War And Letters

November 1, 2009 by Dan Black
A collection of  souvenirs and wartime memorabilia supplied courtesy of Ethel M. King-Shaw of Calgary. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]
A collection of souvenirs and wartime memorabilia supplied courtesy of Ethel M. King-Shaw of Calgary.
PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO

There’s no mistaking the anticipation you feel while staring down at a large box of wartime letters pulled from the vaults of the Canadian War Museum. If you could find a way to turn print into audio, and make each letter speak to you directly in the actual voice of its author then perhaps—just perhaps—more people would be convinced of the tremendous value a Dear Mom letter has to Canadian military history. Carol Reid, the collections manager at the Canadian War Museum Archives, needs no convincing. She relishes the job of helping researchers find these important documents, and gets really excited when prospecting leads to ‘gold.’

What follows is a culmination of one search, carried out over a couple of days at the museum. Also included in this package of letters to and from service personnel is correspondence provided to us by Ethel M. King-Shaw of Calgary whose father, Walter King, enlisted along with his father and brother in 1915. The oldest boy, Arthur, was killed in action on April 19, 1918. We complete the package with correspondence from modern conflicts, including Afghanistan, plus an anonymous letter left this year on the windshield of a veteran’s car parked in downtown Toronto. So sit back and turn up the volume.

FIRST WORLD WAR

Alfred E. Baggs was 29 when he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Aug. 7, 1914. He was 5-10, had light brown hair, blue eyes and a shamrock tattooed on his left wrist. A photo on file at the Canadian War Museum shows him sitting next to fellow soldiers with a smile on his face and a dog on his lap. On April 23, 1915, the 2nd Battalion, which he belonged to, was ordered to dig in along the southeast edge of Kitcheners’ Wood near Ypres, Belgium. Historian Tim Cook in his book, At The Sharp End, notes that the battalion was to relieve what was left of the 10th and 16th battalions. “Officers and patrols who were sent out to reconnoitre the battlefield disappeared after the sound of heavy gunfire—an ominous sign. Nonetheless, a company from the 2nd Bn. was ordered forward in another clumsy attack. They advanced under the cover of a heavy mist and before dawn’s first light. About half way to the wood, the mist suddenly evaporated, leaving the company of 200 men vulnerable on the open ground.” Baggs, who kept a diary, survived and penned the following letter to his wife.

May 6, 1915.

My Very Dear Evie. As you can see from the heading of this letter we have again crossed the frontier and are now billeted in a large town for a few days rest and to get our battalion reorganized as in the recent fighting in Belgium we lost men heavily. Our own battalion for instance sustained many casualties and nearly every other battalion in the Canadian contingent suffered equally if not a more severe loss in officers and men. Consequently, it has been necessary to fetch out new drafts from those stationed at Thorncliffe. These arrived yesterday.

This is quite a fine town and the civilian population still remains. All the stores are open…in spite of the fact that one portion of the firing line is not much more than four miles away. So far the Germans have not bombarded the place, though occasionally one of their aeroplanes makes an appearance and drops a bomb or two which has not done very much damage to the buildings but has caused casualties among civilians. I would not be at all surprised if they very soon shelled this place and burned it down as it is within easy reach of their guns.

I see by your last letter that you have…received news of what we have been through recently, so I will give you a few particulars.

Well Evie, the first inkling we got that all was not well was the sight of some of the French artillery retreating through the town in which we were formerly billeted, with their horses minus the guns and a German aeroplane above throwing out signals and giving the range to the enemy’s gunners. At the time I was on piquet duty in the town and we reported to headquarters and were told to go back to our billets and stand to.

We waited about an hour and a half before we marched off. This would be about 8:30 at night. We got up to the firing line all right and were extended to two-pace intervals between each man. We were supporting the 10th and 16th battalions who had made a charge and had got badly cut up. But in spite of that, they drove the enemy before them and this is where we lost a good many men. Two sections of our platoon were ordered to charge, but the rifle and machine-gun fire was so severe it was quite impossible for the men who were not hit to make any headway without getting wiped out. Consequently, they were ordered to retire and…as dawn was breaking, we commenced to dig ourselves in as we were directly in front of the enemy’s lines without cover. You may now believe me that we dug that trench as fast as it was possible!

When daylight broke we had a look towards the enemy’s lines and in between the two trenches lay our fellows, dead and wounded. It was impossible to get to the wounded during the day and so they had to remain where they fell until dark when we sent out parties to fetch them.

We had no rations and so I was ordered with five others to go out…to get them. It was about midnight when I got back. The Huns were sending up star shells and sending volleys into us until dawn….

During the next morning my platoon was sent up to reinforce the front trench. To get there we had to go through a patch of mustard (grass), and after this there was about 100 (metres) of open ground to cross to the trench. We went in by section with about 50 paces…between each man. You will understand that the mustard plants only reached up to our knees…. When it was my turn to move, I proceeded by crawling along on my stomach. I had not got very far into the mustard patch when I ran across two of our fellows, one of whom was wounded and one making his way back to the dressing station…. I then learned that five of our men had been killed or wounded…. The going was very slow and tiring as we had our full pack on, and it was very hot. I made for a point in the mustard patch that would bring me nearest to our trench. When I got there I rested to get my wind, and then ran as fast as I’ve ever run across a piece of open ground. Shortly after, others followed.

In the trench our officer informed us that he had seen a party of about 30 Huns in the wood immediately in front of us. We let in 15 rounds rapid fire which we kept up at intervals. We were in the trench about two hours when we got the order to retire as the enemy was massing in front of us and outnumbered us very considerably. We got out of the trench one at a time and returned the same way we came, but the enemy caught us and turned machine-guns on us from right and left. We lost several men.

When I got to the reserve tunnel I was so fatigued that I couldn’t run anymore and had to discard my pack. I walked the rest of the distance to our last line trench whilst the Huns were sending over “coal boxes” and following up with rifle fire. Later the enemy advanced, but we were able to drive them off with machine-guns.

