diers " to the accompaniment of 150 
instruments ? It echoed and reverberated 
I'm sure for miles, and in the midst of all 
the khaki one lone figure in a cassock of 
white and black. If you could close your 
eyes and see it as I do, I know you'd 
appreciate it. 

Well, I saw London, only a sort of 
moving picture but nevertheless London, 
Yesterday — Sunday — was a glorious fall 
day, sunlit and warm, so as there were 
very few staying in camp six of us decided 
to go up to the city. We left at 12.05 P-i^- 
and arrived back 11.30 p.m. Of course 
I couldn't tell you much about the place ; 
it is just a confused jumble of grey stone 
buildings and ratthng taxis ; of khaki, 
khaki everywhere, always attached to a 
woman ; of narrow sidewalks and crowded 



24 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

hotels ; of old rose and gold restaurants 
mirrored all around and reflecting princi- 
pally gorgeously gowned women all sipping 
tea and smoking cigarettes ; of varied 
smells from sewers and cheap perfume to 
roses ; of rumbling motor buses with, 
sticking out prominently, Trafalgar Square ; 
service in Westminster with a golden- 
throated choir ; of women, women, women, 
in fact, never knew there were so many ; 
of dark streets at night ; of the Thames by 
moonlight ; and oh ! a thousand and one 
other views all hashed up. I think the real 
things that stand out are the innumerable 
women, apparently all smoking cigarettes, 
and the price of dinner at the Cecil which 
Fm not going to tell you as your frugal 
mind would do a flivver Tm sure. But as 
I remarked before, they get enough over 
here. Of course you say '' Why go there ? " 
but there are only certain places officers 
are permitted to go, practically no restau- 
rants outside the Criterion, Trocadero and 
the Cecil and Savoy, outside Claridge's and 
some of the high-priced hotels. But any- 
way I enjoyed the fleeting trip and expect 
to spend six days there when I get my 
leave, and of course I want then to see the 
sights that are worth seeing, not just the 
hustle and bustle. 

Well, there is nothing really more to 
tell. We just go on each day with the 



BILLY'S LETTERS 25 

usual work. Last Friday was out again 
with the Brigade with blank ammunition 
machine guns and real shells in artillery. 
We did good work and got the decision 
over the four other battalions. 

I think you had better address the mail 
c/o Army P.O. as we may move from here 
to some other camp. 

I suppose that over there now it's cold 
and lots of snow while here everything is 
green. So different, and sometimes I 
grow just a little '' Canada sick " despite 
all the newness and the number of emotions 
crowding around me. However, dears, 
good night. 

With all my love. 

Billy. 



New Year's Eve, 1915. 
Dear Mother, 

IVe had no word from any of you, 
except the Christmas card from Auntie 
and the photo forwarded from St. John, 
for nearly two weeks. I got the photo 
O.K. It arrived the morning after Christ- 
mas and I am sure it is indeed a splendid 
one of ''me own Maw.'' It surely did me 
good to look into the dear old face and I 
have it on the table where it is in full view 
all the time. I also got the Christmas card 
Aunty sent and a nice tie from the G-girls. 



26 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

I had already sent them one of our Christ- 
mas cards. I also got a dilly box of eats 

from my little girl , a five-pound box 

of shortbread, about a pound of salted 
almonds '' home brewed/' a Christmas 
cake and two or three other kinds of 
eatings. She's a dear thoughtful kid and 
really seems to be awfully fond of me. You 
know (this is strictly confidential) I'm very 
fond of her, too, and somehow or other over 
here the thoughts of those that are near and 
dear, like you people at home, crowd 
around one in the evenings when there's 
not much to do, and tho' I'm not getting 
sentimental, nearly every night before I 
go to bed, I just quietly crash into the 
night and look up at the stars and moon, 
and look over there, wondering what you 
all are doing. But anyway, dear, I am 
going to give you her address so that if, 
as may be, I don't come back, you can 
write her, and I know you'll understand, 
dear. 

Well, I spent one of the most rotten 
Christ mases I ever did. There were nine 
of us marooned here, all the rest went away 
on leave, and we were elected to stay. 
It sure was a dismal hole. We just sat 
around all day, in fact I never left the 
mess except to see the men fed. They had 
a real meal, turkey, cauliflower, potatoes, 
soup, plum pudding, coffee. Of course our 



BILLY'S LETTERS 27 

men are very well fed, much better than 
the British battalions, but it took eighty- 
nine fifteen-pound turkeys to feed them. 
However, to hark back, we '' ossifers " 
spent a dickens of a day, and I sat lament- 
ing upon the passing of the good old 
Christmas, like Dickens wrote about. You 
know everything is and was very glum — 
so many families in mourning — that I 
remarked that the days of Dickens had 
fled, surely, but I certainly tried to wish 
with Tiny Tim '' A Merry Christmas indeed, 
God bless us every one ! *' 

Well, dinner has intervened and Fve 
intended ever since being here to write you 
something about the country round about. 
It is Surrey and one of the oldest settled 
parts of England. Beautiful in the extreme, 
large areas of woody land with rolling hills 
and common land in great tracts. It also 
can lay claim to some antiquity. As I told 
you, we are only fifteen miles or so from 
Aldershot, but close at hand are the 
villages of Haslemere, Milford and Godal- 
ming. We were at the latter place which 
dates back, well, further than even I can 
remember, and feel sure that you'll agree 
when I say that I gazed with wonder on 
an oak which dates back to the Doomsday 
book in which it is mentioned. Ye gods, 
think of it ! The other places are nearly 
as ancient, all being mentioned in a grant 



28 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

from my old pal, King Alfred, to his 
cousin somebody IVe forgotten ; how- 
ever, as I never expect to meet him this 
side of eternity, we will pass along. We 
went through Haslemere the other day. 
Its town hall is 300 years old and I should 
have said that it really has no claim to 
age, as I read on a moss-covered slab that 
its charter only dated to 1180 something, 
in fact it is a mere youth, beardless and 
adolescent. My old red-headed friend, 
Queen Betty, once attended a fair there. 
It is famed as the residence of Tennyson, 
Conan Doyle, Mrs. Humphry Ward and 
Lord Wolseley, so you see, dear, in all 
this bally land of hoary age, I feel like 
a chip on an ocean. The Portsmouth 
road we walk on every day started in the 
Roman days, and I expect many a Druid 
chanted weird words around a tree that 
sighs and groans just outside my window. 
Between here and Bramshot, seven miles, 
where all the Canucks are, is the Devil's 
Punch Bowl, a circular hollow where in 
1786 a man was murdered. There is the 
ruin of the gibbet where they hanged the 
murderers, and I had a beer in the Red 
Lion Inn near by, where they got the man 
drunk before the murder. Can you 
imagine that ? Dickens wrote about the 
spot in Nicholas Nickleby where Nick and 
Smike walked from Portsmouth. Look it up. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 29 

Well, to-day we were " inspected " by 
General Steele. We lined up in a splash- 
ing rain-storm and stood at attention for 
about thirty minutes. I know that it was 
while Sherman was being inspected he 
made his famous epigram, '' War is Hell ! " 
The only bright spot was when the band 
struck up '' O Canada." It's the first time 
it's been played since we left, and it surely 
sounded great. Ill add, at first ; for after it 
continued to play it during the whole dam 
ceremony it sounded more like the Dead 
March or any other bally dirge than any- 
thing. Gee ! can you imagine listening to 
the strains of Lavalle's hymn while I gazed 
at a pile of red tiles, with aching legs and 
feet until they all melted into one, then 
honeycombed out again into regular 
cylinders ? However, we're *' a fine body 
of men." That is the stock phrase of 
every reviewing officer until I began to 
believe '' all men are liars." I know you 
would have liked to see your son in full 
war attire, full marching kit, blankets, 
extra shoes, shaving utensils, haversack, 
great coat, underwear, mess tin, rifle, 150 
rounds of ammunition, revolver, binoculars, 
— I think that's all, just fifty-four pounds 
on ''me noble torso," and I resembled the 
patient ass of burden more than ever 
before. Hurrah for the life of a soldier ! 

There is some talk of us leaving for 



30 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

Egypt early in February, although no- 
body knows anything, except those who 
won't tell. We are miles above the English 
battalions hereabouts in training, and can 
give them all cards and spades physically. 
Of course the cream of English manhood is 
already there, and there are just the 
remains, so it's not a fair comparison. 
Well, dear, must close. Love to all, 

including who I hope is well. Papers 

come regularly, thanks. Billy 



In Camp. 

January 9, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

I've just arrived back from a 
wonderful six days in London and that is 
the reason why you haven't heard before. 
On my arrival here there were two letters 
from you dated 12th and 19th December 
and I was very glad to get them. Also 
about thirty pounds' worth more goods 

from that little girl in , including a 

cake, tinned goods, lobster, pork and 
beans, coffee, fruits, a whole box of spear- 
mint gum, cigarettes, and an air pillow. 
Some girl, eh ? However, I suppose you 
want to hear all about Lunnon. 

Firstly, I can tell you that I can't 
describe it. I mean that adjectives won't 



i 

I 



BILLY'S LETTERS 31 

come, and anyway thousands more clever 
than I, tho' not so handsome, have fallen 
down ; but, dear, can you imagine the 
thrills that pulsed through me as I gazed 
on all the things and places that since 
boyhood I've read and dreamed of ? Grey 
old London bristling with historic spots 
dear to every British boy's heart, I think, 
and doubly dear to mine because I loved 
history, whether by Green or Henty, 
whether garbed in fiction or just the plain 
red school book, and trebly dear because 
of Dickens. You know. Mother, there is 
something wells up in me nearly akin 
to a tear when I think about them all. 
Well, anyway I revelled for six days 
there and walked and saw everything I 
could. I spent a half -day in the musty 
Old Tower, ransacked it from entrance 
gate to the keep of the White Tower, 
touched the spots where Anne Boleyn, 
Lady Jane Grey, Dudley, Mary Queen of 
Scots, and all the others lay and prayed 
and died. Climbed twelfth-century stair- 
ways, trod twelfth-century floorings, read 
inscriptions dug on the walls by prisoners, 
civil, political, or religious, and came out 
in a daze, my memory flooded with 
emotions. Then Westminster Abbey — it 
is beyond me to tell you of the thoughts 
engendered as I stood in the vaulted old 
aisles, while a glorious golden-throated 



32 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

choir of boys pealed out anthems to the 
crescendos and diminuendos of an organ 
the Hke of which I never knew existed, 
played by a hand that was guided by a 
heart and brain directed Tm sure by 
seraphs or cherubims. Dear, dear Mother, 
all through it ebbed and flowed the desire 
that you could have sat with me, and when 
the lilting cadences of a boy singing The 
Recessional melted into the peal of the 
organ I think I cried because you weren't 
there. You know, dear, I may never come 
back, but Tm so thankful for the memory 
of that wonderful service. That alone 
dwarfs the thought that I stood in the 
poets' corner, or that I walked where 
countless thousands have been thrilled 
before, or that above me hung tattered 
old colours echoing of the gone glory of 
some British regiment. 

Then I walked miles in the old city 
around spots immortalized by Dickens, 
just started out and walked and walked. 
Of course I lost my way, but * coppers ' 
were most obliging. I stood at noon in front 
of the Mansion House and The Bank and 
saw, I suppose, more traffic in a minute 
than those dear old legs of yours dodged 
in ten years, and I discovered why all 
these places are called circuses. They 
sure are full three-ring four-platform ones, 
each deserving of being the *' Greatest 



BILLY'S LETTERS 33 

Show on Earth/' There is just as much 
to see as in Ringhng Bros., and the differ- 
ence seems to be there you look every 
way so as not to miss anything ; on 
Piccadilly Circus, for instance, you look 
every way so as not to get anything. I 
always felt certain that Fd have a hub 
smashed in and wonder now just how I 
escaped. I think the funniest sight I saw 
was a costermonger with a donkey like a 
minute and a cart like half a one, cross- 
ways on Trafalgar Square and the Strand 
one morning. A copper at one end shoved 
and talked while another pulled and talked, 
and every taxi and bus driver that was 
held up sat and talked, and as Fm an 
" ossifer " and presumably a gentleman, I 
really couldn't write you what they said 
or what the coster said back, but there 
were some fine examples of the ^* retort 
courteous " a la Anglais profanus. 

Then we stayed up one night till four 
and went at five to Co vent Garden Market. 
That was a disappointment tho' as every- 
thing was dark, so we only heard the noise 
and smelled the smells. What, oh ! that's 
sufficient. 

I rode on top of a bus just for the 
experience, which was some, and looked 
down on humanity. Then we went to 
Whitehall and saw the guard changed. 
That is the only regiment not in khaki ; 



34 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

the guards there still being in gold, red 
and tin plate. Being an officer I received 
a regulation salute. Ha ! Ha ! 

We also gave Buckingham Palace the 
" once over '' and went all through the 
Park. Buckingham looked very nice, but 
you know over it all are huge bomb nets 
for protection, which I guess spoiled the 
appearance. Then I did what everyone 
does, I guess, got lost in the Cecil Hotel, 
and sooner than ask I wandered into 
forty different rooms for fifteen minutes. 
Gee ! that is some shack for size. I also 
learned that all the coal used to heat 
London went into a shute just outside my 
window at the Regent Palace hotel where 
I stayed. At least they started just after 
I got into bed and never even hesitated 
till I got up, the din being accompanied by 
raucous swear words and trite repartee 
from the navvies. The hotel, which is a 
new one, is some hotel, by the way, 1030 
rooms, and they had 2100 guests for New 
Year's. It surely is the last woid in hotels. 
A winter garden, lounge, a Louis XVI 
room, a palm room, a grill and everything 
else you ever heard of and a lot no one 
ever did, and reasonable too, six shillings 
for bed and breakfast, a swell big room 
and fair breakfast; but never let it be 
said that London is cheap. I can attest 
that the idea is erroneous for it sure 



BILLY'S LETTERS 35 

costs a pile of money to step around that 
city. 

However, it is London at night that I 
should Hke to tell you of, if I can. You 
understand practically no lights are allowed. 
Stores, etc., pulled down blinds and only 
a ray peeps out of doorways. There are 
no street lights save ghastly green ones 
that cause everyone to resemble an olive 
in complexion ; and the buses and taxis 
creep along with no headlights, and even 
the side lamps, which must be oil, shrouded, 
so that for a poor pedestrian to cross a 
street is a dangerous undertaking. But to 
look up at the steely sky is the sight : 
Ribbons, seemingly miles long, shooting 
in every direction as bright as the brightest 
Northern lights, the anti-aircraft search- 
lights. That is indeed a wonderful sight ; 
the opaque little ghmmers that surround 
one on the sidewalks, and those only on 
main streets ; and up above, as one would 
think for miles these powerful searchlights 
sweeping across the sky ; and then the 
slow-moving crowds, for they saunter 
leisurely along at all times ; and the con- 
tinuous nerve-racking honk, honk, honk, 
of cars, punctuated by the shrill whistles 
of theatre and restaurant doorkeepers call- 
ing taxis, which are at a premium in the 
evening, all impressed me wonderfully. 
And then to step into the hotel rotundas 



36 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

from nearly abysmal darkness and a 
veritable babel of harsh sounds — into a 
brilliantly lit rotunda, resonant with hearty 
laughter, male and female, encrusted as it 
were by orchestras, is some transition, I 
can assure you. To walk in and see the 
women gorgeously gowned, and the officers 
in khaki from the army, and naval blue 
and gold, one almost forgets that 150 miles 
away there is a war ; until suddenly, direct 
from the trench, in walks a soldier, mud 
from toes to crown, begrimed and laden 
with heavy marching order, jostling his 
way up to the desk through the immacu- 
late throng. That brings it back, as does 
also the sight of a poor fellow on crutches 
or without an arm, but it scarcely seems 
possible. 

