Letter From Fred Albright To George Coutts
The following letter is reprinted courtesy of Glenbow Archives, Calgary, Alberta - document number: M279, file 3.
The letter is from Fred Albright to George Coutts, his friend and colleague, dated Bramshott, August 20, 1917. Evelyn lived with George and his wife Alberta (Berta) for a time when Fred was overseas.
The tenor of Fred’s letter to George is of a much more factual one than his usual more personal letters to Evelyn, interspersed as they are with loving thoughts and reminiscences to her.
Fred paints a much more realistic picture of army life in this letter. Although he sometimes hints at the exigencies of camp life in his letters to Evelyn, Fred expresses here a much more forthright view as he describes his dismay and anger at the inefficiency of the Military.
Despite his criticisms and grumblings of army life Fred gives the impression of a man who has attempted to come to terms with his situation. He manages to cope fairly well, given the types of hardships that someone of his background and education would never encounter in civilian life.
Dear George -
An imaginative man would probably describe me as sitting in a dug out or a bomb proof shelter, but the unpoetic fact is I am for the nonce a coal-heaver, taking shelter from one of the daily showers under an improvised roof of corrugated iron put across a U-shaped opening in a woodpile near the brigade coal yards.
Yesterday I was warned for coal fatigue duty for today. At the time I had practically a virgin mind regarding this part of the ordinary brigade duties and enquiry from my hut-fellows failed to enlighten me very much - only this - that I should parade this morning at 7:20 outside the q.m. store and there take charge of a fatigue party of 15 men with shovels whom I would have to watch work.
So far, it seems to me the only function of an n.c.o. in charge of a fatigue party is to see to it that they don’t depart from their dee-seated resolution not to perform one jot or tittle of work more than is necessary to keep from being “crimed.” Notwithstanding reveille bugle failed to blow this morning, thus causing me to oversleep until 6:15. I managed to get up, make my bed, - i.e. my paliasse, fold blankets & sweep under bed boards, - wash, shave, shine buttons, blacken boots and eat breakfast, and appear at the appointed place right on the dot.
Gradually, by ones and twos, my fatigue party straggled up until the numbers were complete. Every man jack of them is a casualty - i.e. has been a longer or shorter time in France as is attested by the one or more strips of gold braid on the tunic sleeves. These men are always rather indifferent to ceremonial and discipline and often are awkward to handle. Fortunately I have a good bunch though assuredly they are a cosmopolitan lot - 4 Canadian born, 3 English, 1 Scotch, 1 half breed, 3 Japs and 3 Russians. All have been with either the 31st or 50th battalions in France, - these being the 2 battalions reinforced by the 21st Reserve battalion - but they serve overseas with various units - 138th, 151st, 128th, 192nd etc.
Later. - The shower, which at first appeared to be only a light one, continued until the water found plenty of holes in our roof, so we moved to a nearby shed partially filled with straw. This made the softest bed I’ve had for months and the allurement to sleep was too strong to be resisted. I stretched out and soon was dead to the world until awakened about 4:10 by the coal yard sentry who said there would be no more trucks in today. So we gathered the party together and marched them back to the q.m. stores and dismissed them. The rain had stopped but now it looks showery again. My letters are usually written instalment [sic] fashion as I snatch brief moments between parades.
I have just returned from supper and must fall in again at 5:30 for half an hour’s drill of all n.c.o.’s by the n.s.m. So I shall not get much farther before I have to stop again. Sometimes the coal fatigue has to work pretty hard e.g. when a train load comes in - I might mention that the brigade aims to store 20,000 tons before winter - but today’s work was a joke.
We arrived at the yards about 7:55 and as no one was around and the gates were locked we lay down until the sentry or whatever you call him appeared - 8:15 soon after a motor truck and a waggon arrived which the men soon loaded with perhaps 4 tons all told. The rest of the morning was spent looking into the blues of the heavens or “chinning” about experiences on the Somme or Vimy - except for the unloading of 2 or more trucks which came from the station. This afternoon’s task consisted in unloading 1 truck of perhaps 3 tons. Not an extremely bad day’s work - eh?
Still later I have intended writing you a letter ever since my arrival in England, but what with letters to the freundschäft (if such a word is permissible in these days) my time has been pretty well occupied. It is astonishing really, how little time one has to himself. Perhaps you will think this statement the height of irony after reading the first page of this effusion but today was an exception. Besides, even it was devoted to duty, such as it was.
It is quite true that in this training reserve at any rate - I can’t speak from experience of others - much of the time is merely “put in.” We had heard so much of the efficiency of the training here that actual conditions gave us a rude shock.
I no longer wonder that men who have been here for a few months become so absolutely “fed up” that they welcome any change - even a return to France. After my return from the Imperial school at Hertford where, with all their faults, they at least work and work hard. I became absolutely disgusted at the inefficiency, waste of time and general lackadaiscalness. [sic]
One naturally asks “Is it for this I enlisted? Is it for this we ask our country to send more men? Why should industries at home be crippled for lack of man power when there is such a waste of it here? Would it not be better to make an effort to usefully and economically employ that which is now overseas?”
These and a hundred similar questions which contain in themselves their condemnation of the government’s administration of military affairs would come to our minds again and again and again. But this I would remember that in France the men are needed - badly needed and have been for months - how badly has not yet been made known to the Canadian people. And it is one of the many grievous mistakes of the government that the truth was not told long ago. If it had been I feel sure Canada would not now be facing an issue which is so fraught with peril and threatens her very existence as a nation.
But, I have already said too much anent (about) military affairs. That’s the rub. We who know conditions as they are are tongue-tied by military law and the censor. And to talk about them after the war will be useless because too late.
I should in fairness say that there appears to be an improvement during the past few weeks. Except for the 5th Division, which is still kept intact in England for no apparent reason except to preserve berths for a large number of superior officers there has been a great weeding out of class A men from staff jobs. Perhaps you know that every soldier overseas is categorized A. B. or C.
Class A men are those who are (A1) or will be with further training (A2 and A3) fit for front line infantry or other combatant work in France. Class B men are those which are or may be with training fit for duty at base or on lines of communication. Class C men are fit only for duty in England and all under C1 are sent back to Canada as soon as possible.
Well, until recently the various staff jobs were largely manned by Class A men. They are now all turned out and if under commissioned rank must train for France: if of commissioned rank they must nominally do the same but in reality a great many manage to stick it out at what we now call the concentration camp at Seaford - a camp of about 5 battalions of officers all waiting until they are sent to France. The staff positions are being filled exclusively by Class C men and casualties.
The training reserve battalions are all supposed to be officered by returned men. For example when I first came here no officer but one or two had seen France. Now only one has not. Several wear M.C. ribbons. Nearly all have one or two gold braids on their sleeves. This of course is a step in the right direction, and there are others. So we are improving although absolute perfection is by no means within sight.
There has also been a marked improvement during the past week in the grub situation. Whether Lloyd George’s recent speech reviewing the food problem has made the army authorities loosen up a bit or not I don’t know, but certain it is we are getting larger portions at our meals. I might instance the rationing at Longmoor Camp - a camp under canvas about 6 miles from here where our rifle ranges are located. I spent 2 weeks there, returning only last Thursday.
Here’s a sample of the menu for the day. Breakfast 1 slice bread & margarine. 1 spoonful porridge. 1 large spoonful “mulligan” which sometimes contained infinitesimal portions of meat or gristle, and a bowl of coffee. Dinner - 1/2 slice bread “mulligan” or 1 piece cold boiled beef, 1 fair sized or 2 small potatoes, 1 spoonful of some other vegetable and perhaps a slice of duff - ie pudding. Supper - 1 slice bread & margarine, 1 piece cold meat or 1 spoonful baked beans, 1 spoonful of stewed plums. There never by any chance was a second helping because the waiters had to stretch things to make one serving.
Every scrap (if there was any) of meat, gristle, fat, bread pudding, porridge - of anything else left on the plates was gathered up and used by the cook in making mulligan, soup or pudding for the next meal. There wasn’t enough food wasted to feed a decent cat.
Well, on my return from the ranges to Bramshott, I was agreeably surprised to find that the quantity is now sufficient to give every man all he needs to fill himself. For example there is all the bread we want - the helpings of meat and vegetables are more generous and we are now getting a little fruit - stewed plums, blackberry jam, apple tart etc. The quality of the food too is quite good now, though for a time it wasn’t such as would make a glutton out of an epicure.
