All My Love

Dur­ing the Se­cond World War, let­ters were a cru­cial life­line be­tween soldiers and home. A story of how words kept one cou­ple to­gether

The Walrus - - ALL MY LOVE - His­tory by har­ley rus­tad photography by vicky lam

The si­lence was bro­ken by rapid stac­cato. Tap. Tap, tap, tap. Not gun­fire but anx­ious fin­gers typ­ing words onto creamy white pa­per with Cana­dian Le­gion War Ser­vices let­ter­head at the top. A sol­dier was writ­ing a let­ter to a girl on the other side of the world.

It was the mid­dle of March 1944, in the hills of cen­tral Italy. The Cana­dian sol­dier, a lieu­tenant com­mand­ing a tank troop in the 11th Cana­dian Ar­moured Reg­i­ment, was waiting for the rain to cease so his men could start mov­ing again through the rough and sod­den ter­rain. He didn’t write about what could lie ahead: the next as­sault on Monte Cassino, al­ready one of the Al­lies’ dead­li­est bat­tles in the Ital­ian cam­paign.

The Cana­dian sol­dier, Harry Mac­don­ald, my grand­fa­ther, had sent Jac­que­lyn Robinson dozens of let­ters, span­ning sev­eral years — let­ters writ­ten in spi­dery cur­sive by candlelight as rain pounded down on cor­ru­gated rooftops or amid the blasts of nearby shelling. His let­ters were of­ten rushed or cut short, with some started and fin­ished with hours or even days in be­tween. He fre­quently apol­o­gized for his messy hand­writ­ing, hop­ing his words would be leg­i­ble. One let­ter, sent five days be­fore, writ­ten in haste, con­tained a ques­tion for which he anx­iously awaited a re­ply. The let­ter had be­gun with a fa­mil­iar two words, “Dear Jac­quie,” and ended with a ques­tion: “Will you marry me?” But, im­pa­tient for an an­swer, he wrote her again.

It was March 14 when he found the type­writer. He needed his words to be as clear and as con­fi­dent as his thoughts. “When I think that even now I could be call­ing upon you, tak­ing you to a dance, go­ing to a show and do­ing those things nor­mal peo­ple could be do­ing I feel per­son­ally one of the great­est horrors of war — the sep­a­ra­tion of men from those they love,” he typed. “How­ever, I sup­pose that if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m in the ser­vice it might have taken longer for me to re­al­ize just how lucky I am. I hope for the best, dar­ling, no mat­ter which way things turn out.”

He signed the bot­tom of the page, folded the sheet, and slipped it into an en­ve­lope and care­fully wrote a Van­cou­ver ad­dress. Now he waited, not know­ing what would come first: death or a re­ply.

Harry ward mac­don­ald and Jac­que­lyn Ruth Robinson met at the 1941 May Day parade in Van­cou­ver. He marched as an eigh­teenyear-old cadet of the Seaforth High- lan­ders, and she ac­com­pa­nied the May Queen as a fif­teen-year-old flower girl. Over the sum­mer, Jac­quie and Harry saw each other of­ten. They pic­nicked along Kit­si­lano Beach and danced on the springy wooden floor of the Com­modore Ball­room. The war in Europe seemed a world away from the breezy streets of Van­cou­ver. But soon the gun­fire and shelling, the gears and grind­ing, and the call to fight grew louder.

On Oc­to­ber 10, 1941, Harry en­listed into the Cana­dian Ac­tive Ser­vice Force, one of more than 1.1 mil­lion Cana­di­ans and New­found­lan­ders who would take part in the war. He filled in the at­tes­ta­tion pa­per with the par­tic­u­lars of his young life to date: full name, ad­dress, re­li­gion, trade or call­ing, and next of kin. He said good­bye to his mother, his fa­ther, and his three younger sis­ters as he pre­pared to leave for train­ing in On­tario. The evening be­fore his de­par­ture, un­der the stars and droop­ing branches of a wil­low tree at the end of Jac­quie’s fam­ily’s drive­way, the young cou­ple said good­bye. On a sign un­der the tree was an ad­dress — 4545

Lan­gara Av­enue — that would come to rep­re­sent not just home but hope.

