In 2000, Dr. Stephen Davies, a full-time history professor at Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo Campus, initiated an undertaking unique in Canada — an online archive of Canadian wartime experiences depicted through personal letter collections written by Canadian soldiers serving in international conflicts.
“I started the Canadian Letters and Images Project with 200 letters because I thought it would be useful to my history students,” says Dr. Davies. “Our collection is now over 12,000 and growing, likely exceeding 25,000 in another decade or less. These letters written by Canadian soldiers generations earlier, create a solid foundation of deeper understanding of Canada’s role in wartime.”
“I had no idea the project would become so large, and to date, there is no evidence of this project style being duplicated in Canada or elsewhere,” he adds modestly.
Dr. Davies says that the objective of the Canadian Letters and Images Project (CLIP) is to let Canadians tell their own story in their own words from the battlefields and from the home front, from any war. He adds that too often the story told of Canada at war has been one of great battles and great individuals, an approach that unfortunately misses the “ordinary” Canadian.
Dr. Davies reiterates the importance of letters and images in preserving the stories of ordinary Canadians and the richness of their wartime experiences and that each piece of correspondence is a valuable artifact linking Canadians to their past. When seen in combination with many others, a single letter can help to tell a remarkable story of the unyielding spirit of a country at war.
The following is an excerpt from a letter written by Will, an “ordinary” WWI Canadian soldier fighting in France, describing to his wife and family back home in Canada how he was wounded in battle:
1st Scottish Hospital
My Dear Betty & Kiddies,
We had spent 8 days to the south of Lens [France] … German artillery fire had been growing more fierce … shells of all sizes … an incessant stream, night & day … the noise & din was beyond all description. We were relieved at midnight & began our journey back to reserve dugouts. It was dark & raining. We were in a single file … Pryor [a friend] just behind me….1 a.m. we are almost to the support trenches … Fritz then began to drop his shells pretty close when one dropped & burst 10 ft. away … I saw fireworks & felt myself lifted up & felt sharp stings in different places … we were under shell fire all the time … I got to my feet … I knew I was hit in both legs and arms & staggered along, I could hear Pryor groaning … then I must have fainted … when I came to I heard that Pryor was wounded badly … the Sergt carried me to the trench and laid me in the mud next to Pryor. The pain was bad & my wounds bleeding a lot…. When a shell bursts, every piece is practically red hot so you could imagine what it would be like … I did what I could to comfort Pryor poor fellow. If ever men went through Hell, we went through it & worse, that night. The stretcher [carriers] came about 2 a.m. … and began their journey – dark and rainy ground full of shell holes, crossing trenches – through scrub – over embankments all while shells dropping here & there – they carried us nearly 3 miles to the nearest dressing station … it was like getting into Heaven to get there … I pray that this awful war may soon end though it seems far off at present … Good night dear & God bless & keep you. Will
Although the majority of letters are from soldiers like Will, there is, though much more rarely discovered in collections, return correspondence to soldiers from the home-front. Soldiers burned most letters after they had read them. This was a security action and lack of personal space to carry bundles of letters. The following is an example of these rare finds. It is the reply to Will’s letter from his wife, Betty, who has only just learned that her husband has been wounded and is recovering in a Scottish hospital:
July 31, 1917
My poor Will,
I just received the casualty message this morning – 10 days coming “severely wounded in arms and legs” if we could only know how badly … you must be still suffering … I hope and pray you will be spared to come back to us … tis so hard to think of you so far away … not a thing we can do but watch and wait and pray … Oh, Will, my heart is just breaking we want you back. Your poor broken body. We are loving and hugging you, but oh so far away. The kiddies are trying so hard to comfort me: they don’t like to see me crying. I shall keep on writing. It will be three weeks … before you get this [letter]. I will say good-night … and keep writing the [1st Scottish] hospital … now, dear Will. May God … spare you to come back home to us soon. Your Wife, Betty.
Betty’s return letter between husband and wife, separated by thousands of miles, weeks of time, and the horrors of WWI, allow us the chance to experience the human emotions of war that link us to this important era in Canadian history.
“The authors of the letters deserve to be remembered. It is that sense of gratitude, almost awe at times, about what these people have done,” says Dr. Davies.
“We are not targeting WWI specifically, everything is important; we’ll take whatever we can get. But it is that nature of what families will share with us is what we’re at the mercies of,” he says.
One of the biggest surprises when he started his project, says Dr. Davies, was that he expected WWII to be the largest collection and that WWI would be difficult to get. The opposite was true. Second World War veterans are still very much connected to their families, and Korea is even more recent. Canadian soldiers’ correspondence from the Afghanistan war, for example, will be more difficult for future historians to accumulate due the nature of changes in communication. Emails stored in computers, cell phones, and texting contain the electronic personal correspondence essential to understanding the human element during wartime, but unfortunately, leave a minimal paper trail.
In his determinative stride to preserve the written perspective of Canadians at war, Dr. Davies has participated in several CBC Radio interviews, appeared on television, given public discussions, and been the guest speaker at universities. The Canadian Letters Project is Dr. Davies own way of looking at history as a social historian.
Through this effort, Dr. Davies has created a unique and concrete educational opportunity for his history students:
“I do a three week field school every two years in France,” says Dr. Davies, “the next one is in May 2013. There are 20-25 students placing themselves on the First World War’s Western Front for three weeks of intensive, hands-on, in-the-battlefields learning. Students go to cemeteries to locate the final resting places of Canadian soldiers. They are assigned one soldier and must prepare a biography on that person, presenting their memoirs at that person’s gravesite, making that real correlation.”
In the future, he hopes to install audio features on the Canadian Letters and Images website for the hearing impaired, and hire more students to expand the quantity of correspondence more quickly. The project is a community engagement; not an academic project.
“I didn’t realize how deeply attached I was to these stories, to these people, until I started this project. There is an emotional
impact about the project in as much as the amount of time it takes,” he says, “I cannot step back from it. If you owe a debt of gratitude then somebody has to do this or stories will be lost to future generations — for this generation.”
Vancouver Island University does take cash donations that are funnelled directly into the Canadian Letters and Images Project. VIU issues a charitable donation receipt.
Collections are picked up by courier and, after being processed, are then returned by courier to the collections’ owners. The cost is paid for by the Canadian Letters and Images Project.
Individuals who submit materials should include any biographical details about the writer of the letters (such as age, birth, death, etc.), about the recipient of the letter and the relationship of the sender to recipient (i.e., son to mother), and any other information that may be useful to provide meaning and context to the letters, postcards or photographs.
Transcriptions or photocopies of the originals are also gratefully accepted. If you are sending a photocopy, please be certain that it is a good quality copy to ensure that the letter is accurately transcribed. Originals can be returned by the Project, if requested, but it will be necessary to allow sufficient time to process and transcribe the originals.
For more information, please contact Dr. Stephen Davies at 250 753-3245 Ext. 2131 or visit www.canadianletters.ca
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