Letters from the front Woman preserved her father’s letters from the First World War
April of 1917 was a pivotal month for Canada, in the nation’s coming of age. That was when German-occupied Vimy Ridge finally fell for good to an allied army and that army was Canada’s.
Those soldiers had in their midst one Gordon Stuart Struan Robertson of Fort William, Ont. (now a neighbourhood of Thunder Bay). April, 1917 was also a pivotal time for him.
He had been enlisted for exactly one year when the historic push on the Western Front took place. One of the critical locations to win was the all-important Vimy hill because of how it looked down over the surrounding landscape. It was an essential firing point for whomever wanted to dominate the region.
Robertson’s fingerprints are on that critical Allied victory, a victory that made an indelible mark on Canada’s own psyche.
We don’t know precisely what Robertson did on the field of battle. What happened when he had a gun in his hand stayed forever locked in his unspoken memories, despite the questions he received later in life from his children and grandchildren. But we do know some of the things he was thinking about when he had a pen in his hand, for he wrote letters home to his mother and father. Thankfully, now 100 years later, the dates he wrote at the top of those letters give us all a sense of what was going on in the final brutal months of the First World War.
The letters are held by his daughter, Joan McKay of Prince George.
What his letters home indicate was a young man making the best of a horrific situation. Despite the unprecedented terror and spectacular violence of the trench warfare going on there, he chatted on the page about getting to have a bath, the pleasure of letters and parcels from home and how nice a spot of good weather felt. He expressed sentimental gratitude for the sprig of pussywillow sent by his parents in a previous letter and he was returning that with a clipping of willow from France.
It was usually as mundane as two crosscountry neighbours swapping pleasantries.
Almost all of these letters were written in a positive tone, but sometimes some deeper realities slipped through the censorship offices, like an April 6 “Dear Dad” letter that said “When we were out on our rest, the old lady where we lived said the war would be over on April 2nd. April 2nd is here but the war still goes on.”
Not only that, but Robertson was about to become a cog in the wheel that would roll up the Vimy hill, in a hailstorm of bullets, bombs and bodies. That would occur three days after posting that letter, and it would last another three days above that.
On April 13, he wrote home again. The Canadian forces had won the prize. Vimy was no longer in German Empire hands, and the Allies now had the upper hand. He wrote nothing of the military tactics used (they were innovations and they were almost all Canadian in plan and execution) but Robertson did muse about it in his dispatch.
“I suppose by now you will know with what success the drive has started and the Canadians helped start it,” he wrote.
“The whole affair was a walkover and why old Fritz (a term for the German foe) doesn’t quit is more than I can make out.”
He talked about the snowy conditions the day before – “about three inches on the ground” – that turned into mud.
“The paper says this spring is the coldest over here since 1879.”
The mud even compromised the ground under their tents so they scooped sawdust from a nearby sawmill and sprinkled it down to absorb the mess.
He said he had been hungry when he got back from his duties so he went for a meal.
He got sausage, tinned salmon, biscuits and a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs. When combined with the foodstuffs he got in the care packages from home – honey, peanut butter, cake, etc. – “we had some feed...It was great.”
Nothing ended when Vimy Ridge was decisively secured. The Germans were now losing but they hadn’t yet lost. The fight carried on deeper into France and with it went Robertson.
According to family notes provided by McKay, Robertson joined up as a private (with some military experience factored into his enlistment due to a few years of being a cadet), he was made a scout and would be discharged officially in Port Arthur (also within modern Thunder Bay) on June 12, 1919 as a corporal.
When he first enlisted, he was 19 years old, it was 1916 and he joined the 94th Battalion of the Great War Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). He was deployed by ship from Halifax in June and arrived in Liverpool in July. He crossed the English Channel in early August, arriving first in Ripon, France before the advance towards Vimy and victory.
On Aug. 31 of his first year overseas he transferred to the 28th Battalion (Northwest), still within the CEF. On Sept. 17, he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel that lodged in his head just behind his ear. It remained there throughout the rest of his life. He recovered in the hospital at Wimereux, France for approximately two months, then rejoined his unit.
The 28th Battalion was busy from Vimy Ridge onward. On April 14, according to the unit’s records, they moved into the Vimy trenches formerly occupied by the Germans. They and other battalions traded off holding the line, supporting or observing in turn. On April 21, they get a few days of rest at Aux Reitz.
They were back in the fray on April 26 in the Neuville St. Vaast area. It was there that Robertson got the time to write another letter home. It was dated April 30, 1917. He was once again buoyant about the campaign’s progress, and some of the national pride that would eventually ignite in Canada was already present in his words on these pages.
“We are now in support of a detachment of Canadians who went over the top a few days ago. Needless to say, it was a success – as it generally is when the Canucks attempt it,” he wrote.
He related a conversation between some of their company and a local French resident, who mar- veled at how the Germans kept holding the Vimy position until the Canadians took their turn. The Frenchman expressed his certainty that the Canadians would be the first to hold the position for good.
“And I think he is right,” Robertson wrote.
He also talked of a friend named Mason with whom he was stationed and presumably was known to the family back home as well. Robertson described how, by exciting fluke, Mason’s dad walked in on them. The two finding each other like that was a needle in a haystack kind of encounter.
