The Remembrance Letter: the legacy of war
In this age of emails and texts, it’s worth remembering that a century ago, writing and posting a letter was the most common means of communicating with someone at a distance.
During World War I, some 12 million letters a week were sent to and from the Western Front in Europe. The British Post Office in London estimated that it handled more than 2 billion letters and parcels during the war.
Letters were important to a soldier’s morale reminding them that their loved ones cared for and remembered them. And for those at home, receiving a letter from a husband, boyfriend, son, brother, father, or other loved one was assurance that they were alive and well. On this Remembrance Day, I would like to share a story about one particular letter.
This letter was written by William (or Billy as he often liked to be called) Williams on September 23rd, 1918. It was in reply to a package he’d received from his wife Madeline and infant daughter Eileen in Canada. The package was a birthday gift for Billy and contained socks and underwear and some sweets. Billy had been away from home for more than a year. He was stationed near the town of Canal du Nord in northern France as part of a large Canadian contingent helping the British First Army crack the formidable German Hindenburg Line. The assault began at the end of August and within the first week, the Canadians had suffered in excess of 11,000 casualties.
Madeline was an anxious, young mother. Her daughter was less than a year old, born the previous November, nine months after Billy had shipped overseas. Billy had yet to meet his daughter in person. As he read the letter Madeline had included in the birthday package, Billy wondered if he would see any of them again. And so, during a brief lull in the German shelling and machine-gun fire, Billy put pen to paper.
Letters written on the eve of ominous battles are known in military circles as the ‘remembrance letter’. This was the letter a soldier wrote to his loved ones when he anticipated not making it out alive. Billy stared at the blank page. He couldn’t possibly describe the horrors that he’d witnessed. His wife was anxious enough and didn’t need such details to feed the nightmares she’d been experiencing. He’d also censored enough of his comrades’ letters to know what he could and couldn’t share. So, instead of addressing the letter to his wife, Billy addressed it to his daughter, Eileen.
He began by reassuring her that he’d be home soon even though the grim faces on the men around him suggested otherwise. He told her of the joy he’d felt when he read the telegram that arrived the previous Christmas announcing her birth. He expressed gratitude for the gift that she and her mother had sent and went on to tell her that one day, her mother would explain why he had to go away and what he was fighting for. He affirmed his faith in God and assured her that his faith brought him peace and the strength to carry on. And most of all, he wrote, he told Eileen how much he loved her. He only had time to add kisses for her and her mother before the courier came to collect the post.
The courier began his own perilous journey back through the lines. Couriers were frequent targets for the enemy snipers and mail often ended up in enemy hands searching for valuable information. Even if the post arrived safely, it still had an overland journey to the French coast by horse and cart and then by ship across the Channel to England. Once sorted in London, letters were put aboard convoy ships to make the dangerous North Atlantic crossing where prowling U-boats lay in wait for their prey.
In a small farming village in southwestern Ontario, it’s a cold late-October morning. A young mother bundles her baby up and makes her way down the road to the general store to await the post. Several other women are there too eagerly awaiting news from their men overseas. They chat and coo over the baby yet despite the smiles and laughter, the young woman is all too aware of the tension in the room. Eventually, the postmaster calls Madeline’s name and delivers a packet of letters into her outstretched and shaking hand. She counts four of them: one from late August, two from early September, and one postmarked September 25th. It’s the last letter that catches her attention. It’s addressed not to her but to their infant daughter Eileen.
It’s taken a month for the letters to arrive. What Madeline doesn’t know is that the Canadians have already managed to cross the canal and attack the German lines. The fighting has been hellish resulting in more than 30,000 Canadian casualties. If Billy was dead, she reasoned, the army would have sent a telegram by now. Still, the letter addressed to their infant daughter was cause for concern.
Back at her parents’ farmhouse where she and Eileen have been living ever since the baby was born, Madeline goes upstairs to her room and sits down on the bed with young Eileen nestled against her. “Look, darling, Daddy sent you a letter.” The child coos softly as her mother opens it. She begins to read. Her eyes well up with tears. Madeline’s mother enters the room, stands beside her daughter and places a hand gently on her shoulder to comfort her. The young woman composes herself, dries her tears with the handkerchief that her mother has handed her. She folds the letter and puts it back in its envelope and places it in her memento chest with the others where it will stay for the next 90 years.
