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Date: January 5th 1917
Beulah Bahnsen (wife)
Ralph Watson

5 January, ’17.

My Ownest Lal: —

Mail is beginning to come with regularity, and I am tickled to death, of course. I keep getting some from the Hospital, which is out of date to say the least; but most of it is right bang news, cheery and optimistic, breathing of hope and above all telling me you and Billikins both are, as we say here, “Jake” — in other words, fine. Those are the kind of letters I love to have, and I feel better for having read ’em right away.

Today all sorts of “domestic” happenings seem to be around our little home. To begin with, our orderly Cpl. has gone up the line on a draft, and B. has got his job. That makes our room the Post Office, nice for getting your mail tout suit, but a nuisance, somewhat, owing to so many callers. W. marches in, this afternoon, with the green slip which is more precious than rubies, the most valued thing a soldier ever gets in France — a leave ticket — for ten days they are now, too. His mother is over from New York on a trip to London. He’s been here twenty-three months in France without a day’s leave, and maybe he isn’t tickled. (It almost looks as if I might get mine after all.) The shack is all in a flurry with him packing up. You have to go with full kit, minus ammunition. It’s a darn shame we should have to wait so long, when base fellows, and officers, can go over so often; but of course the Infantry, indeed, any of us up the line, take all the dirt of everything, from grub to work.

And now you may wonder how I happen to be “at home” in the afternoon. Well, a fellow out on a working party fell to pieces and went insane. They took him to the field Hospital, and I am one of his guards till they’ve finished “observing” him (I hope it takes six months). They, of course, consider the possibility that he may be pulling one big “swinging the lead” stunt; some darned queer things have been done here to get back to Blighty or Canada. I do twenty-four hours, and same off, with another fellow; it’s a cinch. The Fld. Amb. is, at least the headquarters are, in rather a nice chateau — what’s left of it. I told you about it once before. The jay is in one of the rooms upstairs which has been turned into a ward and by a coincidence is presided over by a Med. Student, one time of No. 3 down at Boulogne. It’s a fine big room with three large long French windows overlooking the grounds; the wall paper is modern and rather pretty; the beds consist of stretchers on low trestles; there are, of course, none of the refinements of a base hospital, no sheets or anything like that; if any one is wounded in the trenches, he goes to the advanced dressing station. . . .

I was going on, when some one remarked “That must be one of Fritz’s.” No one bothered to get up to look out of the window even. Later, a fellow casually remarked that “Fritz had put a few here this morning and one had dropped on the coal pile near the billets.” Not the slightest interest is taken. Remarkable, isn’t it?

I am sometimes amused when you mention the fellows who you know in khaki and things about the two hundred-and-umpty something battalion. The first thing those fellows think about when they get as far up as this is to get rid of those nice pretty badges, and pick up the ones of the battalion they reinforce. We think they took their patriotism rather late, you know; don’t you? Certainly, I never want any fit man of military age, who didn’t go to France during this time, to come near our home; and I guess he won’t — twice —

Your remark about the returned men being somewhat “difficile” is exactly what I expected — and it will get worse. There are two sides to the question of the boys, in my idea. One is that they don’t want a lot of fussy people patronizing them. All they want is what is coming to them and to be left alone. The other is, of course, that a very large number will undoubtedly trade on the fact that they went to France for their country’s sake — whether they did or did not they’ll think they did, and try to bum around till doomsday. What it will be like when all return, I don’t know; but I expect, if any one thinks they are going to mother him in a patronizing way, they’ll be dead out of luck, and will of course blame the poor Tommy for what is due to their own lack of tact. There are going to be some rude awakenings on both sides, I guess. The English people take the thing better and more sensibly, because they all realize it more, have given more and lost more.

The Returned Soldiers’ Association sounds alright. But, as you say, it will have to be free of all interference. Personally, I don’t give a hang for anything of that kind. All I want is to get to Canada, and they can keep all that’s coming to me. I’ll gladly say I never was even over here. All I want is to get there — and to be home with you. . . .

