Nova Scotia

Letters preserved from First World War capture essence of Nova Scotia soldier's wartime service

A Cape Breton man has created a compelling picture of a soldier's life during the First World War by compiling more than 150 letters written by his great-uncle.

'The reader can walk in his boots,' says great-nephew John Grant, who compiled the letters

Photograph of Harold Fletcher Bishop of Auburn, N.S., who left his studies at Acadia University in 1915 to enlist and serve his country. (John Grant)

During his most trying days in the First World War, Cpl. Harold Fletcher Bishop remained ever upbeat in his letters home, even when describing the first earth-shaking artillery inferno he faced at the front.

He would assure his mother he was faithful to his Baptist values, describe leave in London's theatre district, and provide updates on the lives of classmates from Acadia University who had joined him overseas.

In a rare complaint, while lying mortally wounded in hospital, he pleaded for a "spare end of cake" from home in Nova Scotia because English wartime bread "is awful."

The compelling picture of a soldier's life during the First World War has now been compiled by Bishop's great-nephew, John Bishop Grant of Sydney, N.S., who discovered the wartime letters four years ago stashed in a banker's box in a trunk in his mother's house.

"The letters had been bundled: there were about 150, plus another 70 that were written on his behalf from hospitals in England to his parents, mostly his mother," Grant says.

Going through them all, he says, has been "a labour of love for over three years."

Left Acadia to enlist

Bishop was from the village of Auburn in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley and was on course to graduate from Acadia University. But Grant says after his sophomore year in 1915, Bishop and half the men in his class were excused from the campus to enlist and serve their country.

John Grant spent three years compiling his great-uncle's letters into a book that illustrates a soldier's life from 1915-1919. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

Adding maps and pictures to the story, Grant has been able to chronicle his great-uncle's experiences, pulling it all together in a book he is publishing himself to share with family, some archives and Acadia University.

"The reader can walk in his boots," says Grant, noting the letters detail Bishop's life through training camps in Halifax, Valcartier, Que., and Shorncliffe in Kent, England, before being dispatched to the trenches of France in October 1916.

"The letters are in their original envelopes with censor stamps on them," Grant says. "He does not mention where he is; he can't. He's always asking the news from home, the news from campus, and offers many insightful perspectives on trench life."

Held fast to family values despite war

A recurring theme in letters to his mother was encapsulated in Grant's choice for a book title — As Ever — his great-uncle's usual closing before he signed his letters.

Bishop wanted his mother to know he wasn't changed by war; that he was holding firm to his family's Baptist values and to his faith in God.

He wrote: "I feel that whatever happens I can go forward to the end in his care. I used to think that when I joined the army I would have an awful hard time to keep on the right path."

A bond among students at war

During the year he spent training in England, he described making the most of his leave by going to shows in London's theatre district, and he maintained close ties with more than a dozen of his fellow students from Acadia who were over there in uniform.

One of his classmates was Milton Gregg of Mountain Dale, N.B., who would later be awarded the Victoria Cross for valour.

Judging from his descriptions of battle, he appears to have kept a cool head, as evidenced in the following excerpt:


Doubtless you have seen by the papers that we have been doing a bit of fighting lately. It was the first real scrap that I have been in, as you know, so there was much that was new to me.

One thing that impressed me very much and I don't think it was because it came first was the Artillery Barrage which preceded our advance, and "paved the way" so to speak.

Just about dawn the guns all opened up with a terrific roar that could be heard for miles, mingled with the sharp crack of dozens of machine guns.

I have heard quite a number of "strafes" that sounded pretty bad, but never anything that would compare with that, the ground just shook beneath us, and what must it have been like over on the other side!

I thought at the time that surely nothing could live in such an inferno, and indeed that proved to be the case as we discovered a few moments later when we advanced. The Artillery did splendid work everything that was German territory was smashed and blown to pieces.


Bishop survived that battle and later Vimy Ridge, but on Aug, 26, 1918, during the Battle of Arras, he was wounded and spent the rest of his short life in hospital before he died.

Despite his wounding, Bishop's tone never wavered. His words continued to project a positive attitude and a genuine appreciation of kindnesses shown him while in hospital in England.


Dear Mother: 

Mrs. Carr is the Canadian Red Cross visitor and is a very nice woman. She comes in two or three times a week and reads to me when I feel like it and also brings things to eat eggs, fruit, etc. She certainly has been a friend to me.

Sometime if you have a spare end of cake it would go mighty well over here. I expect such things aren't common now, even in Canada, but you should see what people live on over here no sweets of any kind and the bread is awful, at least I can't "go" it at all.

I don't know whether anyone ever told you how I was wounded or not. I was sniped, the bullet went through my right chest and out my back, fracturing the spine as it came out.

That of course paralyzed my legs from the hips down. The only pain I have is my legs and that pleases the nurses and doctors for they say it is the first indication of the feeling returning so I can't grumble.

However it is a slow business, but I should be mighty thankful if it all ends O.K. Hope to be home next summer.

I must close now, for it is a tiresome job lying on one's back and writing.

Lovingly,

Hal


Harold Bishop was transferred to Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax where he died in April 1919.

It was "eight months to the day after being hit by the sniper's bullet," says Grant, adding that the letters, so well-crafted, "shine a light on his personality and character, and really the values of the Bishop family."

Grant says he's publishing the book, As Ever, in limited quantities initially. But he plans to produce more for the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 and expects to have copies available for some local bookstores.

Headstone for Harold Bishop at Aylesford, N.S. He was paralyzed by a sniper's bullet in France in August, 1918, and died eight months later. (John Grant)

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