British Troops in Canada by Sir Francis Head


Letter R.

Really winter in Canada must be felt to be imagined; and when felt can no more be described by words, than colours to a blind man or music to a deaf one. Even under bright sun-shine, and in a most exhilirating air, the biting effect of the cold upon the portion of our face that is exposed to it resembles the application of a strong acid; and the healthy grin which the countenance assumes, requires—as I often observed on those who for many minutes had been in a warm room waiting to see me—a considerable time to relax.

In a calm, almost any degree of cold is bearable, but the application of successive doses of it to the face by wind, becomes, occasionally, almost unbearable; indeed, I remember seeing the left cheek of nearly twenty of our soldiers simultaneously frost-bitten in marching about a hundred yards across a bleak open space, completely exposed to a strong and bitterly cold north-west wind that was blowing upon us all.

The remedy for this intense cold, to which many Canadians and others have occasionally recourse, is—at least to my feelings it always appeared—infinitely worse than the disease. On entering, for instance, the small parlour of a little inn, a number of strong, able-bodied fellows are discovered holding their hands a few inches before their faces, and sitting in silence immediately in front of a stove of such excruciating power, that it really feels as if it would roast the very eyes in their sockets; and yet, as one endures this agony, the back part is as cold as if it belonged to what is called at home "Old Father Christmas."

As a further instance of the climate, I may add, that several times, while my mind was very warmly occupied in writing my despatches, I found my pen full of a lump of stuff that appeared to be honey, but which proved to be frozen ink; again, after washing in the morning, when I took up some money that had lain all night on my table, I at first fancied it had become sticky, until I discovered that the sensation was caused by its freezing to my fingers, which, in consequence of my ablutions, were not perfectly dry.

Winter Dress of British Troops in Canada.

Notwithstanding, however, this intensity of cold, the powerful circulation of the blood of large quadrupeds keeps the red fluid, like the movement of the waters in the great lakes, from freezing; but the human frame not being gifted with this power, many people lose their limbs, and occasionally their lives, from cold. I one day inquired of a fine, ruddy, honest-looking man, who called upon me, and whose toes and instep of each foot had been truncated, how the accident happened? He told me that the first winter he came from England he lost his way in the forest, and that after walking for some hours, feeling pain in his feet, he took off his boots, and from the flesh immediately swelling, he was unable to put them on again. His stockings, which were very old ones, soon wore into holes; and as rising on his insteps he was hurriedly proceeding he knew not where, he saw with alarm, but without feeling the slightest pain, first one toe and then another break off, as if they had been pieces of brittle stick, and in this mutilated state he continued to advance till he reached a path which led him to an inhabited log house, where he remained suffering great pain till his cure was effected.

Although the sun, from the latitude, has considerable power, it appears only to illuminate the sparkling snow, which, like the sugar on a bridal cake, conceals the whole surface. The instant, however, the fire of heaven sinks below the horizon, the cold descends from the upper regions of the atmosphere with a feeling as if it were poured down upon the head and shoulders from a jug.

Sir Francis Head