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Date: January 11th 1917
Beulah Bahnsen (wife)
Ralph Watson

11 January, ’17.

My Ownest Lal, —

Both mail and parcels come regularly now, though of course many letters have gone astray, particularly those you must have sent immediately after I left Boulogne. It’s too bad. I wanted them particularly, but though I now know your views, my mind is more at ease. I depend so much on you and value your opinion so highly. Yes, I got the parcel. The cap will be most useful, particularly on night working parties. The steel helmet is rather heavy and clumsy, and you will have seen in photographs that the boys almost always wear something of this sort under it. We get a thing issued; but it’s a cheap affair, and not much good. I’ll have to cut holes at the sides for my ears. You need to keep them uncovered. The socks are fine, but still too good. I want cheap ones, also only send one pair at a time.

Who told you “Imperial” tobacco was good? Good! I’d always sooner have tobacco than cigarettes. We get an issue; but it’s not always regular, nor good.

The steel mirror was particularly appropriate and welcome. Of course they are the only kind. I have one already, but it’s a small one and had lost a lot of its polish; they do in the damp and wet. Glass ones are no good at all, as your pack is your seat in the day time and your pillow at night. Gloves we get issued. Maybe they last a week, at most; and you have an awful time getting another pair. My issued ones were all holes, so yours came just at the right moment. The best kind are those strong Canadian leather ones that workmen wear in Canada and the States. In England or France, there is nothing like them. When you are on barbed wire work, you get the loan of a pair of specially made canvas things. Excellent they are; but you have to turn them in again, when the job is done. The boys try to swipe ’em, but are not often successful.

Your letters are different now. They mean more to me. Of course, they are not the same letters you wrote to Boulogne at all. I like them much better. But you always do seem to do the right thing at the right time. I am so afraid you will think mine lacking in heart, but they are not; they were never so full of it, if you can understand. Somehow it’s impossible to write of our homey heart-to-heart things. This life is too big. The time may be too short. You are my comrade; my pal; you are here with me in spirit. The small things must wait. I look on you as living through life with me actually. And if you were here, we would not have the time or inclination to talk of the little things which are really the big things. We should mutually agree to let them wait.

You can be assured that, when the time comes, I shall not be behind in keeping up the standard you would wish. It is your standard that I shall be acting up to, the one you set. Whatever happens, you must always remember that you are with me every minute; that it will be more you than me that will do the things I do, that I shall always think first — What would Lal do? — and do it.

The whole division is moving — not “in”, but “out.” We shall have a “rest.” (Good word that — The Army must laugh in its sleeve when they call it that. When the division is out for a rest, it’s the hardest time they have: drills, parades — endless fatigues.)

I am great friends now with the Madame who owns our wash-house home. Sometimes she asks B. and me in for a cup of coffee, and we give her part of our parcels for the pickaninnies, as they call the children here. Across the street is an old, old woman who I call my grandmѐre. She calls me “Poppa”, and comes in to see us sometimes. She is a great old scout, wears the familiar sabots. She has a face like an old, old apple. A man who is married for some reason stands ace high with her. When you go to see her, you must sit with her and be right at home. B. is the gentil Caporal to her; she likes him, too. She has a high, shrill voice you can hear three blocks away; and a heart of gold. When the old French Madames are good, they are very, very good; but when they are bad, they are just shrews. Of course, there are no men, only those who work in the mines, and some very old men. In one sector of the front, the French lost seventy thousand men in one battle, in the early days of the war; but we shall regain that ground, this year, and much more. We have the guns now.

To give you an insight into the “every dayness” the “so-used-to-it” feeling of things held by the civilians here: the other day, old Madame’s niece, who is married and whose husband is in the “Transhays”, came home at noon, an unusual thing. She works in a laundry. B. says, “Hello, a holiday today, eh?” or words to that effect.