Through the fol­low­ing win­ter and spring, Harry and thou­sands of other en­lis­tees re­ceived ba­sic weapons train­ing at Camp Bor­den — the Cana­dian Forces base north of Toronto. Harry con­sid­ered en­ter­ing the air force, but when a sergeant he re­spected sug­gested he join the tank corps, Harry signed up. Dur­ing train­ing, he strug­gled with fir­ing the 75mm guns of the thirty-tonne ma­chines. “Some­one could have stood be­side the tar­get and have been per­fectly safe,” he wrote Jac­quie. “Must have been that aw­ful beer we have in the mess.” In­stead, Harry found he was bet­ter at driv­ing and com­mand­ing a tank.

Harry’s let­ters to Jac­quie were few at the be­gin­ning, as if the two were test­ing whether the phys­i­cal dis­tance be­tween them was go­ing to prove too much. But the let­ters kept flow­ing back and forth—at first across the coun­try and then across con­ti­nents and oceans. Dur­ing the Se­cond World War, let­ters from loved ones and fam­ily were a cru­cial respite for soldiers on the front lines. They were a panacea and a life­line and a boon to spir­its. “It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to over-stress the im­por­tance of this mail,” wrote then US post­mas­ter gen­eral Frank C. Walker. “It is so es­sen­tial to morale that army and navy of­fi­cers of the high­est rank list mail al­most on a level with mu­ni­tions and food.”

When he reached Eng­land in the spring of 1943, Harry was as­signed to the On­tario Reg­i­ment and saw his first ac­tion against Ger­man troops in North Africa. Wher­ever he was de­ployed, he found pa­per and pen. “Let­ter writ­ing has so many draw­backs,” he wrote Jac­quie. “I want to be able to hold you and ask you in words that are spo­ken, not writ­ten. I want to see you in the flesh, not just to pic­ture you in my mind.” Harry joked about be­ing en­vi­ous of those he called “Var­sity wolves”—men who stayed home rather than en­list­ing, who could eat steaks and sip milk­shakes rather than suf­fer through the bully beef and cold tea he was sur­viv­ing on, or who could go out danc­ing rather than face the front lines.

Jac­quie kept writ­ing as she grad­u­ated from high school and be­gan classes at the Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia. Mailed from Van­cou­ver, her let­ters were sorted at a city post of­fice, car­ried by train across the coun­try, and then loaded onto a ship bound for Eng­land. There, they joined thou­sands of let­ters that had entered the Al­lies’ mil­i­tary mail sys­tem, then were dis­patched to wher­ever Harry was listed as serv­ing. From ports un­der Al­lied con­trol, the let­ters were trans­ported to­ward the front and then car­ried by hand to a base sort­ing fa­cil­ity — where, fi­nally, they would reach Harry. De­spite the dis­tance, Jac­quie’s let­ters of­ten took only a few weeks to find his hand—but they were weeks of anx­ious waiting.

In the spring of 1944, the 11th Cana­dian Ar­moured Reg­i­ment con­tin­ued to trudge through south­ern Italy to­ward Monte Cassino. Af­ter send­ing his pro­posal, Harry dis­patched four sub­se­quent let­ters ex­plain­ing his in­tent and plans for their fu­ture to­gether. “Re­mem­ber our last evening un­der the guid­ing in­flu­ence of the wil­low tree? What a hope­less case I was then. What an op­por­tu­nity I missed,” he typed in the March 14 let­ter. “I think I did man­age to blurt out, ‘I love you,’ in some­what un­cer­tain terms. Time has changed that un­cer­tainty into the most def­i­nite thing I know.”

Then, on April 23, Harry was handed a blue, folded air-mail let­ter writ­ten and dated ex­actly one month be­fore. In the top cor­ner was a tawny Cana­dian stamp de­pict­ing the Par­lia­ment build­ings in Ot­tawa, and on the back, in fa­mil­iar hand­writ­ing, was the ad­dress un­der the wil­low tree. It was the re­ply from Jac­quie he had been waiting for.

“Dear Harry,” she be­gan, “There is a let­ter in front of me that just ar­rived to­day. The most won­der­ful let­ter in the world, I just can’t find words to tell you how won­der­ful it is. I have read it at least a dozen times in the last hour and I’m afraid I am still dry­ing up the tears.”

