This short story is the first in a special series. The Great War inspired a flourishing of literature, so The Globe and Mail asked Hazlitt, the online magazine published by Penquin Random House Canada, to help mark the war's centenary in a similar spirit – by commissioning young Canadian writers to seek inspiration in the century-old conflict and to reinterpret its meanings for a contemporary audience.
At its peak, Britain's General Post Office delivered 12 million letters every week to Allied soldiers in the First World War. Newspapers published advertisements to encourage civilians – particularly women – to write to men overseas who did not have friends or family. Some even posted their particulars in newspaper "matrimonial columns," to which servicemen replied. After all, most men 20 to 45 had been recruited. The War Office realized that such correspondence posed a threat to national security. Junior officers read the letters – and sensitive details were ripped or crossed out. Another method of censorship was the multiple-choice field postcard, which had soldiers, rather than correspond, select from a series of options.
Text from a newspaper advertisement:
Friends Wanted For Lonely Soldiers
"How can I help?" asks someone who can't do active work, confined by location, or without means to visit returned soldiers who are wounded. The lonely man may have parents not well enough to write, or not sufficiently well educated. He may have no sisters to post comforts in the form of tobacco, cigarettes, socks, scarves, gloves, etc. The rich soldiers are as lonely as the poor ones; even society bachelors need friends to send them cheery letters, Christmas cards, or small tokens of remembrance. It is dreary work away from all one's belongings, in a foreign country during warfare.
EXCHANGE STEMMING FROM MATRIMONIAL COLUMN, Sun newspaper.
MODERN GIRL, usual social accomplishments, interested in others and perhaps a little interesting herself, seeks correspondence from gentleman officer over 25.
LONELY SUBALTERN on active service, welcomes correspondents of opposite sex, cheery and good-looking, in exchange for opinions other than war topics.
MODERN GIRL, sincere and refined, queries what opinions SUBALTERN expects from a woman specifically "good looking."
LONELY SUBALTERN, up to his neck in Flanders mud, gets enough stick from his trench mates, thanks.
MODERN GIRL, agreeable figure, seeking chummy correspondence with colonial officer or gentleman ranker. Slighted by attempts at correspondence so far. Fair complexion and cheerful!
"JILTED" SUBALTERN anxious to apologize to "slighted" lady, with a view to mutual comfort, condolence, &c.
The Sun would only tell me your first initial, so forgive me if I sound impersonal. This letter will be brief, as I like to get to know someone before I bore them with my autobiography. Basic facts: I work as a telephone operator with 19 other girls. I can read English, French and shorthand. I had plans yesterday to go to the pictures, but it was such a rotten evening that I went to bed at 21:00 hours. That time is not standard for me, in case you think I'm a fuddy-duddy. This morning I woke at 7 and ate breakfast in bed – my sister made eggs Florentine, which is European for eggs and spinach. What kind of food do they serve on the front? I'm not hopeful – in case you're starving, I've enclosed a tin of cookies. I didn't bake them myself. Sis again. She's engaged to be married, before you ask her name or what shoe size she wears. You can tell a lot by a woman's shoe size. I wear size 9.
That's all for now, my new friend Gilbert/Gary/Gerald. (Circle if applicable.)
Write soon! Yours, M
Dear Madeline? Martha? Monique?,
I will not apologize for my dilatory response, because I have replied twice and both letters were returned to me by the censor. It is no use writing in shorthand, as the surgeon who reviews our post is a Scotsman who distrusts Catholics. Not that I'm very Catholic in person, but my last name's Donnelly, which has gotten me into exactly two mess brawls, both of which I have stoutly won.
Another reason I will not apologize is there was an awful din in the cellar, and it was impossible to hear my thoughts, much less arrange them charmingly. The shells kept striking the house, the roof in splinters, so I thought I would leave it till we got back. As you will see, there has been some heavy fighting for the last two weeks. We have lost a lot of men and about 20 horses, including the Andalusian who drew my ambulance when the shrapnel shattered my knee. If he were still around, I'd ask you to post him a carrot. You asked about food. We get three ounces of cheese, if the supply trucks reach us. The bread has gone mouldy on account of the rain. The field crackers are okay. In my brighter moments, I think I may even miss them.
I don't know a lick about shoe sizes, and I don't care to. You're not going to read my tarot cards next, are you?
The cookies were a treat – thank you. And thank your sis.
All afternoon I have been thinking about that darned horse; I'm posting a carrot cake in his memory. I baked it myself – you see, I am not helpless – though Chloe helped with the icing as I didn't have the patience to use a cutter. It sounds wretched out there – God willing, the war will come to a swift conclusion once the squareheads stop dilly-dallying and surrender. Chloe thought it boastful of me to talk about food, so I have resolved to stop that, unless it is the food I send you, like this ambrosial carrot cake.
