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.

Trench Mortar Image Courtesy of  Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War - www.gwpda.org/photos

Trench Mortar Image Courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War – http://www.gwpda.org/photos

Canadian Soldiers in a Trench Image Courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War - www.gwpda.org/photos

Canadian Soldiers in a Trench
Image Courtesy of Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War – http://www.gwpda.org/photos

Mira practicing piano at home

Mira practicing piano at home

 

 

I was up late last night, slogging over a PowerPoint presentation.  You know the feeling:  the deadline is looming, you can’t find just the right image, and the PowerPoint software suddenly reveals itself to be embedded with evil gremlins intent on keeping you up all night.  I’ve had some deadlines that were so intense I have literally worked through a tornado.

But I have to confess that this particular assignment has actually been rather more fun than the average corporate presentation:  I have been preparing for a presentation to my son’s kindergarten class on Robbie Burns and Scotland.  The images I was searching for included bagpipes, Edinburgh Castle and the Loch Ness monster (which my son’s teachers assure me won’t be too scary.  You can rest assured that I’m leaving out Culloden, Glencoe and poor decapitated Mary, Queen of Scots, although I will tell all those tales with as many gruesome flourishes as possible, should I ever be invited to speak to my daughter’s grade 2 class).

As I squinted at clan maps and nearly indistinguishable tartan designs last night, I realized that I was having a ball.  OK, some of it was stemming from all sorts of fantasies about celebrating Hogmanay at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh , riding the Royal Scotsman, and returning to the Western Highlands.  (My husband and I went camping there in 2001.  It rained every day, and our tent nearly got blown away when we set it up on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Years later, when I opined that we’d never had a beach holiday, my husband retorted indignantly, “What do you mean?  We had Scotland!”)

Daydreams aside, though, there’s something really quite fun about diving into the lore of one’s family background.  I was raised as distinctly “British-Canadian”, and I seem to recall a heavy emphasis on the Scottish part of our identity.  My mother’s father wore a dress kilt when he married my grandmother.  My grandmother regularly referred to a red and tattered copy of “The Highlander’s Cookbook” (I’m telling you, if you think haggis is the only gruesome thing the Scots have invented, look up Blawn Whiting).  My grandparents just couldn’t get over left-hand drive cars, so they imported right-hand drive cars from the UK.  My uncle owned bagpipe music (which he would blast at top volume to get us out of bed when we were indolent teens).   We have a family dirk.  Even though three out of my four grandparents were actually first-generation Canadian, we felt a shared sense of pride in the role of Scots in helping to build Canada.

When I actually went to Scotland on the aforementioned camping trip, I was surprised to find a real sense of recognition, something I hadn’t felt the many years I’d lived in England.  Highland Scots are a people shaped by water, wind and mountains, and who comfort themselves in this environment with lush gardens and cosy homes;  it was no wonder that so many of them settled in wild British Columbia, and set about recreating the same colourful and warm domestic environments with which I’d grown up.

Previously, I’d never felt a particular urge to trace my family roots, but when I was actually in Scotland, I realized that it felt special to have deep history with a place.  I’m not Scottish, but Scotland and Scottish culture had nonetheless shaped my upbringing and thus my sense of self.  In an era in which we’re all about self-invention, all about lifestyle, it’s actually sweet relief to acknowledge that we have histories.  I try to imagine my Grandmother, she of the right-hand-drive Mini, responding to a question about her “lifestyle”.  She no doubt would have fixed me with those blue eyes of hers and said, “Lifestyle?  Really, girl, this is simply who we are.”

And so I raise my wee dram to Robbie Burns Day, to Scotland, to my family and to all our homes and homelands.

Robbie Burns