For the season finale of season 2 of Canada’s Great War, I decided to do a bit of a different episode. I am going to cover letters home, that were printed in newspapers, from 1915 to 1916, so we can get an idea of what the soldiers were feeling fighting in the war. When I can, I will look at the fate of the soldiers in the war.
In early April 1915, the Brantford newspaper published a letter home from Trooper Edward Caton, who was serving with the Fort Garry Horse. He had not reached the front lines yet, and was stationed in Canterbury, England. He would write quote:
“Just a few lines to let you know I am well and happy. This is a pretty hard life but I like it fine. We drill two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. We haven’t got our horses yet but when we do we will be busy all day. This is a pretty town. We are going through the cathedral some of these Saturday afternoons. It is the oldest church in England I think. It is certainly a beautiful building from the outside.”
On April 15, 1915, the Ottawa Journal published a letter from Lt. Col. C.H. Maclaren, which he wrote home to his mother just after he had been promoted to Lt. Colonel. He would state he was content as a major, and was not expecting the promotion. He would write quote:
“Since I wrote you last, we have been in action and the battery has fired its first angry rounds at the enemy. That happened today when I was at the firing line before I was attached to another battery to get the lay of the land. All new divisions are sent in like that. When I fired, I stood in a room in a farm house with the battery fifty yards in front of me and fired from the observations sent to me over the telephone. In that same house I eat and sleep and the men are billeted near at hand.”
Maclaren would state that he found beauty in the guns that dominated his life at the front.
“On a clear day, with a blue sky, it is a very pretty sight to see an aircraft gun shooting at an aeroplane. There will be from 8 to 14 small white puffs in a regular line of various heights showing plainly against the sky. I saw a captive balloon today but it was a long way off.”
On May 17, 1915, the Ottawa Journal printed a letter from Ross Binkley, who was a star with the Toronto Argonauts. With the team, he had served as team captain in 1910, and was the general manager and coach for the years prior to the First World War. He had enlisted with the infantry but was transferred to the machine gun section.
He relates quote:
“This life is most certainly the ideal one for a lazy man. Your meal is provided, your hour of retiring and arising is announced, your actions during the day are governed by rules that concern you not in the making. In fact, the only thing required of a soldiers is that they obey orders. The one thing beyond pardon is to think for yourself or to do anything on your own initiative. You are looked upon after as a cow or horse is looked after, and in the eyes of the officers are regarded in much the same way. You are merely a mechanical something that gets up at reveille, answers to a name at roll call, and responds to the day’s orders without question or hesitation. The officer pulls the strings, the private and junior jump.”
He would continue, describing the odor of the trenches as a cow stable directly underneath mingling with a pig pen. He would say getting news from the outside, quote:
“Of the war and of the situation in general, I can tell you nothing. Every day we can see the aeroplanes and hear the boom of the guns but only occasionally does a paper reach us. They are our only means of acquiring news. You know and read more about the war than I do. My knowledge is purely local and is confined to the immediate vicinity of our billet.”
The letter ends with his own feelings of homesickness, stating quote:
“I received your letter and am glad that you have had such good health. Am feeling fine and am really enjoying the experience. Once in a while, the homey feeling becomes strong and a sight of King and Yonge streets, Toronto or Dundas, would be welcome but the longer that time is delayed, the more welcome it will be.”
Sadly, soon after writing the letter and sending it home, he was killed in action. All it says of his death was that he was blown to pieces while operating a machine gun.
In May 1915, Rodney Renshaw wrote a letter home, which was published in the North Shore Press, describing battle scenes and seeing Colonel Hart McHarg die in battle. He writes quote:
“It was certainly hell for four days. We were under the most severe bombardment and machine gun and rifle fire. The Germans can’t stand the cold steel. When we charged on them they certainly did squeal and put up their hands but they gave us no quarter and we showed none to them. Col. Hart McHarg was shot close by me. He was certainly a brave man. We all mourn his loss for he was a gallant leader.”