And what a study in character is there 
in a cosmopolitan crowd. Here a festive 
young lieutenant, there a florid -faced 
naval man, yonder a paunchy Major, all 
endeavouring to thoroughly enjoy life for 
six days. And the women ! Oh the 
women ! Heretofore I have been under the 
impression that English women did not 
know how to dress, but the frumps we see 
are no criterion. '' Lord lumme ! " but 
they sure do dress. Radiant blondes in 
diaphanous garbs in greater numbers than 
I ever imagined, beautiful brunettes and 
sparkling sorrels in such profusion that 



BILLY'S LETTERS 37 

it is staggering. They all loll around 
in the places irregardless of class. In the 
Carlton tearoom one day a ravishing crea- 
ture who turned out to be one of Eng- 
land's first beauties, sat rubbing backs 
nearly with a woman plainly a wanton, 
and I am told it is an e very-day occurrence. 
Anyway, they all sip tea or cocktails, 
smoke cigarettes and display an amount 
of silk encased leg to cause me to wonder 
considerably. And do you know I, in a 
measure, doubted my earliest beliefs in the 
decency of womanhood after some of the 
displays that I witnessed. Certainly a 
shock to my morals and mentality as 
heretofore constituted. 

Now, my dear, must close, will write 
more later, but we have to welcome the 
Canadian Mechanical Transport who are 
just arriving. 

Love to all. Billy. 



Later 

Well, dear, after reading this over IVe 
found that I haven't told you anything ; 
at least so it seems. I can't believe that 
my thoughts won't come, for I always 
tried to tabulate everything that occurred 
so that I could tell you about it, and 
figured how to express it, but it seems 
as tho' I can't think of them. When I 



38 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

started this page I thought I could, but 
I can't. However, I certainly enjoyed my 
trip and the memory of it will linger 
long with me. I tried everywhere to buy 
something for Aunty and you. But some- 
how there seemed to be nothing for 
women, except ordinary things. Every- 
one sells war materials for men and the 
bally shops seem crammed with nothing 
but trench clothing, smokes, alcohol lamps, 
safety razors and steel mirrors. I wanted 
to get an antique for the house but 
searched, and searched, and found nothing 
I wanted that I could afford ; so finally 
in desperation crashed into Harrod's and 
purchased you each a pair of gloves. The 
thoughts go with them even if they are 
only commonplace ; you know that, dear 
ones. However, I did buy a leather frame 
for your picture. That was selfishness, I 
suppose, but I did want to keep it nice 
and it was awfully expensive, the frame, 
nine shillings, but 111 just nip off some- 
where else. Things cost like the devil here 
and food is awful. Our mess is something 
scandalous and I'm enclosing my last 
month's bill to let you see it. It is nearly 
$3775 for twenty-eight days for food and 
some cigarettes, which is awful, you'll 
agree. We got our $ioo here, but most of 
it is gone for a revolver and binoculars. 
These two sixty-five dollars alone — then 



BILLY'S LETTERS 39 

a compass and several small things such 
as map case, fourteen shillings, etc., and 
I've yet got to buy several small matters for 
my kit. 

Well, dear, will close again. Love and 
write soon. 



Royal Huts Hotel. 

January 31, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

I am only stopping here for an hour, 
and as I have just finished tea, I thought 
I would improve the shining hour, which 
has been a mighty scarce article for the 
last two weeks. My last epistle to you 
was, I think, dashed off on a typewriter at 
Bordon. Since then IVe had an eventful 
career. 

Dates are all messed up in my mind, but 
a week last Friday we left Bordon after 
two weeks of awful work and marched to 
Wit ley, twenty-one miles. Saturday morn- 
ing, under orders, the whole battalion left 
for Bramshot, where we are now, and 
Saturday night I was, on fifteen minutes' 
notice, sent over to Aldershot to take an 
advanced signalling course. Some move- 
ment for your one and only, and if you 
were a Sherlock Holmes you would deduce 
that it presages something, and that some- 



40 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

thing is, that we are to move to France 
as soon as we can be equipped, which is 
about the third week in February. Of 
course, dear, I know that that doesn't just 
appeal to you as strongly as it does to me, 
but it is really the best bit of news I ever 
wrote you, from my view-point ; for, dear, 
it bespeaks much : first, that we are a well- 
disciplined and trained regiment ; secondly, 
that we are physically fit to go ; and when 
you consider that it was only in May last 
that we started and that there are 45,000 
troops over here from Canada, and we with 
three others were selected to form a new 
Brigade in the Second Division, youll 
understand that we are proud. Just 
think ; we leave the — th, — th, — th, and 
all those others formed six months before 
us, behind, and so I say again that we, as 
a battalion, have reason to be proud. 
And you, as my dear, dear Mother, have 
also reason ; not just because Fm in the 
battalion, but because your only son was 
paid a great compliment. An Imperial 
Army Sergeant-Major from Aldershot who 
was in charge of the various platoons 
for some time, and one of those old-time 
regular army fellows to whom discipline is 
a god, told the Colonel that my platoon 
was the best disciplined one in the batta- 
lion and exceptionally smart ; which is, 
you'll admit, a feather in my cap, and for 



BILLY'S LETTERS 41 

which I was compHmented by my Colonel. 
Then our Signalling Officer has been made 
Brigade Signaller, which is a boost for 
him, and one of our Majors is Acting 
Brigade Major, and likely to obtain the 
place permanently, and our Chaplain has 
been made Brigade Chaplain ; all of which 
reflects great credit on our battalion, and 
we're trying awfully hard to live up to our 
reputation. Now, aren't you proud ? One 
of Canada's premier battalions and your 
son a '' hossifer " in it ! I don't suppose, 
dear, that gazing adown the vista of years 
to the time of my babyhood you ever 
dreamed that I should one day stand 
where I am now. I suppose mothers like 
you can sing '* I didn't raise my boy to be 
a soldier " ; but since he is raised and is 
a soldier, I do want my mother to be 
proud of me. For, after all, dear, although 
I've never notched very deep heretofore, 
and, I know, not just accomplished what 
you'd have had me do, still I think that 
with your love for success, and the top of 
the ladder, you'll be proud that I'm at 
least a good lieutenant, for, oh, dear, I've 
tried very hard. And so we're going '* over 
there," perhaps soon after you get this 
letter. 

I want you at once to send me on a 
card, if possible, obtained from the Bank 
of Montreal, your signature, as I am going 



42 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

to make my bank account a joint one in 
both our names, either to draw cheques. 
This will enable you to draw out at any 
time anything to my credit, and avoid the 
expense of litigation or probate should 
they bump me off. Send the signature 
direct to the Bank as per enclosed cheque 
address and Til arrange it here. Don't 
delay a day. The cheque you will keep 
so as to have it by you, to draw if you 
want to. 

I am expressing back to Canada my 
rain-coat, also my great-coat or possibly 
only the latter. We all had to buy what 
they call trench coats, rubber coats, fleece 
lined, which cost seven pounds fifteen 
shillings,, as a great-coat is too heavy, and 
if it gets wet takes days to dry out, so I 
fear me is not much use. My other goods 
I'm putting in storage in London and will 
advise you in regard to them later. We 
are all busy buying trench necessities, such 
as high rubber boots, periscopes, Wolseley 
valises, — a contrivance holding blankets 
and clothes, as we are only allowed thirty- 
five pounds of baggage outside what we 
carry, and they must be in these valises. 
They cost four pounds, but are essential, 
otherwise you can't have anything taken. 
Suit-cases and trunks are barred for obvious 
reasons. In fact, when I get all dolled up 
in heavy marching order which I described 



BILLY'S LETTERS 43 

before, I resemble a Christmas-tree that's 
been having a night out more than any- 
thing, and feel sure Richard III was in 
somewhat a similar state when he uttered 
that very salient remark, '' A horse, a 
horse, my kingdom, etc/' 

However, that doesn't explain why I 
am at the Royal Huts which I started to 
in the preamble. Well, last Sunday the 
Colonel suddenly walked into the mess and 
said, '' You'll go to Aldershot to-night 
to take an advanced signalling course." 
I remonstrated that an advanced signal- 
ling was a trifle premature as I had never 
even had an elementary one, but old 
Tennyson knew whereof he spoke, '' Their 's 
not to reason why," etc., and so, like a 
lamb to Armour's, I hied me on my way. 

Arrived, and the first thing Monday 
morning they just flung at me through 
space, six words a minute in Morse tele- 
graph code on a delightful invention known 
as a buzzer, which is the same as a door 
bell run by a telegraph key. In view 
of the fact that I'd never even been 
introduced to one previously, and that I 
certainly wasn't on speaking terms with 
it, I failed to measure up, but I went to 
the Commandant of the School and be- 
tween talking to him and crying at him, 
induced him to allow me to stay, insisting 
in right good Canadian fashion that as 



44 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

Fd come to take a signalling course, it 
was patent I could scarcely go home with- 
out one. I tell you that gift of gab is 
jake sometimes. So a sergeant was ap- 
pointed to give me elementary instruction 
in the various forms of army communica- 
tion, viz. buzzer, heliograph — a sort of 
Spanish - inquisition - looking affair, which 
reflects the sun from a mirror across the 
country — a lamp with a shutter in front 
for sending at night, and also by wig- 
wagging a flag thusly from here over to 
there, and from this position over to this 
other one ; a very simple little affair, 
figured out by some of the mightiest 
brains of all time, but requiring arms like 
the village blacksmith to send and eyes 
like a cat to read. Well, so far IVe 
grubbed along, but you'll realize that to 
learn Morse on six different instruments 
in fourteen days is not just what in 
restaurant life is called a '' short order." 
However, Tm working from 9 a.m. "till 
10 p.m. with three hours for lunch, the 
indispensable tea and dinner, and hope to 
acquire sufficient knowledge ere this week 
is out to pass out at six words a minute. 
So far, I'm just a conglomeration of 
churned-up dots and dashes, and find my- 
self going to sleep saying dot — dot — dash 
— dash — damn — damn ; which all doesn't 
explain why I'm here at Royal Huts. In 



BILLY'S LETTERS 45 

fact, Fm beginning to question if Til ever 
tell you, as IVe just remembered that the 
— th battalion has been broken up, only 
a band and a few handy men left to clean 
up. Solomon said, '* Pride goeth," etc. 

Anyhow, to-day, being marooned at 
Aldershot, and wanting mail, etc., I came 
over to Bramshot, sixteen miles, and was 
starting back, or rather did start back. 
The mode of locomotion is a motor-bus 
which is a pay-as-you-enter-run-when-it- 
pleases affair. It resembles any street car 
I ever remember, inasmuch as it seats 
fourteen, but holds thirty-two. It seems 
to have a deal of trouble in breathing, 
and is rheumatic in every joint. I feel 
sure if its pedigree were looked into, it 
would have been sired by the first Ford 
and damned by everyone who ever rode in 
it. Well, we started out, the thirty-two 
all being present at roll call, each one a 
soldier (private) except his breath which 
was and still is and likely will be (from 
the ribald glee emitting from the bar) an 
admixture of gin and beer, (not at all 
like the fragrant rose of old England). 
This breath when breathed upon one in 
conjunction with a sweet-scented odour of 
gasoline which leaks through the floor of 
the bus, only convinces me that I have 
nothing to fear from German gas. Well, 
anyway, we got thus far when the bus 



46 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

busted ; at least she sat down figuratively, 
and no amount of coaxing would induce 
her to arise. So we jostled out and in 
here where I am sitting awaiting the 
arrival of another affair which I trust is 
more physically fit than the other was. 

I have no more paper, this being some 
in my pocket, but must close anyway. 
Don't forget all the instructions and ad- 
dress always c/o Army P.O. Will write 
you more fully during the week, but want 
this to catch Canadian mail leaving 
Monday. 

Love to all. Billy. 



February 8, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

Your two letters written, one en 
route, the other from Toronto, arrived on 
the Canadian mail, and I was glad to hear 
that you arrived safely. I also got some 
letters last week at Aldershot telling me 
of the desperate cold. Gee, that was sure 
some cold. Eh ! A letter also arrived 

from last week and one to-day from 

. I am writing to her to thank for 

the SOX, also to for the cigarettes. 

I arrived back here Sunday night from 
my signalling course and to-day received 
word that I got '' Very good '' out of a 
class of forty, which means I obtained 



BILLY'S LETTERS 47 

over ninety per cent., and the Colonel is 
quite pleased and said to-night at mess, 
" Oh, I knew you'd pull through." Well, 
I landed back as I tell you and found that 

, my Company Commander, or O. C. 

Co'y, meaning Officer Commanding Com- 
pany, was ill, and I was senior, so had 
to take charge yesterday and to-day 
of the whole company. That is, hold 
orderly room, which is the soldiers' court 
where he is punished for offences. For 
instance, John Smith in private life is 
John Smith ; here he is No. 41144, Pte. 
Smith, John, and if he is wont to imbibe 
too much of the '' cup that clears to-day 
of past regrets," is placed in the clink. The 
next day he is brought before his O. C. 
Co'y who, if he feels he can adjudicate 
upon the case, sentences him ; but as his 
powers are limited, and if the case deserves 
greater punishing, he remands him to a 
higher court, viz. the Colonel or Com- 
manding Officer. Well, I had to adjudi- 
cate upon three yesterday and four to-day, 
all for being absent without leave, which 
is a crime in the army. By crime I mean 
not as generally interpreted, but anything 
for which he can be punished, and the 
longer Fm in this game the more Fm 
convinced that one can be punished for 
anything ; and when a soldier is discharged 
after years' service without a crime on his 



48 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

record, I certainly consider him a mighty 
clever chap for covering up his crimes. 
It certainly is a supreme example of the 
two great classes, the convicted and the 
unconvicted; for if the aforesaid No. 41144, 
Pte.. Smith, John, while standing on parade 
should be suddenly seized with a violent 
tickling of his throat, such as you allay by 
an application of jujube, and should spon- 
taneously and ostentatiously burst forth 
into a loud '' ahem," he can be very 
severely dealt with under section forty of 
the Army Act, the aforesaid cough '' being 
prejudicial to good discipline." So you 
see that anyone can be shot at sunrise for 
blowing his nose. However, I carried on 
with the C. O. Co'y's work for two days, 
and of course being away first at Bordon 
then Aldershot was not in touch very well. 
Then we are being equipped to go to the 
front and are changing old things for 
new, and as the C. O .Co'y is responsible 
(not me) for everything, there is a lot of 
checking of figures. However, I am manag- 
ing very well so far and haven't done any- 
thing I shouldn't have. Then to-day 
when I was in seeing the Major he told me 
I was to have No. r Platoon. That 
perhaps doesn't convey much to you, but 
it is just this : No. i platoon is the 
extreme right one when the battalion is in 
battle and therefore its flank is quite 



I 



I 



BILLY'S LETTERS 49 

important. That is certainly a promo- 
tion, in its way I mean, for unless I was 
fitted to have command of it I wouldn't 
get it. It is quite an important spot and 
D.S.O.'s are usually won there, altho' 
I'm not figuring on one. In answer to 
your enquiry as to whether all officers 
above me on the list were senior, *' yes." 
But three officers above me are being left 
here, which makes me fourth senior lieu- 
tenant in the battalion. As for any notice 

in the papers, the place is about 200 

souls, and anyway one battalion more or 
less doesn't matter very much here. A 
battalion is such an infinitesimal affair 
in this war, so I imagine the only place 
you'll ever find anything about us will be 
Canadian papers. 

