And while we commemorate the end of the war on November 11th, for many the war went on. Physical and psychological damage impacted families, partners, friends, and others for decades, the pain of the wounds extending through generations. My grandfather, like many of his generation, talked little of the war if at all, preferring to put the chaos behind him. I believe his reticence or inability to communicate his feelings impacted on his son -- my father -- who in turn struggled to share his own emotions, which in turn affected his relationship with me. I made a conscious choice, however, to change that story by going back to my grandfather's letters from a time when he still bridled with a young man's energy. He was unabashedly in love with my grandmother, whom he had recently married. Soon after he embarked for England, he learned that his wife was pregnant with their first child and his letters bubble over with excitement, anticipation, and concern for his child and his wife.
|Madeline and William Williams c. 1916|
I did know my grandfather. He was a quiet man who I remember was fond of birds–for a time, he collected finches and songbirds. And whereas my other grandfather spoiled us with sweets, Grandpa Williams would always have a piece of fruit for us when he came to visit. My grandfather died in 1961 when I was just 9 years old. I remember coming home from school on a freezing January day to be told by my Mom that Grandpa had died, before being ushered downstairs and told to stay out of the way. I wasn’t taken to the funeral and that was really the last time Grandpa was ever spoken of.
As I describe in my “Introduction” below, I acquired a box of several hundred letters written by my grandfather when he was a soldier during the First World War. Nearly all of them are addressed to my grandmother, while a few are from or written to other family members. Most of the letters were written between the years 1916-1919, accounting for Grandpa’s time in training at Queen’s Park, London Ontario and Camp Borden and later in England at Bexhill-on-Sea training camp, Aldershott, and, finally, from the battlefields of France and Belgium. Letters continue after the War's end from Troisdorf, Germany where Grandpa and others of the Canadian Engineers were stationed.
I set up this site because I wanted to honour my grandparents, two people I wished I’d known better. I hope those of you who read these letters will feel the same.
I also hope that other family members will help me identify the many names mentioned and flesh out some of the incidents and stories to which the letter writers refer. In getting to know Grandpa, I hope that we all get to know each other better. I’m sure Grandma and Grandpa would have approved.
And finally, this site was set up on my Aunt Eileen’s 97th birthday. She was my grandparents’ first child. I dedicate it to her.
8 November 2014
IntroductionIn the spring of 2013, I received a message from my step-sister Anne that she had a “few things” she’d discovered amongst her mother’s possessions following her death in 2010. When I asked what they were, she said they consisted mostly of photos, some papers, and some letters, which she felt I should have as they were mostly related to my father.
That summer, I travelled from Scotland to Canada to visit family in Hamilton. I arranged to meet Anne and she handed over several boxes from the back of her car. I was curious about the letters and wanted to take a quick look at them before I left. They were in a couple of shoeboxes within the larger boxes. I pulled one out, opened it up and picked out one of the letters. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
I’d seen these letters once before but didn’t believe they still existed. As a child. They’d been stored in an old red-leather chest in the bottom of my father’s closet. The closet had been a favourite hiding place of mine and I remember discovering this chest one afternoon when I was about 10 or 11. The chest was stuffed full of letters and from what I could tell, they were written by my grandfather (my father’s father) during the years of World War I. There were hundreds of them and all of them written to my grandmother Madeline Williams (nee Lucas). I was old enough to know about the war and was particularly attracted to the letters’ references to training camps in England and the occasional “Somewhere in France”. I was also intrigued by the black marks of the censor and wondered what secrets they were keeping me from seeing. I always remember the rough-paper feel of the envelopes, the old stamps (I was a collector), and the vaguely dusty-musty smell of the letters. Opening some of them made me sneeze; in fact, it was probably a sneeze that gave my hiding place away. My dad caught me one afternoon reading the letters and he scolded me, banning me from the closet and moving the chest to a higher shelf. Why, I thought, did Dad not want me to read them? Why did he keep them? and why would he not talk about them?
I was always fascinated by those letters and hoped that one day I’d get to see them again. But my hopes were dashed years later when–in my thirties–I was visiting my Aunt Eileen (my Dad’s older sister). I happened to mention the letters and she informed me somewhat matter-of-factly that they were gone, all destroyed in a flood during a storm which flooded the locker in her basement where many of her personal items were kept. Why, I thought, would the letters be there? When I raised this news with my father, he confirmed that, sadly yes, a lot of family papers were lost.
So when I saw that I was now holding one of grandfather’s letters in my hand, you’ll understand why I felt like a boy who’d found a secret treasure. I hugged Anne, explained what they were, and thanked her, although by rights my gratitude should also go to my stepmother Faith for holding onto those precious items after my father died in 2004.
I returned to Scotland with the letters and began thinking of what to do with them. Read them of course, but should I scan them? transcribe them? photograph them? As a storyteller, I was also interested in somehow using the material to tell a story (or stories) which might lead to a more artistic performance or play, particularly as the centenary of the war was approaching.
But as I started to read them, two things became apparent: firstly, I couldn’t find any letters with those black censor marks that had intrigued me as a kid; and secondly, most of the letters I had were written while Grandad was training in Camp Borden in Ontario and, later, in the Bexhill-on-Sea training camp in England. Where were all the letters I’d seen written from the front lines in France and Belgium? Despite the several hundred letters I now possessed, could it be that others had vanished? Destroyed in the flood in my Aunt’s basement? I will never know.
Yet despite the mystery, the fact remained that I still had a sizeable collection of letters in hand and I wanted to make the most of them. Mostly, I wanted to share them with my family. I scanned a few, thinking I could send copies by email or perhaps post them online. Yet this was extremely time-consuming. I also worried that scanning might harm these fragile letters. So, I began ordering the letters chronologically, started reading and transcribing them into my laptop. This was even a more laborious task than scanning, but what I discovered was that in transcribing I was getting closer to my Grandad’s voice. I was taking more time to imagine what he was describing in detail.
Working with the letters in this way also had other deeper revelations. For one, Grandad was more concerned with his wife than he was for his own life or safety. Most of his letters show his love and concern for her well-being as well as for other family members and friends back home. They also show him to be a fierce patriot, spiteful of any who shirked their duty or did not support conscription (a contentious political issue of the time). As a farm boy from Arkona, his letters also reveal a keen eye for Nature, the seasons, crops and livestock. He remarks on this throughout his travels from Toronto through Quebec enroute to Halifax where he embarked for England and again in his observations on English country life. He also frequently compares the customs and people of England and Canada, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
Above all, like many young men, Grandad was eager to do his bit for King and Country. He was extremely frustrated at the waiting in England before he could get the chance to go to France, to the front lines, to prove himself a hero. He got that chance.
In October 1917, Capt. William Albert Williams finally "swam" the English Channel for France.
I will leave the story there for the time being and let Grandad’s letters speak for themselves. Like any story, I will start at the beginning, posting the letters here in chronological order.
Since first posting these letters, I've already received some comments from readers interested in family history, particularly from Lambton County, Ontario, Canada. I hope these letters might help shed light on your ancestors and help you in the process of telling your stories.
Please feel free to leave your comments below.