By T.W. Paterson
“We have both lost a very fine friend…a sportsman and gentleman of the very highest.”—Lieut. G.W.H. Gordon.
At last year’s Remembrance Day ceremony I had the pleasure of meeting Gordon Bricker who offered to share with me, and with readers of the Chronicles, a letter he found in his mother’s effects.
It was written by his Great Uncle John (Jack) Sheddon Dobbie to his parents in Maple Bay. Somewhat difficult to read because it’s written in pencil on lined foolscap (perhaps a page torn from a notebook), it’s dated Oct. 3, 1917 as he’s about to go into battle after returning to active duty from hospital leave.
Two days later, on Oct. 5, 1917, Jack Dobbie was killed in action. Gordon believes that Rose, mentioned in the letter, was his girlfriend but isn’t sure.
“In the Field, Oct. 3, 1917
“Darling Daddie and Mother
“This is just a line written under rather hurried circumstances. It may be that it may be my last to you from here [?] because we are ‘for it’ big shortly; I don’t hesitate to tell you as if anything happens to me you will have heard ’ere this reaches you. I am not anticipating anything but one cannot tell. You [will?] know anyhow, thank God. I am ready for action[?] and I pray that God will help me to hear Him to His Glory[?] even in this hell-upon-earth, for it is nothing less. I do pray I may be prescient[?] for your sakes and Rose’s, but I am content to leave it all to Him and I know He will give [us?] the best.
“God bless you both, with[?] much love from your loving son
“P.S. I know you’ll cheer Rose up so far as you are able. Should anything happen, God bless you for the way you have loved me and born [sic] with me when I so much little deserved it, and for the way you received her [Rose?] too.”
Gordon’s mother’s research into the family history came up with some details of how Jack, who’d been promoted to captain three weeks before, was placed in command of C. Company of the Gordon Highlanders at the capture of Broodseinde on Oct. 3, 1917. After his men fully gained all their allotted objectives, on Oct. 5, Jack’s part of the front line trench was subjected to sudden and furious bombardment. This, said Gordon, “took him round to his men, seeing to their protection. He returned to his dugout and was apparently standing in the entrance to it when a heavy high-explosive shell fell on the dugout and killed him and its occupants instantly.”
In due course the family received letters of sympathy from Jack’s fellow officers and men from his unit. On Oct. 7, two days after his death, Walter M. Paterson, C.F., wrote: “Captain Dobbie was killed on Friday last. What makes it more sad is the fact that his attack was over, the advance successfully made. But a shell shattered the dugout which killed him and another officer. He came to me just before going into action. ‘Padre, If anything happens to me let my people know.’ His going is a great loss to the Battalion, to his own Company, and to me personally for I loved him as a brother. It is hard to lose such men.”
Another letter, not dated, expresses the writer’s sorrow and respect for Dobbie as a fellow officer: “I cannot tell you how very sorry I am to lose such a friend, he is a great loss to the [Battalion], being one of those officers we can least afford to lose. Dobbie was in command of C Coy. during the recent fight in which the [Battalion]…[incomplete].
“As usual, [he] greatly distinguished itself — and so I am sure you will be ever so proud to know that he died having done very gloriously indeed — and having added fresh honours to the old Battalion, C. Coy…
“Poor Dobbie was so proud to be taking them into action himself. I went a little way with him when they were marching up to the line, and I wished then I was back again with our Battalion.”
Wrote Lieut. G.W.H. Gordon: “I was up at Aberdeen with him after, like him, having recovered from wounds, and we came out together in April… I am writing to you because he asked me to in the event of anything happening — that was during the fighting in May… We have both lost a very fine friend and the world has lost a man whom everyone respected and admired, for qualities which I am afraid to [sic] few of us possess; he was a sportsman and gentleman of the very highest.”
On Oct.18, H.W. Verner wrote to Jack’s mother from the Soldiers’ Christian Association Camp Home in London. From Verner it becomes apparent that, had Dobbie made it through the war, he was going to become a missionary.
“Dear Mrs. Dobbie:
“It was a very great shock this evening when I opened a letter and found a field card in it from your dear Jack and a letter from the chaplain telling of his death. We were very fond of him here and because we loved him, I know just a little of what you all must feel at the news. He was with me on Sept. 17 for about an hour and was so happy in the Lord, quiet as he always was but so clear as to the goodness of God; the Lord had led him out into a very difficult experience and his peace and deep joy were very real. My loving sympathy goes out to you and Col. Dobbie in the loss of such a son, who must have been a great joy to you. He said that he felt he was to be a missionary if he lived, but the Lord has given him higher service. I am sending you his card to me and the chaplain’s letter, you will like to keep them. My heart goes out, too, to Mrs. Carless [not further identified] who will have sorrow upon sorrow now. Perhaps it may be that the Lord is coming soon and before long we shall be united again round his feet.
“Jack loved coming to the Hut, while he was at the Base, it was his home in France, and it was such a joy to have him with us. Hugh Carless used to see a good deal of us too while he was here.
“May the dear Saviour comfort and strengthen you both.
“Yours in deep sympathy,
He attached a second letter which he was sure Mrs. Dobbie “will value very much for what it contains. I am glad I have found it for you”.
Dated June 21, and written by Dobbie, again from ‘In the Field,’ it’s addressed to a friend whose name appears to be Kevin. Several other words are illegible, likely the work of army censors.
“So very many thanks for your letter which I got the night after a weary night fatigue, and which I have been looking forward to and hoping for for many days, but I know how busy you are and how hard it must be for you to write at all and I appreciate the letter all the more now that it was come.
“God has preserved me wonderfully since I left you at Etaples [a major Allied military hospital] and has enabled me to speak for Him and [?] tracts, etc., though I realize how far I fall short of all I ought to be.
“I am thankful to God that I’ve managed every day to have a quiet time with my Bible & prayers, morning and evening, and I find it such a help & God has made His word more precious to me since my time at the Hut, and I find such daily help and strength in each day’s reading.
“To tell you the truth I have had the idea of being a missionary at the back of my bean ever since I was a kiddie and it’s still there but I don’t want you to say anything to anyone about it. God will guide me into the war. He would have me to [?] I know and I will not jump to conclusions before the time comes though I carry this in my head all the time. Thanks so much for the good talk of Feb. 27. I believed it and hope to do so often again.
“How is ‘Mac?’ Do you hear from him at all now and Sgt. Major Duthie?
“I did have a good time at Etaples and I needed it too for I am in the desert now! But as my mates wrote and told me it was in the wilderness that the angels came and ministered to the Lord.”
On March 1 he’d written: “Yes, I was at [?] when it was at St. Albans and have many happy memories of it.
“We expect to be [?]. I am in a responsible position. How I would be glad of your progress that God may give me guidance and wisdom and help me to bear his name to His Glory amongst the dangers we go through, so that I may attract me to Him and not from.
“Kind remembrance to all, yours in Him,
From the research of great nephew Gordon’s mother we learn that Jack Dobbie’s two British War and Victory Medals for the Great War are now in the Cowichan Valley Museum. Jack is also remembered on the Duncan Cenotaph as is his brother Herbert who was killed, aged 19, in 1916 near Beaumont Hamil.
Jack Dobbie’s body was never found but he’s commemorated with other fallen Gordon Highlanders in the Book of Remembrance at the Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland and at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Zonnebeke, Wet-Vlaanderen, Belgium.