Evelyn to Fred [Calgary]
May 17/17


Dear Darling:-

... I have been wondering about going home. I hate to go, and yet I think I need the change. I ought to go about the middle of June, and if I do, you should start sending your letters home... I have not really made up my mind to the fact that you are going to France. Dearest, it seems as if I cannot let you go, and I am so powerless. Maybe I ought not to feel so, but you are my life. I didn't know it so well when you were here, but without you, there is not much joy in life, it is duty and work. And nobody really wants that, especially one who is young.

I wish you'd send a letter to the paper, something like the one you sent to Mother O. I cannot bear to think our country is so indifferent. It might wake us up a bit if we had a real taste of war. Why do you call the Germans "Cannibals." We have heard that they have boiled their own dead for grease. Is that what you mean? That seems to me almost more brutal than things they have done to the living, though I suppose it isn't. Mr. Fallis says that if they can do such things, extermination seems to be the only thing for them.

Goodnight my own sweet lover. I thank God for you. Whatever would I have known of the joy of life without my own darling?

 

May 18/17

Dearest:-

I have just finished packing your box. This time it contains rocks, chocolate, nuts, sugar and gum. When I get the right shaped boxes I'll send your salmon, canned fruit, etc. I had a letter from Mother to-day and she said she would send a box next week - Let us know if you need socks. She has a pair, Hazel has some ... and Mrs Adams says she'll soon have a pair for you.

Miss White, the dressmaker, was here to-day, and nearly finished a white skirt for me; she also cut out a waist which I shall make myself. I hope you don't think me extravagant; I have to get clothes even if I care more about other things.

... The evening papers, I am told, say that some form of conscription is going to be put in force at once. I wonder what Wray will do. And our Ray too, for that matter.

... Did I tell you about P. Harcourt O'Reilly asking me "Do you ever hear from Fred?" It runs in my head that I told you that, but it struck me as being very funny.

This isn't a very lovey letter, and yet it is. Did you know that you kissed me on the street to-day, right in front of Chapin's? Well, you did. I kiss you now, a million times, my lover.


Fred to Evelyn France,
Monday Sept. 17/17


My darling, -

... We arrived here about the middle of the afternoon. Here refers to a small dilapidated French village used as a billeting place for moving troops - and it appears to be deserted of all civilian inhabitants except a few decrepit men, bedraggled women and ill clothed boys and girls, who are much in evidence with heavy baskets of green peas, indifferent apples, poor chocolate and an occasional tomato.

Ever since we landed in France our line of march has been beset by these amateur vendors crying "Apools, chocolates!" They have a very peculiar way of mixing the coinage. For example today I asked the price of a package of chocolate. "One franc 4 penny" was the answer. We thought the troops were "soaked" in England, but what they do there isn't to be compared with prices here. Apples and pears are very plentiful and yet the cheapest is 3 ha'pence [halfpence] each.

The chocolate in France is very poor in quality and the pieces are about 1/2 the size in England, with the price, quality and the pieces nearly twice as much per bar or piece. I think possibly the reason they give prices in terms of francs and pennies instead of francs and centimes is because at present prices the centime is too small a unit to reckon with.

Our bunch has stuck together well and we intend to sleep tonight under a near-by stack of wheat sheaves rather than in the place where we were billeted. It is a long rough shed with ground floor, and is to accommodate 70 for the night. It isn't comfortable. It's almost sure to be "crummy" [lice] and noisy, and the stack looks very inviting. Last night was our first experience of billets and it was too good to last, but more of that anon - I'll resume where I left off in my letter yesterday.

... By 10 o'clock we were all entrained - I don't know how many for there were Imperials as well as Canadians - possibly 3,000. Except for officers, the accommodation provided was box cars about the size of those you saw in England. Each was supposed to hold 40 men but we had only 36. But at that, what with equipment and packs - there wasn't room to stir about much. Fortunately we had plenty of ventilation, for the big sliding side doors were open and there were also smaller sliding doors near the top of the car on both sides. As for myself I felt the need of sleepand I, Swanson & Nease & a few others stretched out and contorted ourselves around and over our equipment.All told I slept about 3 hours. ...

I didn't see much of the country we passed through until late in the afternoon, but I know that for the first couple hours it was very unkempt and forsaken looking. The villages don't look clean and neat like the English hamlets, but the squalid mud or plaster huts and farmhouses opening out into the barnyards seemed quite in keeping with the unkempt, bedraggled looking peasants. One has to visit the continent to see what is really meant by a peasant class. They can't be compared with the English working class.

