New book shares sol­diers’ let­ters home from First World War

Edmonton Journal - - CITY + REGION - DUSTIN COOK dus­cook@post­media.com

“De­liv­er­ing ra­tions to the front, dodg­ing bul­lets & mor­tar fire both ... bul­lets ripped the dirt up all round me but none of them were marked Black Jack,” First World War vet­eran Ge­orge “Black Jack” Vowel wrote home in 1915.

His grand­daugh­ter Jac­que­line Carmichael found this let­ter a few years ago, along with sev­eral oth­ers high­light­ing grim sto­ries from the front lines. Vet­er­ans sent home more than 9 mil­lion pieces of mail through­out the war and Carmichael thought these ac­counts needed to be shared — but in a man­ner bet­ter fit for so­ci­ety 100 years fol­low­ing the end of the war — on so­cial me­dia.

Carmichael, an author and for­mer jour­nal­ist re­sid­ing in Port Al­berni, B.C., cre­ated a Twit­ter ac­count for Vowel in an ef­fort to share his cor­re­spon­dence home from the war with a new gen­er­a­tion.

“That was the so­cial me­dia of their day. They didn’t have Twit­ter and they didn’t have text. But they had jour­nals and let­ters and that’s how they com­mu­ni­cated,” she said. “I think it helps a new gen­er­a­tion 100 years re­moved from that war con­nect with it. It makes it real how much like us these guys and women were.”

It was these grim, real ac­counts that prompted Carmichael to gather more than 100 sto­ries from vet­er­ans into her book Tweets from the Trenches: Lit­tle True Sto­ries of Life & Death on the Western Front.

Carmichael’s re­search brought her to many of the 20,000 sol­diers from Ed­mon­ton who fought over­seas in the First World War.

She dis­cov­ered the bond of two Ed­mon­ton-based teach­ers, Harry Bal­four and Robert Eu­gene Drader, through a “heart­break­ing” let­ter Bal­four sent to Drader’s par­ents af­ter he was killed in ac­tion.

“Since his death I am not the same; I can­not be,” Bal­four wrote. “For we were known as in­sep­a­ra­bles. Many, many hearts in Ed­mon­ton and Gull Lake will be very, very sad.”

Bal­four re­turned to Al­berta fol­low­ing the war and was an ed­u­ca­tor across the prov­ince be­fore set­tling down as a high school in­spec­tor in south­ern Al­berta. A school in Grande Prairie is named for him.

Capt. Ge­orge McKean, who im­mi­grated to Ed­mon­ton from Eng­land at 14, re­ceived three medals for valour in­clud­ing the Vic­to­ria Cross. McKean made it out of the war, re­turned to Eng­land and was killed in an in­dus­trial ac­ci­dent in 1926 when a cir­cu­lar saw blade struck him in the head. His wife gave birth to their daugh­ter two days later.

Canada’s first In­dige­nous po­lice of­fi­cer from Ed­mon­ton, Alex De­coteau, wrote about feel­ing “aw­fully lone­some” in his last let­ter home to his sis­ter in Septem­ber 1917.

“I am lay­ing on the ground try­ing to fin­ish this let­ter be­fore dark. I hope I do for I don’t know when I’ll have an­other op­por­tu­nity,” he wrote. De­coteau was killed in bat­tle a few months later.

It is first-hand ac­counts like these that need to be re­mem­bered and shared, Carmichael said.

“I think if we don’t look at (war) and rec­og­nize it and re­mem­ber it, we could be doomed to re­peat his­tory.”

Jac­que­line Carmichael’s book Tweets from the Trenches tells the sto­ries of more than 100 Cana­dian sol­diers on the front lines of the First World War. First-hand ac­counts from the war need to be re­mem­bered, Carmichael says.

Ed­mon­ton teacher Robert Eu­gene Drader was killed in ac­tion in 1916.

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