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Date: June 1st 1917
Beulah Bahnsen (wife)
Ralph Watson

1 June, ’17.

My very dearest Lal: —

I have only written one letter to you since we came out for our long rest. The joke is, there has been less spare time so far during our “rest” than there is in the front line. The first few days were taken up with our long “polish brass work”, and rehearsing for the big brass hats’ inspection. Finally the great moment arrived, and passed, just like any other inspection in Canada or England; though two months ago it was impossible to travel over the scene of it otherwise than down the connecting trenches, and, as it was, Heinie’s planes were up most days. There was one big difference between the inspection and a similar one at home. There, every one would be grouching and kicking and cussing the whole apparently useless business. Here, no one ever let out a peep, not us. You bet we know when we are well off, and not a man who would not be tickled to death to go through all the harassing and irritations every day, for “the duration.” No. Anything away from those shells, anything, has that beat.

I wish intensely — I could make you grasp the gigantic difference between “in” and “out”, be-tween a job behind the lines and one in them. There can be no state of life in the world where such differences exist, away from the war zone. This morning we started in our big hike to our resting village, bands playing, everybody happy, perfect weather. Today I have seen cows and chickens, women and children and little gardens for the first time since going up. This is a very lovely part of France (behind the lines). All the trees are in full leaf; May trees scent the air; old men are training the green peas up sticks in their little gardens, and tonight an old hen walked past me with a brood of chickens. All the men we meet — soldiers I mean — have the natural bearing and expression that we once had before we saw the line. You can never mistake a man who has been “in”, no matter how smartly you dress him and polish him. Put him amongst a thousand who work behind, and you’ll pick him out instantly. I have tried to define just where this difference is, many times, but I cannot. It’s not in his face; our boys look the happiest in France. Is it in the bearing, the eyes — what?

We are making the journey by easy stages. Our billet for the night is an old French farmhouse, built in a kind of square, the house, such as it is, with the doors built in halves like I remember our cowshed was at home. The other three sides by stables and barns, the whole of the centre of square being a large and very odoriferous manure heap. This reaches right up to the front door of the house; they don’t seem to mind. On a board outside is painted 90 hommes1 bed. This doesn’t mean ninety men sleep in one bed; the bed is for one officer. Our places are in the various “offices” in the farm. The old man made a great to-do about opening the door of his wagon shed which he had locked. No one could speak French; half a dozen officers had a try at him without result. Only more gesticulations.

Luckily a French Canadian passed and was commandeered, explanations were forthcoming, the door was unlocked, and the wagons pushed on to the manure heap and the men crowded in. The weather being so lovely, most of the boys are finding places outside for themselves; though we are travelling without a blanket — we are hardened. I have found an old buggy hood and a fairly sweet smelling horse rug. This I have fixed under a hawthorne tree in full bloom, and am comfy and contented.

The little village has been taken complete possession of by the men. The village green by the old mill is covered with the boys talking and sleeping and contentedly doing nothing. Every tree shades a bunch, the cook houses — or “mulligan guns” as they are called — have fired their rounds of stew and tea. Those millionaires with money from home have bought eggs and fried them, and all is peaceful and happy. The guns are already too far off to hear, and any man referring to the war in any form would be thrown down the well. The French women remind us sometimes, when they say, “are we from Vimy.” The answer, “Oui, Madame” always brings a rather awed and satisfied “A—h.” We had forgotten we took the famous Ridge, — and therefore “some” boys!

There is a fly in the ointment: no mail, and no money. Canadian mail seems to have stopped altogether, and money: Oh, if only we had some now, when we really need it!

And now I will turn into my “Bivvy.” To‑morrow we pass on through the long lines of poplars to the next village, out, still further out. Thank God!

Next Day.

Well, we have arrived at our village and got all fixed up. There are four of us in our billet, an outhouse at the back of a cottage, with the chickens and rabbits for neighbours. Everything is “merry and bright”; all we need now is pay, and some mail, and I guess we’ll get both. I only hope you have sent a parcel or two along, and written pretty regularly.

I think all we have to do is physical training, and there’ll be games and sports in plenty; that is, unless there’s to be another big stunt pulled off, when we shall be very fully occupied indeed going “over the tapes” — i.e. taking an objective arranged from aeroplane photographs. Before the last scrap, the ground was even exactly reproduced in a huge plaster of paris cast, every stone and rut reproduced to an inch, all from plane pictures. This thing is now an exact science.

I saw a great air fight, this last trip in, so close that the bullets from their machine guns plopped into the ground all around us, when their noses dived our way. The proper thing to do was to get into the funk hole — but I couldn’t have done it on a bet. I was too interested, and stood glued up against the parapet. No one was brought down, which was a good thing for us, as they’d have come right on top of us. I guess there cannot be a more exciting thing to watch; the curves and loop the loops they made — there were eight of them, four German, four English — were positively the last thing in thrills. The whirr of the engines, the rattle of the machine guns, and the excitement in wondering when one is going to pot the other, and all, is just the limit. They were quite low, too low for us in fact. The fight took place over our lines, an unusual thing, and it wouldn’t have happened, only our machines were not the latest type, and Fritz took a chance. After about three minutes of furious wheeling up, down and around, the four Germans headed for home. The air situation is entirely in our hands. We have a wonder of a machine, a thing that streaks across the sky just like a hawk. It’s a peach, can make one hundred and eighty miles an hour, built in three decks. We are numerically superior, much so; we patrol the sky perpetually in formations, the fast-flying machines circling above them. In the earliest dawn or latest evening you see them, and at night you hear them; they are never out of the sky at any time. Fritz seizes his opportunity quick, and he has a very good machine, rushes in between patrols and rushes back. He has only to fly fifty-six hours to get an iron cross — (official). He patrols our front line a lot, which is nerve racking to the boys in, but always runs away as our machines approach. Making a quick, or even slow, trip over a strip of front line trench is easy, of course; the hard part of it is to leisurely circle around and round for hours at a time back of the enemy’s lines. This he never does; he cannot. And we do, all the time. That’s how far the superiority goes, which is being so much discussed — the reason of our heavy casualties is that we have ten machines up to his one and we are always out, where he only rushes in and out a few minutes at a time. Just the same, it must not be forgotten he has a very good machine and some good men, and often gets in some very good work. I am inclined to think he is handicapped for machines.

Our new O.C. was a private and wears the D.C.M. won while in that trying capacity. He’s a splendid man, easily the best O.C. in the Battn. and an officer has to be some good fellow to get the confidence and liking of his men in the line.

Usually after about the second day we are out, they discover they are “officers” and act accordingly. In the front line, they share their cigarettes and water and your funk hole with you, and talk, and ask questions from the sergeant about what they arc to do. About the most insignificant thing in a front line is a platoon officer, while he’s there; when he’s out, he’s a tin god again.

When they went over the top in the big show, our officer — not the one we have now — started to give orders. The sergeant says, — “Hey.” Puts up his hand. “I’m running this show.” And he did.

I’ve seen a newspaper most every day for a while. I dunno’ how things look to you; but I’m not awfully impressed. I think they’re just filling us up with hot air about Russia. In my opinion she’s a thing of the past, as regards a factor of this war. The States seem to be backing up fairly, and are going to be a most valuable ally — much more so than I first thought. I bet they are going to do something anyway worth while. One thing that seems plainly obvious to one is that there’s another winter’s war ahead of us, and all of next year most likely as well. The handwriting on the wall is plain enough to see.

I think of you hundreds of times a day, and long to be able to plan. But —!

Tell Billie I am thinking of her, and loving her, too. Kiss her for me.

And to my dearie — just all my heart.

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Original Scans