For a week we have been without sleep…. I guess I should quit talking about the war, and ask you how you’ve been, Dearie…. There is one thing I haven’t mentioned and that is the gasses used by the enemy. When we were in the reserve trenches they shelled us and our eyes were soon smarting with the vapour produced. If one closed one’s eyes they smarted worse than when open. Personally, I do not see how we are likely to make any progress against the enemy…if he continues to use this gas. It is impossible for a man to stand it. I saw about 30 British soldiers retiring…some of them were quite incapable of speech, others were vomiting as if they would bring their hearts up, and all were staggering about…. They were all stupefied and did not know where they were going.

Let me have all the news from home as soon as you can Dear. I will write again shortly. I remain, with love ever yours, Alfred.

Soldiers take advantage of  the writing facilities inside a Canadian Legion recreation hut in England. [PHOTO: A. LOUIS JARCHE]
Soldiers take advantage of the writing facilities inside a Canadian Legion recreation hut in England.
PHOTO: A. LOUIS JARCHE

While visiting relatives in England, Mary Matilda Bird enlisted at one of the more than 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments. These detachments were created in England to provide assistance to hospitals. The people assigned to them became known as VADs and by the outbreak of war in 1914 there were some 74,000 VADs, two-thirds of them women and girls. During the war some 38,000 VADs worked as assistant nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks. At first, authorities did not allow VADs access to the Western Front. When this restriction was removed in 1915, these women volunteers over the age of 23 were allowed to go to the front. Between 1915 and 1919, Bird worked in Egypt, England and Russia and wrote many letters to her father and sister describing the effects of war on mind and body.

No. 19 General Hospital. Alexandria, Egypt. Oct. 15, 1915. 1 a.m.

My dear. Everyone is quiet or comparatively so…. While the calm lasts I’ll scribble a few lines. If my thoughts are disjointed and broken, don’t think my brain is fogged, but interruptions are frequent…and conditions are not conducive to letter writing. I am glad to be on night duty as the days are very, very hot…. No. 19 was formerly a German hospital…. There is accommodation for 450 or 500, but tonight beds have been put up in every conceivable corner and corridor in preparation for the unfortunates who are to arrive on the hospital ships early in the morning….It is heartbreaking to look along the long rows of beds…. I can assure you we have some extremely bad cases, but some of our “impossibles” have passed through the most critical stages…. The dysentery cases are innumerable….There are several new faces again tonight. Then there is our little drummer (boy) of 15. Doesn’t it seem criminal to send such a youngster away out here—and he is such a child in every way! Others have boys now that age at the front, and so they number up.Again I am fortunate in having an ideal nursing sister. She is perfectly swell and just the type of person one would choose. Rosy cheeked and comfortable looking with eyes that quite close up when she laughs…. She has the patience of a saint and a huge sense of humour….Au revoir Kiddo! Mary.

Private Percival Frank Green enlisted while employed as a book finisher at Warwick Bros. & Rutter Company in Toronto. The date was April 14, 1915. He arrived in France on Dec. 7, 1916, part of a group of reinforcements sent from the 124th Battalion to the 60th Bn. Less than a month after arriving, Green was severely wounded during grenade training. It was reported that his greatcoat “saved him from being more seriously wounded.” The 22-year-old private wrote many letters to his mother, and we begin with one describing time in England and his journey across the Atlantic.

Sept. 6, 1916. Bramshott Camp, England.

Dear Mother. Just a few lines of news from the “Ome” land. I am getting on fine. We are drilling more and more every day, plenty of route marches with packs and blankets and heavy rifle. I am considering myself a soldier now…. We have night manoeuvres twice every week…. Well ma, we started our stove today in our hut and it makes a big difference. We use that soft coal and it is awfully dirty stuff. We had been waiting for stovepipes, and some mornings it got so cold I could hardly sleep…. I know you will be anxious to know about (the trip across the ocean). Just after being on the water a week we were in the Danger Zone, and kept a sharp look out for subs. A day before we were escorted by destroyers. We had guns on the boat and rounds of ammunition…. We kept our rifles in lifeboats and one man was on guard all the time in each boat. We travelled very slow and when the destroyer met us we put on full speed and broke away from the other boats. We were the first boat to land at Liverpool. I enjoyed the trip, but was glad when we landed….  

“Somewhere” in France. Dec. 11, 1916.

Dear Mother. Just a few lines to say I am quite well. I am now in billets in rear of the trenches and quite comfortable…. This has been my first opportunity to write since leaving the base and I will try to write once a week….

In Hospital. “Somewhere” in France. Dec. 31, 1916.

Dear Mother. I suppose you will know by this time that I have been wounded. I got it in the right foot. It was an accident and it happened at the bombing school. I was to go up to the trenches that very day and before going we had to finish our course. It happened yesterday—the 30th—at 10:50 a.m. I underwent an operation last night at 6 p.m. and it was necessary to amputate four toes and part of my foot. I will be moved back to England soon…. There were 12 of us in the class and we fired 24 bombs between us and had several duds among them. We got orders to gather up the duds and while inspecting them one went off and wounded the 12 of us. I came out the lucky one. Several fellows lost their legs…. I will be laid up for several weeks…will be all right in time. Sincerely, Percy.

From a battlefield in Northwest Europe, Private R.A. Snelgrove writes home to family in London, Ont. The date is April 9, 1945. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]
From a battlefield in Northwest Europe, Private R.A. Snelgrove writes home to family in London, Ont. The date is April 9, 1945.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

Private Walter King enlisted at the same time as his brother, Arthur King, and his father, Henry Clement King. They signed up at Wainwright, Alta., on Dec. 7, 1915, and trained at Currie Barracks, Calgary. Walter was assigned to the 151st Battalion, and then transferred to the 11th Reserve Bn. From Nov. 30, 1916, to 1919 he served with the 5th Canadian Bn. During one of the battles in France, he was injured and placed in a French home to recuperate. His letters describe action at Vimy Ridge and the advance toward the well-fortified Hindenburg Line.

