12 things I learned from Newfoundland First World War letters

CBC's Heather Barrett has spent months with soldiers, their comrades and their families, immersed in a large pile of letters from the First World War held by the Provincial Archives at The Rooms.

Soldiers and their loved ones give deeply personal accounts of the impact of war in their own words

Actors Charles Dart, Amelia Manuel and Steve Lush read letters written by Newfoundland soldiers and their loved ones during the First World War. (CBC)

I have spent the past couple of months with soldiers, their comrades and their families.

No, I haven't been on a tour of duty with the Canadian military, but I have been immersed in a large pile of letters held by the Provincial Archives at The Rooms.

The Rooms holds thousands of pieces of correspondence from the First World War, written by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. They come from the records of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, family collections and newspaper archives.

Actress Amelia Manuel reads a letter from a Newfoundland nurse who visited the trenches during the First World War. 3:12

Larry Dohey, the manager of collections and special projects at The Rooms Provincial Archives, has sent the CBC a selection of those letters, and I've been involved  in sorting through that pile.

We have recorded actors reading them for CBC television, radio and online for a project called In Their Own Words.

I've been working on the audio end of things — making a long-form radio documentary on the letters, and preparing a dozen of the letters to roll out on radio as short segments.

First World War letters 23:06

Here is some of what I've learned as these voices were brought to life in my headphones

1. The world was a much larger place in 1916. Most Newfoundlanders at the time rarely ventured very far from their home communities, according to Dohey.

"To get on a boat to come in to St. John's, sign up, and then to get on the Florizel and go to places that they had only been reading about it books like France, like Paris, Like Germany, like London, like Scotland," said Dohey.

"These were only places that they ever dreamed they would go to."

2. Some local slang is timeless. "The sun was splitting the rocks," wrote Frank Lind, as he described a day at his training base in Scotland in 1915.

3. Mothers were embarrassing their sons back then, too. Without the knowledge of her son, Mrs. Rosanna Cranford of New Harbour wrote to a military official.

"I wishes to point out that my son is too delicate to fight. He was always a delicate chap from infancy. I am quite sure that his services to the regiment are not profitable."

Herbert Cranford survived the war and went on to become a teacher in Coombs Cove, Fortune Bay.

4. Young women wanted in on the action. There are many letters from young women inquiring about nursing and first aid training, so they could go overseas to the front lines.

5.  Nighttime fighting on the front lines resembled thunder and lightning. That's how nurse Maysie Parsons described battlefield action in a letter home to her father.

6. A machine gun in action sounds similar to an air hammer. That's the way a soldier named Bert Ellis described machine gun fire at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916.

7. News took a very long time to travel. It was sometimes months before parents received word that their sons were killed in action. Years passed before they received any more details about what happened to their children, or received any of their childrens' belongings.

8. Many soldiers were religious, or at least they said they were. "All the time he has been with us he has shown wonderful dispositions of patience and faith and love of God, and he received the last sacraments devoutly," wrote Rev. Father F. Woodlock to the mother of a deceased soldier.

Letters from clergy or senior military offices often had florid accounts of a soldier's bravery in receiving the last sacraments, and his joy in knowing he was going "home" to heaven.

9. Limb amputations in field hospitals must have been brutal. Newfoundland Regiment soldier Herb Dooling wrote a letter on behalf of Pte. James William Moore's to Moore's mother. Moore was recovering from amputations to his left leg above the knee and his right foot above the ankle.

"The doctors, nurses and Red Cross men cannot say too much of him. In asking how he acted after the operation, their words to me were, 'He is one of the bravest men we have attended in the hospital.'"

10. Newfoundland families routinely lost their children in their teens and early twenties. Parents wrote letters to military and government officials frequently inquiring about a son, or multiple sons, who had been killed or lost in action.

In those letters, they sometimes mentioned the deaths of other children in fishing or forestry accidents, or through illness.

11. Soldiers' deaths created economic hardships for families. Young men were the breadwinners for their wives and children, or were major contributors to their parents' household income.

Letters from parents often included queries as to how they could access the modest sums of money their sons were paid as soldiers.

12. Just because some soldiers wrote about their experiences in the war doesn't mean they talked about them. Dohey said Provincial Archives staff travelled all over the province, gathering material contributed by families.

"The same story [everywhere] was, 'No, grandfather or great uncle never told us about his experience. He never told us what it was like,'" said Dohey.

About the Author

Heather Barrett

CBC

Heather Barrett is the host and producer of Weekend AM on CBC Radio One in Newfoundland and Labrador.