I know the country is drained of its men by the war and that the women and children are war-worn. Such a dazed and sad look as seems so settled on the women's faces - and how much black one sees! Of course many of the peasants can't afford black clothes but even at that the frequency with which one meets black crepe dresses tells its own tale of how France has been stricken.

At first we passed through many orchards, and the trees, despite lack of care in pruning and cultivation, seemed well laden with apples & pears. Beans were much in evidence and the eaves of every farmhouse and cottage had their strings of beans hung up to dry. The grain fields were in stook and looked fair, but as we got nearer our destination the appearance of the country changed. The crops looked full and the countryside showed evidences of careful and intelligent tillage and farming methods.

Fine herds of cows were grazing on clover or lucerne, second growth. Field after field of beautiful sugar beets, in clean straight rows, showed that although the men might be in the army women and children were doing their part in keeping up production. To look at the farms in this part one could hardly think that nearly all men of military age were away, did we not see women in the fields and boys of 9 or 10 years driving binders or the heavy French carts. And everywhere one saw the same look of resigned determination and saddened weariness.

Although yesterday was Sunday, shops were open and work proceeded as usual in the fields. And that reminds me - one of the most striking contrasts between France & England is this: In England the prominent feature of every village & hamlet is the church. In France churches are for the most part conspicuous by their absence and even where they are to be seen somehow they give one the impression that they are neglected and play but a small part in the life of the community. The estaminet(3) is everywhere, but the church is of little importance, I fear, in the life of the French people.

About 3.45 we arrived at XXXXX.(4) After detraining we had to wait around in the public square until about 4.30 when we lined up at the cook house for tea, biscuits and mulligan which we ate under the trees. The we were marched about 3/4 of a mile to the outskirts of the town of XXXXX for our billets. 20 of us were allotted to one billet and there appeared to be some mix-up so our bunch of 9 - Farrant, McKenzie, Swanson, Hayden, Nease, Hunt, Carman, Riggs & I struck out for ourselves.

I made use of my half-forgotten French & finally found a farmhouse which had accommodation for 10 on the barn floor with fresh straw for a bed. You must understand that the French farm buildings are in the form of a quadrangle with house joined on the one side to loft and on the other to cow shed, pig pen & hen house, with the barn proper opposite, the central opened space being the farm yard - which being interpreted means the manure heap. ...

 

Wednesday morning, Sept 19/17

My own sweetheart,-

Darkness compelled me to stop at this point Monday night and I haven't been able to resume until now, when for a wonder we were told by the R.S.M. to "bugger-off" for a couple hours i.e. - to "beat it." I am in a Y.M.C.A. tent a few miles nearer the line than on Monday - in fact at Canadian divisional headquarters. It is a lovely sunlit morning and I should like to stroll about outside in the fields or woods if it were not that I'd rather talk with you.

I was telling about our Sunday night billet. We got located about 7 o'clock and at once set out to make ourselves comfortable. We hung our equipment under the loft, changed our boots for light canvas shoes and then madame invited us into a spotless kitchen where the charcoal stove shone like a mirror. She arranged wooden chairs around the room and we talked for a time as best we could - I and Hunt being interpreters. If not exactly fluent the conversation was at least intelligible.

Things looked so nice we ventured to ask madame to make us some tea. "La thé? Non!" but she would make us café au lait, after the cows were milked at 8 o'clock. That sounded good. Meanwhile we busied ourselves in washing at the street pump near by etc., etc. Monsieur brought me a large basin of hot water & I had a nice hot footbath. About 8 o'clock the boy of 12 drove in 3 beautiful cows and soon madame was busy with the milking. Farrant got a cup from the kitchen and went with it to the stable, as a result of which he, Swanson & I each had a cup of warm foaming new milk fresh from the cow. Hunt, Carman & Riggs had gone up town, so coffee was prepared for the other 7 of us. By this time we had all gathered into the kitchen where the father & son were joined by a little girl of dix ans, and another fine self possessed daughter of 17 who greeted us with "Bonjour messieurs!" as she entered the room. There is also an elder son away in the army.