“Somewhere” in France. Jan. 26, 1917.

Dear Mother. I received your letter of the 18th today. Your last parcel seemed to have come out quite quickly for it got here with my birthday parcel. You certainly have done well to send all that out. I think we are pretty well fixed up now for some time, but anytime you are sending anything out to Father or me slip a refill for my stove in. I usually make a cup of coca…to warm up before going to bed….It is very cold here and the ground is covered with snow. Everything is frozen up. The sky is clear, both day and night, so Fritz’s aeroplanes are out again. There was one today right above us, but he was very high. A British warplane went up after him, but it took him a long time to gain such a height. He had to go up in spirals and by the time he got there, Fritz was beating it in the other direction. I don’t think our airman knew he had gone for he kept flying around in a circle as though he were looking for him, but the anti-aircraft guns had spotted him and gave him several shots to scare him off.We are billeted in a barn again right in the town. The people of the house allow us to sit in the kitchen by the fire while it is so cold. We expect the weather to break up soon. Our men are all in the trenches now, and we are busy getting up a Pierrot concert for when they come out. They are four days in, and four out. I suppose father will be telling you all about it.

At first we thought we were going to be billeted in a proper house in the next town, one kilometre away, so we were disappointed when we heard we had to move here. However, a 10th Battalion man was telling me tonight that our famous billet was “knocked to pieces” by a German shell yesterday.

I got a Xmas card from Mr. & Mrs. Aykroyd, and a box of chocolates from the children. The roads are hard now, so it is much easier to move our artillery about.

I don’t think there is anything more to tell just now. With best of love to all—and every confidence in British success this year—your son, Walter.

“Somewhere” in France. April 16, 1917.

Dear Mother. I guess it is about time I sent a line home again. I had not had a letter from Preston for a good many days now.

I suppose father will have been telling you that we have been sent up the line the last few days so have had no time to ourselves. You will see by the papers too of the big fight of the Canadians. Perhaps Germany will sit up and take notice if she gets a few more smashes.

We had quite a few casualties, but nothing compared with the German losses. Their own official report announces the smash up of two divisions, over 30,000 men. Many were killed, a lot wounded, but the majority taken prisoner.

When the fight was over the street was lined with hospital transports waiting to get into the hospital. I was helping to carry the stretchers in for a while. The German wounded were mixed right in with ours, and were treated alike. What surprises me most is the number of them that can speak English.

The next afternoon we went up the line, past our old front line trenches, over “no man’s land” and right into the old German support lines. Our artillery was firing over our heads all the time. Fritz shelled us a little, but our artillery was so active that he thought it best to quit.

The land was in an awful mess. There was not a yard of level ground left, for it is just one mass of shell holes, and huge mine craters. We were out until half past one in the morning collecting waste ammunition and carrying up water to the trenches. We had some time getting home in the dark and went quite a long way round, tripping over wire entanglements and slipping in shell holes and trenches full of water. My puttees are pretty well ripped to pieces.

Two days later we went up again. It is about seven or eight miles from here so the walk there and back was quite a stunt. We started at 5:30 in the morning and got back about 9:30. We were off at the same time next day and got back at about 5 o’clock. At six the same day we got orders to pack up and move out. We went about a mile and waited there for further orders which were supposed to come, but never did, so had to go back and sleep on the floor of the town hall.

Now that we have pushed the Germans back we will have to move further on. Our big guns are moving up all the time…. So where is the famous Hindenburg Line now?

I have not seen an instrument for some days now. I guess we’ll all be pretty well out of practice by the time we get at them again. We are all quite well and, to put it all in a nutshell are having a “whale of a time.” Hope this finds you all well at home. A good pair of socks would be appreciated. Walter.

France. April 18, 1917.

Dear Mother. Got your letter of the 12th today. So you know in England that we have taken Vimy Ridge. I see by tonight’s paper that we are now fighting in the suburbs of Lens. If we capture that we will have done something for the population in peacetime was 32,000. We got Lievin with 25,000 yesterday. Once we get them out of the trenches the rest will be easy picking. Large bodies of cavalry have been passing through here lately, so they must be getting ready to chase them up when the infantry start them running.

The papers will show you the importance of Vimy Ridge, supposed to have been the Kaiser’s greatest stronghold on this front. Many divisions of French troops have fallen trying to take it when they held that part of the line.

A German sergeant-major taken prisoner said to the fellows, “Camerads, you take Vimy Ridge, you win the war.”

Besides carrying up ammunition and water supplies…we were sent up on a burying party. We buried (72) 5th Battalion men, but the dead Fritzs lying around was a terror. Nearly every dug-out was piled up with them.

…Major Lowery had two fingers blown off his left hand, one off his right, was shot in the left thigh with shrapnel, in the left foot with shrapnel, and sniped in the right knee as he was being carried out on the stretcher….

Father was over and looked at the 7th Bn. casualties after the big fight, but Arthur’s name wasn’t there so he must be all right. The 7th are not here now, but we will see them again in a few days…. Best wishes to all at home. Walter.

“Somewhere” in France. Nov. 11th, 1918.

Dear Mother. The great European war is over! All last night we expected the news to come through, but we did not know officially until 10 o’clock this morning that the armistice had been signed. No doubt London, Paris, Washington and Rome are seething with excitement at the conclusion of the world’s greatest struggle, but there are no celebrations of any kind here tonight. Probably it is because most of the boys cannot yet realize that what they set out to do has been accomplished, yet apart from all that there are really no means of celebrating here. It is raining out, and the town is dead quiet. Today we had a general inspection and stood out six hours in the cold rain. Parades are going on as usual, and it appears as though the period of demobilization is only going to leave everyone with a more bitter memory of army life than is necessary.

