“…practically impossible to get soap at any price…”
Bonn, Germany, Jan. 4, 1919
Dear, Lottie, Walt and Helen,
Compliments of the season.
The season will be pretty well advanced before you get this, so you’ll have to date it back.
I received the “family letter,” day before Christmas, just in time to put me in a pleasant mood for the day and I needed cheering up too…
First I must try and thank you for the swell Christmas parcel which just arrived yesterday, a little overdue but none the less welcome and appreciated.
…The box was in fine condition, nothing broken or harmed…
I had a little “Christmas tree” all by myself in unpacking, untying ribbons and reading the cards on each parcel. I could just picture you packing it and the excitement of Helen at having a hand in it. Thank God we have prospects of being home for the next one and I hope there’ll be no occasion to pack boxes for France.
The first thing I did…was have a feed, after which I lit a cigar and strutted around “a la Pierport Morgan,” tantalizing all the boys with the smoke. I had a lot of friends at moment but I didn’t fall for any of it. Getting to be an “old soldier” now.
I feel perfectly safe in letting Walt choose my cigars… Many thanks “Old Man.” Believe me the butts are charred small when I’m through with them.
I sometimes forget Helen’s share in it and the soap “teddy bear”… Gee, I laughed when I pulled that out and would you believe it, at this time that teddy bear is one of the most invaluable articles… It’s practically impossible to get soap here at any price. The German soap is fierce …you need a fortune to buy it. As for American or English soap, there’s none at all. I saw several cakes of American toilet soap in Belgium such as you’d pay about ten cents for. They were marked seven and eight francs and soon whipped up at that price. You could almost buy a German’s soul for a cake of soap or bar of chocolate.
…unlike last Christmas this is the first cake of soap in any of my parcels. So the catastrophe has been averted and I may come home with a clean face yet.
Our Christmas this year was as near to a complete failure as possible and there was certainly a great deal of grousing.
Firstly, our mail was held up somewhere and very few letters or parcels got through in time. I was one of the fortunate and got two or three letters on the 24th.
Secondly, we had been promised and looking forward to a fine Christmas dinner in Germany…turkey, plum pudding, fruit, nuts, “booze” and everything that goes to provide a lay-out. Well, for some reason not yet explained, all this stuff failed to arrive and our actual Christmas dinner consisted of tea and bread and butter whilst supper was made up principally of bully beef. Even our regular rations failed to arrive. Guess all the transport down the line were celebrating.
To help matters along, our only pay-parade in weeks, which was billed for the 24th, had to be cancelled on account of a ceremonial march across the Rhine to escort our colors over. Most of the men didn’t have the price of a glass of beer and I think it’s just as well they didn’t or there would surely have been trouble.
Everyone was heartily damned from the Corps Commander down to the sanitary corporal and this is the way we spent Christmas Day.
…I presume you’ve been wondering what we’ve been doing since I wrote you last…we were back around Mons at that time, just after the armistice started.
We were around that vicinity about two weeks during which time I had a pretty good look around…quite an agreeable change after the French and Belgian villages…which are nothing now but heaps of debris.
Finally, we started on our march to Germany and Lord help me I hope we don’t have to walk back or I’m afraid I’ll never see Canada.
We marched in stages of six to fifteen miles per day, billeting in villages overnight. Every three or four days we would halt for 24 hours rest and then on again.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had left the blooming Rhine where it had always been but I’m sure they moved it at least 200 miles inland for our especial benefit.
We started the march Nov. 18th at Mons.
On Dec. 4th (getting pretty close to the frontier by this time) we started to climb and continued to climb for miles. When we eventually reached level ground again we were told that we were on the northern end of the Alps mountains and the highest point in Belgium, about 2,500 feet above sea level.
The change in the air was very apparent as was the temperature. The air was so thin that we couldn’t walk twenty paces playing without puffing like an overloaded engine.
Next day we started downhill and about halfway down the air was thicker and the feeling of fatigue passed. I don’t know how those people live up there. Not for me. We were right up in the clouds and I’ll bet those people don’t see half a dozen sunny days in a year.
