Let­ters hint at life on the front line

The Prince George Citizen - - In Remembrance -

Jac­que­line Carmichael pored over her grand­fa­thers’ let­ters for sev­eral weeks. She read the long, hand­writ­ten notes, and the short ones scrib­bled per­haps in a hurry as the men hun­kered down in trenches while dirt and bul­lets from the First World War show­ered over their heads.

Through those dis­jointed ac­counts, Carmichael says she has opened a win­dow to her past that helps her un­der­stand the per­son she is to­day.

The First World War saw about 75 mil­lion let­ters ex­changed be­tween the front lines and the 650,000 men serv­ing in bat­tle. A hun­dred years later, most notes have van­ished or are a dis­tant, yel­lowed mem­ory. The words are only just vis­i­ble, and the pho­tos are cloudy.

Carmichael, a res­i­dent of Port Al­berni and the author of Tweets from the Trenches: Lit­tle True Sto­ries of Life and Death on the Western Front, says she wanted to find a way to link the past to the present be­cause 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 found in my grand­fa­thers’ let­ters and jour­nals a way to un­der­stand them.”

The war shaped her fam­ily and ul­ti­mately helped her be­come the per­son she is, Carmichael says.

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

Tim Cook, a his­to­rian at the Cana­dian War Mu­seum, says the First World War was one of those key events in the na­tion’s his­tory that shaped the coun­try. “We were for­ever changed by the war.” Cook says he’s al­ways been in­ter­ested in how these men coped and en­dured the trenches and strug­gled to hold onto their hu­man­ity de­spite what they saw.

Some broke down, some were killed but oth­ers kept go­ing for­ward, fight­ing and serv­ing.

“I’ve turned to those let­ters and di­aries as a pow­er­ful way to un­der­stand the mo­ti­va­tion and in­ner lives of sol­diers in the First World War.”

Carmichael was given the let­ters and a few of Vowel’s pocket jour­nals by her aunt in 2007.

Some of the notes were on post­cards and were short enough that they could have been tweets, she says.

Vowel re­turned dam­aged from the war, she says, adding his let­ters hint at some of the hor­rors of his ex­pe­ri­ence: “De­liv­er­ing ra­tions to the front, dodg­ing bul­lets and mor­tar fire both. Bul­lets ripped the dirt up all around me but none of them were marked Black Jack.”

“The front is just the place for a per­son that likes thrills,” Vowel writes in an­other let­ter. “The noise made by high ex­plo­sive makes your hair stand on end.”

He died in a trac­tor ac­ci­dent be­fore Carmichael was born.

“I tried to make some sense of what kind of men they be­came and in turn what kind of fathers they be­came,” she says of read­ing the let­ters.

Chap­man came out of the war as a lov­ing fa­ther and hus­band, she says.

Grandpa Char­lie had a laugh that rum­bled in his chest be­cause mus­tard gas had dam­aged his lungs, she re­calls.

“He was a very kind per­son, and he had a great sense of hu­mour. I have vivid mem­o­ries of him when­ever I smell pipe to­bacco.”

When his chil­dren asked him about the war, she says he would chuckle and sim­ply say he never killed any­one, just prac­ticed shoot­ing on bully-beef cans, re­fer­ring to the ra­tions dis­trib­uted to sol­diers.

“The way that fam­i­lies are shaped, the way that fam­i­lies re­late to each other, I think we are af­fected by bet­ter or for worse by that war,” Carmichael says.

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.”

When peo­ple go to a ceno­taph and look at the names, they tend to think of the sol­diers as old men. But when peo­ple look at their let­ters, they re­al­ize that they were young, Davies says.

“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.”

JAC­QUE­LINE CARMICHAEL HAND­OUT PHOTO VIA CP

George “Black Jack” Vowel signed up with the Cal­gary High­landers in Septem­ber 1914. His grand­daugh­ter, Jac­que­line Carmichael, wrote a book based on the let­ters he wrote home dur­ing the First World War.

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