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Letters From The Bowes Brothers – Introduction

by Tom MacGregor

“This is the saddest letter I will ever have to write,” so begins a letter by 25-year-old Clifford Bowes written near Vimy Ridge in the weeks preceding the big battle when Canadian troops would so distinguish themselves. In that letter he has to tell his mother, Margaret Bowes of Boissevain, Man., that one of her sons, his brother James, has died and another, Fred, lies wounded in a military hospital.

The First World War touched every small town and every family in Canada but the Bowes family had more than its share of suffering. Before 1917 finished all three of the Bowes brothers who enlisted in the Great War would perish.

Throughout their service Margaret Bowes’ boys wrote home faithfully and she in turn sent letters and parcels. The letters were collected and kept together, eventually given to the boys’ sister, the “Little Evelyn” they often wrote about. Evelyn in turn passed them on to her daughter Marilyn Griffith of Winnipeg who has shared them with Legion Magazine.

That collection includes photos and newspaper clippings as well as a few letters written by Margaret, local people and even the mothers of a soldier she never met.

Here we begin a new blog to run on Tuesdays and Thursdays telling the story of the Bowes brothers during their time in uniform. Clifford is the first to enlist and by far the most prolific of the boys, taken into the 222nd Battalion and sees action with the 44th Battalion. As he goes off to England for further training and a long bout in a military hospital, his two younger brothers, Jim and Fred, also enlist and go off to Camp Hughes near Brandon for initial training. Eventually the two younger boys get to England but before they can meet up with Clifford, he is sent to France. It is only “Somewhere in France” that the three boys finally meet up. Though they cannot say where they are, we know they were at Vimy Ridge during the months of planning for the battle which began on April 9, 1917.

The happy reunion ends Feb. 28 when a single grenade explodes among a group of four soldiers, including the two younger Bowes brothers. Jim dies of his wounds that day but Fred is taken to hospital where he eventually succumbs to his wounds.

The letters show that Clifford survived Vimy Ridge, and they continue to place him “Somewhere in France.” He also made it into Belgium, fighting at Passchendaele where the Canadians suffered nearly 16,000 casualties. One of the sad ironies found in the letters is that Clifford expresses some comfort that his brothers did not die in the big push and so are buried in peaceful, well tended cemeteries in France.

Clifford, we learn, was on the front line. Although he was buried near where he fell, his grave was lost in the turmoil of further fighting. The final few letters in the collection reach into 1920 and concern Margaret’s search for Clifford’s last burial place and a promise from the Imperial War Graves Commission that his name will be appropriately commemorated. Today, Clifford’s name is carved on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, along with more that 54,000 other Commonwealth soldiers who fought there but have no known grave.

Through these letters we see the strong family bonds, the noble sense of duty and concern not to let those at home worry. There is much joy of adventure, the loneliness for the women left behind and rough humour of camp life that builds camaraderie.

As the weeks progress we will follow the boys as best we can, although as Clifford laments, “It is so difficult to write when I can’t tell you anything about what we are doing and where we are.”

The letters have been edited to remove much repetition but the grammar, even when incorrect, has been left as found except where it impairs understanding. Likewise, spellings have been corrected for ease of reading.

We hope you enjoy the letters from the Bowes brothers.


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