On Friday, Nov. 16, five days after honouring the memory of soldiers on Remembrance Day, VIU students, faculty, and members of the community filled the Malaspina Theatre to listen to History professor Dr. Stephen Davies’ lecture, “Voices Through Time: Letters of The Great War.” In the presentation, which was the third installment in the Fall 2012 Arts & Humanities Colloquium Series, Dr. Davies made use of his online archive, The Canadian Letters and Images Project (CLIP), to discuss what he refers to as “the culture of the letter” and to remind us of the Canadian soldiers who sacrificed so much for our country in WWI.
CLIP is the leading resource of primary information on the Canadian war experience in the country and is located in the History Department here at VIU. Used as both a personal and an educational resource all around the world, CLIP is part of school curriculums across the country and is a vital component for many history courses at VIU. The Project was started by Dr. Davies in Aug. of 2000. He began by archiving letters from local sources and said “over the years it’s generated its own momentum.” CLIP now consists of over 12 thousand letters, several thousand photographs, as well as other miscellaneous materials including embroidery, scrapbooks, postcards, and more, all closely connected to Canadian individuals involved in conflicts both on the fighting and home fronts since the American Civil War. People across Canada, from Newfoundland to B.C., send family war documents to the Project. Work-op students and volunteers scan, transcribe, and archive the materials on the website and then return the contributions to the owners. Dr. Davies said the Project is unique because it publicises valued documents for the entire population to appreciate without causing families to permanently give up their precious heirlooms. This system allows everyone to have access to treasured resources and opens the most important aspect of Canada at war for our understanding: the experiences of the individuals involved.
Dr. Davies said he often has trouble explaining the human cost of war to students because the numbers are so high. With 60 thousand Canadian lives lost in WWI it is difficult to remember the statistic is made up of distinct people who had hopes, fears, and dreams much like our own. It is in this thought that CLIP proves its value.
“Nations go to war but it’s individuals who fight the war,” Dr. Davies says. The Project allows us to “put a face to war,” to learn about the lives of those who fell for our country through their own voices. The letters give us a personal and intimate account of the thoughts and feelings of distinct men who travelled from their homes to fight in the trenches and serve their countries.
Dr. Davies demonstrated the effect of reading these personal correspondences by sharing letters from John Walter Ellis to his wife Kitty. The emotional words Ellis writes are of love and sadness at his separation from his family, as Dr. Davies says, “the agony of an individual caught between love and duty.” Ellis’s voice is original, that of a dedicated family man, and through his words we are able to recognize him as an individual. The access to his story through CLIP allows us to identify Ellis as a fellow Canadian, and so the knowledge that he died on May 13, 1917 can no longer be classified as a mere tally on the casualty chart, but as a cause for mourning and remembrance, the death of a husband and a father, a person who mattered.
Dr. Davies also talked about the importance of letters on the other side of the pen and how they were eagerly anticipated and cherished by soldiers themselves.
“They were a crucial link to past realities and future dreams,” Dr. Davies says. The letters served as a link between the home front and the battle front and that there is much we can learn from what the men chose to share and from what they chose not to divulge. Historical facts about food and battle technique are rich in the letters, and while censorship prevented the men from disclosing geographical information, details about violence and graphic imagery were allowed. Some men wrote descriptions of the battlefield horror, and as Dr. Davies revealed, words about trampling over corpses or seeing comrades torn apart by machine guns written from the hands of those who experienced the terror directly are moving and jarring compared to any account of similar events written in a textbook.
Dr. Davies identified the significance of the words that are not shared as well. As he pointed out, most letters were written from men to women—mothers, wives, sweethearts—and so there seems to be a theme of reassurance of safety throughout the letters, a “conscious attempt within those letters to soften the harsh aspects of the war.” When reading words written during war situations it is impossible for us to understand the attempts by the men to shield their families from knowing the true danger that they were experiencing. This comes across as a humanizing quality of the letters, most of us can relate to the characteristics of condolence and reassurance.
As exposure of the CLIP resources grow, so does the Project. Audience member Valerie Fort, who has been researching her family history for years, brought a binder full of embroidered post-cards from WWI sent by Levi Demdoff, who was her husband’s great-uncle, to his parents and his sister, Alice. She says she also has a piece of trench art Demdoff made for Alice out of an artillery shell, on which their names are engraved along with “Battle of the Somme.” Demdoff, who was from Nanaimo, survived the war, and his son Reynold, who served in WWII, also left behind war documents. Fort says she is planning on sending her heirlooms to the Project for archiving, adding another chapter to the story of Canada at war.
Dr. Davies’ presentation was only a preview of what the Project has to offer. The preservation of these individual voices is a vital component of Canadian history. CLIP gives us the opportunity to remember those who served and fell for us, to think of individual stories and lives when pinning a poppy or passing a cenotaph, and to hold onto a piece of history and ensure the soldiers are not forgotten.
John Walter Ellis wrote to his wife Jan. 18, 1917:
“Oh my darling heart how often I lay in bed & think of those happy days we used to spend together, Kitty my love we realise the fullness of our love now don’t we darling? How I love to read of your love for me, you say it so sweet to have someone thinking of you always, Kitty my love if I could only tell you the full extent of my love, you ask me not to forget you love. Kitty darling its for you I live, my heart beats for you. Oh! sweetheart you [needn’t] be afraid I’d scold you as I’d be so busy taking you in my arms I’d think of nothing else.”