McHarg was a veteran of the Boer War, had earned the Queen’s Medal with four clasps and was mentioned in dispatches during the First World War before he fell on April 24, 1915.
The Calgary Herald would print a fantastic report of a rhinoceros attacking a camp while Private E.H. Burt was stationed in East Africa in August 1915. He would write quote:
“In the charge he sent the gun carriers flying, the gun in one direction and tripod in another. All the rest of the carriers dropped their loads. It was a nice mix-up, ammunition boxes were flying everywhere. We were just gathering ourselves and belongings together when we heard a terrific snort and a crashing of bush. Everyone dropped loads and sprang to cover, which of course was no use at all. This time, Mr. Rhino passed in front, two or three men ahead of me, and going in the same direction as the previous one. This charge meant another mix-up of gear.”
The entire incident helped relieve the boredom of the downtime of the war. Burt would write quote:
“I cannot write for laughing. It was too funny for words but not at the time. Jack Blair, the sergeant, myself and the man behind me, dodged to the nearest bush on our left. All the men in the advance guard side-stepped to their nearest bush or tree. Some tried to climb trees, others laid flat down…Helmets flew in all directions.”
Lt. Clyde Scott would write home in October 1915, describing his time in a German POW camp where he made friends with an Algerian prisoner. He wrote quote:
“My Algerian friend is beside me as I write this and I don’t know what I would do without him. He gives me my bath, makes my bed, fixes my pillows and runs all sorts of errands. These fellows become very much attached to you and sometimes when I want to sleep, I can hardly chase him from my room.”
In November 1915, Corporal Alain Macdonald, who was stationed with the machine gun section of the 24th Battalion, would write to his father quote:
“A big bombardment was just started, 2:25 a.m.. Will stop writing for a few minutes.”
Twelve hours later, he continues, stating quote:
“Still going strong, shells exploding all around us, am under cover in a dugout. Earth shaking and sandbags falling down, at least 200 explosions a minute.”
Fifteen minutes later at 3 p.m., he continues, stating quote:
“Germans quieting down, our artillery stronger than ever, can witness shells exploding in enemy trenches about 200 yards in front. German trenches only 25 yards away. Sandbags in German trenches flying up in the air by hundreds. We are certainly giving them hell. Our artillery is wonderful and we have lots of guns and ammunition.”
After another 10 minutes, he continues, quote:
“Germans again replying heavily, it is pretty hot. We are sending ten shells to their one. Dozens of aeroplanes up above observing fire. Pieces of shell falling all over our dugouts. “
Twenty minutes later, he continues relating the experience, quote:
“Shells travelling about 30 yards over our heads and dropping on the German parapets. 90 per cent of our shells hit the spot. Shells make the same kind of noise as a dozen fast trains passing a station.”
After a night of shelling, which became intense at times, he would continue writing to his father the next morning, asking for mittens. He wrote quote:
“Try to send me a pair of heavy woollen mitts, the cold weather is setting in and the nights are very cold. The night is very long and lonesome. I keep myself busy at night killing rats, they don’t mind you in the least and are quite tame. Some of them are the size of two-month old kittens.”
On April 6, 1916, Lance Corporal Paul Adrien Lambert wrote a letter home, having been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery on the battlefield. He wrote quote:
“Dearest mother, I have just reached your letter which pleased me very much and I hope the family are all well and in good health. As for me, I am in good health and doing the same work.”
He would then speak of being awarded the Medaille Militaire, which he received for actions on March 11, 1916 when he carried a severely wounded comrade, under heavy fire, on his shoulders and across barbed wire into the trenches. He described the ceremony that was involved, stating quote:
“There were 200 French soldiers and 200 English soldiers with the buglers and a band. The two generals arrived, the French general to salute the English soldiers and the English general to salute the French soldiers. After the decorations there was a parade in the square at which the moving picture men and the reporters were present. I should also say that the general received this medal there.”
