…a very uplifting effect: A Letter from the Front

On May 3, 1916, the Paisely Advocate included a letter[i] written by then Sergeant Andrew Enos Babcock, a native son of Paisely, about his experiences with the 18th Battalion. Sergeant Babcock was an original member of the 18th Battalion with the assigned regiment number of 53989 when he enlisted on October 27, 1914 in Walkerton, Ontario. He was a member of the active militia and had been employed at Sinclair’s hardware store before his enlistment and it was his previous militia experience that led to his promotion from Private to Sergeant on November 4, 1914, just days after his enlistment.

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From Sergt. Babcock

DEAR BROTHER – Just received your letter dated 20th March, and was pleased to learn that you are still all well. This leaves me O.K., although this really isn’t a very healthy country to live in, especially were they shoot over those whiz-bangs and coal boxes. If they light [land] anywhere near a fellow they have a very uplifting effect; but such is the live out here on the international line. We are having swell weather out here now. This sure is sunny France at times, and it is pretty nearly time too, as it is getting on in April. The mud is drying up fine, and things are getting a little promising, except for the stirring events which are taking place oftener – every week it seems now that they can move the artillery without getting it stuck in the mud. However, I have no room to kick as long as they don’t pot me.

Well, I have made a little change here since I last wrote you. I have transferred to the transport section of this battalion[ii]. I made the change about three weeks ago and like it fine now, although I didn’t on the start, as everything was strange to me. Then, too, I didn’t like the idea of leaving the platoon that I had been in from six months out in the trenches. However, they told me that I was foolish to let the chance go by, so I decided to take it over, and here I am for better or for worse. I didn’t know anything about my transfer until the colonel sent for me one day and asked me if I would like to take it over, so I said I would try it.

One good thing about it is that I have a horse of my own to ride whenever I wish, and don’t have to carry my pack around. Then we don’t change our billets so often. We are in the same place nearly on the time, and can carry more little necessities which add to our comfort out here. I invested in a violin about a week ago, which helps while away the spare hours. Our corporal has a mandolin, to, so we have quite an orchestra in our tent. Some of the boys are sending for instruments so we will be able to run in opposition to our regimental band, which they have managed to hold together yet.

I saw Tom the other day. He was moved up a little closer to us now, in fact he is only about a mile from here. He is looking his old self yet. I think he has grown about two inches since he came out here. Suppose you heard that he transferred to the trench mortar battery. All the other boys are hearty, as far as I know.

Andrew.

Source: Paisley Advocate. May 3, 1916.

Though the date that this letter cannot be accurately determined it would have been written sometime in mid-April 1916. At that time the Battalion was stationed in the La Clytte sector to the west of Ypres approximately 7 kilometers. The Battalion was engaged in the routine of an active unit on the line and suffered 29 men killed or wounded in action that month.

Sergeant Babcock’s letter gives one some insights into his experiences in the war and the first paragraph is written in a rather ironic style. The reference to the types of German artillery; whiz-bangs names after the noise they make and coal boxes for the black smoke the shells create when they explode, are referred to offering and “uplifting experience” if the land near a soldier. Sergeant Babcock refers to “sunny France” when the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary refers to many of the days weather in April 1916 as “stormy with rain” and other days of inclement weather. The reference to France and the optimistic reporting of the weather seem to be a bit of a code or ploy to get this part of the letter past the military censor. The Battalion was not in France in April, though it was close to the border with Belgium and France and this is, perhaps, his reference to “out here on the international line.” The reference to “stirring events” may be an oblique reference to attacks by Canadian or German forces. The reference about having “no room to kick” may be a colloquialism for not having a reason to complain as being ‘potted’ most likely refers to being hit by enemy fire.

Sergeant Babcock appears resigned to his assignment from active combat service to that of a supporting role in the next two paragraphs. As the request came from his colonel [Lieutenant-Colonel E.S. Wigle] it would have been difficult for Sergeant Babcock to refuse this appointment. It may have been in response to his value as a non-commissioned officer as he was eventually to be transferred to an Officers Training Course in May 1917.

An illuminating insight into a soldiers’ life is offered with the reference of how his new position not only allows him to have his own horse, but the ability to acquire a violin to play for his and other soldiers’ enjoyment. The curious reference to creating their own band to “run in opposition” to the regimental band is interesting. Is Sergeant Babcock referring to being tired of the martial music of this band? Perhaps its repertoire of music had become tired and repetitive after a year and a half service? One thing of note is that Sergeant Babcock’s reference to the regimental band ‘managing’ to hold together is a reference to the impact battle casualties and illness has taken on the regimental band, depleting its ranks until it cannot function as a band.

In closing, Sergeant Babcock refers to a mutual, but sadly unidentified soldier, acquaintance by the name of “Tom” and all the “other boys” as being “hearty” as far as he knows.

Sergeant Babcock’s letter is but one snapshot in time for one soldier of a much larger organization. Its tone indicates that his audience, his brother Sam Babcock, is a regular recipient of his letters and its references give one the impression that Andrew and Sam have a casual short-hand of terms that help express more to each other which allows more information to be conveyed so that it passes the censor’s diligent efforts to ensure that certain information does not pass outside the military organization. Sergeant Babcock’s expresses dark humour at how German shells can lead to an “uplifting” experience while expressing some disappointment that his new position offers him greater comparative safety then being in an active fighting platoon. Sergeant Babcock was to survive the war with the rank of Lieutenant and married Lilly McDonald of Paisely. They would reside on London, Ontario until his death from illness on February 13, 1922 at the age of 35.

[i] Please note that the transcription was completed with paragraphs for clarity. The original format of the letter had none.

[ii] Babcock was appointed Transport Sergeant in the field on February 22, 1916 replacing Sgt. Huby, reg. no. 53008 as he returned to Canada.

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