She men­tioned how she had col­lected pen­nies in the hope of sav­ing enough to travel, to see Eng­land one day, and how they could go to­gether. “I am only eigh­teen dar­ling, but I do know what I want, and be­lieve me, right now I must be just the hap­pi­est girl in the world. There is only one an­swer I could ever give you, and that is ‘yes!’”

Over the fol­low­ing months, he would read this let­ter hun­dreds of times when he needed to fall asleep or when he needed a lift. His days were a tough slog—com­mand­ing, via head­set, three Sher­man tanks, each with a five-man crew, through wet ter­raced hills of the Liri Valley from skir­mish to bat­tle, from shelling to lull. “This war has just got to end soon or I shall go mad,” he would read, Jac­quie’s voice coming off the page as clear as the day they met at the May Day parade. “But no mat­ter how long it is I shall wait. I think I would wait for­ever for you just so long as I could al­ways know you were some­where waiting too.”

Two weeks af­ter Harry re­ceived his re­ply, just be­fore mid­night on May 11, 1944, the fourth as­sault of the town of Monte Cassino be­gan. Troops had been amass­ing qui­etly to try to main­tain sur­prise for this fi­nal push. A coali­tion of nearly a dozen Al­lied coun­tries took part, some of­fer­ing ar­tillery bom­bard­ment, some ground troops that formed a “pinch” around the town to force the Ger­man troops to flee. The Cana­di­ans sent in their tanks. The forces cleared the city and ad­vanced on the Hitler line, a Ger­man de­fen­sive fron­tier that ran across part of cen­tral Italy. On May 24, the Cana­dian tanks breached the line. The Ger­mans were in full re­treat, but the suc­cess at Monte Cassino came at a cost: 55,000 Al­lied soldiers were killed.

Harry sur­vived the bat­tle of Monte Cassino. Many of his fel­low soldiers and friends didn’t. His pen­chant for let­ter writ­ing served him well in these tragic sit­u­a­tions. One of his friends had asked Harry to write a let­ter to the man’s fam­ily if any­thing were to hap­pen to him. When he died in a sub­se­quent bat­tle, Harry fol­lowed through, and the fam­ily replied with grat­i­tude and a par­cel of 1,500 cig­a­rettes to be passed among his pla­toon.

Harry couldn’t hide the im­pact the loss of such com­pa­tri­ots had on him, of­ten think­ing about Jac­quie and his own fam­ily. “To us, wounds and death are all part of the game—they’re taken for granted,” he wrote her. “But the long years of grief that al­ways fol­low a war are borne by the peo­ple who are left be­hind.”

Through the rest of 1944, Harry and the tanks of the On­tario Reg­i­ment moved north through Italy, push­ing back the Ger­man forces be­yond the Trasi­meno line. He re­lied on Jac­quie’s words, which kept find­ing him even in the far­thest reaches of the war. In their let­ters to each other, Harry and Jac­quie wrote about fin­ish­ing their de­grees, about start­ing a fam­ily, and about trav­el­ling Europe in times of peace.

In the first months of 1945, the war in Italy was grind­ing to a halt, but the fate of north­west­ern Europe was still un­cer­tain. Harry’s reg­i­ment was among the Cana­dian soldiers who were with­drawn from Italy and boarded a ship in the coastal town of Livorno. One year to the day af­ter Harry had pro­posed to Jac­quie, he dis­em­barked in Mar­seille, France, and be­gan the month-long jour­ney north to where the Ger­man army still lay en­trenched in the Nether­lands.

On the morn­ing of April 13, Harry led a troop of tanks across the Ijs­sell River in sup­port of a bat­tal­ion of Bri­tish soldiers into the Dutch city of Arn­hem. It was slow go­ing, clear­ing ma­chine gun­ners and snipers from build­ings, but the tanks pressed hard to se­cure a route. As the at­tack in the city’s east fal­tered, the lead­ing Bri­tish pla­toon com­man­der and a sergeant were killed. Chaos erupted. What hap­pened next led to Harry be­ing awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross, one of the high­est medals of brav­ery for an of­fi­cer of a Com­mon­wealth coun­try. His ci­ta­tion read: “At this crit­i­cal junc­ture Lieu­tenant Mac­don­ald at once as­sumed com­mand and twice dis­mounted from his tank, un­der fire, to con­tact the lead­ing sec­tion com­man­der and to make plans for con­tin­u­ing to the ob­jec­tive. That this was achieved was due to Lieu­tenant Mac­don­ald’s coura­geous ex­am­ple and to his com­plete dis­re­gard for his own safety. His con­duct was a great in­spi­ra­tion to the men of the pla­toon and was the main fac­tor in the suc­cess of the op­er­a­tion.”