Today, I called at Eaton's IF SHE'S IN CANADA, IS THE SUN IN VANCOUVER? and bought a christening present for my niece (daughter of my eldest brother, Thomas, who is out there in the mud with you). Her name is Noelle, as she was born on Christmas, and I have bought her a pair of white shoes. (I refuse to say "booties.") After, I attended a play at the Mercury with Chloe and our friend Adele, but the entertainment was poor – you could hear the actors gossiping offstage. Had cable from mother – "No news is good news." When she sends messages like that, I start to worry.
I won't read your tarot, no. What day were you born? Something tells me you're a Virgo, in which case, here's what the stars say: "All you need is an onion, bread and a bottle of wine, and you will always find that."
Take care of yourself, G.
Your friend, M
Haven't heard from you. Did the cake get there okay? Hope everything's jake.
Arrived at this town at 4 a.m. after breakfast and a much-needed application of water. Thank you for the cigarettes and cake, which had squashed, so the icing read: "Thinning you," which I thought you'd find funny. I meant to write when we received the post last week, but we were travelling overland for nine days straight. There are plenty of rats here and they get chummy – they dart over our faces at night, and even you would blush at the boys' cuss words.
I still have a headache from the gas yesterday, but it could be worse. We went to the trenches in daylight, and the Germans turned a machine gun on us. I had the presence of mind to lay flat, or else you would not be reading this.
I have been thinking a lot about chop suey. Do you eat Chinese? When we finally win this war, would your sister permit me to take you for dinner?
Have I said anything to imply that I am not a lady of the most delicate sensibility? Of course, I would blush – I blush all the time! Just yesterday, a gal knocked on my door to sell feminine products, and I bought a box to make her go away. Sorry if that's too much information.
I love Chinese. The war will end soon, and we'll meet over a plate of dumplings, okay? I assume you're from around here, as you posted your ad in the Sun.
The gas sounds wretched. My brother-in-law has not got his eyesight back yet. He says even the dogs wear gas masks. You keep away from that stuff. News here: My cousin Little May got engaged to my neighbour Bernard. I always found him puerile and self-seeking, but they say he's a good soldier. The paper is crammed with all the brave work you're doing – "Glorious role played by men from the Dominion," etc. I've enclosed a few clippings. Another riot in Montreal last week, and if you don't mind my saying, Ottawa stinks right now of double-dealing. But I am proud of you and can't wait to meet ASAP.
I was pleased to receive your letter on returning from leave. You're optimistic to suggest we'll meet soon. Even if they signed a truce tomorrow, it will be months before they dig us out of here. My greatest fear is someone will forget to tell us the war is over, and we'll keep shooting each other till no one's left.
Forgive me, Marian, but your cousin is still marrying someone puerile and self-seeking. That he is a "good soldier" is a doubtful compliment. I'm a good soldier, and that doesn't make me swell with pride one bit.
Thank you for the socks and the rum and the drawing of your dog in a gas mask. Of course, you're a lady, but I won't believe you're delicate. That's about all I have time for now, as the boys are playing a game with the rats and spades, and if I sit here longer, I'll lose my toe.
Just a line to say I'm alive and kicking. We came out of the trenches last night, but we're only a 40-minute walk from them, so we're no safer here. An hour ago, the Krauts blew over a church two miles behind us. They are devils and we hate them (& they us.)
Haven't heard from you in a while, which makes me worry you've found another pen pal, or that the censor has held your letters. You didn't say anything too bellicose about Ottawa, did you?
I cannot tell you where I am, except that it is a different village from where I wrote a month ago. The weather is bleak and soggy, and I just wish it would snow so we could get it over with. I hope you're not giving me the shoulder for what I said about Little May. Her fiancé may be all right – I wouldn't know.
I don't even know your name and I'm worried sick! Haven't received word in two months, which Chloe assures it is not that long, but your first letters arrived so promptly. Perhaps you've moved locations, and the post is all bunged up. Or the Germans grenaded the mail truck. Does that happen? Anyway – I have no choice but to believe you're okay and the mail will arrive all at once. If you receive this, try to send word that you're alright.
Nothing is to be written on this side except the date and signature of the sender. Sentences not required may be erased. If anything else is added, the postcard will be destroyed.
I am quite well.
I have been admitted into hospital
(sick) and am going on well
(wounded) and hope to be discharged soon.
I am being sent down to the base. I have received your letter dated telegram "parcel" Letter follows at first opportunity.
I have received no letter from you
for a long time
Signature only: Guy Donnelly
Date: 28 February 1918
A note about the author:
Born in Vancouver, Eliza Robertson grew up on Vancouver Island, and last year won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her first collection of stories, Wallflowers, was published this year by Hamish Hamilton Canada and Bloomsbury.