I received two letters from you today, and am glad to hear you talk the way you do. Now that everything is over I have a few things to say. I need not dwell on any of my own previous remarks on the termination of the war. You may think what you wish of those, but events have proved my words. To you and Uncle Walter, the only two British relatives I own, there must have arisen as there has to me, a great victory from more than one point of view. As for the rest, they will know more of what I think of them when next we meet, and the thought must flash through their minds…. To those who still credit the German nation with being clever I pity them…. What about the boys who were holding on against overwhelming odds in the spring, while these people in England were admiring the cleverness of the Hun? What about the boys who were fighting their way through Cambrai, while the people at home were saying, “You’ll never get through the Hindenburg Line—you’ve got a hard nut to crack this time, etc!” That was splendid support, wasn’t it? Just over four years is a marvellously short time to finish a war of this nature, but it would never have lasted this long if everyone at home had been like you and Uncle Walter, and at the termination of it all it is some consolation to know that the great sacrifice made by Arthur and the many others has not been for nothing. You yourself have done all that could be expected… and much more. Arthur and I often spoke of that together out here and since he has gone, hard though it has been…I am glad to say you never once doubted the success of the cause for which Arthur gave his life…. With heartfelt thanks for all you have done for us, and hoping to be home again soon, your affectionate son, Walter.

SECOND WORLD WAR

Taken prisoner during the Dieppe Raid on Aug. 19, 1942, Private Jack Griss of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry ended up at Stalag VIIIB (later called Stalag 344). In February 1943 he underwent surgery for a hernia suffered months earlier while in action. As a PoW, Griss experienced being tied up with ropes and chains. In February 1944, he was transferred to Stalag IID at Stargaard in Pomerania, and towards the very end of the war in Europe he endured a 77-day hunger march from Stargaard across Germany to Hanover, then back to Schwerin. The march ended for Griss when he suffered the complete collapse of his bowels. He was delivered to a PoW hospital at Schwerin, but medical services were nonexistent. Following liberation in May 1945, Griss was flown to England where he was hospitalized at Aldershot. It is interesting to note that news of his fate—after he was reported missing on Aug. 22, 1942—came very slowly. He was officially reported as a PoW on Dec. 18, 1942—nearly four months after the Dieppe Raid. Word that Griss was no longer a prisoner reached his wife, Olga, on May 21, 1945. Throughout his letters, which were written on German PoW stationary, Griss writes with a reassuring voice.

Oct. 10, 1942.

Hello dear. I am still keeping the old chin up. Hope you are well. The boys here are all cheerful. We are waiting for that day of news from home. Are you being kept informed of our whereabouts by the Canadian government? Also hope your money allowance is continuing. Well, dear, carry on with things until I return. Keep smiling in spite of everything. I don’t know how long it takes for these letters to reach you, but hope it isn’t too long. Do trust that your health is good, dear, for I realize just what a terrible strain you must be under…. So don’t worry darling—your husband is planning and thinking of the day of our reunion. We certainly will appreciate life then…. Give my love to Mother, Elsie. I wish you all the best for Xmas. Don’t let my being a PoW upset your carrying on. Fondest love, your own Jack.

Nov. 28, 1942.

Dear Olga. How are you dear? Received your first letter on the 24th also cablegram yesterday. Glad to hear you are well. I feel like a million after receiving news from home…. We have snow here, but it is not as cold as Canada. Best love, Jack.

Jan. 22, 1943.

Dear Olga. I hope you are all well. Have hardly got over the shock of dear Mother’s death. Hope to get a letter off to you next chance. Lovingly yours, Jack.

Dec. 31, 1944.

Dear Olga. Thanks very much for the three books, also letters…. It is good to hear you are all keeping well. I hope you enjoyed Xmas. We passed it off very quiet, even though it was the third Xmas for us Dieppe boys behind the old barbed wire…. At present there is a snowstorm raging…. It is four years since I left you, and sometimes it seems longer…. The boys here are still keeping the old Canadian cheerfulness going…. I’ll soon be home. Oceans of love from Jack.

Soldiers write home in January 1941. [PHOTO: WILLIAM KENSIT, EDMONTON]
Soldiers write home in January 1941.
PHOTO: WILLIAM KENSIT, EDMONTON

Private Daniel MacDonald made use of Salvation Army letterhead to write to his family at Louisbourg, N.S. Veterans of the war will remember the phrase at the top of the letterhead: “Keep in touch with the folks back home. On Active Service with the Canadian Forces.” The bottom of the following letter included the message: “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year.”

Nov. 29, 1943.

My dear son. Just a word to say I am in good health, and do hope that these few words find you in the best of health also, Danny boy. I wish I was home with you now. You must be some man and some boss also for you must have your hands full to put order around that house while I am away…. Lots of love and hugs and kisses. Bye, bye for now. Daddy XXXXXXX OOOOOOO.


Pilot Officer Norm McCleery
headed overseas in the summer of 1942. In letters home, he writes about touring famous sites in Scotland and being impressed by the hospitality afforded Canadian service personnel in Edinburgh. He also makes it clear to the folks back home how important it is to receive letters.

Dec. 11, 1942.

Dear Norma. I found [your last two letters] here when I got back from leave. Your second letter arrived just before I went on leave and so I haven’t had a chance to answer them till today…because as soon as I got back [from leave] I had to make two trips on successive nights to Italy. Turin was where we dropped our loads those evenings. The Italian trips were long and tiring, but not particularly dangerous as the Italians have practically no defences to speak of.

Soldiers stand next to a Canadian Legion War Services sign encouraging soldiers to write home. [PHOTO: A. LOUIS JARCHE]
Soldiers stand next to a Canadian Legion War Services sign encouraging soldiers to write home.
PHOTO: A. LOUIS JARCHE

Pilot Officer Charles Edward McDonald was taken prisoner after being shot down during the early stages of the war. He wrote regularly to his wife who was living in the United States.

Sept. 16, 1941.