While chatting about the stove, where, by the way some of our socks were hung to dry, we decided to have a little party and asked the family to join us. Two small tables were drawn up. Goblets were placed for the coffee and we brought forth from our packs 2 tins bully beef. 1 of pork & beans 1 of jam & some army biscuit. The coffee was poured - Such coffee, and then from a large earthen pot about 1/3 of a glass hot milk or cream was added to each goblet. We sipped it. And you may imagine the beatified expressions on our faces as we settled back in our chairs with real enjoyment.

A happy thought occurred to Farrant so I turned to madame with "Voulez-vous donner nous du pain?" "Oui, monsieur!" and she went to the pantry and returned with one of the great flat round French loaves of real home made bread. It may have been made of rye and barley flour, I don't know, but it was sweet and light and oh so good. We each had 2 large slices, a second helping of coffee, and the jam and other things disappeared quickly too - all but the bully beef and biscuits and these we left for the family. The reckoning was 5 francs 7 pennies, and in addition we gave a franc to the little girl.

About 9 o'clock we left for our beds of straw, satisfied we had had one of the most enjoyable meals ever. There was a truly homelike atmosphere and we enjoyed the social intercourse possibly nearly as much as the café au lait and bread. The people are not exactly ordinary farmers, neither are they of the real peasant class. We were much surprised to see electric lights and a modern cream separator showing a degree of prosperity about the ordinary peasant proprietor.

I don't think anyone had better billets, if as good. Some we saw were horrible - dirty filthy stables to sleep in, and stinking manure heaps to wash in! The French villagers seem to have a wonderful liking for manure odors - and some of the tumbledown, dirty streets we passed on the way to our billet looked like a very hot-bed of filth & disease. I suppose things are much worse than in peace time because there is no one left to keep things in repair & cleaned up - but even in ordinary times many of the places we saw were not fit to be called by the name of home.

We all slept soundly & well, until 6 a.m. Then we arose, washed & dressed and walked about a mile to our cook house where we each got tea, army biscuits & a tin of sardines - packed in Norway - and very poor they were. However I am getting to like the army biscuits very much, and they are so nourishing. I can always do very well if I only have plenty of them. The grub so far in France has been superior to what we got in Eng.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that the opposite side of the street from our billet was a sloping hillside with magnificent oak, beech & plane trees and in the morning while dressing I listened to one of the most charming bird songs I ever heard. Again the war seemed far away and I thought if only my darling were with me how we should enjoy the quaint French town the green grass, the beautiful trees, the birds - everything.

After breakfast we got ready to march again. There was a long delay in starting. We had to draw rations for the day & the following morning's breakfast each man getting a cotton bag containing biscuits, & 2 tins of bully beef. Then to our great surprise and delight, we were ordered to turn in our packs and they would be transported for us.

About 10.30 we set out and marched with only one halt until 1.10 when we had half an hour for dinner. I enjoyed the march very much. We passed through lovely farming country - wonderfully well tilled - particularly the sugar beets. Sleek cattle grazed on the clover. Women & boys were harvesting wheat and oats. Some binders were used but for the most part scythe, sickle or cradle were the implements. The country is quite hilly and our march was up and down one succession of hills. We went through a couple towns and saw in the distance huge slag heaps from the famous mines of this district. Still there was not much evidence of the proximity of the battle line, although aeroplanes were more frequent.

After dinner we marched only about an hour before we halted for the night at the place where I started this letter - truly a tumbledown deserted village if ever there was one. We slept well by our oat stack though all got rather cold. Still I think we were as warm as those in the shed - and we didn't have any "crumbs". We are very fortunate in escaping so long. Nearly everyone has them before he gets this far. It's dinner time now, so will close & write more as soon as possible.

Don't worry though dearest if letters are irregular for it's awfully hard to get time to write every day.

God bless and keep my own dear wifie.

Fred.

 

I have been thinking dearest, that my next letter may not reach you before your birthday so in this I'll tell you that before I left Bramshott I left instructions to have an album of photographs taken in around Bramshott by our armourer serj't, Serjt. Rounce - sent to you for your birthday. I think they are excellent & I hope you receive them in good shape and enjoy them - both for their own sake and because it is intended as another slight reminder of my unchanging love.

May every succeeding anniversary of your natal day be happier than the last.

Your own husband.

 


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    A box of old letters, discovered in a basement, turned out to contain an absorbing, first hand account of life in Canada, England and on the battlefields of France during the early part of the 20th century. The correspondence between an exceptional couple spans the time of their early courtship, engagement and marriage and their separation when Fred Albright went overseas in World War 1.

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