Al­most to the end of the war, Harry’s tone with Jac­quie was un­wa­ver­ingly pos­i­tive and upbeat — a shield, per­haps, for her as well as for him­self, from re­al­ity. But when Harry crossed the bor­der into Ger­many, his faith in a bright fu­ture that he had writ­ten so of­ten about be­gan to flicker.

For a sol­dier who thought he had seen the worst, noth­ing could have pre­pared him for when he entered Ger­many. “The horse and cart, with all the fam­ily pos­ses­sions stowed in it, go­ing back home, is be­com­ing a com­mon sight in Ger­many,” he wrote on April 12, 1945. “Refugees—what com­plete pathos that word im­plies! Never a smil­ing face, never a quick step, never a glim­mer of hope. Only the lit­tle chil­dren in their ig­no­rance seem un­aware of

the grim present and the even grim­mer fu­ture. The man who starts the next war will be one who will not have seen Ger­many as it is to­day .... Af­ter see­ing those peo­ple I re­al­ize that our prob­lems, Jac­quie, are in­finites­i­mally small.”

Then, on May 7, hav­ing been ap­pointed in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer for the Eleventh Cana­dian Ar­moured Reg­i­ment, re­spon­si­ble for doc­u­ment­ing the move­ments and go­ings-on of his men, Harry sat down at a type­writer and wrote the re­port for the fi­nal days of the war. “This evening the BBC told the world that Prime Min­is­ter Churchill would an­nounce to-mor­row would be VE Day,” he typed. “To the sol­dier in the line the news didn’t mean much. The Reg­i­ment ac­cepted the end with very lit­tle en­thu­si­asm. There will be lit­tle, if any, cel­e­bra­tion. There seems to be a feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion at hav­ing fin­ished off a good job, but noth­ing more.” The next day, af­ter not­ing the weather, troop move­ments, and how a cap­tured pi­lot from Vic­to­ria, BC, who had crashed in the Nether­lands three months prior had been res­cued from the SS, Harry fin­ished his reg­i­men­tal in­tel­li­gence sum­mary qui­etly: “The war is over. The an­nounce­ment came to-day.”

Harry knew where to di­rect his grat­i­tude. “By all the rules I shouldn’t have pulled through—but I did,” he wrote Jac­quie the month the war ended. “You were re­spon­si­ble for that. I’m con­vinced of it. All line soldiers have some­one watch­ing over them, or so we be­lieve. In my case it was you.”

In June, Harry was given leave to Eng­land, where King Ge­orge VI pinned a pur­ple-and-white rib­bon with a sil­ver medal, his Mil­i­tary Cross, to his jacket at a cer­e­mony in Buck­ing­ham Palace. Come au­tumn, Harry fi­nally al­lowed him­self to go from steal­ing a glance west over his shoul­der to turn­ing to face it. On Oc­to­ber 7, 1945, Harry wrote Jac­quie one fi­nal let­ter from Europe. “The mo­ment I see you I know I’ll for­get ev­ery­thing about these last years. I’ve al­most for­got­ten them now .... There are a great deal of paths to choose, my only prob­lem is which one to start walk­ing down. There’s only one thing I’m cer­tain of. No mat­ter which way we go, we’ll go to­gether .... All my love, Harry.”

Iwas twenty-eight, re­cently home from a year abroad, when my mother handed me a worn navy-blue gar­ment box, torn at the edges. “I think you should read these now,” she said to me. In­side were dozens of post­card-sized en­velopes, tied with yel­lowed string in small bun­dles.