My grandmother Madeline died in 1947, five years before I was born. Her memento chest of letters from my grandfather ended up hidden away in the bottom of my father’s bedroom closet. My brothers and I were forbidden from entering that closet but one day when my father was away I summoned up the courage and crossed its threshold, curious to know what my father might be hiding. I’d convinced myself that this was where he hid Christmas or birthday presents. I pulled the string on the single 40-watt bulb and was immediately disappointed. This was no Alladin’s cave. It smelled of mothballs. There was a rack of my father’s clothes, some old shoes, and a few paperbacks on a shelf that had no attraction for a 10 yr old boy. Desperate to find something, I kneeled down and reached under the bottom shelf. I touched something hard and pulled it out. It was a small chest covered in red leather and bound with brass strapping and a lock with a small key inserted. I opened it expecting to find jewels or money. My head dropped. It was filled with paper or more precisely, old letters. I took one out. It was postmarked August 1917. It was addressed to my grandmother. I opened it. “Dear Madeline” it began. He missed her. Another letter, the same. Mushy stuff that my grandfather had written during WW 1. I returned the letters and the chest to their hiding place and forgot all about them.
Jump ahead 30 years. I’m married, have three young boys of my own, and am a teacher with a passion for history and literature. One of my favourite lessons is teaching the poetry of the WW1 poets Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. I’m reminded of my grandfather’s letters. One day, while visiting my father, I chance to ask him about them, hoping I might be able to borrow them for one of my English lessons. Even after all these years, I’m still afraid of revealing my transgression into his closet. Instead of reprimanding me, he informs me that the letters were destroyed years ago in a flood after he’d moved them to my Aunt’s basement locker for safekeeping. I sink into the chair disappointed but there is little I can do.
Jump ahead again another 20 years. It’s 2015. I’m divorced. I work as an itinerant storyteller and story coach, helping people share the stories they long to tell. My father has been dead for ten years, my stepmother passed away four years ago, and my mother two years ago. That summer, I receive a call from my stepsister. She’s been cleaning out some things belonging to her mother. She tells me that she has a laundry basket full of “odds and ends”. Like what, I ask, and she says that there are some photos and knick-knacks that she thought I might want. And oh, she adds, there are some letters. What kind of letters? I enquire. She’s not sure but she thinks they belonged to my father. I can’t recall writing more than two or three letters to my father. Did he keep them?
I agree to visit my stepsister a few days later. We meet in the parking lot of the school where she teaches. We exchange a few pleasantries as we walk to her car. She opens the trunk and there’s the laundry basket. In it, I see a couple of framed photos that I remember hanging on the wall of my father’s house. A framed photo of his parents, my grandfather posing handsomely in his officer’s uniform and my grandmother as a young woman turned sideways, probably to hide the fact that she wore a patch over where she’d lost an eye in a domestic accident. There’s something else. What’s in the shoebox? I ask. “The letters,” my stepsister says. “I didn’t read them. Thought they might be personal.”
When I get home, I open the shoe box. It’s crammed full of letters. Hundreds of them. I pick one out and raise it to the light. 1917. Another. 1918. I open one. “Dear Madeline,” it begins. These are the letters I found when I was a boy in my father’s closet.
Now, the letters are a treasure trove to me. Since I left teaching and took up storytelling, I’ve developed a passion for family history. These letters will be invaluable. I decide to transcribe them and post them on a website dedicated to my grandparents. One day, I take out an envelope of a slightly different colour than the rest. It’s a pale blue in contrast to the dirty white of the others. And, it’s not addressed to my grandmother. Instead, it’s addressed to Eileen Williams. It’s dated 25th September 1918. Eileen is my 97-year-old aunt who lives in a care home in nearby Ancaster. I realize that she wasn’t even a year old when this letter was written.
I read the letter. By the time I reach the end, I know exactly what I have to do.
I call my brother and ask him to take me to the care home. Why? he asks. I’ll tell you on the way, I reply. Hurry.
When we arrive, we rush down the hall to my auntie’s room or I should say, her half of the room. Unable to afford a private room, she shares a room that is divided by a partition and a curtain. She has a bed, a small table next to it, a couple of chairs, and a television. The window looks out onto a small triangle of lawn and a chainlink fence at the back of the building. A wooden bird feeder hangs crookedly from a nearby tree. It looks as if it’s been condemned and abandoned for years.
Auntie is surprised to see us. We give over a few moments of small talk before I ask if there’s somewhere more private we can go. She suggests the library and seems both a little anxious and excited. I’ve told her I have a surprise.
Once settled in the library, I ask her if she remembers her father being in the War. Yes, she remembers. She might not know what happened yesterday but my aunt has an amazing recollection of people and places from decades ago. I then ask her if she remembers receiving a letter from her father. Again, no. I show her the letter. She looks at it and shakes her head. She doesn’t recognize it. It’s for you, Auntie, I say. Your father wrote this letter to you from the war. She takes it, looks at it and hands it back to me explaining that her eyesight is not good. “Read it to me,” she asks. I was afraid of this but at the same time I know I must.
I open the letter and begin to read. I have to stop and restart a couple of times as the emotion of the moment overwhelms me.
France Sept 23/1918
Miss Eileen Williams
My dear Daughter,
This letter will be read by you in years to come.