Dearest Darling. Surprise. Here I am in another country. Enemy territory; in other words I am a prisoner. It is not half as bad as I thought it would be. I have been here only since yesterday and will probably be here about a week. I was shot down in France on Aug. 21 and was in hospital there until I came here. I have me a new set of eyebrows and lashes, and will soon have a new set of nails on my left hand, otherwise I am good as new. Our activities here are limited, but we have lots of time for exercise and reading. I will only be able to write you two of these and four cards per month. Food here is pretty good. I wish you would send me underwear. Also hope to receive heavy socks, some kind of cap and sweat shirt, cheap fountain pen and ink. Also please send chocolate, Sunday comic sections and sports sections…. Your loving husband, Charles.

Leading Aircraftsman Miller Gore Brittain described for his parents some of the bombing missions he participated in. He also wrote about his plans of becoming a war artist as well as his immediate reaction to news that the Red Army had captured Warsaw, Poland.

Jan. 17, 1945.

Dear Mother and Dad. In a week from today we shall be on leave. We have only three trips left to do so it is possible, but not at all probable that we may be through by that time. The target last night was Magdeburg, about a hundred miles [southwest] of Berlin…. I have never seen a more impressive sight than last night’s target. There was no cloud and the air was beautifully clear. The trip took six hours and 35 minutes which makes it our longest on the squadron. We have wonderful navigational aids which I operate for the navigator. Fortunately, Vic is a very good navigator and keeps us on track which is very important for safety.I sent the first pair of pyjamas you sent to the laundry and I am glad to report shrinkage which makes them about right. I sold the shirts, but don’t bother to send any more as I can get excellent ones here in my size. My uniform fits very well. The greatcoat hasn’t come yet but I have a sort of raincoat which serves well enough. They give us a good supply of coupons so I am able to get practically any thing I need. Just this minute the BBC has announced the capture of Warsaw. They are now playing the Polish and Soviet anthems, and it is quite moving. I suppose the people of Warsaw have suffered more than anyone. It would be great if I could get a leave and go home before starting as a war artist. Believe me, I intend to try…. I am looking forward to trying the war art game, but if it doesn’t live up to my hopes I think I shall return…. Yours with love, Miller.

While in France during the Second World War, brothers Doug and Pete Kennedy of Waterloo, Ont., get a chuckle out of a letter from home. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C053582]
While in France during the Second World War, brothers Doug and Pete Kennedy of Waterloo, Ont., get a chuckle out of a letter from home.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C053582

Frederick Hamilton Scythes was a member of the Caterpillar Club—an association of parachutists who have successfully used a parachute in a “genuine emergency descent.” He wrote to his wife regularly as a PoW, and followed the first postcard message below with a letter dated the same day. In the latter he describes being shot down over enemy territory. He appears to be taking everything in stride, and uses every opportunity to assure his wife that he is fine.

May 14, 1943. 

My Dearest Wife. Look darling, this is not propaganda. I am well and we are being fairly treated so don’t worry…hope we’ll be together soon. Keep Jack posted and give him my best for all the others. Harry Jay is here and fit. You are allowed to send one clothing parcel (10 lbs) every three months and cigarettes through British American Tobacco Co…frequently. Please take care of yourself dear. Love Frederick.

 May 14, 1943.

Dearest. Sorry [about the shortness of] my first letter. I had so much to say and so little space to say it. We were shot down in flames over Holland and I was able to get out at 15,000 with my chute on but holding the loose folds to my chest as I had grabbed the ripcord…and it opened in the kite. The Germans told me Sutton and Emonons were dead while Semper, Norton, Horne (flesh wound on leg) and Godfrey (broken arm) and myself were taken prisoner. This will also confirm deaths of H.E. Davey and F/L Cawan, pilot, RAF reputedly of a Stirling crew…. We are allowed four letters and three postcards each month so almost all will be to you to pass on news to the family…. Please keep your chin up and please don’t stop loving your old man. Freddie. Please send your photo.

KOREAN WAR

Private Elliott Gordon MacKay enlisted as John Morgan MacKay (the name of his cousin). The letters filed under his name at the Canadian War Museum describe daily routines, family matters and events in Korea. MacKay was 18 when he was killed in action during a ground attack carried out by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry near Sogu, Korea, on Feb. 23, 1951. His final resting place is the United Nations Cemetery in Tanggok, a suburb of Busan, South Korea.

Fort Lewis. Nov. 25, 1950.

Dear Mother & Dad. Received Dad’s letter today and was sure glad to hear from him. I guess you should have been hearing from me long before this, but you know me, always putting things off. I am leaving in a couple of hours on the boat so I thought I would drop you a couple of quick lines to let you know I will be able to give you all the news when I write again—that will be on the boat. Well, so long for now. Write soon. Love Elliott. P.S. I haven’t heard from Mother since I got back and it will be another 21 days before I will have news from home. That’s how long the trip is going to take. P.S. I am on ship now. I hope I can mail these.

2 PPCLI, CAPO 5002, Postmaster, Van., B.C. 26 Feb. 51.

Dear Mrs. MacKay. As your son’s platoon commander, I am taking this opportunity of writing you to express my deep sympathy about his death. John was a fine soldier and a credit to his unit. The action in which he lost his life was one of the first major attacks we had launched on the enemy. Several of his comrades were killed or wounded….

It is always hard to write a letter of sympathy to the family of a man who has been so close to you under such trying conditions, but please believe me when I tell you your grief is shared by all of us here. Your son was a fine soldier and you may well be proud of him. Respectively, R.D. Whittaker, Lieut.

Rideau Hall. The Chancellery. November 19, 1991.

Dear Mrs. MacKay: On behalf of the Governor General, I am pleased to enclose a Canadian Volunteer Service Medal for Korea which has been awarded posthumously to your late son Mr. Elliott Gordon MacKay. Also included is a pamphlet entitled “Wearing of Orders, Decorations and Medals.”

I would be grateful if you would acknowledge receipt of the Medal by completing the form provided and returning it in the enclosed addressed envelope at your earliest convenience.