My grand­par­ents never re­ally spoke about the anx­i­ety, tur­moil, and un­cer­tainty of those early years. They were among the post­war twen­tysome­things who pri­or­i­tized ca­reers and fam­i­lies rather than the ac­tivism that would de­fine the next gen­er­a­tion. By the time I was handed the box, the story of how they forged their re­la­tion­ship had faded from mem­ory. I learned that, less than a year af­ter ar­riv­ing home in Van­cou­ver, on Au­gust 19, 1946, Harry and Jac­quie were mar­ried. Then, in 1948, at twen­ty­five, Harry won the Rhodes Schol­ar­ship to study eco­nomics at Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity, and the cou­ple fi­nally saw Eng­land to­gether. Be­fore leav­ing, while in the hos­pi­tal with his and Jac­quie’s new­born baby, Harry spoke to the Van­cou­ver Daily Prov­ince—the news­pa­per wanted to in­ter­view the lo­cal vet­eran who had re­cently been awarded a schol­ar­ship. He is quoted as say­ing he wanted “a fam­ily of five girls more than an Ox­ford PH.D.” Af­ter their first, the cou­ple had four more girls.

Read­ing their let­ters and digging into their his­tory led to other sto­ries, apoc­ryphal ones told to me in con­ver­sa­tions with fam­ily. How at the end of the Ital­ian cam­paign, be­fore be­ing re­de­ployed to the north­west­ern front, my grand­fa­ther chose to drive his tank into Lake Trasi­meno and sink it rather than let it fall into po­ten­tial en­emy hands. Or how Harry wasn’t the only sol­dier dur­ing the war my grand­mother wrote let­ters to. There were, I was told, two oth­ers, in­clud­ing an air­man who, af­ter she had de­cided on my grand­fa­ther, died in a plane crash over the English Chan­nel. The air­man’s par­ents blamed my grand­mother, say­ing that their son had died of a bro­ken heart.

I’ll never know where the truth in these sto­ries lies. War has a ten­dency to blur the lines be­tween fact and fic­tion. And one won­ders how many more tales of other re­la­tion­ships forged dur­ing this time are out there—all be­ing pushed deeper into the cat­a­combs of lore and mem­ory. Ev­ery year, as the men and women who en­dured both front lines of the war en­ter their nineties, fewer re­main. Both my grand­par­ents are gone now: my grand­mother died on Novem­ber 17, 2011, af­ter they had cel­e­brated their sixty-fifth wed­ding an­niver­sary that sum­mer; my grand­fa­ther died on Jan­uary 2, 2014. Seventy years to the month be­fore, he had writ­ten to Jac­quie. “I’ve got some­thing now, that no mat­ter what hap­pens, will al­ways be with me. No tough knock, whether it be phys­i­cal, men­tal or spir­i­tual, will ever change me now, be­cause I have a faith in the fu­ture and a faith in you that will out­last any­thing.”

In that blue card­board box, in the cor­re­spon­dence be­tween a young man and a young woman who were sep­a­rated by con­flict, I found nei­ther myth nor fa­ble but hon­est words of both pain and love. Be­tween 1941 and 1945, Harry and Jac­quie sent hun­dreds of let­ters across the world to each other. They spoke of mun­dane de­tails and of big plans for their fu­ture. He sent her more than 200 dis­patches and replies, around one for ev­ery week he was away, con­tain­ing tens of thou­sands of words. She kept ev­ery let­ter.

For Harry, it wasn’t pos­si­ble to lug around the hun­dreds of let­ters he re­ceived from her. While on the move over sand, ter­raced hills, and cold mud, some let­ters were lost, some were ru­ined, and some were left be­hind when the mat­ter at hand out­weighed per­sonal pos­ses­sions. But, wher­ever he went, safe­guarded among his few be­long­ings, Harry kept only one. He boarded the ship in Portsmouth, Eng­land, bound for Hal­i­fax on Oc­to­ber 11, 1945, with a sin­gle blue let­ter, its edges now brown and worn, that folded into it­self—the let­ter that held the one word that mat­tered most: yes.

Har­ley rus­tad is a fea­tures editor at The Wal­rus. His book, Big Lonely Doug: The Story of one of Canada’s Last Great Trees, was pub­lished in Septem­ber.

above Harry asked Jac­quie to marry him in a let­ter sent on March 9, 1944.

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