In 1916, my great-grandfather Harry was one of thousands of men in the trenches in France. Their suffering is legendary. But it’s also hard to imagine. Novels, photos, poetry, movies…it’s as close as most of us can get. You might feel something of their fear, camaraderie and revulsion, but it’s usually guided by some sort of interpreter’s hand and veiled by time.
But last year my uncle gave me an extraordinary gift. My great-grandfather had written dozens of letters to his wife and daughters from France in WWI, and over the course of one summer, my uncle and my cousin set about transcribing them. It was hard work. They were faded with age and my great-grandfather’s writing was often unclear. But they eventually got through them and my uncle compiled them in a bound volume and gave a copy to everyone in our family.
The letters begin in Camp Bramshott in England, on what I like to imagine was a fair day in early June 1916, and end just before his death, in France, in October that year. As my uncle notes in his preface, the letters are extraordinary because they tell a great love story between Harry and his wife Edith, but also describe appalling suffering. They’re also matter-of-fact – astonishingly so. There as yet existed no narrative frame or meaning to the war, so he was just describing the experience as he lived it.
While the letters as a whole are gripping, there are a few things that stand out to me. The first is that fear wasn’t necessarily the men’s worst enemy. Some did fall to pieces. Harry writes of one man, W. Craig, who wound up directing traffic as his nerves had “gone completely”. But Harry himself was comparatively sanguine. In one letter, just two weeks before he was killed, he was in the middle of musing about what post-war life would be life when he had to break off due to German bombardment. Catching up later, he wrote:
Just as I was writing the above, the Germans started dropping shells right on our street, and blew down a house. The bricks flew in all directions. They dropped one close to our billets about 30 yards away. There was some excitement I can tell you.
On the other hand, Harry hated the filth and degradation. His letters are peppered with references to the difficulties of keeping clean. He hated the lice (which he called “livestock”) and the mud was no friend either (if “part of the game”, as he put it). In one stint in the trenches, he couldn’t take the same set of clothes off for a month, even at night. On occasion, he was also tormented by self-doubt, in particular, whether he should have enlisted, and how he was possibly helping the war effort doing what he was doing.
But what’s more moving, and I think, instructive, is what kept Harry going. In some ways, it’s the same old human story. Passionate love for his wife, love and affection for his daughters, memories of home and faith in God: these were the shining things that helped him face each day.
However, it wasn’t just the abstract idea of his family, or even the well of his emotions for them, that kept him going. Rather, Harry drew his strength from thinking about specific things that he actually did with his family, like going for walks, working in the garden, or having big Sunday dinners. His love for his family was bound up in their shared experiences; simple family practices that build and sustained their relationships, even when they were separated and he was living amidst horror and suffering.
Of all the things that sustained Harry, the most important seemed to be music. He refers to it often in his letters. For example:
June 16, 1916
I can just picture you all in Saskatoon today. The girls will be good [piano] players now, and I am pleased Louie is learning to play Offenbach’s Barcarolle. It is one of my favourite pieces, and I am sure you will enjoy it. Bells at Eventide will always be one of my favourite pieces dear. It has so many associations attached to it. You will always be able to have good music on Sunday. I think of the many Sundays we had together dear, and how we used to have music after supper, and wonder how soon we shall have the pleasure of having them again.
September 3, 1916
I miss the singing more than anything, after singing so long in the choir. Nearly all the mean from the choir are out here now, and I can quite understand there being only five men singing there [that is, remaining back at home]. However, after the war Charlie will, I hope, take the choir over again, and we shall have the great pleasure of once again singing there. I wish we could all be back to sing the Te Deum when peace is declared.
The last letter he wrote was to his daughters, on October 2, 1916. It’s brief – just four short paragraphs – but in it he says:
I am so pleased to hear that you are doing well with your music. You know how much I would love to hear you both playing. I am looking forward to it very much.
Reading the letters is a pretty overwhelming experience. They are a voice across time, a chance to know a little about the great-grandfather I could never meet, and the formative years of my grandmother, whom I adored. And of course, they’re an incredible reminder of just how brutal war is, and how incredibly lucky we are if we don’t have to go through it. But, more than that, they’re a reminder that you make a family through doing: working together in the garden, going for walks, making music. I remind myself of this now when I have to nag my daughter to practice her piano, or when my son wants to help cook but I know it will take twice the time. All those things are so much more than the moment.