I was up in an aeroplane last week with 
the O. C. Headquarters Flight at the 
Royal Flying School, Aldershot, and en- 
joyed the experience very much. We 
went up about 2000 feet and I imagine I 
should enjoy being an airman. There were 
no sensations except a violent desire to 
hang on, a sinking sensation at the stomach 
when we volplaned and a violent desire 
to get down where the air didn't bite 
one's face and chill you to the marrow. 
There was a slight rocking which tended to 
produce mal de mer, or I suppose I should 
say mal de air, but when one is hopping 



50 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

along anywhere from fifty miles to eighty 
miles an hour youVe really no time to be 
ill ; in fact, all I did was to hang on, and 
just between you, me dear old Maw, and 
myself (arid don't tell a soul) I wished 
most of the time that Td never gone up. 
But then that is like the Catholic con- 
fessional, strictly confidential, and not to 
be mentioned to a soul. 

I spent Saturday and Sunday in London 
en route from Aldershot and went in a 
pouring rain to Westminster Abbey. Oh, 
dear, there is something about that spot 
that really is the story of the Empire in 
a vast pocket edition that grips me. I 
sat Sunday in the north transept and 
heard the swelling (I think souls is the 
best word for they induce tears in me 
almost) sobs of that glorious organ and 
listened to The Recessional. I heard 
them once again, sitting beside the monu- 
ments and statuary erected to Britain's 
heroes, and oh, do you know, dear, I felt 
the little wish creep in that some day my 
name might go down to posterity in those 
magnificent aisles. I was so close I could 
touch the statue, '' Erected by the order of 
King and Parliament as a testimonial to 
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, during 
whose administration, in the reigns of 
George II and George III, Great Britain 
was exalted to a greater degree and glory 



Page 50, line 17. For ''souls" read "sobs" 



BILLY'S LETTERS 51 

than in any other period '' ; those, if 
memory serves aright, are the actual words 
of the inscription, and, as I say, unbidden 
came the desire that one day I might 
prove worthy of a wee small honour 
from my own native land, for, and to 
which, I am continually longing. It's all 
right to say it's cold, but then suddenly 
take away from one all the things that 
have surrounded you since childhood, sud- 
denly remove all the environment that has 
encircled your very being and you cannot 
help but feel the lack. I miss the snow, the 
crunch, crunch of it under marching feet, the 
glisten of it in the sunshine and the glint 
of it under the arc lights at night. I miss 
the wind that stung the face and the cold 
that pulsated the blood, and most of all 
the air, the free, clean, sunshiny unmisty 
air of the west ; and while I love England I 
wouldn't trade one day of Western Cana- 
dian climate with all its wintry rigours 
for a whole winter here. Tho' I some- 
times cursed a winter there I now ask 
pardon and plead my ignorance as an 
excuse, for snow is immeasurably better 
;han the same depth of gooey mud. 

We expect to leave sometime between 
•"ebruary twenty-third and March first, but 
ill be in France for some time ere going 
Lctually into the mess, so don't figure 
l*m in it as soon as these dates occur. 



52 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

You know, my dear, that it's all very 
well to talk about writing to this one and 
that one, but I never get a chance to start 
a letter till 8.30 p.m., then it's usually 
10.30 before it's finished, and I owe a 
dozen to different people. If I find time 
I'll write, but really some nights I'm so 
tired I can't, so they'll have to understand. 
Love to all. 

Billy. 



February 13, 1916. 
My Dear Mother, 

Your second letter written from 
Toronto reached me this morning. As I 
wrote you earlier in the week we are in 
the throes of departure and Sunday is no 
exception. Ten officers and a number of 
men have been away all day firing at the 
Rifle Ranges, and this morning in front 
of our mess the Machine Gun class was 
busy rattling away. As I tell you, that's 
about all there is to think about. One 
grows so narrow-minded in this business 
unless you eat, sleep, breathe and perspire 
war, its ethics, science and the practical 
application of these, you might just as 
well quit, and our Colonel doesn't give 
one much chance to do anything but 
absorb warfare. As I told you, we are in 



BILLY'S LETTERS 53 

the throes of departure, and I am told 
unofficially that the Brigade sails on the 

for France. You will not of course 

receive this till after we've arrived there. 

The weather here has improved quite 
noticeably lately. The days have been 
warm and bright, always for a few hours 
in the middle the sun coming out and 
caressing us and the landscape, so that it 
makes life a little more bearable. There 
is just a touch of spring in the air, the 
buds bursting on the trees, and this after- 
noon I saw several pussy willows and 
some snowdrops out in bloom. Five of 
us went for a long horseback ride this 
afternoon, the first horse I've been on 
since I left the farm, and a rough-gaited 
bird it was. She had a sort of self -start- 
ing six-cylinder action in her rear eleva- 
tion and bumped along, also I bumped 
along with her greatly to the detriment, 
I fear, of certain portions of my anatomy, 
and I fear me also I'm going to be " raw- 
ther stiff " in the morning, as I certainly 
can class my middle parts as being sore 
right now. However, I enjoyed myself 
thoroughly for two or three hours, and 
laughed myself sick at one of the boys 
who doesn't ride very well, who had the 
wildest horse in the bunch and who cer- 
tainly had a really rough time ; for as soon 
as we started for home she refused to do 



54 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

anything but go, and of course all the 
rest of them also insisted, and when his 
bird heard the others behind, she legged 
it faster and faster. We crashed along 
for about seven miles through narrow 
lanes and tiny villages, and very Gilpin- 
like I can assure you. Dougal, the chap 
I speak of, lost his cap and none of us 
could turn our horses to get it. So as we 
must always pay for our good times, I 
fully expect to pay for mine to-morrow. 

I had rather an unique experience the 
other day which I want to tell you about. 
Every one who hailed from this insular 
kingdom, in Canada was wont to com- 
plain in my ear of the slowness of barbers 
over there and always related how much 
faster the tonsorial artists of Britain 
pushed in your whiskers. I also have been 
told the same thing since my arrival 
and Fve proven to myself the why and 
wherefore of it. Having to go up to 
London one day this week to the Record 
Office, I slept in and missed my usual 
shave before hiking three miles to the 
train, so upon my arrival there proceeded 
to buy a shave, something I haven't done 
for months, I nearly can say years. So 
seeing a sign, '' Ladies and Gentlemen's 
Hair Dressing Saloon," I proceeded 
therein. Well, a bald-headed person of 
doubtful antecedents, judging from his 



BILLY'S LETTERS 55 

physiognomy, motioned me into a chair. 
Not a white enamel becushioned one with 
a neck-rest and numerous levers, but a 
plain red plush, one showing unmistakably 
that other thousands had sat on the 
same seat. It was just the same type as 
the C. P. R. or any R. R. in Canada issues 
to their hard- worked station agents. Well, 
I sat me down, not without some mis- 
givings, and, grasping '' me noble counten- 
ance," he tilted my head rearward until 
I felt as tho' I were one of those contor- 
tionist acts at a vaudeville show. He 
smeared my face with lather and pro- 
ceeded to scrape the protruding hairs off. 
I say scrape advisedly, for it was a process 
greatly resembling a man with a snow 
shovel removing the accumulation of last 
week's snow from the sidewalk. He didn't 
take long, I'll admit, and well he might do 
it in short time. Every time he let go of 
my head I endeavoured to raise it, but, 
someway, he always beat me to it and 
grabbed it again ere I could sufficiently 
stretch the muscles to erase the crick in it. 
He surely was active and I took a keen 
delight in seeing if I couldn't beat him 
to it. Albeit I must confess he came off 
best. Of course he was doing it every day 
and it was my first game and I didn't even 
have beginner's luck. Well, having re- 
moved some hair and the outer tissue of 



56 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

epidermis, he smeared a solution of nitric 
acid and chloride of lime and assisted me 
to elevate my head to a normal position, 
and, whisking off the apron, by gestures 
suggested I arise. I did so with face 
smarting and neck stiff and cricked beyond 
straightening, I felt sure. Upon a close 
examination which I made after a hurried 
exit and fervent prayer of thanksgiving, 
I found tiny tufts of whisker still there and 
decided that the reason they do it quicker 
is, first, because they don't do it, and, 
second, if they took any longer they would 
permanently dislocate their customers' 
necks ; so I readily understand why there are 
fewer barber shops and why every English- 
man always carries a set of razors. Any- 
way I certainly prefer mine own Gillette. 

I've just paused a minute to listen to 
the mess gramophone blare out '' The 
Veteran's Song." A glorious baritone 
sang it and as he came to the lines, 
** Thank God when the young lads falter 
we still have the brave old boys," I just 
wondered if, when the crucial moment 
came, I would falter. Of course, dear, 
I can't falter, there are no more old boys 
left and so we young lads must do our 
best. And oh, dear, while I know it's not 
in your heart I feel sure that you wouldn't 
want me to falter, and, somehow, on the 
eve of our departure we all have sobered 



BILLY'S LETTERS 57 

down a bit. At first at the news every- 
one was gleeful, but we are quieter now. 
Things have assumed their right aspect. 
We all realize that it isn't a picnic we're 
setting out for and so we've adjusted our 
outlook and toned down our gaiety. Not 
noticeably, perhaps, to an outsider, but 
every now and then you'll find one or 
two sitting quietly and a wistful look in 
their eye. There isn't the laugh and the 
jest that for months has been usual, and 
so we go away over to France. 

Now, my dear, there isn't much or in 
fact anything more to say, except I don't 
want you to worry. I know, Mother o' 
mine, that's a useless order to give you, 
but I surely mean it. You know we all 
are intending to come back and I grow 
every day more or less a fatalist. So don't 
worry, I'll come home one of these days 
and oh, how glad I'll be, dear, to fold 
you in my arms and hear you call me 
Willie. So, dear, don't fear for me. 
Your God and mine, whom I know you 
trust, is just as present there as in the 
quiet solitude of your bedroom, and if 
perchance He wills that I go out, well, 
dear, it's just one more sorrow heaped on 
your willing shoulders, one more pain to 
your silver locks. But as the days go on 
more and more forcibly is borne home the 
fact that up there beyond the Gates of 



58 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

Pearl there is one Omnipresent, and He 
will watch o'er me as he has done over 
millions of other sons. 

Good-bye, dearie. The last good-bye 
for a time at least. TU write you from 
France. Good-bye and God bless and 
keep you safe for my return. Rilly 

Love to all with heaps to Auntie and 
Uncle when you write. 

We've left the lights of London 
And the dreary rain of Hants, 
For we're slowly steaming outward 
" Over there " to France. 

The while I watch the choppy waves 
And taste the salty foam, 
My thoughts are ever speeding 
To Canada and Home. 

I wonder, be there thought-waves 
Or static in the air 
To shoot the thoughts I'm thinking 
To my dear ones " Over there." 

For " Over there " is two spots. 
One is Flanders, damp and low. 
While the other place is Canada, 
My " Lady of the Snow." 

And tho' my thoughts always are split 
Betwixt the one and t'other, 
I think to-night they're turning most 
To Canada and Mother. 

Crossing the Channel as the lights of Folkestone died into black 
and Boulogne grew brighter. 

Billy. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 59 

Somewhere. 

February 26, 1916. 
My Dear Mother, 

Well, we arrived '' somewhere,'' and 
are billeted, some miles at the rear of the 
actual firing line where the boom of guns 
comes to us ever and anon. So we are 
actually in the ring side seats of the big 
fight and soon will, I suppose, be actually 
in the ring. 

The trip here was very interesting, but 
Fm not allowed to mention anything 
about it so will have to tell you when I get 
back. However, I can tell you that I had 
my wish about the snow, for we landed 
in the midst of a soft melting snowstorm 
which has kept up intermittently ever 
since. The whole country is covered 
about a foot thick with soft snow and the 
roads frozen hard, making walking and 
transport difficult. In fact, the weather 
has been very cold and almost like Cana- 
dian winter, as the cold seems to go 
clean through. However, the men and 
all of us are happy and that counts a lot. 
I've just thought all day what a complex 
thing is human nature. We arrived here, 
as I told you, in a blinding snowstorm 
and after a twelve- to fifteen-mile march, 
finally got into the barns, where we are 
billeted, about eight o'clock at night. 



6o A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

cold, horribly hungry and wet through, 
every man sore and grouchy, railing 
against the officers and any one else on 
whom he could vent his spleen. It wasn't 
an easy day and I, too, was dead tired, 
but next morning in the clear cold air 
we had changed completely. Everything 
looked rosy and in the midst of it all 
here and there a song or a cheery whistle, 
and after a good warm meal we were 
as chirpy as sparrows. Indeed, a contrast 
from the night before. Human nature is 
indeed a funny thing. I went out to-day 
to buy some woollen gloves and other things 
in a village about two miles away and I can 
assure you that National song of ours, 
*' The Maple Leaf our Emblem Dear/' is 
just as fitting here as elsewhere. They sure 
soak one here for anything. 

We are quartered in a farmhouse, the 
six company officers in one room of 
Flemish architecture — great oaken beams 
across the ceiling and a cold wind-swept 
brick floor and no heat. The men in the 
barns with plenty of straw are, I believe, 
fairly warm, at least I hope warmer than 
we are. The glass is out of our window 
and the wind '' she's blow de herricane " 
across the floor, wafting in all the varied 
odours of the farmyard. However, it 
must be worse in the trenches and every 
cloud has its silver lining. But it's some 



BILLY'S LETTERS 6i 

miserable in the morning, arising and 
shaving and washing at a pump with a 
foot of snow on the ground. 

They say that to be really a good 
fighter a man must feel a personal ani- 
mosity against his adversary. Well, I 
feel certain that if old Kaiser Bill could 
suddenly appear some morning when I 
hop out of blankets and with goose flesh 
over '' me noble frame,'' shiver and swear, 
he'd find in me a foeman worthy of his 
steel ; and I think as the hardships (which 
really aren't so awfully hard) grow worse, 
we all acquire that spirit of animosity. 
The men, too, are not at all slow at ex- 
pressing their opinion about the enemy, 
and they seem to be ready to fight, so I 
guess we will give a good account of our- 
selves. 

Everything is strange and new over 
here. The very ground we walk on was 
the scene of fierce fighting early in the 
war. The fields, however, are all plowed 
and crops in, in fact '* busy as usual " is 
the motto, pigs, cows, etc., chewing away, 
not even moving their ears. The build- 
ings, however, bear mute testimony that 
there is a war on, and in the fields here 
and there are the remains of wire en- 
tanglements. I picked up a rusty old 
brass casing of a shell, while a few hundred 
yards away a tiny forest of crosses mark 



62 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

the graves of some English soldiers, and 
not far distant is a bog where, Fm told, 
the Princess Pats were first cut up a year 
ago. 