Dec. 6th we crossed the frontier into Germany, 11:23 a.m. There was nothing to mark the frontier excepting a stone something like the mile posts they use in this country.
However, we passed this bally stone blowing our heads off at “O Canada” and with our chests stuck out until they nearly touched the fellow in front. My tunic got such a stretching that day that it hasn’t fitted me properly since.
…I didn’t think too much of Germany for the first two or three day’s march. We had been marching for a couple of weeks over roads on which the mud was ankle deep and it was even worse after we crossed the frontier.
The people in those villages were almost scared to death and if we spoke to them or asked for something they’d hop around as though you’d stuck a pin or bayonet into them.
As we got further inland the roads became better, the villages became towns, and we began to see that this has been a pretty up-to-date country. Eventually we arrived within a day’s march of the Rhine and preparations were made to cross in state. Everything was shined “up to the handle,” and our best Sunday face was to be worn. The day dawned, Dec. 13th, and it was raining torrents. It was very encouraging after spending half the night cleaning up.
On the west bank of the river, just where we crossed, is the city of Bonn. As we entered the outskirts of this city the battalion was halted and bayonets fixed. Thus we proceeded through the town and across the big bridge of which I will enclose a view.
At the eastern end of the bridge, a large platform had been erected and covered with flags of the Allies. On this was our own dear Gen. (Arthur) Currie and his staff, as well as a grand display of reporters, movie men, etc.
Our battalion had the distinction of leading the Canadian troops in the crossing and old “Arthur” was standing there in the rain from 9:45 a.m. (the time we passed him) until the end of the column passed him, about 4 p.m…
It was a fine night though with the wet bayonets glistening, every man in step and every arm swinging as though attached to a large rod.
We marched about seven miles east of the Rhine and went into billets.
Our boots were in fearful shape, a great number of the men being crippled from the thin soles. In some cases the soles were practically worn right off and the men almost walking in their socks.
The last day of the march I had a nail drive up through my boot and puncture my foot.
A few days later, the foot got pretty sore and I found I had a touch of poisoning in it.
Had to report sick for the first time in my military experience but it gave me a fine rest for two or three days.
We stayed in billets in Seigburg until the 28th then moved forward and relieved the 19th Bn. which was on outpost duty in a little place called Neuenkirchen.
We were only there one day when a message came from Divisional Headquarters asking for the loan of the band for a week or so and of course it was granted.
We forthwith packed our trunks next morning and were brought to this city of Bonn and are now “on the staff.”
We are very comfortably billeted in what has been a sanitarium. Another chap and myself have a suite of two rooms, hot and cold water, gas, steam-heated, etc. The only drawback is that we have to do our own housework.
This is one of the finest cities I have visited yet and I believe one of the best in Germany for its size. Splendid streets, beautiful buildings and spotlessly clean. It boasts of having one of the widest and most beautiful streets in the world, called Poppelsdorfer Allee. We have played daily concerts on it since we came. They are also proud of the fact that this is the birthplace of Beethoven, the great composer. His house is still intact and I’m told there is a collection of his original manuscripts and instruments in it. I have arranged to pay it a visit tomorrow.
The old Rhine is quite a creek, being about ¼ mile in width, with quite a current, and is used extensively in peace times both for pleasure and business. Just now, there’s very little traffic on it, for there’s no business connections whatever between the occupied territory and the remainder of the country.
The people are civil and use us alright but one can see it isn’t sincere. They know very well that any other attitude would only cause trouble for themselves.
We can’t get definite information as to how long we shall be here. There are all sorts of rumours…the most persistent one is that we are to leave for Canada in March.
Another one says…we are to go to Berlin to quell the disturbance there, so which one is correct I cannot say.
I believe the whole country, excepting this occupied territory, is in a state of uproar but to what extent we can’t learn, for we are getting no papers at all.
I am enclosing a couple of photos taken whilst on leave. My “sidekick” is Nell’s brother, Osmond with whom I spent four good days in London.
I sincerely wish you all the Happiest Most Prosperous of New Years and hope to be with you again before many moons.
Best love to all.
Yours as ever, (xxxxx) Garn
Selection from the letter collection of Sergeant Dobbs, to his sister Millie and his brother Walter
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum