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).