Following the Battle of Hill 70, the Canadian Expeditionary Force underwent another period of rest, recuperation and training of reinforcements. For the veterans, time away from the front brought another round of leave passes, the last to be issued before the fighting at Ypres would draw the Canadians north to Belgium.
Consequently, many sought to make the most of their time, and often did so with humourous results. Some appeared to enjoy free reign over the city of Paris while on leave, and this freedom could lead to jovial spectacles parading through the streets:
“…a couple of us met up with a couple of kilties from a Canadian Scotch Battalion and we happened on a New Zealander also on leave. Soon a Yank soldier came along and we made quite a noticeable group as we sat at a side-walk table. We soon realized that it must be rather a strange sight to Parisians to see these different uniforms together, on “soldats” speaking the same language and decided to have a little fun out of it. We therefore hauled in the first two poilus (French common soldiers) we met and walked right out in Rue de la Paix and the eight of us marched arm in arm right down the middle of the street, making all the traffic get out of the way and, needless to say, drew a tremendous crowd. It was in the middle of a busy afternoon. We walked this way for several blocks, disrupting business along the famous street generally and enjoying ourselves to the full. All the civilians entered into the spirit of the thing and the gendarmes simply smiled and gave us full right of way.” (Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 103).
But before long, a twelve-day pass to Paris would near its inevitable end. On the last day, troops would often be shuffled towards a hotel closer to Gare du Nord, easing their departure. Many would take the chance to do their last rounds of goodbyes to the city.
“It was a silent bunch that wandered around the district that afternoon and early evening. We were trying to get the last breath of this great City far from the lines before returning to that unknown to the Northeast. We went around to the cafes we had frequented near the Hotel and said our goodbyes. Needless to say the wines on that last day cost us little, the friendly proprietors insisting on giving us a proper send-off.”(Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 103).
Today we return to our series on Leave, following Canadians as they escape to the relative safety and excitement of London or Paris. Having received their passes, a group of soldiers would scurry off to the nearest transport that would take them to their period of bliss in the big cities. For the troops from far-off Canada, the lifestyle of Paris was shockingly unique:
“Paris was a beautiful city being at its best in this, the late summer… The people of Paris seemed to take the Canadians to their hearts and they vied with one another in their efforts to give us a good time on our short stay. Of (wine, women and song) there was certainly no lack… Being young and newly arrived from a section of Hell we fell into their ways without quibble, deciding to “Do As The Romans Do”… to start making the most of the short time given us in that bright beautiful city” (Iriam, In The Trenches, 1914-1918, p. 211).
“In the afternoons of the last week in Paris we used to sit at the little round tables under the awnings that were stretched in front of many hotel fronts at the margin of the sidewalk. So long as you ordered some sort of refreshment every quarter hour or so you could remain there undisturbed, except by Gaston who came around with a towel over his arm to take your orders. From this comfortable vantage you could study the life and movement of the boulevards and it was always highly interesting to a stranger” (Iriam, In The Trenches, 1914-1918, p. 211-212).
Today we continue looking at the topic of leave for the men at the front.
Once in the rear areas, those on leave would be provided a chance to clean-up, perhaps get a new uniform, and then they would rush to the train that would take them as far from the trenches as they had probably ever been since arriving on the continent.
Where a soldier spent leave was dependent on what district their leave pass authorized them for. For Canadians, the desire was often split between the legendary city of Paris and a trip back to “Blighty”, where many still had family, and whose London streets could prove just as raucous as those of Paris.
Both of these cities had been transformed by the war, physically, emotionally, and economically – with the massive influx of foreign troops having a part in all three. Dance halls, theatres, and restaurants all provided welcome distraction and luxuries not seen for years near the trenches. From the letters of Lieutenant Bert Sargent, 6th Howitzer Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, comes the following excerpt:
“Had a real quiet and delightful time up town. Stayed with my friends the James’ and it sure was a bit of “home” and how I did hate to leave it Sunday night. Say, can you imagine me climbing out of a real feather bed (with sheets, etc.) about 10:15 AM and, after a nice bath, getting into a comfortable grey-checked suit and sauntering down to a breakfast beside a blasting coal fire and a couple of nice young ladies to wait on me. It was about the biggest treat I have had since I have been over here.” (Sargent, Letter of Tuesday, October26, 1915, in Grout, Thunder In The Skies – A Canadian Gunner In The Great War, p. 138).
Considering how sought after they were, once the men did receive a pass, there was often little that could stop them from immediately striking out for the rear areas. Indeed, as described in this humourous account by Victor Wheeler of the 50th (Alberta) Battalion, men were known to literally drop everything:
‘Corporal H.W. Hogg was stirring hot mulligan in “supports” when he was informed he could go on leave, “tonight, if you think you can make it”.
“I turned over my Dixie pots, pronto, to Sandy Hunter, jumped on what I thought was a bone-shaking rations wagon, and headed out at the speed of a Roman charioteer! When I got to the Transport Lines I was black with soot from head to foot. The lorry had been hauling charcoal and coke! The Officer laughed at the sight, ordered me to take a hot bath, be deloused and fitted out with new uniform. The Quartermaster cooperated – and I was on my way to Blighty!” ‘ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p.132).
In the coming weeks, we will be starting a new series on Fridays, called “Slang of The First World War”, revealing words, sayings and names created or adopted by those in the trenches to describe aspects of what had become a very absurd “everyday life”. In light of our posts this week referencing “Blighty” and “Bomb-Proof Jobs”, it is fitting we define those here.
Blighty – the origin of this word is unclear and various explanations exist. It appears to be a corruption of the Hindi word ‘bilayati’ or ‘bilaik’, meaning a foreign place or country, or from the Arabic term ‘beladi’ meaning ‘my own country’ (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 38). In British India during the 1800’s “Blighty” became a term of endearment for home and/or English things. This carried through to the First World War, and a number of secondary uses evolved depending on the context as a noun, verb or adjective, “such as ‘This is like real Blighty bread.’ “, “a Blighty one”, and a “Blighty bag” (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 39).
Bomb-Proof Job – referred to any one of a myriad of support roles that men could be posted to in the rear areas, usually far from danger and consequently “bomb-proof”. Those who made a military career of “Bomb-Proof Jobs” during the First World War were usually disliked by frontline troops – they were often seen as cheats who received frequent and unwarranted leave passes, broke into and stole the men’s mail parcels, and who often received official recognition and medals “for bravery” whilst miles from danger.
Today we begin a series on rest periods and leave during the First World War.
The hopes of being granted a leave pass to “Blighty” was often a point of contention amongst front line troops. Those in the trenches felt they were constantly losing out to the officers and troops in support roles – those who weren’t doing the fighting; instead occupying “bomb-proof jobs” always seemed to be getting the leave. In addition to being passed up by officers, (who as per their rank were afforded more frequent periods of leave), the luck of the draw never seemed to fall in the favour of the “old timers” or “originals”. Victor Wheeler of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion gave the following account resenting the distribution of leave in his unit:
‘The Originals, we who had enlisted when the Battalion had first been organized, had the numbers 434 as the first three digits of our serial dog-tag numbers. We were jealously proud of having the lowest numbers in the Battalion and resented privileges being accorded to men who enlisted much later while members of the original contingent were passed over… Time after time I had been “due” for a leave to Blighty, but each time it was my turn, someone had been given priority. I pencilled [sic] : “I was again up for a Blighty leave, but some ‘435er’ got ahead of me…” ‘ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 132).