It is all war over here. Every breath 
you draw seems to charge your blood with 
a desire to get into it, and it's truly sur- 
prising how one actually feels no qualms 
about going into the trenches. So far I 
haven't felt the slightest tinge of fear, but 
of course I don't know exactly how 111 act 
when the crucial moment arrives ; but 
I've practised control of myself in pre- 
paration for it and I guess that's about 
all it amounts to, self-control. Our first 
touch of the real thing was a hospital 
train we passed filled with the wounded 
and seeing motor ambulances flying along 
the road to and from the firing line. Occa- 
sionally a stretcher with a bandaged figure 
on it, and once a body lying on the road- 
side, probably a real casualty. It's very 
hard writing, everyone is talking and I 
can't seem to collect my thoughts, also 
it is some cold. I'm using a lone candle 
so I think I've written enough. Excuse 
paper which is out of my message book 
and also the carbon copies, but I'm writing 

the same letter to the little girlie in , 

and I know you'll excuse me. I'll try to 
write you a letter again as soon as possible 
and try to do so regularly. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 63 

Remember me to everyone and send 

love to the . Heaps of love and 

millions of thoughts of you and home. 

Good-bye. 

Billy. 



Somewhere. 

February 28, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

Just a few lines to enclose some 
documents, one a joint agreement for the 
Bank which please forward direct, also 
receipt for goods stored at Thomas Cook 
& Sons. There is really nothing much 
there, and I cannot think it would be 
worth while to send for them from Canada, 
as there is nothing of any great value. 
However, here is the receipt. 

Well, dear, the most important news I 
have to tell you is that we move up into 
the fight to-morrow and will be in the 
ring for a starter for ten days or so. Just 
to get our baptism of fire, as it were. 

I received your two letters, the last 
dated 14th inst., and you seem worried re 
the Christmas parcel. I got it O.K. and 
acknowledged it the same day. I think, 
if memory serves me aright, the night 
before I went to London. In fact Fm 



64 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

sure it was that night, as I gave the letters 
to my man to post and will ask him re 
them. As for others, well, previous letters 
will have answered your queries. 

Fm at present engaged in studying gas 
and how to combat it, and it's very inter- 
esting work. I have to walk each morning 
about six miles, and this morning as 
I walked along I couldn't help thinking 
how peaceful everything looked. Bright 
warm sunshine, glistening down on the 
snow, birds twittering, quaint old houses 
with cheery children running about and 
wee wisps of smoke curling out of the 
chimneys ; in fact the landscape might 
have been a water-colour of any country, 
so peaceful did it look. One would scarce 
believe that a short twelve to fifteen 
months ago this whole area was the scene 
of actual fighting, nor yet realize that 
less than a score of miles away the greatest 
battles of all time are being waged. Indeed, 
if it weren't for two things and you could 
suddenly transplant some one from a 
foreign land here, I feel sure it would be 
hard to convince them of their where- 
abouts. Two things, however, give away 
the ending to the story ; first, ever and 
anon rumbles over the land the reverbera- 
tions of the guns, sometimes short, 
staccato sounds, again long crashing rolls 
ending in a sort of roar, and then, on the 



i 



BILLY'S LETTERS 65 

pave roads, a never-ending line of trans- 
port waggons either bearing up munitions 
and coming back empty, or Red Cross 
motor ambulances going empty and com- 
ing back loaded. Nearly all the work is 
done by mechanical transport (motor lor- 
ries) which rattle and bump along at a 
great rate, spraying rather than splashing 
mud on you, while now and then a de- 
spatch rider clad in khaki oilskins hurtles 
by on a motor cycle, or a long line of 
the famous two-decker London buses, 
all painted War Office grey, crawl along, 
sometimes loaded just as heavily as ever 
they were on the Strand or Regent Street. 
But every passenger is now a non-paying 
one and there is no difference in style, all 
in '' marching order.'' And speaking of 
marching order reminds me that I was in 
an *' estaminet " or cafe to-day, and there 
was a chubby gamin of about four march- 
ing to and fro with a water-bottle and 
mess-tin strung from his shoulders and 
over his left one a long poker, and would 
you believe me, as we entered he came to 
the '' present " with his poker, then calmly 
strode back and forth as if on sentry go. 
And this almost within range of the big 
guns. The passive bearing and positive 
equanimity of these villagers also seem 
beyond one's ken. Business as usual is 
evidently their slogan and they certainly 



66 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

lose no opportunity to carry on any kind 
of bargain. As an example, the urchin, 
whose home is where we billet, appeared 
yesterday with one of our cap badges on, 
and fearing mayhap that kleptomania was 
developing and feeling that keenly in one 
so young, I questioned him (for all the 
kids have a smattering of '' Anglais ") as 
to whence it came. Promptly came the 
answer *' two eggs," '' Eengleesh soldier,'' 
so you see the French are just as thrifty as 
ever. In fact, more so, I fancy, as every 
second house has been turned into one of 
these estaminets. It is possible to pur- 
chase anything eatable from packages of 
Quaker Oats to Heinz's Pork and Beans, 
and drinkable from beer to champagne, 
excluding spirits like whiskey or brandy. 
As far as eats are concerned no one needs 
anything staple anyway for we eat like 
fighting cocks. Meat, some fresh, some 
bully beef, bread or hard tack, potatoes 
and one other vegetable, bacon for break- 
fast, jam, tea, rice, cheese, condensed milk 
and plenty of it. The meat is usually 
beef, but alternated with mutton, and our 
Company Commander, who is an old 
British army officer, says this is a picnic. 
Not knowing cannot say, but while there 
are some discomforts they are absolutely 
nothing to what I expected, and we are 
all happy as kings. Of course Fm usually 



BILLY'S LETTERS 67 

happy, but I find myself breaking into 
song every now and then just for sheer 
joy. That is, I suppose, a rather queer 
idea to any one who at a distance views 
the situation, but such is the case. 

I cannot recall to memory all the queer 
things that have happened, as you may 
imagine, but it certainly is a very funny 
expedition. My French at the best is 
none too healthy, being rather pale and 
coming under the heading anaemic, so 
I've had some queer times making myself 
understood. In the first place through 
which we marched several gamins crow- 
ded along beside us crying ** Beeskit, 
Beeskit,'' and I racked my brain for all 
French salutations and forms of greeting, 
but nothing seemed to fit, and finally a 
little older boy said *' sou veneer," and I 
tumbled. He wanted a biscuit like we 
eat. Hard tack, in other words. It may 
seem easy when it's spelled out, but when 
a dirty-faced youngster grabs your thumb 
and adds his weight to the already enor- 
mous tonnage which you're carrying, your 
powers of understanding cease and your 
perspective rather clouds. 

Well, my dear, I don't think there is 
much more to tell, but will write from our 
new quarters next week. 

Love to all. 

Billy. 



68 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

Somewhere. 

March 6, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

Your letter dated February 15 
arrived to-day and finds me in hospital 
where IVe been for five days. Nothing 
serious but a nasty attack of '' toenail " 
poisoning from eating something too near 
the side of a tin. It occurred a week to-day, 
just before we moved down to Brigade 
reserve about two miles from the firing 
line. I had nothing to eat for two days, 
that is, could eat nothing, and suffered 
from acute diarrhoea and then did thirteen 
miles in marching order to here, which 
was more or less of a '' via dolorosa " 
for me, and when I arrived was glad to 
lay me down in a dugout which leaked. 
Next morning the Colonel and Medical 
Officer insisted upon me going into hos- 
pital, much against my will, for the 
battalion moved up to the firing line, 
for its first time that night. It was a 
bitter disappointment to your '* only only " 
for, dear, after one has laboured for 
months studying and instructing his men, 
and when the climax comes and all his 
work is to be put into actual practice, it 
comes hard to lie down and feel that he is 
not to have a part in it. However, here I 
am, hoping to get out to-day and go in the 



BILLY'S LETTERS 69 

line for four days the day after to-morrow. 
Tm feeling much better, thank you, and 
considerably stronger, I think I would 
have been jake but for that march over 
the pave roads which aggravated the case 
considerably. Of those roads more anon. 
Well, dear, here we are, as I say, a scant 
two miles from the first-line trenches and 
even here one is scarce able to realize that 
there is a war. For instance this morn- 
ing, to look out of the window the sun 
is shining and birds singing. Here and 
there a touch of snow glistening amongst 
the green of the fields or fast being dyed 
by the mud of the roads, and not a sound 
of war penetrates the walls of the hospital. 
Except for khaki moving around from the 
window view nothing denotes war at all. 
Of course it is not always like that and 
there was a noisome bombardment the 
first few nights. In fact the first night 
when I lay in the dugout it seemed to 
never cease. Battery after battery rum- 
bled on and only a few hundred yards 
away one of the real big guns thundered 
occasionally. All this noise punctuating, 
as it were, the tinny notes of a piano 
grinding out a blare of ragtime from a 
Y.M.C.A. hut, the while motor trucks 
tattooed by on a road as it were beating 
time for the piano. Incongruous, well I 
should say so. It certainly, to one who 



70 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

hasn't seen it, must seem inexplicable. 
And yet it exists not only here as an 
isolated example but all up and down the 
line. How truly remarkable are modern 
conditions ! 

The hospital is run by a field ambulance 
and is a large building of four stories with 
a dozen smaller ones around it. Prior to 
the war it was a convent and school and 
still the patient nuns work here. Black- 
robed and smiling they go about their 
duties looking after Belgian refugees, doing 
washing for the soldiers and running a 
small hospice where officers can get a meal. 
I haven't had one, but the boys tell me 
they are great. Fried chicken, cauliflower 
and pie. Pie I said. Imagine pie. To me 
that overshadows the fact that they serve 
with each meal a pint of champagne. Yes, 
there certainly is a high light over the pie. 
I care not what ; custard, apple, lemon, 
raisin, mince, blueberry or cocoanut but, 
I could certainly cultivate a quarter section 
of pie right now. '' Much better this morn- 
ing, nurse ! " The place has never been 
shelled and in the officers' ward with me, 
now, is a Colonel and a Major. The Colonel 
said he asked one of the nuns how it came 
that they had never been shelled. She 
pointed to the crucifix (an inevitable symbol 
in every room in every house that I've been 
in over here) and said, *' We're kept by the 



BILLY'S LETTERS 71 

Grace of God/' and I believe it. To 
think that for nineteen months in this 
maelstrom of war from every quarter, the 
buildings have never been hit and these 
quiet nuns have gone about tending sick 
and wounded, daily holding their matins 
and vespers, seems to me a modern miracle. 

" O, woman ! in our hours of ease, 
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please, 
When pain and anguish wring the brow 
A ministering angel thou ! — " 

As Fve Iain here the force of those 
lines comes home more and more. You 
know I've always said a nurse had a 
halo around her head, well, here there's 
nothing but males, mere male orderlies, 
and oh, for the touch of woman's hand. 
I know that if there was a woman, were 
she princess or charwoman, that your 
beef tea would at least be warm and have 
salt in it, and there would be no sticky 
sediment in the bottom of the cup. That, 
a hundred other things I could recount, 
betoken the lack of the touch feminine. 
However, I've no desire to disparage the 
work of the dirty, clumsy hands which 
ministered unto me, for they are the boys 
who in their turn go up into the line and 
carry back the wounded. All honour to 
them ! But that is just an insistent little 
fact that presses home quite poignantly. 



72 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

After one has been a gay and festive 
subaltern in the C. E. F. for ten months 
one learns to do a weird yet fascinating 
occupation known as Map Reading. It 
consists of being able to trace one's way 
on an ordnance map by means of hiero- 
glyphical marks and to know by the 
manner in which a road is shown whether 
it is a first-class, or a second-class, or a 
third-class, or a fourth-class road. Now, a 
first-class road is supposed to be one, but 
I think that the first-class roads here are 
the ones mentioned in the epigram or 
proverb, '* The Road to hell, etc.'' ; at 
least they are hellish roads. They are all 
pave roads and consist, first, of a line of 
Flemish poplars on each side. Tall and 
stately trees they are and from afar be- 
token a quiet shady highway, a dolce far 
niente effect, but, ye gods, what awful 
purgatory to walk between those lovely 
trees ! These pave roads consist of small 
blocks (cobble stones), and I have it for 
a fact from a respectable source that there 
was a clause in the contract which called 
that no two blocks be laid at the same 
height or angle in any space not exceed- 
ing ten metres in width by thirty metres 
in depth. So you can readily imagine 
that walking is anything but a pleasure. 
In fact, if I were a parish priest and my 
worthy confessees had hoofs like mine, I 



BILLY'S LETTERS 73 

could think up no greater penance than 
to have them do five miles twice a day 
over these roads. Peas in your shoes and 
pave roads rank side by side. In any 
event thirteen miles of them was too much 
for '' me noble hoofs/' which at present are 
blistered and sore. In fact any time after 
the first five miles I would willingly have 
walked on anything soft, Hampshire mud, 
a custard pie, six inches of snow or an 
eiderdown quilt. I certainly can never 
recommend a walking tour in France. 

Well, dear, I can't tell you much about 
the trenches for I haven't been there, but 
will doubtless have a few remarks about 
them next time. 

Received the joint agreement and will 
forward it. You can tear up the one I 
sent you. 

Love to all. g^^^^. 



Somewhere in France. 

March 17, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

Here I am again in hospital. It 
seems as tho' I never get out of the bally 
spot. Nothing serious, you know, just 
crocked up with a deuce of a cold and a 
very sore heel. The heel comes from en- 



74 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

deavouring to break in a new pair of shoes 
and started with a bhster which Uke 
Finney's Turnip, grew until the length, 
breadth and depth thereof was something 
to marvel at, and the pain in keeping 
with the dimensions. Talk about exqui- 
site torture, but I sure feel that the methods 
of the Inquisition have nothing on this. 
However, she is fast healing up and we 
will go back to finish the breaking in of 
the new shoes. This breaking in stuff is 
no joke and I have not yet discovered 
whether it consists in moulding the boot 
to the shape of your foot or vice versa, 
but I think it is vice versa. 

Well, my dear, I've already done a tour 
or two in the trenches and can assure 
you that they are the only experiences 
Tve had that fail to live up to their 
reputation. Frankly, they were a keen 
disappointment to me in every respect, 
altho' I, perhaps, have not had sufficient 
time to properly sample them. There 
was mud and water to the prescribed 
quantities all right, but things are not so 
beastly uncomfortable and for forty-eight 
hours I never lay down or was even in a 
dugout owing to the crowded condition 
of the line. Of course one was wet and 
cold, but that's what we've been expect- 
ing, and the hardships are not, so far, 
nearly as great as I anticipated. Of 



BILLY'S LETTERS 75 

course there was the danger of getting 
bumped off any time, but altho' Tm sure 
at least two milHon shells and bullets 
sang, shrieked, roared, rattled, whistled 
(add here any adjective used by war cor- 
respondents, they all fit) hurtled by and 
around, none hit me. It was rather 
terrifying 111 admit, but somehow or 
other there was a distinct fascination 
about it. One's nerves certainly require 
to be constructed on the gyroscopic prin- 
ciple, however, to stand the strain. But 
the surprising thing was that despite all 
information re accuracy hardly one shell 
in ten does any damage. At least that was 
the impression I got, for none of my men 
were hit and the battalion up to the time 
I was brought here had no casualties 
after ten days in the front line. Of course 
I realized that perhaps the weather con- 
ditions were not as inclement as early in 
the winter, but still I really can see no 
such awful conditions as one pictured in 
their mind's eye. I talked in England to 
hundreds of men returned from the front, 
and by piecing together their garbled 
accounts, had a sort of patchwork quilt 
composition which I chose to call my con- 
ception of the trenches, a sort of pre- 
impression, but I guess either I was a 
bad artist or else the men I talked to 
were bad raconteurs, for I surely saw 



76 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

nothing like my conception when we 
finally reached the goal. While nothing 
is so bad that it might not be worse, and 
the same I suppose applies to things, good 
conditions in the firing line are neither so 
good they couldn't be better, nor yet so 
bad they couldn't be worse. Everything 
humanly possible is done for the comfort 
of the men, and every dugout has a 
brazier with charcoal and coke burning to 
get warm by, and there is food to spare. 
The meals are not of course served table 
d'hote, and finger-bowls, I believe, even 
in the best battalions, have been reserved 
for future use ; but eat you can, and a 
little management combined with the aid 
of a company cook, does wonders at getting 
a hot meal. Always granted that it is 
discouraging in extremis, also provoca- 
tive of much blasphemy when George the 
cook is suddenly compelled to duck and 
use as a shield the dixie or pan on which 
rested your dinner. Because, despite all 
efforts of the A. S. C. and your own 
quartermaster-sergeant, there is only so 
much for every one, and when yours has 
commingled with the soup lying underfoot 
it neither adds zest to your appetite nor yet 
improves the flavour of ''Mulligan.'' Albeit 
this does not occur thrice a day and we 
usually are able to say inwardly, if not 
aloud, ''For what we are about to receive." 



