Sept. 13, 1916
Just a wee note. I am “going over the parapet,”and the chances of a “sub” getting back alive are abut nix. If I do get back, why you can give me the horse laugh. If not this’ll let you know that I kicked out with my boots on.
So, cheer up, old dear, and don’t let the newspapers use you as material for a Saturday magazine feature. You know the kind: where the “sweet-faced, grey-haired, little mother, clutching the last letter from her boy to her breast, sobbed, “’e was sich a fine lad,’ as she furtively brushed the glistening tears from her eyes with a dish rag, etc. etc.”
I’m going to tell you this in case my company commander forgets. Your son is a soldier, and a dog-gone good one, too, if he does say it himself as shouldn’t. And if he gets pipped it’ll be doing his blooming job.
In a way it’s darned funny. All the gang are writing post mortem letters and kind of half ashamed of themselves for doing it. As one of our officers said: “If I mail it and come through the show, I’ll be a joke. If I tear it up and get killed I’ll be sorry I didn’t send it.” S’there y’are…”
The writer of that letter, Lieutenant Hart Leech, was a Canadian soldier who fought in World War I. When he got news of the war, Leech was in Grand Rapids, Manitoba and took a perilous canoe trip back home in order to enlist. At the time Leech had almost finished his course in law and was well known in Winnipeg’s music circles as a pianist and a baritone soloist. Leech fought on the frontlines until the battle of the Somme where he was killed. Twelve days after writing the letter he was reported dead, but his parents didn’t get the letter until 1928.
“I thought it was very powerful. The ability to joke about one’s own death,” Professor Stephen Davies says. Davies identified the Leech letter as his favourite in a collection of approximately 10 thousand known as the Canadian Letters and Images Project. The project is “an online archive of the Canadian war experience from all periods of Canada’s past.” The collection includes letters, photos, diaries, and other material from the South African War, the Spanish-American War, the Riel Rebellion, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. The archive is the largest of its kind in Canada and is free for all to use. The database can be accessed at <www.canadianletters.ca>
The project was started in 2000 by the history department of VIU. Davies created the project to give students an opportunity to work with primary sources. “It’s unique to this university. Most undergraduates don’t get to work with primary sources until graduate school. It’s a huge advantage.” In a first-year university course on World War I, Davies has his students compare the letters of real soldiers with the novel All Quiet on the Western Front in order to assess the value of the novel as history. Students are also involved in the archival process itself. Last year there were 3 student work-ops funded by the University and one volunteer.
The project has been used outside of VIU as well. The University of Western Ontario has partnered with the project and Dr. Tim Cook, the World War I historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, has made use of the archive for much of his research.
One of the reasons that the archive has been able to grow quickly is that the Canadian Letters and Images Project does not hang on to any of the material it gathers, but rather scans each piece, transcribes it, posts it online, and then returns the material to its owner—often descendants of the soldiers themselves.
But in some ways the archive still has a lot of growing to do. “We are lacking in First Nations letters,” Davies explains. “The letters tend to be from white Anglo-Saxons, but this is not by design.” Canadians with many different ethnic backgrounds including African, Japanese, Chinese, and First Nations fought in the wars but are generally unrepresented.
Women appear mostly as recipients of letters or write them from home to their relatives or boyfriends on the front. Two collections consist of thank-you letters written by soldiers to the Toronto Women’s Alliance and the Stony Plain Women’s Institute, which supplied aid to the soldiers. There are only three collections from women who served in the war as nurses, such as Alice Leighton who followed her husband to England when he enlisted, and volunteered at St. Dunstan’s Hospital for Blind Soldiers and Sailors. Another collection is a memoir from Marie-Louise Depreaux writing home after she and her French husband were trapped in France during the German Occupation. These letters under-represent the services performed by women, especially in the later wars.
There are also no letters from after the Korean War. “We’d love to be able to include that, but one of the differences with [modern wars] is the lack of tangible records like letters.” Soldiers today tend to communicate through e-mail and other means that don’t leave a physical record. Furthermore, as Davies said, “There’s a reason the World War I archive is the largest. We’re still too close to the other wars.” For some, the memories of war or of relatives who died in battle may be too recent to want to publicize them.
Leech’s letter, while remarkable for its levity in the face of danger, is symptomatic of a trend seen in many the letters—very few soldiers describe the gritty, gory details that one would expect from war records. Some of the letters were censored by the government in order to conceal tactical information, but a lot of the censorship was done by the soldiers themselves, who were writing to a largely female audience of mothers, wives, and girlfriends. “They don’t really want to relive it on paper, so what you expect to find, the horror of battles isn’t in there,” Davies says.
The exceptions are those documents in the archive written by soldiers sometime after the war. Leech’s letter, penned on the eve of war, was never posted, but instead was stuffed into Leech’s notebook. The notebook was picked up on the battlefield and ended up forgotten in an English cupboard for 12 years, when it was rediscovered and sent to his father in Canada. In a letter to Leech’s father, the soldier who discovered the letter, Edgar King, writes, “We were relieving, I think, the 2nd or 1st [Canadian Mounted Rifles], who appeared to have been practically slaughtered to a man, as they leapt over the parapet in a charge. I shall not attempt to describe the incredible charnel house the scene portrayed…” Even when King is avoiding a description of the scene he is more evocative 12 years after the war then many of the letters written during the battles.
“It’s about putting a face to war. I think that’s the real value of the materials we have,” Davies says. “For the current generations, it connects them to the names on the cenotaph and the history of their country.”