Of course, S. wanted to come to France. Personally, now that I have been up here and seen what it’s like, I don’t see any reason for fearing anything should happen to him beyond the ordinary risks. He would not be intrusted with a ’phone or wire job on the front line, but would be given some base, or advance base job, practically bomb proof. Certainly it would be ten thousand times better for him in every way to be up here than in Shorncliffe. You are kept busy here. The work is taken more or less seriously, which it certainly is not at Shorncliffe. The wildest forms of amusement are sitting in a French estaminet drinking their wine — quite harmless — or so-called English beer — more harmless still — in the company of the old woman inn keeper and her family. Women are taboo, I suppose by the French Military authorities. Whichever way you figure it, this would be the best place for him. Moreover, I don’t see why he shouldn’t take his chance with the rest. I thought differently about it at Havre, I know; but I’ve changed my mind.

However, I don’t suppose he’ll be allowed to come. Two kids out of our battalion were sent back, as too young to fight, recently. The humour of the thing lies in the fact that both wore gold wound stripes got at the Somme — kind of late to decide that they were unfit. But the boys worried a lot, you can bet; they were just tickled to death.

When I think of how quiet things were here when we first came, and the situation now, it makes me — wonder. Of course, there was always a bombardment — of sorts. But not the kind that keeps the light flickering in the sky at night, all the time; nor did any of the guns let out a roar which shook the ground. Now — well — things are altering. . . .

Fritz came over in one of his “planes”, the other night, and dropped a few — He must be getting quite bold again.

Every fine night, our planes go over to drop bombs on his billet, and picture shows, etc. Next day, weather permitting, they calmly go over and take a photograph of the damage. Our air service is simply magnificent and must undoubtedly be a great discouragement to poor Heinie. We took his punishment for two years; now it is his turn. You’ll notice I don’t say much about going “down there” now. I think our business will be elsewhere. Also, I think we Canadians as usual will be right there — probably for the Anzacs to get the glory. To get the true light on them, you have to ask an Imperial’s opinion. He gives it in no uncertain words — “no bon.” Every town in England swarms with them on leave, where our fellows cannot get it on a bet. Out here, taking your objective is easy; holding, after Fritz loosens up his artillery, is what counts. History will show. We took and held; Australia took alright, but did not hold. . . .          

A thing I forgot to mention amongst the things I would like you to put in your parcels are candles — the thick kind, if possible. Whether in billets or tents or dugouts, you don’t get them — at least we don’t — issued, and there is no other light. The French shops charge twopence half-penny each for only a small one, and a dollar fifty a week doesn’t go far enough. In the line, the boys get an old jam tin, cut up a candle in small pieces; put a layer on the bottom, then a piece of sand-bag, then another layer of candle, and so on as far as it will go; and you have a thing which you can fry bacon or boil a mess tin on. Some stove, eh? But quite effective.

You ask me if the socks you sent were jake. You bet they were; but too good. Very common — very thick ones are the only thing, so that you can throw them away. Weight is all that matters in your kit. My shaving kit, a comb, a few pairs of socks (most important of all), photographs and letters, two pipes, a pencil and cigarette case are all I own in the world. I am busting with health — glad to be here in every way, far more contented than at Boulogne — and sure of victory, Positive of it, this year.

Next Day.

My nice soft job has gone back on me. The guy was proved “dippy”, and the fellow who was guarding while I was off has taken him down the line.

There is no doubt the fellow is crazy. He thought he was going to be shot for cowardice. I think he was afraid of being afraid, till it got him—only a young fellow. The first night I was with him, he bothered me all the time to let him go out and dig his grave. It’s not uncommon for fellows to go crazy in the front line. . . .

Today I watched miles — literally — of guns and men on the move. In Canada or England, it would draw people from a hundred miles to see; but here it’s so matter of course that even the French civilians don’t bother to turn their heads. The thing that impressed me most was that the men went about it all just as they would in ordinary every-day life. The gun drivers just went on like ordinary teamsters — and so on, all down the line. The whole thing is just a job of work. You get so used to the thing that nothing whatever seems to surprise you. . . .

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