The battle at Vimy has gotten immense attention for its harrowing circumstances and strategic importance, but it was not the toughest or bloodiest fight in which the 28th Battalion would find themselves. Famous names are linked to the Northwesters – for the wrong reasons.
First came Lens. Then came Passchendaele. The battalion’s records quote commanding officer Alex Ross, the famed Canadian soldier who coined the phrase “birth of a nation” via the bloody war, as saying of Passchendaele: “It was the one job we went into with no real heart. I had never seen my men so depressed as we moved into the Salient (alternate name for the area). They knew what the Salient was like, always had been like. It was the graveyard of everybody.”
Through that graveyard, they advanced. It was one of the pinnacle moments of 20th century military history. No letters came home from Robertson during this period. How he survived at all was a marvel that lasts within the family to this day.
The Passchendaele campaign was underway for more than 150 days, but the thrust involving Robertson’s battalion was a week of hell unleashed on that small crust of earth. The Canadians alone lost 4,000 to death or disappearance and 12,000 more were wounded.
One of the soldiers involved, Cpl. H.C. Baker said, “my impression was that we had won the ridge and lost the battalion.”
Robertson, though, carried on. First came battles at Amiens and Neuville-Vitasse in August of 1918, then the taking of the important town of Cambrai that October, followed by the heavily guarded village of Iswuy (or Iwuy to some), then the uncontested march to Bonn after the German surrender.
The 28th Battalion was the one that felt the final shot of resistance by Canadian troops. Records indicate it might have been the final shot of the entire war.
Government of Canada records said “On November 11, 1918, Private George Price of the 28th Battalion was shot by sniper fire at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the armistice was to stop all fighting and end the war. He is considered the last casualty of all Allied armies of the First World War.”
Robertson was there till the end and came home to a long and fruitful life on peaceful soil.
But he was not finished with war.
McKay recalls that when she and her siblings were young, the Second World War broke out and their father was a soldier once again, but this time as a recruiter and he played a considerable role in establishing the official military contingent of women in the Canadian forces.
“He was very Canadian, very patriotic,” she recalled.
Perhaps he felt it was his duty, she said, but more likely it was a coping mechanism that he refused to discuss what he saw overseas during those cataclysmic days.
“You know, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t. I think that’s a large part of what shaped how he became,” she said. “He was a great dad, but he was very closed and he would never go to any of the Remembrance Day services.”
She called him “an amazing person” because of his dynamic personality.
He had a difficult time adjusting back into home life once the war was over, and she admitted they had a difficult time accepting him as well. They were like strangers after his long absences.
They also moved often, pinballing around the Lower Mainland and elsewhere in B.C. (Vernon, Nanaimo, Chilliwack, etc.) as he pursued his accountant’s profession. After the death of his father in Ontario, he and his mother moved to B.C. in 1923. He met and married Edith Ward with whom he established his family.
First he was with the Wartime Prices & Trades Board, and then the Unemployment Insurance Commission.
He was also constantly tinkering on inventions and home-based businesses, McKay said. He would make root beer and facial creams, pottery and woodworking, various farming products, all for family use and for sale. His mind never seemed to settle, but there was quality and planning to each endeavour, she said, it wasn’t pointless fancy. He was also constantly involved in fraternal clubs to do good for others.
He even pursued acting at the age of 70, landing small roles in Hollywood movies that would be shot in the area, getting to meet such stars as Lon Chaney, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie.
“He was always so interested in current events,” McKay said. “He wanted to talk about the next election or the politics and events of the day. He wouldn’t allow a conversation about the war. He kept himself always so very busy all the time, and maybe that was a result of needing to keep his sanity, I don’t know. Now that we have learned so much about the effects of front-line battles on the people who were fighting, Gordon just had to have been affected in some ways. They didn’t call it PTSD, they called it shell-shock, and they also didn’t understand all the ways it could affect the mind. He must have had it in spades. How could he not, after all he’d seen?
In 1951, one of McKay’s brothers, Alan, moved to Prince George and started P.G. Building Supplies. (He now lives on Saltspring Island while brother Donald lives in Hawaii and sister Margaret lived in London until passing away in 2012).
McKay came to visit Alan “for a five-day visit and I’ve stayed for more than 63 years now. Maybe all that moving we did meant I wanted to stay put.”
McKay now worries about today’s personal stories like that of her father’s being lost to future generations. How might digital and computerized records survive to reach the eyes of our greatgrandchildren and beyond? She is grateful that her father wrote his letters from the Western Front and that they were kept for her to hold in modern times.
“I firmly believe there will always be both the desire and the need to read words – even beautiful words just for their own sake,” she said, then clarified, “The printed word on paper.”
Joan McKay reads one of the letters written from the Western Front by her father Gordon Robertson during the First World War. She saved them all these years and they now help depict the life of the soldiers in the thick of battles like Vimy Ridge.
A display of letters written from the Western Front by Joan McKay’s father, Gordon Robertson, seen in the photograph.
Gordon Robertson wrote a letter to his mother from France on April 30, 1917.