VIU Education student, Danielle Cossey-Sutton, completed an independent study last year and won three awards at the 2021 VIU CREATE conference. Her study had her diving into wartime letters and other primary sources to focus on a less-talked-about facet of World War I: women’s trauma.
“Women dealt so intimately with the war,” Cossey-Sutton said, but they were “often dismissed” because they were not in the trenches. She categorized WWI-era women into those who stayed at home, those who were nurses, and those who volunteered. More than 2,300 women enlisted with the Canadian Army Nursing Corps, with at least 58 losing their lives overseas.
She observed that it was sometimes difficult to find female voices in the letters. The majority in the collection were from male soldiers overseas, since soldiers couldn’t preserve letters from home easily in the trenches. Cossey-Sutton said she had to learn to “listen to the silence,” because sometimes it said as much as any letter could.
“My biggest hope was to give women voices,” Cossey-Sutton said, “and to consider trauma.” She considers her project to be a great start, but views it as just the beginning. There is more to be done.
It all started when Cossey-Sutton took a history class with professor Stephen Davies at VIU with a focus on Canadians in WWI. The course made extensive use of the Canadian Letters and Images Project (CLIP), a project Davies is director of.
Davies reached out to Cossey-Sutton over the summer and asked if she wanted to do more in the field, supported by him and fellow history professor Dr. Whitney Wood, who is also the Canada Research Chair in the Historical Dimensions of Women’s Health. Cossey-Sutton agreed.
She originally intended to focus on women’s sexual trauma, but found it too difficult with such a narrow focus. Cossey-Sutton mentioned that there’s still a taboo on talking about sexual trauma today; doubtless it was even more present during World War I.
Cossey-Sutton described her experience with the Canadian Letters and Images Project as “incredible.”
“It’s almost awe-inspiring … [and] heartbreaking in so many ways,” she said. Reading real people’s wartime letters was “an uncomfortable feeling” and Cossey-Sutton was often left speechless by the emotion and hardships those generations experienced.
“It kind of makes you check yourself,” she said.
But she found a comparison between the unprecedented times of WWI and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: people were living their lives against a backdrop of war, similar to the constant reminder today of COVID-19.
Cossey-Sutton doesn’t think the project is just for historians; it’s accessible enough for anyone to be interested, and learn from. The CLIP website is a very addictive rabbit hole according to Cossey-Sutton, who has “so many” favourites.
The first being Lance-Sergeant William Howard Curtis, M.M’s letters, which exemplified the primary trauma he faced on the frontlines, and the secondary trauma his female family members experienced back home. He wrote to both his mother and sister in June 1916 while he was being shelled for ten days straight in the trenches.
“It is nerve shattering to be under shell fire,” Curtis wrote to his mother.
Cossey-Sutton said such letters drove home the point that “this is real life, this isn’t fiction.”
Another shocking and somber letter was from Canadian Voluntary Aid Detatchment (VAD), Jeannette Bridges, who signs off as “Nettie” to her mother. In the middle of the letter, Bridges writes, “I didn’t finish this letter this morning & now it is 11 o’clock at night & I am on duty. I won’t be able to write much as the men are pretty restless and 3 of us (2 V.A.D’s & a Sister) have 190 to look after.”
Cossey-Sutton stresses the ratio of 190 injured soldiers with just three women to look after them. Women “were facing trauma every single day,” and they didn’t have the time to deal with it.
During her research, Cossey-Sutton actually found letters from Nanaimo couple in CLIP. The husband, Arthur Leighton, was a lieutenant in the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders in the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, while his wife, Alice, was a volunteer at St. Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in England.
Cossey-Sutton was struck by the tenderness expressed in the couple’s letters. “I think of you, my love, & kiss you as I go to my bunk at night. Do you feel it? I know you must,” Arthur wrote to Alice in April 1916. It was a bittersweet representation of how couples separated by thousands of kilometers during wartime could show affection.
It seems safe to say that Arthur Leighton would approve of Cossey-Sutton’s project. “If the 72nd men are as brave as their womenfolk, no one will need to complain,” he wrote to Alice in April 1916.
Cossey-Sutton listed two big takeaways from the project. First, she observed that even though medicine has come so far from the social standards of WWI, women and minorities are still seen as unknowledgeable about their own bodies.
“As women, we’re still not listened to,” she said. Women are stereotyped as not understanding their own health problems, or made to think that those problems are not worthy of acknowledgement. Cossey-Sutton includes other minorities in this phenomenon. “[They] still don’t have autonomy over their bodies,” she said.
Her second major takeaway is a more hopeful one. “Human need for connection is so important,” Cossey-Sutton said. This insight was particularly heightened by working on the project during the pandemic. She mentions the parallel of one of the WWI soldiers’ letters asking his sisters for the most mundane details of life and school while he was in the trenches compared to Cossey-Sutton reading these letters, quarantined in her house during COVID-19.
“Positive connection is important to humanity,” she said.
The primary impact Cossey-Sutton hopes her project will have on people is the dissection and normalization of trauma. She hopes that looking at historical influence will contribute to moving forward, and living with trauma in the present day. Cossey-Sutton also wants her project to illustrate that people “live with” trauma, they’re “not defined” by it.
Cossey-Sutton admits she has not done much with her project since presenting at VIU’s 2021 CREATE in the spring, but says there has been burgeoning talks about doing more with it, so keep an eye out. In the meantime, you can watch Cossey-Sutton’s presentation on VIUTube.
Isabella Ranallo is a third-year Creative Writing student at VIU. She's loved storytelling ever since she stole a sheet of her mother's office paper at age four to write the first page of a story about ten kids stranded on a desert island. Her short story, "The Journal," was published in VIRL and Rebel Mountain Press' In Our Own Teen Voice 2019. These days, she spends her free time scribbling away in Moleskine notebooks or searching for cat-inspired stationery.View all articles