A Canadian soldier in Northwest Europe in December 1944 reacts to some news from home. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA061633]
A Canadian soldier in Northwest Europe in December 1944 reacts to some news from home.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA061633

Corporal George Edward Griffiths served with B Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. He was wounded and then captured by the Chinese Peoples Army on Hill 355, known as Little Gibraltar, on Oct. 23, 1952. While a prisoner of war, Griffiths wrote to his wife but the letters never reached her, according to the book, Deadlock In Korea, by Ted Barris. It is presumed those letters were held up by Chinese censors, and so for a long time his wife did not know whether he was missing in action or dead. In late 1952, Griffiths got a letter off to a friend, Richard Ogden of Brighton, Ont. The letter to Ogden, which contains much small talk, clearly reflects the handiwork of Chinese censors. It was accompanied by a typed letter from the Department of National Defence informing Ogden that Griffiths’ letter was mailed to them first by the Communists at Panmunjom. The war museum file notes that the letter was also censored by overseas British Commonwealth authorities for the purpose of obtaining information regarding other United Nations soldiers who had been reported as missing in action. In 1953, Griffiths was exchanged for Chinese prisoners at Camp Freedom in Panmunjom.

Hello Dick

I guess you will be surprised to hear from me, but I guess it is my turn to write, ha, ha. I am a prisoner of war of the Chinese Volunteers. I was captured on Oct. 23 and I have been treated well and am doing fine. I was wounded but not seriously, just think of the war stories I can tell, eh. We had a Thanksgiving supper here on Oct. 27th. We had pumpkin turnovers, fried chicken, candy, peanuts, apples and peas and sake which is like our beer only white.We are now getting ready for Christmas. The Chinese recognize all our holidays and try to make it as much like home as they can. They are very good to us, we have warm clothing and quarters and substantial meals.We also have sports and lots of reading (material) and our own clubroom. The other day they gave us boxing gloves and they really went over big. Our moral (sic) is quite good. We sure are praying for peace real soon…. I can receive mail, so please don’t forget to write. It takes quite a while to receive a letter, but I will be waiting for one. These darn wars sure make you miss the comforts of home. Never again will I leave Canada. I guess this winter they will be playing a lot of hockey. We have a little snow here. It is quite cold. The weather is similar to home. Write soon. Bye for now. Your friend, George. Merry Christmas + Happy New Year.  

MODERN WAR AND OPERATIONS

Inside her tiny cottage apartment at the Valley Vista Seniors’ Complex in Springdale, Nfld., 86-year-old Gladys Osmond stares at her computer screen and from her keyboard commands what is known worldwide as the Granny Brigade (See sidebar). During the last 20 years, Gladys, along with a closely knit corps of residents, has mailed more than 100,000 letters to members of the Canadian Forces serving abroad. The recipients have responded in kind, and so as a salute to the Granny Brigade, we present a selection of correspondence.

19 April 2002.

Dear Gladys. I don’t know if you remember me or not, but we have written to each other before, while I was on a peacekeeping tour in February-September 2000 in Bosnia. And we still managed to correspond after I got back to Canada.

I find it quite the coincidence that having lost contact with you that I got handed a card with your name and address on it. So I thought I would drop you a line to let you know I am on another mission, this time in Afghanistan.

I’ve included some info that I have been keeping to give you an idea of what it is like here. Today is a very sad day. Four of my comrades died from a very horrible accident. Tonight we will be putting their remains on an aircraft to send to their loved ones which will be very hard for us to do.

We also have eight other soldiers injured, two of them critical and we are praying for their recovery. The other six have various wounds, but should eventually return to us. I would imagine by the time you get this letter all of this will be in the news. Hopefully we will find a reason why our soldiers were killed needlessly.

I will be passing your letter to another soldier who is also from Newfoundland and is with me on this tour…. Take care of yourself.

Jocelyn Pemberton.

24 March 2004.

Dear Gladys. Thank you for your letter, but more importantly thank you for the continued communication and support to the Canadian soldiers deployed…around the world…. Those soldiers are here representing all that is good about our country—searching for peace for those who do not have it, helping those where the poverty and destitution are terrible (and it is here) and, by stabilizing countries like Afghanistan….

The weather here is not quite like what you have in Springdale…. The sky is exceptionally clear, but sometimes blotted by dust storms caused by frequent high winds. We did have a couple of days of snow in early February, but nothing that a Canadian could not survive in a short sleeve shirt.

The medical system here is almost non-existent. About half the children have visible skin diseases or parasites that could be cured or controlled by basic care, but they do not have it.

Each day all of us give thanks for the privileged lives we live in Canada, and remember our obligation to help those in need. That is what we do…. I send my best wishes and thanks to you and the Granny Brigade…. Your pride in their achievements causes them to believe that the long months of danger, separation from family and the sacrifices they make daily are valuable and appreciated….

God Bless

Rick Hillier, Lieutenant-General, Commander International Security Assistance Force, Kabul, Afghanistan.

19 January 2006.

Ms. Gladys Osmond, Cottage #28, Springdale, NL, A0J 1T0.

Dear Ms. Osmond.

Thank you for your letter of 18 November 2005 informing me of your recent activities to support our troops. On behalf of the Canadian Forces, I wish to thank you for all the time you spend corresponding with our deployed men and women in uniform. It is always a great pleasure to receive news from home when deployed, and it serves as a reminder that our important work is appreciated at home…..

Sincerely, R.J. Hillier, General.

Aug. 28, 2008.

Hi Gladys. Today we are around Jamaica and we were supposed to dock in Kingston, but the port is closed due to Hurricane Gustav. I don’t know if you heard of this hurricane or not. So now we are still on the ship and sailing all the way around to reach Montego Bay which is also closed but should be open tomorrow when the hurricane passes over. The weather is not that rough where we are, but we are travelling fast so there is a lot of movement in the ship. More so than usual! Hopefully we will dock tomorrow and enjoy a couple days rest before resuming activities in the Caribbean. Who knows, maybe HMCS St. John’s will dock in St. John’s at some point. Fred Joseph.