The day he wrote the letter home, he would be listed as missing and was presumed dead.
In July 1916, the Ottawa Journal printed a letter from Corporal Stanley King, who wrote to his parents after he had been wounded by a grenade bomb attack on a communication trench. He spent three weeks in the hospital before returning to the front. He writes quote:
“I have been feeling pretty tired for the past couple of weeks. I am okay now. Two weeks ago tonight we were rushed up to hold a part of the area where the Germans had taken the front line trenches. We were told to dig ourselves in with our entrenching tools and the way we worked was not slow. At night, we moved forward towards the Germans and started to dig a new front trench but we did not get it deep enough to stay in, so we came back to our holes before daylight.”
In July 1916, after the Battle of Ypres, Private George Gaylard wrote home describing the battle in which he saw many of his friends wounded or killed. He would write quote:
“I never witnessed such a bombardment before. Last year, was nothing in comparison to those ten days. At one place, about a mile and a half behind the front line, we had a house for an advanced dressing station and Fritz put six big shells right into it. But, we came out without anyone of us being hurt that time. Then the next time he got four of our stretcher bearers, one killed and three wounded.”
After describing the shelling, he writes about the aftermath of the attack, stating quote:
“After the Germans ceased shelling the lines we went up and I saw with my own eyes what they had done. The trenches were ripped and torn like bits of rags and men’s bodies were sticking out here and there through the dirt. At another place, it was an awful sight. As we were going up to get the wounded we passed men all blown to pieces and then to top it all, we were carrying the wounded through mud and water up to our knees. I often wonder how we ever got out alive as the Huns were shelling us from three sides and we could not tell which way to duck. There were times when we had to drop our stretchers to find a better way of getting clear.”
In October 1916, an unnamed artillery officer would write home to Winnipeg, describing night in the trenches, stating quote:
“Nights are, I think, the most wonderful part of the 24 hours in our battery position. Standing up above one’s guns and looking around, the whole country appears to be spitting fire. There are guns everywhere. And over the front line, a tremendous firework display goes on the whole night through. Rockets and colored flares are forever going up silhouetting against the skyline the remains of bare, stricken trees, and here and there, small groups of tiny black figures, working parties and reliefs going up, in this direction a ruined village, or ever there, gaunt and ghastly, what was once a wood. It is all fascinating and horribly weird.”
On Oct. 11, 1916, Doc Gibson wrote a letter home after he was wounded in battle. He wrote quote:
“I was hit early in the morning of the 9th. The bullet went through my forearm and fractured the bone. I had the x-ray on it this morning and this afternoon, I am to be operated on and hope to start for England tonight. The wound is not bad and I do not think it will have any bad after effects. I was out in No Man’s Land looking over Fritz’s wire entanglements when I ran across a Hun. At first, I thought he was one of our fellows and like a fool I didn’t let him have it until he fired at me. He just grazed my shoulder, tearing my coat and giving me a nasty flesh wound. I then fired at him and as he was toppling over, he gave me a farewell shot in the arm.”
In December 1916, Fred Banbury wrote a letter home to his father in Regina. He was part of the Royal Flying Corps, and was in England at the time of the letter. He stated quote:
“I got quite a lot of flying today, putting in three hours in four trips. It was beautiful up this morning but this afternoon it was very bump and so hazy that you lost sight of the aerodrome if you went up above 2,500 feet. This morning, when I was up and the machine would fly as you liked and as long as you liked with scarcely any movement of the controls. It was like sitting in an armchair and watching the ground slowly passing under you.”
On April 1, 1918, while he was flying over the trenches, he suffered heart failure and died in the air. Just prior to his death, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In his flying career, he shot down 11 German planes and balloons. His last aerial victory had come only five days previous.
Information from Ottawa Journal, Virtual War Memorial, Wikipedia, Calgary Herald, North Shore Press, Library and Archives Canada, Montreal Gazette, Winnipeg Tribune,