I 
I 



BILLY'S LETTERS ^^ 

Of course sleep is rather a minus quan- 
tity, particularly for officers, and it was 
doubly so with us, for I know I felt at 
times rather timid about the small sector 
of trench I was responsible for and wanted 
to be sure that nothing occurred. In 
any event we have not yet acquired the 
blase air or nonchalant bearing that 
veterans of six months carry, so I say 
sleep was lacking in large chunks. I am 
now recharging the cells here, having lain 
dormant for two days, in fact hibernated, 
so to speak, despite the fact that out of 
doors it is beautiful weather. 

Yes, I think that the '* winter of our dis- 
content " is gone for that laggard lover, 
Old Sol, has for two days wooed Mother 
Earth. And what an ardent affair ! None 
of your brotherly pecks as kisses, but long 
warm Elinor Glynny ones, so that she is 
all dolled up in her spring sartorial effect. 
Violets, snowdrops and crocuses under- 
foot, bursting buds and the songs of 
mating birds overhead, a blue filmy haze 
rising from the ground and every now and 
then a sleek grey Belgian hare scamper- 
ing through the middle distance. That's 
the picture that limns itself on your brain 
as you walk along the road. Beauty, 
beauty everywhere, till one wishes one 
had the gift of a Turner to put on canvas 
the glories of this French land. IVe just 



78 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

gloried in the view from my window here, 
trying to forget that the whole land is 
given over to war and that one or two 
high explosives could dint the landscape 
so badly as to mar it for sightseeing pur- 
poses. It seems indeed a shame that so 
beautiful a part of the world should be 
warped out of all recognition. This hos- 
pital or rest station for officers is in a 
beautiful old Chateau placed on a small 
hill in a circular basin. Around the valley, 
as it were, runs a long arc of hills shutting 
off the view after five or six miles, but in 
between is really beyond my poor pen to 
describe. Wonderfully treed are the im- 
mediate grounds of the Chateau ; Oak, 
Flemish poplar and several trees of un- 
known (at least to me) species, their tops 
gradually blending into one another till 
the bottom of the hill is reached, a sort of 
terraced lawn. Then the plain small farms 
with their cluster of buildings around 
them, tiny quadrangles and triangles 
hedged off with mounds of earth and 
sparse hedgerows where they grow their 
crops. Here and there a haystack or a 
terra-cotta roof shows up, while the smoke 
from a village some three miles away, 
veers upward just as lazily as our smoke 
at home does on a lackadaisical day in 
spring. Everything over here, dear, seems 
to move so much slower than at home. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 79 

For instance, every village has its church 
and spire, and every spire its chimes ; and 
in place of clanging out with strident notes 
its quarters, half and hour, languorously 
the sounds float over in deep resonant 
waves. Long, long seconds seem to elapse 
between notes, in fact you count, say, ten, 
and, knowing it's eleven, you figure youVe 
missed one at the first, when '* blong ! " 
over comes the final sound. So also the 
windmills. I've read innumerable stories 
about the lazy Dutch mills, and here they 
are. Square, grey buildings with the 
regulation four arms that turn slowly and 
rather jerkily. They always seem to me 
as if a tired man were turning them at a 
windlass inside, and when the handle 
reached the top, he got a little more 
pressure on the downward stroke. I may 
have failed to give you the right idea, but 
it's here in my own brain. Well, I could 
go on telling you about this picturesque 
spot and describing the beauties of the 
surrounding country indefinitely, but 
better stop here. 

As I tell you, we are quartered in this 
old Chateau — truly an old-world place if 
one ever existed. Set upon this hill with 
magnificent grounds around, flower-beds, 
rhododendron bushes, stately oaks, tall 
slim poplars, deciduous trees of every kind 
arching over long shaded walks which wind 



8o A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

round and round, always coming back to 
the Chateau. These walks, lined with 
secluded spots and arbours, where per- 
chance lurks an inviting rustic bench or 
maybe a stone or marble statue in a 
variety of subjects from Circe to Diana 
and Mercury to Cupid. Then snuggling 
in the side of the hill is a disused con- 
servatory with hundreds of broken panes 
and a seemingly impossible number of 
flower-pots whole or otherwise ; and I 
could not help thinking of you and your 
watering-can and a certain third-story 
garden I know of. Anyway there are pots 
enough here that if filled would keep you 
watering from dawn to dark. Adjoining 
this is a very pretentious pheasant house 
all wired off in pens and walks and con- 
structed of mortar, stone and wood like a 
Swiss Chalet, while stables and a most 
modern garage are further on. As for the 
house itself, a quaint old spot with high 
corniced ceilings and walls covered with 
tapestry. A large hall, dining-room, lounge, 
salon and writing-room elaborately decor- 
ated, and all connected by wide, high glass 
doors. Beautiful parquet floors of Spanish 
oak. The furniture is all old, very old, 
some of it Louis XIV. Old candelabra, 
antique brassware, etc., fill every corner, 
while paintings, whose value I know not, 
adorn the walls. And to offset this 



BILLY'S LETTERS 8i 

mediaeval old spot, it is lighted with both 
gas and electricity and has lightning rods 
and steam heat. 

Will write again next week. Love to all 
with heaps for you. 

Billy. 



Somewhere. 

March 24, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

As you will see by the heading I'm 
at Somewhere. I believe you may have 
heard of this place, but I know that its 
importance is not known to you. Ask 
any schoolboy the principal city of France 
and hell say Paris, but '' Somewhere " 
has recently so increased in population 
that I believe it supersedes gay Paree in 
importance to-day. Of course it is young ; 
less than two years ago it was all peaceful 
farming lands but to-day it is a vast 
seething mass of humanity, its thorough- 
fares teem with motors, while overhead 
fast-flitting aeroplanes act as messengers. 
It is, indeed, the most prominent spot in 
the world to-day and gives promise. De- 
sist, I prithee. It almost seems like the 
good old pre-war days when one sold or 
bought lots. However, dear, I to-day 
received your letters dated March 6 and 



82 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

i6th and was very glad to hear from you 
as usual. Mail-day means a lot over here, 
you know. I also received another letter 
earlier in the week, the date of which IVe 
forgotten, and I think a parcel you sent 
and some letters have gone astray. But 
they'll turn up ; they always do. We've 
moved twice since they came, and I 
believe they were sent to hospital when 
I was there, but just as surely as fate 
they'll follow on, for the Army P.O. is a 
wonderful institution and no matter where 
or when you move, within a few hours 
along comes your mail. For instance 
yesterday we moved some miles and 
Canadian mail is due to-day. No matter 
where you are, along she comes. 

Well, dear, as I say, a letter is always 
most welcome, for it's the only link that 
forges the ends of *' home " and '' here " 
together. It's welcome whether it con- 
tains a lot of news or just a little, because 
really the alchemy of a dear one's hand- 
writing causes all the dross of this war to 
sink, the golden memories of home, happier 
times, friends, and, best of all, love, to 
rise up ; and then your letter was so 
newsy, dear, and what a coincidence, the 
dream I mean. By comparing dates I 
think you'll find I was lying in hospital 
when you dreamed and every few minutes 
over and around flew aeroplanes. So 



BILLY'S LETTERS 83 

perchance there is something in telepathy 
even more th,an just a web o' dreams. 

Well, dear one, I really don't know 
much to tell you, for actually news is 
mighty scarce. You see officers censor 
their own letters. That is, we seal them 
up and they are not liable to be censored 
at the base. We are put on our honour not 
to mention anything of importance, and 
it is left to our judgment what to tell ; so 
really honour is a stricter censor than the 
much-hated one at the base. However, we 
moved from billets up nearer the firing 
line and are four miles from the front line 
trenches, in huts which are more or less 
shelter-affairs. If one spoke about a 
shelter in Canada, I always associated 
with it at once the Salvation Army, or 
the Children's Aid Society, or a nearby 
doorway in a rainstorm. Here a shelter 
consists of some pieces of two and six sur- 
rounded by sacking, with perhaps a door. 
Of course it is very healthy in dry weather 
for all the air you get is filtered through 
the sacking. However, I told you that 
Old Sol was wooing Mother Earth. Well, 
publish it not in Gath, but they had a tiff 
last night and that hoary old beast Winter 
called in his (Sol's) absence. The ground 
was about an inch deep in snow this 
morning and the atmosphere accordingly, 
and now there is once more six inches of 



84 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

mud on the roads ; result being that she 
was '' some chillsome " at six a.m. when 
you arose and tremblingly tucked your 
goose-fleshy legs into breeches and socks 
*' dewy like the rose.'' C'est la vie. 

I am sending you a photo of the little 
girlie, one of four she sent me. I don't 
mind telling you it is the worst of the 
bunch and really isn't much like her, but 
she is a dear thing, and I'm really not 
horribly sentimental. As for your being 
an in-law, I know you'll make just as 
good a one as you do a Maw. Anyway 
we'll try you out when I get back. 

As for that code, my dear, if I'm taken 
prisoner there's not much you could do. 
I'm afraid Wilhelm wouldn't or couldn't 
do anything, and I presume I would be 
given the same treatment as the rest. Of 
course food is a necessity, I'm told, and 
Aunt EHzabeth could send bread and 
stuff over. However, if I am taken, which 

isn't likely, I'll misspell thus , 

if I think anything you could do through 
Cousin Jane would be any use, and' if I 
do not receive the parcels sent, which by 
the way are a necessity, I'll misspell 
receive or received by transposing ei to 
ie ; both these will get by as natural, I 
should say, but there is a very strict 
censorship in regard to letters and they'll 
only let you write two a month, I am told. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 85 

We are in a part of the line now which 
is a trifle more Uvely than any we've been 
in before. You see over here the aspect 
of the war narrows down considerably. 
You are really only interested in your 
actual front, as it were, and usually have 
enough to do to look after that. What 
the Grand Duke Nicholas is doing, or 
whether Turkey has been carved, or why 
Manitoba voted dry, doesn't count. It's 
what is Fritz going to do next in this few 
yards of trench I'm responsible for, or I 
wonder if we'll move in or out to-morrow ; 
and one has plenty to do to see the men 
fed and quartered and inspect their feet 
and rifles twice a day and see they have 
their proper amount of ammunition and an 
emergency ration uneaten. You see an 
emergency ration consists of a pound of 
hard tack or biscuits, a small tin of tea 
and sugar and a tin of corn beef. Every 
man must always keep that, for it is 
against regulations to eat it except when 
in dire straits and on the orders of a 
Company Commander. But once in a while 
Tommy has a gnawing in his eight-cylinder 
self-starting 1916 model stomach. Then 
you see he has to report that ''I've lost 
my iron ration. Sir." Of course you ask 
where, and he says that someone stole it, 
or the rats ran away with the works, or it 
fell in a well, or a starving aviator came 



86 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

down and stopped him, so out of the good- 
ness of his heart he gave him the food. 
Almost any story made up on the instant 
goes. You berate him for being careless, 
knowing meanwhile he ate it, then proceed 
to apply through your Company Com- 
mander to the Colonel, thence the Quarter- 
Master, who indents on the A. S. C. for 
another. Hurrah for the Hfe of a soldier ! 
As I started to say, we narrow down 
our view here and a perusal of Canadian 
papers re the Canadian Corps can tell 
more every day than we know. Anyway 
the general opinion here seems to be that 
the war can't last much longer than, say, 
next fall. The Verdun affair means some- 
thing and perhaps a few last gasps like 
that will see the tag end in sight. There 
is one thing I've always intended to con- 
fide in you since we arrived here, and 
that is I'm only another Henry Ford. 
As a Peacemaker I'm a frost pure and 
simple. I say this after unsuccessfully, 
for many nights in succession, endeavour- 
ing to arrange for an eight-hour armistice 
between my left hip and a board floor. I 
started out with the idea of a permanent 
peace ; gradually felt I'd be satisfied 
with an amnesty ; now an armistice is all 
I crave. There is one consolation, I'll 
never need a luxurious boudoir '' Apres 
la guerre " (you'll see my French is quite 



BILLY'S LETTERS 87 

fluent, in fact I speak it just like a 

Canadian). Albeit a disused dog kennel, 
an abused woodshed or even a dilapidated 
windmill (Canadian type), is a perfectly 
elegant spot in which to sleep. Oster- 
moors, homo-quinge beds or eiderdown 
can be classed with Dodo or mastodons. 
Herewith a small Encyclopaedia Soldier- 
annica : 

Batman : a soldier paid by you to be 
absent when you want him. 

Beer, Belgian : a liquid resembling beer 
British or beer American ; evidently a 
distant branch of the same family. 

Billet : any place so designated by a 
billeting officer. 

Dugout : (a) men's, a patriotic dog 
kennel that enlisted, (b) Officer's, a root 
cellar that got into society. 

Duty : anything, everything. 

Heaven : (a) Leave, (&) Rum, (c) Heat. 

Hell : working party. 

Home : a poignant memory relegated 
to the limbo of things unattainable. 

Jam : a sticky substance invariably 
made of plums, used to smear bread. 

M.T. (Mechanical Transport) : a Jug- 
gernautical affair demanding three-fourths 
of the road and made to splash mud. 

Projectile : see working party. 

Rations : '* Man wants but little here 
below." 



88 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

Rum : a warming elixir issued in tooth- 
fuls by zealous officers. 

Sausages : pork, a species of animal 
extinct. 

Sock : an ever wet, sticky article, used 
as a covering for foot, hand or rifle. 

Working party : hell. 

Whiskey : well, the Governor of North 
Carolina said 

I really don't think there is any more 
to say this time. 

Remember me to any one who would 

care to remember me, with love to 

and heaps for you. 

Billy. 



April 5, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

Just a few lines. IVe neglected you 
horribly this week, but work has pressed 
awfully. Saturday last, the battalion 
moved up into the trenches, and just 
before they left I was detailed to act as 
Transport Officer. That is, nightly to 
take up the rations to the men in addition 
to many other duties. 