June 18, 2009.

Hi Gladys, it’s your “old” army friend from Sudan, Virginia Schonhoffer. I was in Juba from July 07 to January 08, and it was always nice to receive your letters and e-mails. I returned to Sudan in May, and will stay until the end of November—first in Juba and then in Yambio.

Congratulations on your book. I will have to buy a copy and then visit you in Newfoundland and get your autograph! Right now, things are OK. The rainy season is beginning, but it is the best time of year, so this is a good thing. It is plenty warm—around 35 degrees, but that is normal. Heading off on patrol now. Take care. Virginia Schonhoffer.

April 3, 2009.

Dear Gladys. Thank you for all your kind words, letters, stories and jokes. You are certainly an inspiration to the men and women who serve!

My name is Sherry Lynn Rodgers and I am currently deployed in Sierra Leone, Africa. I have been in Sierra Leone since November 2008 and will be leaving on June 11, 2009. I am 36 years old and have been serving with the Canadian military since 1990. I have been deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan (three times) and now in Africa.

Oh, by the way, I was born in Port aux Basques, Nfld., and mom and dad still live in Codroy Valley. I am also very proud to say that I am a Newfie. My husband, David, just left Afghanistan yesterday and is on his way to Cyprus for his decompression. He then arrives home to Petawawa on the 7th of April for good! David was deployed this time to Afghanistan (it was his second tour) for almost eight months.

You truly are an inspiration and I wish you all the best. God bless!

Sergeant Sherry Lynn Rodgers.

After dining at a popular restaurant in downtown Toronto, Second World War veteran Doug Stewart, 86, returned to his car and discovered that someone had left a letter on the windshield. The writer, says Stewart, had obviously seen the veteran’s licence plate.I always try to thank my boys—the vets who gave us a country along with the best years of their lives—some their very lives…. Sixty-five years ago, D-Day changed the course of history and Canada’s finest generation gave their all selflessly. What they and you did will always be remembered….My father was a Polish Jew who survived and came to Canada to start over. He gave me my life as much as you boys did. I owe you my love and gratitude you beautiful old sweats. I try to make the world a better place every day of my life so that what was given to us years ago by Canada’s greatest generation will never be taken for granted, and will always be cherished. God Bless You Boys. N.

TREASURES IN THE ATTIC

The route wartime letters take to get to a museum or public archives can be rather circuitous and take many years.

Here’s how it often plays out: Mr. and Mrs. Smith are cleaning up the basement or attic when Mrs. Smith notices an old cardboard box marked “Grampa’s Stuff.” Staring down at the tattered lid, Mrs. Smith has a flashback. She remembers Mom telling her years ago that during the Great War, Grampa wrote dozens of letters back before he was a grampa—back even before he was a dad. She was told the letters were written from Somewhere in France and addressed to his Sweetheart back home.

Inside the box, tucked beneath an old cribbage board and a tobacco tin full of old matchbooks, Mrs. Smith finds another box containing the wartime letters. She and Mr. Smith aren’t experts on the war, but they do understand the personal value of the find. They would like to keep the letters, but they don’t have a lot of storage space. That’s when they decide to donate them to an archives or museum.

If not always slow, the route to the archives or museum can take unexpected turns and be tinged with mystery. Take the beautifully preserved package of First World War postcards found not in a basement or attic, but in a ditch along Ontario’s busy Highway 401.

This collection, which is now safely preserved at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, consists of 130 regular postcards and 42 silk embroidered postcards—all of them written by Private Martin John Suter, mostly to his “sweetheart” Flo.

The colour image on the front of each silk postcard is hand embroidered on strips of very fine organdie or cotton cloth. To appreciate their value, it is good to understand that the silk designs were crafted by French or Belgian women in their homes and then sent to factories for mounting on postcards. The designs, which included badges, crests, flags and the words “Dear Mother,” proved popular with Allied servicemen.

The name of the motorist who found the postcards and donated them to the museum is not publicly known. The discovery was made in 1967 and the donor decided to forward them to the museum in memory of her grandfather.

The museum notes that Private Martin John Suter was born in 1891, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on June 19, 1916, and served in the 122nd Battalion. Around 1917 the battalion was absorbed into the Canadian Forestry Corps. Suter survived the war and sailed for Canada on March 1, 1919. It is believed that he soon married his sweetheart.

SIGNED • CENSORED • DELIVERED

by Tom MacGregor

War is not all fighting, marching, drilling, eating and sleeping. There are periods of great lulls and loneliness. It was at those times that most soldiers took the time to write a letter home to relatives and loved ones to tell them how they were doing or at least that they were still alive.

Members of the Pioneer Corps unload Christmas mail at 2 Canadian Corps Army Post Office in  the Netherlands, December 1944. [PHOTO: B.J. GLOSTER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA137637]
Members of the Pioneer Corps unload Christmas mail at 2 Canadian Corps Army Post Office in the Netherlands, December 1944.
PHOTO: B.J. GLOSTER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA137637

From these letters, we get much of our personal and social history of the First and Second World Wars. The letters were treasured and there were diaries and datebooks to be read and read again.

The letters themselves had often taken a curious journey. Writing letters home was a way of not only filling time, but building morale and reminding the soldiers of why they had volunteered in the first place. Groups such as The Royal Canadian Legion, the Red Cross and Salvation Army supplied writing paper and pens.

Once written, the letters were assigned to the Canadian Postal Corps which had been created by the government on May 3, 1911. It would go on to provide postal service not just to the army but to the navy and air force as well. Its emblem was a post-horn and its motto was Servire Armatis—To Serve The Soldier.

During the First and Second World Wars the postal corps provided field post offices that followed troops throughout Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. A detachment even served in Siberia in 1919.

The corps would eventually be granted the title Royal Canadian Postal Corps by the Queen on June 20, 1961, and in many ways continues today in the postal service offered throughout the Canadian Forces community.

