“Somewhere in France.…”
So began most letters from the Western Front a century back.
There were strict rules during the Great War about saying where a battalion might actually be and even stricter rules about what they were up to. And yet, as families all across Canada will testify, those small notes home – vague as they might intentionally be – were treasured at the time of delivery and today, 100 years on, are considered valuable family heirlooms.
Treasured even if the last letter began with “I regret to inform you….”
Just how important were those letters home is illustrated in the preserved trenches near Vimy Ridge in northern France. Canadian soldiers often carved their names and regimental badges into the dark chalk walls. They carved the names of their hometowns, carved maple leaves to remind them of home and, tellingly, two of the soldiers built a perfectly recast Royal Mail box to serve as a drop for those hastily scribbled pages that meant so much once they reached the faraway address written on the envelope. A recreation of those trenches, mailbox included, is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
The Vimy trenches have also been introduced at a special exhibition in nearby Arras by EF Educational Tours, the company that has arranged travel for 9,000 of the expected 12,000 Canadian high-school students who will visit the sites of the battles for Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 this weekend. Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of battle at Vimy.
The actual trenches and tunnels have been closed for security reasons during the various commemorative ceremonies scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
“We will even give them a sense of noise and the smells of gunpowder and gas that the soldiers experienced,” says Laura Palma, the company’s director of educational programming.
The thousands of students will attend the ceremonies and they will walk around the endless white markers of the military cemeteries. They will take “selfies” and they will send messages home, most reduced to 140 characters or less, festooned with shortcuts – “OMG!” – instantly sent, instantly received.
They can gain a small sense of the actual trenches, but they cannot know at all what it was like to wait, week after week after week, both terribly wanting and terribly dreading that letter to show up at the mailbox at the end of the drive.
One of the most extensive collections belongs to the Lockyers, a family then based in Picton, Ont., that can trace a long military heritage back to two sons of George and Martha Lockyer, Alec and Chris, who went off to fight in France. Only Alec came home. Chris Lockyer, 19 years of age, was killed at the Battle of Hill 70 on Aug. 17, 1917. His remains were never found.
The letters the family still has – but intends to donate to the War Museum after this weekend’s memorials – are many and extensive, Chris writing from “somewhere in France” or, occasionally, “far from home.” His parents, George and Martha, but especially Martha, sending regular letters filled with concern and anguish and, given their Salvation Army background, prayer and faith.
The letters were passed down through the family for generations, just as the name Chris, or various versions of it, can be found through five generations. The 19-year-old kid has never been forgotten.
The first letter he wrote, then only 18 and at camp near London, Ont., made light of the situation. “I’m still alive,” it began.
Martha’s early letters tended not to touch on war. “The new binder does good work,” his mother told him. “They are cutting oats today.”
One can feel the tension rise while reading through the many letters that the family has reproduced, writers’ errata included, in large binders. Chris talks about life in England – “Just a line to let you know that I’m all right & feeling well” – and seems confident. On his arrival “somewhere in France,” he writes home that “I never felt better in my life. Right here while I am writing we can here the guns over at the front as plain as if we were right beside them.”
The parents soon start fretting. “We are looking for a letter from you every day,” his father writes, on Feb. 25, 1917, “but I guess you get very little time for writing but try & let us have a few lines. Mother does get anxious about you.”
As the weeks pass, Martha’s anxiety grows. She tells him, “You boys shall not be forgotten here.” She also grows increasingly outraged – as so many did in those months – at the slow rate of recruitment that preceded the call for conscription.
“We mothers & wives & sisters,” she writes, “are not going to stand by & see you boys fight with your last drop of blood for great big strong able-bodied men.”
On March 13, Chris does write his mother: “Just a line to let you know that I am still well.” He does, however, mention the mud. He wants her to “Remind me to the folks around.” He signs off with a long string of X’s.
Exactly two months later, his father writes to say, “We have been anxiously looking for a letter from you for some time now, the last we received was dated March 9th. We think of you so often & wonder if you are well & allright. We allways try & think the best about your safety but when we read so many of your comrades have been wounded some fatally we cannot help worrying a little. We continue to pray that God will protect & preserve you & soon the day will dawn when this terrible war will end.”
On May 26, his mother writes with fierce pride: “Don’t any of you think you are forgotten for a moment, oh no, never do I put a cup to my mouth or a morsel of food to my lips unless I think of you & often go with much less food in order that I may not forget the sacrifice you dear ones are making for us who are at home ‘keeping the fires burning.’”