It is no sinecure, I can assure you, as it 
means cold-blooded riding on a horse at 
the head of your transport column, seven 
limbers, at a walk, along roads subjected 



• BILLY'S LETTERS 89 

to high explosives, shrapnel and whizz 
bangs, in addition to being potted at by- 
snipers when you get close to the trenches. 

We go through one of the most famous 
ruined cities of Belgium each night, which 
they shell continuously, and also all along 
the way. We leave at dusk, go sixteen 
miles there and back, returning between 
twelve p.m. and two a.m., and I would like 
you to know all about it, but cannot spare 
time just now to write, but will to-morrow. 
A message has just come to say that the 
roads are being shelled more than ever 
to-night and we must proceed with 
twenty yards interval between limbers, 
that is to minimize the danger of the whole 
transport being blown up. 

You see troops must be fed. No excuses 
gO'if rations don't come. If one way 
fails you must have another, and your 
brain amid the rumble of wheels and the 
rattle and shriek of shells, is always figur- 
ing a way out if one limber gets blown up. 
Personally I prefer the trenches. There, 
one has a rifle at least and the excitement 
and lust of retaliation helps. This business 
is deliberately, slowly and precisely walk- 
ing into an inferno — one that puts Dante's 
in the class of a skating rink. I had two 
horses injured last night and one man shot 
straight through his cap. 

Anyway, dear, you and I are queer, 



90 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

psychically I mean. I've never had any 
odd premonitions, but to-night I feel a 
sense of foreboding, an impending danger, 
so scribble these lines. 

Of course you realize, dear, that one 
schools oneself to dying if necessary. Not 
that life isn't very sweet but, when one is 
five seconds away from death for twenty- 
four hours a day, one grows rather care- 
less, I suppose. However, dear,. I feel 
that way to-night as I know Tm riding 
into it, so in case I get bumped off I wanted 
to write you. 

All my love and all my thoughts. 

Billy. 

I enclose a letter Fve never finished, I 
want you to have. 



Dear Mother, 

Although it was only yesterday I 
wrote you the mood is on me to-night and 
I want to have a paper talk with you. You 
see, dear, there's something new come into 
my life and I just don't know how to 
cope with it. Although it's old, old, I 
guess it was old when Nineveh and Tyre 
flourished ; yet right now in my own time, 
my own heart, it is very real and so I want 
to tell you about it. 

You'll doubtless remember, dear, I spoke 



BILLY'S LETTERS 91 

often within the last two years or so of 
having a home of my own. The ardent 
longing that ever and anon pressed upon 
me for something other than the vacuum 
of a room when night came on. It was 
always night when the desire came ; night, 
when my thoughts, relieved from the duties 
of the day, spent their own time in rambling 
day-dreams. Always with night-time 
came, I say, that insistent little wish for 
something beside a bar-room, a club, a 
theatre, a gilded restaurant, or the four 
walls of a bedroom. Well, dear, I suppose 
that wish was the forerunner of the new 
something that has burst out into my 
days and nights. That something that I 
suppose must be called Love. 

In retrospect to-night, I cannot recall 
any event in my life of any importance 
that you didn't know about first. With 
the exception of a few boyish secrets that 
really cannot be considered, I fail to rake 
from memory's heap, one joy or sorrow 
that your mother's intuition didn't learn 
of or that I didn't tell you, and so, dear, L 
want to go to you to-night, my Mother 
Confessor. 

Since I've really grown up and known 
my mind I don't think I've ever been 
what is popularly known as a ladies' man. 
I never had my nails manicured but once, 
and as a juggler of macaroons at after- 



92 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

noon teas T/m a decided frost. In fact, 
reduced down, I guess I failed to qualify 
in the opinion of the ladies. I am no 
Apollo, and as a matter of fact was too 
fond of my Ostermoor to arise early 
enough to titivate myself. Perhaps, 
largely because I had no incentive other 
than a desire to be only neatly dressed, 
I aroused in no woman more than a 
passing interest. I was always content to 
dance with them, take them to a theatre 
and home, with an occasional kiss sur- 
reptitiously stolen (IVe flattered myself). 
Selfish perhaps, I made myself pleasant, or 
tried to, because it gave me pleasure to trot 
out a well-dressed, good-looking damsel. 
But when I left her, that ended it. 

But now, away over here in war-ridden 
Belgium, comes the grand desire for just 
one woman. It's a queer psychological 
fact, that every man in khaki wants a 
wife ; witness the war weddings. I pre- 
sume it's the old primordial instinct come 
out. He seems to want someone to leave 
behind ; someone to fight for. He seems 
to want the sensation of the cave man, 
that of battling for one being, his woman. 
So, the natural supposition comes that it's 
one woman, my woman. At any rate con- 
stantly there is, before me, the vision of 
the face of the '' Girl I left behind me." 
Queer Uttle memories that come intrud- 



BILLY'S LETTERS 93 

ing into my mind, which should perhaps 
be employed in the weightier problem of 
figuring out how many tins of the inevit- 
able plum jam my platoon should draw 
in to-night's rations, or some similar 
worry. But as I say, the memory of her 
intrudes in so many ways. Sometimes on 
a route march, as I swing along in the 
selfsame monotonous step — for one gets 
to be an automaton at marching — the 
pictures of her come back. A picture of 
how she looked the first night I met her, 
of the profile of her, marked in memory's 
book at a movie, of sitting in the gleam 
of a grate fire, of the last weepy moments 
before the train left. All these and many 
more recur with insistent demand for 
my attention at queer times, and in 
queer places. I think that every night 
in that magic space of minutes that are 
one's very own, the fleeting seconds between 
the time I slide shiveringly into a blanket 
and the drowsy instant I fall asleep, 
comes the mental picture of her. And 
because that has always been a sort of 
sacred minute of mine own, a moment for 
my deepest thought, my sincerest resolu- 
tions, I feel sure that Love has come to me. 
As I said before, the sensation is new — 
the longing for one person in all the 
world, so infinitely foreign heretofore — 
I can scarcely dissect my feelings, can 



94 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

really not comprehend it. Albeit, the 
desire for her is there, the heart-hunger 
for the sight of her, the wish to be beside 
her to-night, now, and ever. Ever the 
plans for a future home — that seems to be 
the goal of all the thoughts, no matter 
where the train of memory started, nor 
how tortuous the road ; always the end is 
in the home 111 come back to, the home 
IVe planned. 

Billy. 



Somewhere. 

April i6, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

Your letters of March 20, 26, 29 all 
to hand. I received a parcel from Eaton's. 
Thanks very much. Also the parcels from 
Auntie for which I am going to write. 

Well, my dear, I sent you a scribbled 
little note some days ago but you see 
everything is all right. The prescience of 
the future was a little strong that evening, 
I fear me, but I sure felt queer. As a 
matter of fact nothing could have been 
more quiet than that night. I guess I 
mustn't let my vivid imagination run riot 
any more. The nervous strain is abso- 
lutely too much, so will not do it again. 

Well, dear, Fm still on this transport 



BILLY'S LETTERS 95 

job, and I can assure you it will be some- 
what of a relief to get off. You see you 
sit on a nervous horse and head a pro- 
cession up to the ration dump. It's 
too bally cold-blooded an affair for me. 
There one sits in calm majesty, as it were, 
and from the time you start out till you 
get within a few hundred yards of the 
trenches, Fritz heaves over H. E. shrapnel 
and whizz bangs — all very real forms of 
fright fulness. Then as one gets up to the 
line the road is peppered by indirect 
machine-gun fire, and still one sits and 
takes it. You see there is no retaliation, 
— ^if one is on a front-line trench, well, 
you could work off your superfluous hate 
by fifteen rounds rapid ; or you know 
that by a telephone you can have your 
supporting battery heave a dozen or so 
on to the heads of the Huns, thereby 
proving to him you're asleep ; but this 
old transport job is such a helpless, hope- 
less affair. It's as much the moral effect 
as anything, for, each time you start out, 
you know that somewhere along the road 
you're going to run into it and you bake 
that thought into a russet-brown as it heats 
in the oven of your mind. You see Napo- 
leon said an army moved on its stomach, 
and while movement these days is just a 
trifle different from his time. Tommy to- 
day has to have his beans, bully beef and 



96 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

jam, etc., just the same. There is no such 
word as can't in the bright lexicon of a 
subaltern, and I am thinking it applies 
even more to a transport officer, for no 
excuses are accepted if rations don't come. 
If you get a bump there's a sergeant, if 
both get it, a corporal, and finally a driver 
to every team, who'll do his duty and get 
the stuff there. 

However, it is a wonderful experience 
to ride along a road that is being shelled. 
Perchance in the glory of a sunset, or in 
the hght of the old moon, or yet again on 
a coal-black night with rain making the 
road like a banana peel on a granolithic 
sidewalk, and you as miserable as a 
human being can feel. It's wonderful, I 
say, to look into the hell of a big shell 
that bursts fifty feet away and of which 
you can feel the concussion. In fact, the 
longer I'm here the more wonderful this 
war seems. The psychology of the human 
element is most amazing. The other night 
as I rode up a road, above my head was 
the whish-whish-whish, ad infinitum, of 
machine-gun fire, while on the ground the 
put-put-put of the same, or rather other 
guns ; and, will you believe me, I found 
myself humming '' Little Grey Home of 
the West." That sounds incredible but 
nevertheless it is absolutely a fact. 

Well, Old Mumsie, I'd like to recount 



BILLY'S LETTERS 97 

for you some of my impressions. For 
instance, can you imagine riding along a 
roadway, with the moon beneath a cloud 
and, from right to left, the light of thou- 
sands of flares going up ; flares that make 
the white lights at Toronto Exhibition 
Fireworks seem like a candle, as against 
a 100 watt Mazda. As I say, flares radi- 
ating a pale white glow, guns booming, 
rifle fire cracking, and suddenly, out from 
the clouds, comes the moon, and there, 
beside the road, glistening in the light of 
Luna, is one of the small graveyards which 
punctuate the land. Perhaps fifty men 
have been '' dumped '' — that's the word — 
under those mounds, with the scant short 
liturgy of the service read over them ; and 
you see the gleaming, white wooden crosses 
like so many spectres standing out against 
the ground. " God's Acre," if ever there 
was one, not one acre, but thousands that 
for ever and a day will be a lasting tribute 
to the manhood of the Empire. At one 
place along my route there is a tiny road- 
side shrine. It stands beside a road 
untouched, and sentinels the tiny white 
forest of crosses that loom out of the night. 
That's but one picture limned in bold 
lines on my brain ; there are dozens that 
I can't write of. But one is a ride in 
moonlight through a ruined city. Can you 
picture a city as large as, well, Brandon ; 



98 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

a city noted for its wonderful Gothic 
architecture, absolutely razed — ^not a whole 
building left — ^here a wall, there a con- 
glomeration of debris ; a city of homes 
and stores deserted, save for a few soldiers 
who control traffic through its streets and 
who live like rats in a cellar ? I know you 
couldn't picture it any more than my poor 
pen can write of it, but still I wonder if you 
can imagine the impression etched on my 
mind as I rode between those ruined walls 
while the moonlight sifted between crags 
of bricks and fantastic minarets of mortar. 
I dismounted the other night and went 
into the ruins of a seventeenth-century 
Cathedral, a glorious structure in its day, 
a world-renowned spot ; and there in the 
dusty debris of its chancel I stood and 
thought. Gone was the spell of sanctity 
that pervades one as he enters a conse- 
crated place, gone the inimitable Gothic 
work of its altar, gone the images of gold 
and porcelain, the gold lace of the altar 
cloth. Never again will the Nunc Dimittis 
be chanted, never the incense of swinging 
brazier scent the air, and never again will 
a black-robed priest from his latticed 
confessional box listen to the story of 
human frailties. It's hard to tell you. 
Mother o' mine, just the thoughts that 
came and went, hard to dissect the notes 
that sounded in my heart ; but one that 



BILLY'S LETTERS 99 

was as a clarion was the absence of a 
GOD. That may sound funny or sacri- 
legious, but it was the uppermost thought 
in my mind. Here a house of His wrecked 
until only a wall of broken stone and a 
statue of the Virgin stood to remember it 
by. Anyway, herewith a small piece of 
hand-made lace dug from out the debris 
and presumably made by pale-faced nuns 
as part of the altar cloth. Til try and get 
some more for Auntie. Do not attempt 
to wash it. I also have some stained glass 
which rU not be able to send yet. 

.Well, dear, it's bedtime, which is a 
movable feast in this land, and one must 
grab as much as you can when you can. 
Love to all. 

Billy. 



Flanders. 

April zyth, 191 6. 
My Dear Mother, 

Fve been waiting every day for a 
letter from you, but so far it seems that 
there isn't one. It's over two weeks since 
one came, and every day I've put off 
writing, patiently waiting so that I could 
answer it. 
There really isn't very much news to 



100 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

write you this time. The transport oflficer. 
came back, so I return to my company to- 
night. The transport job was all right 
but rd just as soon go back to my platoon. 
However, the C. O. in turning over to the 
T. O. said I had done good work and he 
would remember it ; also, he wouldn't 
remove me were it not for the fact that I 
was a senior sub. in the regiment. So to- 
morrow night up we go into the trenches, 
into a real delightful spot ; at least 
delightful in the fact that Fritz makes it 
very warm there. Casualties have been 
quite heavy there lately. From the dis- 
tance comes the sounds of a band playing 
'' Marching Through Georgia,'' and you 
know I've a sneaking wish I were. The 
bands out here are surely a great delight 
for, on an afternoon, from the four quarters 
come marches, waltzes, or overtures, 
punctuated by an occasional artillery pre- 
lude, and none too pleasantly obliterated 
by the strident skirl of the pibroch. 
Nevertheless the old adage that '' Music 
hath charms " holds good out here and our 
savage breasts are soothed and our minds 
refreshed by the airs, be they martial or 
motherly, that every band sends out, from 
the famous Coldstreams, down to a cheep- 
ing fife and drum. 

Humour out here is a saving grace and I 
can assure you there are lots of chances 



BILLY'S LETTERS loi 

to acquire the grace. For instance, while 
passing through a certain town which has 
been, and is, continually shelled, a soldier 
on sentry duty in my hearing said, *' I was 
sent back to do base duty. This is a 'ell 
of a base.'' This caustic remark was 
made as he stopped the transport to 
inform me the road ahead was being 
shelled, and as we stopped Fritz lobbed 
"over a couple of shrapnel just ahead some 
twenty yards. Of course no one who 
hasn't been out here can appreciate the 
story. You must know the setting ere the 
crux penetrates, but I rode along and 
laughed as much as if I were in Shea's and 
Al Jolson was '* on." 

But what I started to say was that the 
most humorous humours we have are the 
home papers with their vivid descrip- 
tions, etc., gleaned by men who never go 
nearer to the front than where the rail 
head is, also the letters from budding 
officers in Canada. For instance, I read 
one the other day where a subaltern in 

, who is in charge of the recruiting of 

some battalion, said he certainly didn't 
think that anything could be so arduous. 
I'll bet if that guy knew how many laughs 
he handed a lot of us out here he'd feel 
qualified to start an act in vaudeville. I'll 
also bet that if half the gang in Canada 
who are breaking their necks to get com- 



102 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

missions, realized the responsibilities en- 
tailed by a Sam Browne belt and two 
stars on their sleeves, they'd not be so 
anxious. It's jake swanking around 
Canada as a Major, but it's different over 
here. One's responsibilities seem enormous, 
and really are, together with just the same 
discomforts and hard work that anyone on 
the front line goes through. Your men, 
while they are men and must not be 
treated as children, depend absolutely on 
you for their very being. You are a sort 
of last resort for everything in their lives, 
from clothes and food to seeing their 
effects go to their people after they are 
gone to the '* Last Parade." You know, 
dear, I sometimes think it's pathetic the 
dependance of these chaps on me, and one 
only really realizes what a King's Com- 
mission means when you get out here. 