It is written on the evening of Sept 23rd and is in reply to a gift sent by you to mark my birthday. Today is one long to be remembered by me as it brought from far off Canada “greetings” from one whom I have never seen.
The parcel contained most useful things and coming from own dear Child made it so precious. I shall cherish the thoughts of the sender forever.
Your Mother shall tell the story of what you were doing while I was at war. When I get home will take many years to tell you all. This day has not been a happy one but towards evening my thoughts have been turned to my Saviour. There is no peace on earth and my only comfort is thinking of my God who will someday bring me back to my dear Wife and Child.
I send my best love with kisses to your Mother and to my dear Child. Your loving Father. xx
To Mother xx
W.A. Williams Lt.
T.O. 5th Bn. C.E.
When I finish, we sit in silence, gently wiping the tears from our eyes. My brother, a photographer, has captured it all on video. Tears stain his cheeks too.
Softly, Auntie is the first to break the silence. “It’s funny,” she murmurs, “I remember my mother handing me to this strange man when I was about three years old. I didn’t know he was my father. He was a stranger to me. It has always been Mother and me.” She laughs and adds, “I remember pounding him with my little fists. Imagine,” she says, “he spent all those years fighting Germans and then he had to come home and fight me.”
After a few more solemn moments, she begins to weep again. “What is it, Auntie?” I say, “Are you ok?”
She nods and looks me in the eye. “I was just thinking.” There’s a long pause before the confession. “I never heard my father say he loved me.”
My Aunt Eileen died in her sleep the following May. She was in her 98th year. She’d never married. After her mother died in 1947, she cared for her father. I remember my grandfather as a gentle man that I later ascertained had been quieted by the horrors of war. I could see this in the letters he wrote. Those written in the summer of 1918 onward are less enthusiastic than the earlier ones. He became more despondent. According to a family story, he’d been wounded in battle while riding a horse. A shell had exploded killing the horse and leaving a piece of shrapnel in my grandfather’s leg. He recovered but wasn't the same man he was when he came home. He didn’t talk about the war and I remember my father telling me how his father had scolded him harshly when he came home and found my teenaged father wearing his father’s uniform jacket and sporting medals he’d found in his father’s closet. After that, my father said, Grandad threw out everything related to the war. Except for the letters. My grandmother kept those and passed them on to my father. My grandfather died in 1961 when I was nine.
I remember my Aunt as a loving woman. She cared for me when I was young like a second mother. She fussed a lot and was nervous like her mother I’ve been told. She took pills for her nerves like my dad. Yet, in 1967, she went to Expo 67 on her own. She liked to tell a story about how she went to the Russian exhibition hall and met two cosmonauts there to extoll the virtues and accomplishments of the Russian space program. They invited her to join them on the machine that whirls them around to simulate G-forces. She accepted their invitation but made them assure her that they wouldn’t turn it up to full speed. “They were perfect gentlemen,” she told us, “they told me I was brave and would have made a good cosmonaut comrade.” For the rest of her life, my aunt loved everything about Russia and dreamed of going there one day. It’s funny about the people we know. We think we know them and then a story comes along and we see a whole new side to them.
Sitting there in that care home with my aged auntie, I saw her as a young dreamy girl still eager for the love of her father. And now here I was, delivering it in the form of a letter, a remembrance letter, written by a father who thought he’d not return. A letter itself thought to be lost. Yet somehow found. And delivered by me, the grandson, nearly a century later with its message of love.
My Grandfather, I believe, had, like many soldiers, been traumatized by war. He passed on this trauma to his children. My father, my Aunt Eileen, and my Aunt Mildred were plagued with bouts of mental illness. Had they, like my Aunt Eileen, never known the love of their father? Wounds are passed on from one generation to another. I too had never heard those words of love from my father. Our relationship had been very fractured over the years. And I’d always found it strange that my father rarely spoke of his father. This is the legacy of war: to disrupt and suppress.
But what about the legacy of love? What about the power of this letter to bring its message of love even after nearly a century of waiting?
Our wounds don’t have to remain infected. When I began my family, I vowed to tell each of my children I loved them from the moment they were born. Privileged to be there as each of them entered the world, the first words I spoke to them were “I love you.” To this day, all our conversations end with “I love you.” And now as a grandfather, I see that my children do the same with their children. If I accomplish nothing more in my life, that will always remain my crowning achievement.
Growing up, I bore the wounds of a war fought by my grandfather’s generation and passed on through the next. My father passed his wounds on to me. That’s one reason why I believe it’s important to never forget the sacrifices that were made then and now. This remembrance letter, found after so many years, brought its healing of love to my Aunt and by extension, to me. I share this story as a tribute to all soldiers and their loved ones. May you find peace and love. May all the letters you wrote not only be a testament to the pain you suffered and witnessed but also to the love you expressed for one another in the shadow of battle. Long may you be remembered and your stories be told. And long may your words and love heal the wounds of war for generations to come.