British Columbia

Tweets from the trenches: author reimagines WW I correspondence

Jacqueline Carmichael, whose two grandfathers served in the First World War, wanted to find a way to engage a new generation with the past.

More than 75 million pieces of mail were exchanged between the front lines and the 650,000 men serving

Jacqueline Carmichael's grandfather, Charles Chapman, left, with his friend, Tommy Douglas. Carmichael pored over her grandfather's and other World War I veterans' letters for several weeks. (Submitted by Jacqueline Carmichael/Canadian Press)

Author Jacqueline Carmichael says while there might not have been social media as we know it during the First World War, those on the front lines were anxious to communicate to the world at large.

"There was a great deal of communications back and forth because they were so desperate to keep the home fires burning and to get mail and get notes and to get packages," Carmichael said. 

Carmichael, who is based in Port Alberni, B.C., looked at correspondence — letters, journal entries, postcards — for her new book, Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life & Death on the Western Front.

Some of the correspondence was so short and vivid, they reminded her of tweets and texts. 

"Social media has always been happening. It just used to take a lot longer," she said.

Charles Chapman, shown in the middle of the back row with his fellow soldiers, in this undated handout photo. (Submitted by Jacqueline Carmichael/Canadian Press)

Carmichael's work is personal. Both her grandfathers served in the war. George "Black Jack" Vowel and Charles W.C. Chapman enlisted when they were in their early 20s, just as the war began in 1914 and served till the end of the war in 1919.

"I learned about my own grandfather and what he was like as a young man and maybe what turned him into the PTSD-stricken individual that I think he was," Carmichael said. 

"When he describes falling into a shell hole full of water and bumping up against dead German soldiers and walking on bodies, that made World War I much more real to me."

Listen to the interview on Daybreak South:

The connection between her work and social media is meant to make the experiences of the First World War real for a new generation.

"It was 100 years ago and we see it as this black-and-white war in these black-and-white pictures and it seems very distant and historic but it's with us in our DNA."

A scanned letter penned by George "Black Jack" Vowel dated "Oct. 20th" is seen in a handout. They were with the 10th Battalion, and then the 13th Battalion after the 10th was decimated. (Submitted by Jacqueline Carmichael/Canadian Press)

A human face to the war

Stephen Davies, a Vancouver Island University history professor and director of the Canadian Letters and Images Project, an online archive of the Canadian war experience, says the letters put a human face to the war.

"These are young men. They had loves and lives and ambitions and they liked chocolates and their dogs and had a girlfriend. They are very real accounts of real people."

Davies' grandfather, Harry Davies, enlisted in 1916 when he was 18. He served until he was wounded in August 1918.

There are no letters from his grandfather, but he has his daily diary and a few photographs, all of which are in the online collection.

His grandfather died in 1935 and they never had met, but Davies says the diary has given the man a voice.

"Through those letters, we know what rich lives they had and by their loss, you know what a richness that was lost through the war."

With files from Daybreak South and The Canadian Press


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?