I believe they've stopped publishing 
casualties by battalions or are going to, so 
now you'll never know whether we've been 
bumped or not. 

I've not found time to write to anyone 
but you, lately, so you'll have to convey 
my love or regards, as the case may be, 
to everyone. 

Heaps of love. 

Billy. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 103 

'May 13, 1916. 
Dear Mother, 

I have your letters of the i6th, i8th 
and 22nd of April, and altho' I've been 
out of the trenches for five days I've not 
been able to concentrate my thoughts on 
writing. 

We spent eight days of veritable hell in 
a rotten part of the line, in fact the worst 
part I've ever been in. We occupied a 
series of holes, some connected and some 
isolated, ranging in distance from thirty 
to fifteen yards from Fritz's lines. They 
were old German trenches taken some 
time ago, and it is almost impossible to 
do any great amount of work on them. 

Well, as I say, we spent the time in 
them, and I was heartily thankful to get 
out. I went through my first heavy bom- 
bardment at really close range. They 
dumped '' Crumps," Coal Boxes, Shrapnel 
and Whizz Bangs to the number of about 
three hundred all around us for two 
hours and then attacked. Just as night 
overshadowed daylight and objects began 
to grow indistinct, one of my sentries re- 
ported a party out in the front. Suddenly 
from our right, rapid fire and machine 
guns opened up, and so I gave the order 
*' fifteen rounds rapid." Keyed up and 
ready were the boys, and we gave them a 



104 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

few hundred capsules of steel. Squeals, 
grunts, and moans, then the reverberating 
roar of machine guns, and rifle fire ceased. 
So, our first real attack was repulsed. 
Further on, our line suffered more heavily 
but I guess we were fairly lucky. All the 
night they kept at us with bombs, rifle 
grenades and trench mortars to which we 
replied in kind vigorously, but they learned 
their lesson from that taut tense ten 
minutes. No more attacks. 

That is, I suppose, a pretty tame story 
of a bombardment, an attack, its repul- 
sion, but words fail me. The confines of 
expression are not competent to tell you 
much more. IVe refrained from writing, 
hoping that in the interim some inspira- 
tion would come that would adequately 
convey to you a picture. I tried to dissect 
my emotions so that you might visualize, 
partially at least, what a day and a night 
— twenty-four hours in a front-line trench 
mean ; but I have failed dismally. 

To begin with, the nervous strain is 
great, and when one has his heart broken 
in addition, it's hard to limn for another, 
the lines etched on your soul, the im- 
pression registered in your memory. 

My heart was broken, dear, because 
before this bombardment at all I lost 
eighteen men of my own platoon ; eighteen 
of the best and truest fellows IVe ever 



BILLYHS LETTERS 105 

known ; saw five of them die — one in my 
arms — all hit by these devils of Huns — 
hit by snipers who use explosive bullets 
— a bullet that tears a hole as large as a 
tomato can, and if it strikes anything 
hard bursts into three pieces, each the 
size of a quarter, that maims and wounds 
— a bullet that if it hits the head tears off 
the top. 

God ! I wonder if you could even 
imagine the primordial lust of battle that 
courses through one's brain, the desire to 
kill that permeates the muscle, the ex- 
hilaration that comes when you know 
youVe actually hit one of your enemies. 

I can candidly say there was no fear in 
me. 

For months, in fact long ere we left old 
Canada, the fear I had that dominated 
my waking moments was not will I be 
afraid, but will I be able to control my 
fear. I was always afraid I would be 
afraid. Well, after the bombardment 
ceased I wasn't, and even during that two 
hours of mental torture I wasn't afraid, 
just nervous. But when I knew they were 
actually coming, ah ! what exhilaration, 
what primeval bloody thoughts I had ! 
A valiant desire came amid the fight to 
do all the damage I could, and I rushed 
from bay to bay of the sector of trench 
I commanded, exhorting my men to be 



io6 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

steady and cursing them if they weren't, 
here grabbing an extra rifle and blazing 
its magazine full at the indistinct forms, 
or there firing one shot from my revolver. 
No fear, no thought of self ; just the hope 
that we'd beat them off ; just the thought 
constantly of what was best to do, how 
best to preserve every life in my charge — 
every life in my charge that was preserving 
my life. So you see, analyzed and tested 
down, the ancient self-preservation rule 
holds good. 

But the aftermath — the vacuum at the 
stomach — the palpitating heart — the deep 
breaths you needed, that, if you did not 
take, it seemed as if you'd choke, the 
feeling you must sit down — the desire for 
a drink — the insatiable way in which you 
ate up cigarette after cigarette in long 
deep inhales — the hope they would not 
start bombarding again — the cheery voice 
you forced as you walked along a bath 
mat and jokingly curbed your own desire 
to shout by praising the men and belit- 
ting '' the show " ; all these when your 
emotions that had bubbled to the boiling 
point again simmered down. That night 
as I walked along and did my best to 
restore the steadiness of my men, ever 
and anon came those immortal lines of 
Kipling : 



BILLY'S LETTERS 107 

" If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn, long after they are gone 
And so hold on, when there is nothing in you 
Except the Will, which says to them ' Hold on,' " 

recurred again and again, and I offered 
up to the Almighty, He whose name a 
few minutes before I had taken in vain, 
a fervent, silent, little prayer, that I 
should be given the strength of will and 
body to keep it up. 

Then the interminable night with every 
nerve and muscle strained in a long 
*' stand to,'' with the added exertion of 
placing an additional platoon that came 
up as reinforcements, and the cramped, 
numbed feeling as one sat in a narrow 
trench with the intermittent rattle of rifle 
fire, the insistent tattoo of a machine gun, 
or the hazy smoke of flares that ever and 
anon '* swizzed " up here and there, light- 
ing in their ghastly magnesium the faces 
of the men who, cramped and cold, waited 
for they knew not what. All these factors, 
I say, broke the nerve and strained the 
mentality. 

And the wait for dawn. I sat and 
watched the sky star-studded, if ever it 
was, watched Ursus Major, Polaris, The 
Pleiades, Andromeda, a star I thought 
was Saturn, and one I knew was Mars — 
Mars the God we're propitiating over 
here. I watched them and untold millions 



io8 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

more fade into the steel vault that, by 
the alchemy of old Sol, melted into pris- 
cilla grey and imperceptibly changed to 
whity blue, while rimming the East was 
the orange band that I knew some six 
hours later would herald the dawn of day 
to you in dear old Homeland. Then the 
real diurnal '* stand to '' as dawn comes 
up. Every man ready, alert and anxious, 
until bright daylight dispels all fears of 
an attack. 

After that '' stand down " and then 
Rum. Ah, that Rum ! If some of those 
carping criers at home whose protests 
against Tommy getting his tot could sit 
with their feet numbed and chilled by 
eighteen inches of stinking water, could 
sit or stand for twenty-four hours a day 
in a cramped crouch and feel, as I have 
felt, that a chance to stretch their legs and 
arms would be a luxury rivalling the 
dearest wish that heretofore you'd ever 
had ; I say, if some of those people at 
home could do these things, oh how Td 
love to take them for an eight-day tour, 
I feel sure they'd never open their mouths 
again. That mouthful of rum, about a 
half wine-glass, trickles down warming 
and burning, meanwhile restoring in a 
man whose nerves are like the lace on a 
window blind, a little vigour, a further lease 
on life, that in the grey dawn seems cheap 



BILLY'S LETTERS 109 

at best. If they want to do away with 
their own drinks let them, but until they've 
been through the acid test of ninety-six 
hours without much rest, ninety-six hours 
of mental strain and physical exertion, 
mayhap ninety-six hours when every 
stitch of clothing has been wet through, 
please let them keep their hands off the 
question out here. 

After that elixir, ** Stand down ! " when 
only the various sentries are left on duty 
all through the long day, but every man 
cleans his rifle and equipments, and if any 
water is available shaves, washes and tries 
to scrape some of the mud from his 
clothes. And then a breakfast. You who 
at home sit down to a half of a succu- 
lent grape-fruit or a sliced orange, with por- 
ridge and cream (I had almost forgotten 
that word), or a browned and sizzling 
omelet with thin, crisp toast and a cup 
of coffee, will never know what it is to boil 
water over a candle wrapped in sacking. 
The recipe for this is : Fold a piece of 
sacking, preferably dry, if available, around 
one and a half inches of waxed candle, 
place these ingredients wick-end up in an 
empty jam tin, which has been perfor- 
ated with a knife ; on this one places 
his mess -tin full of water and lights the 
candle. Then comes in President Wilson's 
idea, '' A watchful, waiting policy." Mean- 



no A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

while, Fritz is sending notes in the form 
of shrapnel, which, while conciliatory, are 
nevertheless likely to cause a breach in 
your relations with the aforesaid can and 
candle, or even in your anatomy, if you 
are in its way. Well, after youVe watched 
and waited and heaped on more fuel, 
which is obtained by cutting off the 
fat from your meagre slice of bacon, the 
water bubbles and actually boils. Then 
you add a handful of tea and sugar mixed 
by a thoughtful Quartermaster-sergeant, 
and the ambrosia is ready to serve. This 
with the unexpended portion of your extra 
fuel mentioned above, which is crisped in 
the same manner, forms your matutinal 
feast, at least, with the addition of your 
half-loaf of bread which is held in your 
left hand, and eaten as a schoolboy does an 
apple. 

I fear that this epistle grows weary, so 
will start with lots of little things. To 
begin with, I received a parcel of socks, 
candy, coffee and cream cheese from A. S., 
for which I wrote a note, also sent a 

souvenir. I am sending a parcel 

which is for you, two nose caps off German 
shells and a bullet which clipped a piece 
out of my sleeve, afterwards burying itself 
in a good old sandbag. 

Read the bottom of a Grape Nuts. 
Don't waste postage on newspapers and 



BILLY'S LETTERS iii 

don't send anything except cakes, as we 
can buy here, more cheaply than you, 
fruits, etc. Canadian cigarettes always 
acceptable, also handkerchiefs, cheapest 
obtainable, as we lose vast quantities. 

Socks are jake, for if we can't use them 
ourselves we give them to the men. 

Hope this bally " show " will be over in 
a short time. Yours, 

^ Billy. 

P.S. — Later will send story of the poor 
chap who died in my arms. 

B. 

See page 123. 



London. 

August 8, 1916. 
My Dear Mother, 

I am going to try to put on paper, 
my dear, a few of the million pictures that 
are etched in the gallery of my memory. 
The picture Fm trying to pen for you is 
the one which comes to me here in hospital 
as I try to piece together the events lead- 
ing up to the time that I got mine . I realize 
full well how difficult it is to describe 
** the front " to anyone who has never 
seen a trench, and I know if I'm not 
explicit sometimes you'll understand, I'm 



112 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

only doing my best. I fear me it will be 
a poor best at that, for so many, many 
times Fve said that only a Dante could 
describe and Dore paint it. 

To begin with, you must understand 
that our brigade had been relieved at night 
after eight days of very trying times in 
which the Bosche put over about every 
kind of projectile he owns, from Minen- 
werfers or heavy trench mortars, to his 
delectable whizz bangs. He didn't fail 
even to present us with some of his famous 
''Silent Annies,'' a large - calibre shell 
which makes practically no noise till it 
bursts. Well, as I say, we were relieved 
and finally in the grey '' coolth " of dawn 
arrived in billets. 

After some breakfast, we proceeded to 
go to bed, a most welcome thought. Off 
came the sticky clothes that for sixteen 
days — eight spent in reserve — had alter- 
nately been wet through with sweat and 
water, only to dry again ; and after a few 
preliminary scratchings of sides and backs 
and shoulders, we dropped into the pro- 
found sleep that only weary men know 
about on that first morning in billets. 

I don't suppose I'm any bigger coward 
than the average man, but I always felt 
fervently thankful after a tour in the line 
when we arrived in billets. There, while 
not safe from long-range guns, one could 



BILLY'S LETTERS 113 

at least, relax, throw off the harassing 
strain, physical and mental, drop as like 
a cloak the responsibility incurred while 
actually on the firing line. So, I say, I, 
and Fm sure everyone else, was pleased 
with the thought that for some time, 
except for working parties, we were free. 
A '' Thank God that's over ! '' feeling. 

I was awakened by my man about ten 
a.m. — so blessed shave and wash — some 
more breakfast, and then we revelled in 
the thought of a bath. We went from hut 
to hut laughing and jesting, here com- 
paring notes, there condoling with some 
chap who ordered us to '' Get out, I didn't 
get in till 7.30," happy and free, little 
realizing what was going on a scant eight 
miles away. Always, always, there came 
the dull boom of guns, perhaps more 
marked than usual, but we jocularly said 
that the '' morning hate " was a little 
worse, rather pitying the poor devils who 
were getting it. We didn't know whether 
it was the Huns or not, for our guns were 
speaking more than ordinarily. As we 
heard ours, up went that little wish one 
always had that those shells wouldn't be 
'' duds," and the hope they would knock 
some of our dear enemy out. So, as I tell 
you, we passed an hour, when the word 
was brought to be ready to move *' in an 
hour." Every man must pack his kit and 



114 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

not move from his own hut. Gone, of 
course, was the bath. We rather regretted 
that. We felt, I think, rather upset 
because we had looked forward to a rest, 
and I remember cursing the Bosche for 
starting his dirty work so soon. 

Gathered in anxious little groups we 
awaited further word. After a couple of 
hours, we heard some rumoured reports 
that told only too well what we afterwards 
learned. Well, we '* stood to " till some- 
time in the afternoon, I couldn't say 
just the hour for one loses all sense of 
time ; then came the word to " move off.'* 

Once more, with the slow step that is 
used on the road to the front line, we 
started. The first part of the journey was 
easy. Occasionally a lone shrapnel would 
burst on the road, but it was only when we 
got up into the area where the " heavies *' 
were that we felt the force of the bom- 
bardment. Steadily we marched in the 
bright afternoon sun, here and there halt- 
ing ; at this corner turning off the main 
road into a by-way because the Germans 
were '' searching " the road, until just at 
twilight tide we arrived, by devious by- 
paths, outside *' Wipers." 

The order was passed '* no lights, no 
smoking, no noise." The last injunction 
was entirely superfluous, for between the 
shriek and boom of our shells, also theirs, 



BILLY'S LETTERS 115 

coupled with the rumble of the artillery 
limbers that galloped up with more '* iron 
rations/' one could scarce be heard. Here 
we sat or sprawled in the dewy grass 
awaiting orders. Just as twilight faded 
into night, amid the roar of an excep- 
tional burst of artillery, the sky lighted up 
by what seemed millions of '' flares." The 
whole place was bathed in the ghastly 
magnesium white they cast about, the 
scene here and there being punctuated by 
a red or green rocket. It was indeed, I 
can assure you, one of the prettiest sights 
I've ever witnessed. The average pyro- 
technic display pales considerably in com- 
parison. This arc of light was continuous 
for some few minutes, mingled with the 
lurid yellow-red burst of shrapnel. The 
colour of shrapnel bursting at night is 
hard to liken ; it resembles more than 
anything a deep tiger lily which bloomed 
for an infinitesimal space, then melted into 
black oblivion. 