The girl says, quite unmoved, “But no, Monsieur. The Bosche, he threw over one big bomm bomm. It fell in the laundry yard, and the monsieur he say, ‘You all go home today.’”

Imagine the concern if the Bosche threw one little high explosive shell into the yard of the laundry at Ottawa!

We are worrying Fritz night and day here now. He is never allowed a rest. The scream of the “big heavies” passing over is with us most all the time, and the little eighteen pounders closer up are always at it. We have him beat, and so careful is he of his ammunition, or disclosing a battery, that he seldom replies. He does sometimes, though. I guess he gets exasperated, and feels he has to.

These are great adventures, the great one for many; but they don’t get the limelight. We are close enough up to the line for us to see things in our wash house when they are up. A big raid is usually about two hundred men. They creep over with blackened faces, mostly on their tummies, with fixed bayonets, bombers in the lead. Immediately before this comes off, usually for two minutes or so, the artillery puts up a bombardment, the like of which you cannot imagine. This is to clear Fritz’s men. If this is not done completely, the boys must come back — some of ’em. These raids serve several purposes. We find out just what Fritz is doing in the trenches, destroy machine gun emplacements, but, main thing, bring back prisoners. From them the Intelligence Staff, which by the way is wonderful, find out what regiments are “in”, who is holding that particular bit of line, and many, many other things.

We control No Man’s Land from La Bassee to the Somme — something to say. Fritz’s raids are only a joke; his attacking days are over, anyway. You will note how almost absurdly confident I am. I am using my own intelligence; these ideas I have not got from others. We are top dog — every one knows it. Thousands and thousands will make the great sacrifice, of course. It will not be easy; but the game’s now ours. We only await the word. We have everything, men, guns, everything, and the winning spirit. No one is crazily elated. It’s a job of work to be done calmly and quietly; and it will be done. And then we’ll come home.

Recently our bunch have provided the Prison Guard — that is, the German prisoners. In the morning, you go down, stick five rounds in your magazine, fix your bayonet, and take a couple or so hundred prisoners out to work. You go in motor lorries, about forty to a truck and two guards. The bayonet-fixing is a matter of form and a joke; one couldn’t drive Fritzie to escape with a club. About seven miles out are some stone quarries, and they break big stones into little ones for the road. Taking them in the bunch, they are a poor-looking lot — Somme prisoners chiefly. I was rather interested in the job, as I like to talk to them, hear their point of view, etc. They wear the uniform they were taken in, for the most part. Some wear an old Canadian cap; most wear puttees they have made for themselves out of sandbags. Those with no overcoats carry an English issue rubber sheet, same as ours. All carry gas masks. Guess they know their value. Their food is the same as ours. They work just as little as they can get away with, and laugh and talk and smoke to their heart’s content. “For me the war is finished” is their tune.

Part of the day I was on, I was taking small parties of my own to different jobs. On one occasion a man said to me, —

“Are you the man who is taking us to fetch that lumber?”

Lumber!” says I. “I guess you learnt that word in America.”

“Sure, I’m from New Haven, Conn.”

A good-natured, merry little man, it appeared he was on a trip home to Germany in 1914 when they grabbed him for the army — very much to his disgust. I guess he saw to it he was captured; the Canucks took him at Courcelotte. I asked him about the war. His remarks are unwritable — but — he’d like to see Kaiser Bill in the trenches.

Of course he doesn’t work; he is invaluable as an interpreter. He was quite happy, very fat, merry and contented. And — I rather gathered he held his “Kamerads” in contempt; he was “American.”

Others I talked to, who had a little English, told me Bapaume and Peronne were untakable; that the war would finish in three weeks. All agreed that, but for England finding the money, the war would have been over long ago, with victory to the Allemagne. But victory is already theirs — no doubt of it. The little tubby man from New Haven, though, was silent.

Write and tell me of everything — the little things — and often. What Billie says. What you say. What you do. And what you think. Everything. You are my life.

Original Scans

Original Scans