Increasingly, the letters from home sound more frantic: “It’s over two months since I got your last letter!”
Chris finally lets them in, a bit, on what he has been going through. He talks about hiding in a small hole dug into the side of a trench. He tells them a shell struck about five yards away: “My hand is a little nervous for a little while as you can see by the writing.”
On July 6, Chris writes to tell them: “I wish you would not worry so much for if you do not get any news from me no news is good news.”
When his mother writes on Aug. 12, she says she has sent candies, needles and buttons. “It’s Sunday,” she says. “I am just going to meeting, so good bye. God bless, my dear boy.” She said she now sings a hymn every day for him – “God will take care of you.”
The letter was never received. It was returned to the family with Chris’s personal effects.
A reverse situation happened to the D’All family. The final letter comes from the front and is reprinted in a special First World War edition of Legion Magazine. The letter was sent on May 19, 1916, by Lance Corporal George D’All of C Company, 3rd Battalion (Toronto Regiment). Weeks later, on June 13, 1916, he was killed; like Chris Lockyer, his remains were never found.
Unlike, Chris, however, George D’All was rather open about what he was experiencing, if not where he was. He talked about being under heavy fire and how “I gave myself up as lost this first night and I felt sorry to think the Canadian government and the Patriotic Fund had spent so much money to make a good soldier of me, and here I was to be killed like a rat in a hole the very first night.”
He tells his children that he sometimes thinks he is moving through a dream: “Every few steps took us to where a dead man or men were lying. In two of the trenches, they were lying unburied in hundreds, the majority of them German.”
In signing off, he tells them that he has told them all this “only to give you an idea of what we have been doing since I saw you last. I will fill it in at nights when we are sitting around the fire at home, if fortune favours me to get back to you.
“Your loving Papa.”
Fortune did not favour George D’All, nor did it favour Pte. Oscar French, whose remains were among those found and lie buried at the nearby Nine Elms Military Cemetery. He was one of 37 machine gunners killed on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, at Vimy Ridge.
His mother, Emily French, saved his letters in a little flower-print box and they were handed down until they came to Orland French, who once wrote a political column for The Globe and Mail and who has now written a book for the children and grandchildren who should know about Oscar.
The book, Letters to Vimy, is a bit of a reversal, however, as it is not Oscar and his parents exchanging letters, but Oscar and Orland, the nephew he never knew, writing back and forth. In his actual letters from 1917, Oscar tells what it was like, in the vaguest of terms, to be on the front; Orland, in his latter-day replies, tells Oscar what it is like to be in Canada in 2017, a century after the famous battle and Oscar’s death.
Orland tells his long-dead relative what the country these battles essentially created has become. He tells him about inflation – Oscar 100 years ago being paid $1 a day plus 10 cents field allowance – “Imagine a 10-cent bonus for the privilege of being shot at.”
Oscar was, of course, unable to say very much of what was happening. His final letter home, written the day before a shell blew him to pieces, claims that he is having “a swell day” and “The sun is shining and it is warm as summer.”
Orland explains to Oscar how it was that censorship played a role in the continuation of the war, that if the true horrors of battles such as the Somme and Ypres and Vimy and Hill 70 had been known as they were happening, the public revulsion on both sides might well have had some considerable effect.
Instead, the British press in particular glossed over the early losses, using a version of “fake news” to make it appear as if all was going swimmingly, even when it wasn’t.
By August of 1917, four months after Oscar French died at Vimy, Canadian publishers were near revolt.
“We have been fed too long on cocksure confidence and optimistic piffle,” an editorial in Saturday Night magazine argued. “Wars are not won that way. If we cannot bear to hear the truth in our war news, to have it presented in unvarnished, truthful paragraphs, we are a poor lot and unworthy of success.”
It is an interesting, if somewhat absurd, thought – but what if Chris Lockyer and George D’All and Oscar French had the technology these 12,000 students running about Northern France have at their disposal today?
Would uncensored messages and instant visuals have made a difference?
You cannot help but think so while reading through some of the dramatic, gut-wrenching atrocities these poor soldiers tried to live through.
Instead of hearing about “a swell day” weeks after the day had passed, those at home might have heard instantly what their children were experiencing.
“OMG” – Oh my God, indeed.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said one of the soldiers remains were not found. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error