I enjoyed the 2 weeks at Longmoor ranges despite the grub and my poor shooting. I shot well enough at the 100 & 200 yards ranges but fell down badly at the longer distances. We had vile weather while there for it rained every day but 2 and every night but one. If our camp hadn’t been situated on a high heath where the soil is the most porous of light sands, we would have had a terrible mud hole. Even as it is we stepped from our tent door into nice little soup.
But the life in the open and sleeping in tents is much the best in summer. I told you a little about the grub. Berta will be glad to know a little about the messing arrangements. The serjeants had a small marquee to themselves with 2 waiters who brought the grub in “dixies” and served it out to the sixty odd serjeants caffeteria [sic] fashion taking pains to see that no one got more than his quota.
Each serjeant provided his own knife fork & spoon, but there were supposed to be plates & bowls for us at the serving table. However there were only about 40 plates and 15 or 20 bowls so first come first served. The late comers would look all around and watch the emptying of plates & bowls with hungry eyes. As soon as a man had finished with one of these utensils it was quickly snatched up and generally used again without washing rather than dip it in the 2 or 3 quarts - sometimes as much as a gallon - of warm water that was provided for the washing of the dishes of the whole mess.
You will readily understand that if the dishes were at all greasy - and mutton, our prevailing meat, usually is that way - after the first 10 or 12 the water was likely to add as much as it took off. As for myself, I usually took my things to the cold water tap where I did the best I could. But as I said, we thrived in spite of these rather primitive culinary and scullery arrangements.
One would think though, that a camp established as long as it has been would have permanent cook houses instead of field kitchens. And mind you, all under the rank of serjeant had to be fed from the one cook house. Imagine about 1000 men lining up with mess tins standing sometimes half an hour in the rain until their turn came to the serving table, when the food was already pretty cold, and then carrying back to their tents to eat. Of course here at Bramshott everybody sits down to a table. The serjeants have waiter and don’t have to provide any of their own utensils.
I suppose Evelyn has told you a good deal about the country round about here so I’ll not risk repeating. One thing that has surprised me is the enormous amount of waste land in this district for the light sand of the heaths doesn’t grow anything but heather and bracken where the forest has been removed. There is a great deal of woods - pine, spruce, beech and some oak but there is also a great deal of open heath. The heather of course is not the famous white heather of Scotland but what they call bell heather, all purple.
Brambleberries or blackberries as we call them abound on the heaths and in every hedgerow. They are just getting ripe and the copious rains have ensured a prolific yield. Unfortunately the sugar shortage has caused a lot of domestic fruit to go to waste. In some places plums are being given away.
Now, don’t think for a minute that anything is given away near the military camps for the natives are taking the most of their opportunity to soak us. A few prices will illustrate - the cheapest plums are 7d. per lb. equivalent of about $200 per 12 quart basket, tomatoes 9d. per lb. apples (and they are very plentiful) 4d.
Yesterday I had about a 15 mile walk through lovely country, going through the villages of Shottonmill & Haslemere to Tennyson’s home back to Haslemere for tea then home by way of Hindhead & Bramshott Chase. Tennyson’s house is most picturesquely situated and I’d like to tell you about it but this screed is already of considerable length and I’ll have to leave it to another time.
Our reserve expects to be called for a draft for France any day. I’m available for draft now having shot my musketry, thrown live bombs, gone through gas etc. etc.
If you can get time drop me a line. Am particularly anxious to get your views on the political situation. From this distance it looks ominous and disheartening. And yet there [are] bright features too - such as the attitude of many of the leading newspapers. I get the Globe - and I can’t find words to express my admiration for its stand on conscription and other issues during the past few months.
No nation can quite fail which produces and supports such fearless and conscientious and high minded public journals. Thank God too some if not all of our public men have risen to the high demand of the hour. Some there are beneath contempt. The question now. Are the people worthy of their best leaders?
I do wish I could thank you and Berta for all you have done for my wife and express what your friendship has meant to us both. Perhaps some day I can make you understand all the better how much it has meant to me.
Please remember me to David [George’s son] and give him an extra goodnight hug and kiss for me.
Yours very sincerely,
Fred S. Albright
P.S. I don’t believe I have ever thanked you for the knife you gave me. I don’t know what I'd do without it for it’s in constant use. In fact I don’t know of anything I have which is more in requisition.
Just heard that the 50th co’s call for a draft of 350 men and the 31st for 20 which will almost clear our reserve out. So I shall probably be off for France very soon.