So, as I say, we waited, as good soldiers 
always do, for orders. There wasn't much 
talking, in fact, I imagine that everyone 
was rather too busy with thoughts of 
Home. Somehow in the veriest thick of 
things, there's usually a thought of Home 
creeps into your mind. However, here 
and there a jest or a laugh came out. One 
man as I passed said to his mate — '' Write 



ii6 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

to her." Some " her " who I suppose 
would have been thrice as excited as he, 
had she known. Occasionally, as a shell 
burst somewhere near, the inevitable ques- 
tion, '' Where did that one go ? " came 
out ; but conversation was at a premium. 
Just at the night of nights, an hour 
before dawn, came the word to advance, 
and in extended order across shell-swept 
ground we started over an area pitted and 
potted by shells, with here a clump of 
scarred trees, or there a few gaunt stones, 
the remnant of a building. Everything 
is patterned in the Army by the Guards. 
To do things as they do is the aim of 
everyone, and while IVe never seen them 
make an attack, I have walked along the 
same road under heavy shelling. There- 
fore I admire them. Albeit, I question 
if ever the Guards went forward more 
vaUantly than did those civilian soldiery 
of ours. The Guards' line may perhaps 
have been straighter, but it could waver 
no less. The psychology of a soldier in 
the brief moments of an attack or counter- 
attack, is something beyond my ken. 
In retrospect, I come on the thought I 
had as I saw that line move forward : that 
line of my men, the men whom I worked 
over during months of training, the men, 
who with me, had laughed and laboured, 
cried and cursed for many moons, slowly 



BILLY'S LETTERS 117 

advancing to we knew not what. A 
picture of a green sward in Canada months 
before came back, and I recollected my 
exhortations on keeping a line and steady 
pace. I conjured up also the visions of 
thousands in training who sweep over 
grassy slopes not cut by shell fire or 
devastated by warfare. I only tell you 
this to show the queer kinks in my brain. 

On we went in the grey of the early 
morning, past verdant stretches of fields, 
rank with ungarnered crops, which were 
besprinkled with scarlet poppies. We 
clambered through hedgerows of haw- 
thorn in bloom, the smell of which mingled 
with the sweet sickly odour of " lachry- 
mators " or tear shells. We dodged shell 
holes or climbed in and over the remains 
of trenches, all the while drawing nearer, 
nearer the ceaseless rattle of musketry, 
the rhythmic rip of machine guns. 

The order to fix bayonets passed along : 
this done, the clicking of bolts, to ensure 
that every magazine had its quota of 
cartridges, sounded. Over a little rise we 
came ; just ahead was a line of lurid 
light and noise. Now, night was going 
and against the sky we showed up quite 
plainly, a long thin line of silhouettes, 
the lighter fawn of the bombers' aprons, 
each pocket bulging with its lemon-shaped 
grenade, distinctive from the others. So 



ii8 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

on toward the line of lurid light and noise 
we walked. They don't run nowadays ; 
gone is the glory of the charge with its 
huzzas and flashing swords ; it's slow and 
steady does it. 

This doesn't take long to write but it 
was composed of minutes, each age-long ; 
and looking at it now, I wonder how I, 
or anyone, got so far amid the pande- 
monium of bursting shells, siffling bullets 
and detonating bombs. 

From somewhere, one of our officers 
rushed up and ordered me to retire to 
a certain spot about a half-mile, as they, 
I mean higher command, had decided 
to postpone the counter-attack. Accord- 
ingly, back we started. Daylight with 
its turquoise sky had come and as we 
plodded back the Germans saw the 
irregular line. If before, we thought the 
bombardment heavy now it was ten- 
fold, a tearing, roaring inferno as the Hun 
*' searched and bracketed " the entire area 
in which our lines were. Shrapnel, whizz 
bangs, high explosives, hurtled and burst 
in nerve-shattering salvos. Everyone was 
mixed up, some men of another company 
with ours, also men of another battalion. 
We walked steadily on, until, the barrage 
becoming too hot, the order was given to 
take cover. Some few of us managed to 
crouch behind a hedgerow where, once a 



BILLY'S LETTERS 119 

trench, was now a shambles. Here for the 
first time the really hell of the war came 
to me. That trench, or what was left of it, 
was congested with dead and dying. Men 
crawled along, over dead bodies distorted 
beyond only the ken of one who has been 
there. We lifted wounded men a little 
to one side while from each turn of the 
trench came the heartrending, throaty 
sob of dying. Ghastly ! well, I don't 
suppose there's a word been coined in 
English to describe it. Meanwhile, shrapnel 
rained on its horrible hail, high explo- 
sive lifted sandbag and bodies house-high. 
Everywhere men lay half-buried, gasping. 
Some, reason fled, climbed out only to be 
struck down a few yards away. And all 
this, kept up for what seemed aeons, but 
really was only about three hours. One 
chap, since dead, said to me, '* I thought 
these devils were running short of shells. 
Well, rd like to let some of those people 
at home feel this." Feel is the right word, 
for you '' feel " a heavy bombardment. 
I care not how brave a man is, I say it 
reduces him to the consistency of a jelly 
fish. For after all, life is sweet and when 
one is a fraction of a second from the grave, 
he starts to ponder. Howbeit, the fire 
abated and we gathered together what 
few men we could. What regiment 
mattered not. Messengers were sent to 



120 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

report to the Colonel as to our position. 
There were just three officers left of the 
company, so we held a council of war, and 
endeavoured to see to the wounded, send- 
ing out those slightly hurt, then sat down 
to wait. 

Oh ! What waiting it was ! Expectantly, 
nervously, sitting while the time dragged 
on. After an hour or two had elapsed, 
one of the '' runners '' we had sent crawled 
back to say that the Colonel had been 
killed, he could find no other officers, and 
would we get him a drink — all in a breath. 
He was just a boy, eighteen I think, and 
the strain was too much for him. He was 
completely unstrung, for, after a while, he 
laughed rather hysterically and babbled 
incoherently. Suddenly he jumped up, 
climbed into the open, his sole thought to 
get away ; but there, a scant hundred 
yards, we saw him fall. He had found 
quiet and peace all right. After a time 
one of the boys crawled out to find him 
dead. 

Gradually, as the morning wore on, 
limping or crawling men came up to 
report themselves. Men of other units, 
men of our own, and one poor chap, quite 
insane, who insisted that one of the 
officers was his brother. Up above, aero- 
planes purred, as, glinting in the sunlight, 
they kept off the enemy machines, whose 



BILLYHS LETTERS 121 

object would have been to discover the 
position of ourselves and other reinforce- 
ments. I sat and looked at a little tri- 
angular lake shimmering in the distance, 
and longed for some fish. I recollect 
resolving that when I got leave, the first 
meal in England would be fish. Look- 
ing back, I cannot remember that I ever 
doubted I would get leave, the idea never 
struck me that I might go on " The Long 
Leave.'' So is the human brain consti- 
tuted. 

Regularly, at intervals all morning, the 
area was shelled by the Germans. Start- 
ing in one place they systematically 
blasted almost every square yard of the 
ground, and each time seemed to be worse 
than the former ones ; tho' God knows 
any one was a cataclysm. 

The day wore on. In mid-afternoon 

came word to proceed to there to 

counter-attack a certain part of the line. 
We gathered together the men, some 
eighty that were immediately at hand, 
and started off. It was a trip practically 
in the open as any trenches had been so 
battered as to be useless. From every 
direction came long files of men, all 
centralizing along a given line. I can't 
remember the exact time the thing was 
planned for, but we started off. Of course 
so did the artillery. Ours opened up, and 



122 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

if we got unutterable hell before so did 
the Germans now. However, they still 
had some ammunition, and the shells 
burst there — and there — and there — and 
then 

A drink of water ; 

A scarlet cross fronting a vision in blue 
and white ; 

Cool deft hands ; 

White sheets ; 

The throb of a motor ; 

The swirl of water ; 

The tiny toot of an English engine ; 

Another motor ; 

A bunch of roses mixed up with eye- 
glasses and perfume ; 

A white handkerchief ; 

A few jolts ; 

A bed ; 

Familiar street noises with the dawning 
realization of a hospital in Blighty, dear 
old London at last. 

That's the best way I can tell you. Fm 
enclosing a couple of pictures of the Red 
House. Will write again this week. 

Yours, 

Billy. 



BILLY'S LETTERS 123 



MORITURUS TE SALUTAT 

McCarthy was his name. On his attesta- 
tion paper was the statement that he 
was a chef, and in the C. E. F. he was 
usually to be found in the cook house. 
The chef of even a second-rate hotel 
would have blushed had one linked his 
name with Mac's, for I presume that he, 
McCarthy, in his entire life had never 
handled '' hors d'ceuvre varies," or that 
*' boeuf froid '' suggested to him anything 
but a joint of red and yellow roasted 
yesterday. No, Mac knew nothing of table 
d'hote meals or French pastry. His cook- 
ing was of the kind known as Mulligan, 
and a rattling good Mulligan he made. 
I've stood and watched him many a day 
last summer, as under the canvas cook 
house of a camp in Canada, he diced 
onions with a butcher knife, nonchalantly 
stirring boiling rice with the same knife 
— a perfunctory wipe on an erstwhile white 
apron being as it were the '* entr'acte." 
In fact, Mac's culinary abilities had been 
fostered in camps not military, but lumber- 
ing and construction. His was an art 
that could set a pot of beans to soak 
yesterday, and to-night, for 200 men, 



124 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

turn out a dish of '' pork and " so tempt- 
ing that I was often wont to ask for a 
plate of them myself. He also turned 
out porridge in such quantities as to 
stagger one who had never watched a 
hungry hundred, fresh from one hour's 
physical line up for their morning feast. 
What boots it if there were lumps or 
if perhaps one ^ got a small ladleful that 
could have stood another quarter -hour 
cooking ; it filled up that insatiable maw 
of a man in training. 

Such a cook was McCarthy, but he 
shone in another sphere with even greater 
briUiance than that of the cook house. 
That was as a comedian. 

His assets were cooking and comedy, 
and when Generals and things came round 
to '^ suspect " our battalion, all ranks 
being on parade, these attributes did not 
redound particularly to the glory of the 
pageant. For McCarthy never learned 
to '' present '' a Ross Mark HI in three 
motions. Whether he carried his comedy 
on to the parade ground of Generals, or 
whether it was because his hands were 
more adept with a chef's knife than a 
rifle. 111 not judge ; but his '' present," 
done in manner similar to the way he 
stirred the rice, always spoiled the effect, 
and Fve often cursed him to myself when 
hearing a movement behind me after all 



BILLY'S LETTERS 125 

was quiet, knew McCarthy to be still 
'' presenting arms/' 

However, forgotten were these little 
faults when, just after reveille on orderly 
dog duty, one walked into the kitchens 
and McCarthy was the first to say — 
'* Good morning, Sir ; it's a trifle cold this 
morning. Will you have a cup of coffee ? " 
I can't say about the other chaps, but 
I always did, and as one overlooked the 
kitchens, inquiring from the Sergeant 
cook if things were under way or the 
rations all right, McCarthy usually pro- 
duced a crisp, hot-buttered slice of brown 
toast. So, for these, we forgave those. 

But as I say, far above his cooking was 
his comedy. A master in the art of 
repartee of his kind, he never failed to 
have a jest ready when the chance came ; 
or if the Y.M.C.A. man got up a concert, 
McCarthy was sure to be there, either 
headlining or as an added attraction. His 
was the comedy that on the fields of 
Flanders '' bucks up " a whole company, 
nay a battalion, as some merry quip just 
made is laughingly told from bay to 
bay, so that in the midst of shelling a 
laugh infectious and hearty rings as a 
tocsin. 

I couldn't tell you all the merry words 
he uttered — all the good-natured banter 
he gave between the day he 'listed and the 



126 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

day he died. And that reminds me, I 
must to my muttons. 

It was just at '* stand down '* one morn- 
ing last May — a beautiful morn it was I 
remember. The grass was green and the 
shrapnel-scarred trees were trying to burst 
out into a few sparse leaves. A haw- 
thorn bush or two just to the rear of 
the trench was white with bloom, as 
Maeterlinck says '' Yielding up its soul 
in perfume " distinctly noticeable even 
among the varied smells of the trench. In 
the distance, over from the Bosche 
trenches, one heard the plaintive triple 
cry of a cuckoo, that hoohoo, hoohoo, hoo- 
hooed every morning. Here and there a 
swallow flitted and dove in the first smile 
of old Sol rimming the tree-tops to the 
east, and all was still as still as that first 
hour of dawn on the Front can be, some- 
times. 

I remember it well and thought how 
ominous it was, and as I walked with a 
once full rum jar along bay and traverse, 
I pondered upon the stillness. I came to 
the bay where McCarthy was on duty. 
Alone he stood, lazily cleaning his rifle, 
meanwhile watching a mess-tin of water 
heating over a candle. He looked at the 
rum jar and laughingly asked if he couldn't 
have his ration, knowing full well that 
I knew he'd had it ; when with a dull 



BILLY'S LETTERS 127 

boom from the east came the herald 
announcing the morning hate. I passed on, 
was in the traverse, when, hearing the 
sough of a shell, I turned. There stood 
McCarthy, rifle in hand, face turned to 
the azure above and in his loudest tones 
addressed the screaming shell with '* Good 
morning, Fritz." 

I heard him say it as plainly, as at the 
same instant I heard it burst almost 
directly overhead. Its pall of black smoke 
hovered there, while its rain of death 
descended with the peculiar indescrib- 
able whine of shrapnel. It caromed off 
my tin hat, it smashed the rum charge in 
my hand, it ripped sandbag and tore 
corrugated iron, but, as they say, *' It 
didn't have my number on it." One of 
the freaks of shell fire. It left me, but 
took McCarthy. 

I turned and saw him slowly sink 
clutching at his tunic. I sent an inquir- 
ing individual, whose head popped out 
of a dugout close by, for the stretcher- 
bearer, and with a man who came moved 
McCarthy to another bay. There he lay 
as I cut off his tunic, his shirt, only to 
find his breast and shoulders peppered as 
a colander. Just over his heart was a 
huge ragged hole, from which the red 
arterial blood pulsed slowly in great jets. 
He was gone — I knew that — but I forced 



128 A CANADIAN SUBALTERN 

a quarter grain of morphia between the 
blood-flecked Hps. 

The stretcher-bearers came, but Mc- 
Carthy needed no shell dressings, no iodine 
capsule. The ashy grey of his face, the 
wild stare of his eye, the convulsive clutch 
of his hand betokened that the strange 
metamorphosis known as Death was 
silently creeping nigh. 

I gave him a cup of water. As I lowered 
his head a wan smile lit his countenance 
and he weakly said — '' Do you remember. 
Sir, the night you said ' Gunga Din ' ? 
Well, that's how the water tastes." And 
then to some of the boys who had gathered, 
he turned, '' No more Mulligan, boys.'' 
And with the same smile to me, '' It's 
funny. Sir, how I spoke to that shell. It 
ain't often one calls their own number." 

Which was how McCarthy, cook-come- 
dian, in his own way, said 

Moriturus Te Salutat. 



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