Before the postal corps took charge of them, the letters were often read by the correspondent’s superior officer. For security reasons, nothing was to be said that would identify where the writer was, where he was going or the numbers of his unit or losses they received. In the First World War, phrases such as “somewhere in France” were the most a soldier could reveal of his location.

Sergeants would read privates’ and corporals’ letters, lieutenants would read sergeants’ letters. “Officers were expected to be gentlemen. It was assumed they would censor themselves,” said Stephen Davies, a history professor at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C.

Sometimes the men would get green envelopes. “The green envelopes meant the letters would be sent to a central place where they would be censored,” explained Davies. The advantage was that they were not being read by their direct superior.

If a soldier did say something revealing, those parts would be blackened out with a dark marker or actually cut out with scissors and then the letters would be sent on, properly postmarked that they had been reviewed by a censor.

Davies has seen countless wartime letters censored and other­wise while leading the Canadian Letters and Images Project for the past 10 years. The project’s purpose is to collect letters and photographs and create a database available to the public through the website, www.canadianletters.ca. “This started with a course I teach on the First World War,” explained Davies, a member of the Legion’s Seaview Centennial Branch in Lantzville, B.C. “There wasn’t very much Canadian material. At first we were gathering material for a small group of students, but now we have more than 10,000 letters online.”

The letters are preserved by being transcribed, letter by letter, with no corrections to spelling or grammar or any guessing into what is illegible or has been censored. “These letters range from the very articulate to the almost illegible,” added Davies. “What really stands out is the connection to the home front. They bring us back to the fact that wars are fought by ordinary individuals. These are not the letters of generals.”

Davies hopes that as more people become aware of the Letters and Images Project they will send them wartime letters in their possession. The project does not keep the letters in its collection. Letters are transcribed for the website and then returned to their owner to keep or donate to a museum and archive. “Some of our files have only two or three letters in them while some have 200, 300 or 400 letters. In those you can follow the person through training, the excitement of going overseas, their first experiences of war to disillusion and loneliness.”

Each letter tells the story of an individual with his own experiences of war and a home where he or she hopes someday to return.

YOURS TRULY, GLADYS

by Dan Black

Some people collect stamps, others knit, play bridge or bet on horses. Gladys Osmond writes letters to Canadian Forces personnel, and she does this from her tiny cottage at the Valley Vista Seniors Complex in Springdale, Nfld. To date, the 86-year-old former Salvation Army officer has sent more than a 150,000 such letters, all of them expressing thanks and offering a small prayer of safekeeping to armed forces men and women around the world. She leads what is called the Granny Brigade, a group of nursing home residents who call themselves “prayer partners” in Gladys’ far-reaching, from-the-heart effort. 

Gladys Osmond of Springdale, Nfld., has received photos from service personnel stationed around the world. The photos at right show her being hugged by some of her fans. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]
Gladys Osmond of Springdale, Nfld., has received photos from service personnel stationed around the world. The photos at right show her being hugged by some of her fans.
PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO

The reward is found in the writing, and in hearing back from people like Chief Warrant Officer Jocelyn Pemberton who first started corresponding with Gladys in 2000, or from former Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier who has written as well as dropped in for a visit.

The inside walls of Gladys’ cottage No. 28 are covered with photos sent from soldiers in the field and from others who have arrived back home safely and are now with family and friends—all or most of them expressing deep thanks to Gladys and the Brigade. “I wish every Canadian could see our men and women in uniform as I see them,” says Gladys. “They rarely say anything about their own hardship, but occasionally will let off steam and ask me not to share that. In 2007, the few we had ‘on the ground’ in one area of the Sudan had mainly rice, beans and goat meat…no fridge. They had to wait till a helicopter brought food, and they thought nothing of sharing that food with the locals.”

Right after hearing from those peacekeepers, Gladys approached managers at two local grocery stores. “We packed 14 boxes of non-perishables and sent them off to the Sudan. I had a very happy Christmas.”

Last year, Gladys published a book through the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. Edited by Gilbert Penney, the book is aptly titled Dear Gladys, Letters From Over There. It is dedicated “with love and admiration to the soldiers, sailors and air personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces.”

Gladys doesn’t talk much about it, but she is almost legally blind. She has no sight in her left eye. But that hasn’t stopped her from sitting in front of a computer that was donated to her—with thanks—from the military. All she asks is that when people write to her, they use a big, bold font. “Most people who know me know that by now. I just love hearing from people.

“This is my life. It is what I do. I have time on my hands and there is no better way to spend it. These men and women are way over there, doing so much—so far from home—and they need to know somebody cares. And when they come visit me it’s like having my family come home. There is a hug right away, even before they step inside.”

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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A MAN ALONE by Peter Court. The wartime experiences of Robert (Bob) Robinson as a British soldier in India and Burma in World War II included facing mutiny in his platoon. A Canadian citizen since 1954, he has taken part in many Remembrance Day marches in West Vancouver. Cost: £12.95, Postage £4. Order from: www.woodfieldpublishing.co.uk. Woodfield Publishing Limited, Bognor Regis PO 21 5EL England.

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November 3-16, 2014. Join us as we follow the young Canadians in the First Division from their landing in Sicily, through the battles for the Moro River, Ortona, and the Liri Valley, on to the Gothic Line, finishing near Ravenna at the Savio, Lamone and Senio Rivers. Note: tour revolves around participation in the Remembrance Day Ceremony, Moro River Cemetery on November 11.  Contact Ellison Travel & Tours 800-265-7022 or vacations@ettravel.com.  Visit www.ettravel.com/escorted for tour details.

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2014 HMCS/CFB CORNWALLIS REUNION August 22-August 25, 2014

The Cornwallis Reunion is open to all who served and trained in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia between 1942-1994. We welcome members of the military, former members of HMCS Acadia and civilian employees who assisted in the upkeep and operation of the base. For more information, please see our website at www.abcc.ca or call Toll Free: 1-888-830-4466.

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