Friday, October 31, 2014

Letters from the Front - The Great War

A Highlander as sentry at a gas post
You've heard or read some "letters from the front" in class. Now, take about 20-30 minutes to explore the following sites to get a feel for some of the details of the front lines in Europe as experienced by Canadian soldiers:

Canadian Letters & Images Project

Letters from the front

First World War Project

Calgary Highlanders

Interactive Trench Game

Canada’s War Museum on WWI

Create an interview between a reporter and a soldier or a fictional letter home from a Canadian man on the front lines or woman actively involved at or near the front lines. Assume the person has served at least one of the Battles of Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele, and knows about the other three or maybe other battles that Canada participated in, like the 100 Days Offensive.

Your interview or letter should aim to inform the Canadian public at home about and include details about a minimum of 5 of the following:
  • trench warfare 
  • life in the front lines 
  • the roles of technology in the war 
  • the quality of military leadership 
  • morale of Canadian soldiers 
  • the effectiveness of Canadian troops 
  • the impact of war on civilians and towns 
  • hospitals and medical treatment 
  • the roles of women in the war 
When you've done a good draft (not necessarily your final draft), post your interview or letter here under Comments. This is a detailed account, not just a quick note to tell your folks that "war is hell." Weave in some personal research on Canada & WWI from your classwork, the Canadiana Scrapbooks, and the weblinks above (or other websites). Posting comments can sometimes be tricky (Blogger can drop your comment, or the internet connection could drop), so it is highly advised that you do this on a Word Doc first and then paste it into a comment here.

Be sure to include your name & last initial (e.g. Marcy W) so I can sort out who did what. After that, look through some of your classmates' work and offer at least one comment to a classmate offering constructive feedback. Some letters will be selected for further editing and publication online.

Optional: if you have a relative or person your family knew that served in WWI, you may wish to consider them as a "test subject" for this assignment -- e.g. write the letter from his/her voice or construct an interview with this person. This may require additional research on your part.

I'm really looking forward to the results.


  1. France
    January, 2ndth, 1917

    Dearest Mother,

    Well here I am writing home, tomorrow I believe is my birthday, am beginning to feel myself aging now, 28 years, they sure go by fast.

    Received your most recent later, dated Dec. 30th. It’s good to hear that Lilly had fun on Christmas and that she got what she wanted. Man she sure is growing up fast, must be 11 by now, tell that I miss her and her big brother will be home in no time. Anyhow, I was happy to hear that you all had a good Christmas.

    I would like to inform you that I am in good health, while I may be surrounded by bodies, rats, and the sick, covered in lice and have not bathed for a good week or two now, I am still in good health. I would like to thank you for the parcel you sent me for Xmas, containing chocolates and a clean pair of socks. You do not know how nice it is to receive such luxuries.

    I have been held up as of late for almost a week now as I was injured in battle after coming in contact with some chlorine gas to my eyes, lucky enough, I can still see fine. At least now I can that is. It is a good thing I put my mask on quick enough. I believe I am heading back to the trenches tomorrow after I’ve done some healing, what an awful place; reeking of corpses and dirty troops. I can’t say I am looking forward to it.

    You will believe what I saw the other day, a German airplane soaring above us. None of the troops dare to shoot it down, as it was unbelievably fascinating. Most of us have never seen anything like that actually in action. Besides, it did nothing to harm us as it flew by, just seemed to be doing some reconnaissance.

    As your loving son, Alex

  2. Dear mother and father,
    I have been for almost 2 weeks now. We soldiers get little to eat and drink over here in the trenches. The trenches are filling up quick with mud, almost up to my knees. It has been impossible to sleep with all the noises and shells kept striking the house and it is starting to fall apart. Just yesterday we saw Germans coming in to attack but no one told us to stop. A sad thing happened the other night we were out doing barbed wire in front of the trenches, they had been warned that we were out there, we had almost finished when two of our men were shot right through the head by our own people. Being here on the front lines is scary, I am constantly seeing close friends lying dead in the mud and constantly hearing artillery shells going off… that sound will never get old. The technology over here has made a huge impact, we have machine guns, modern artillery and airplanes to the battlefield. Airplanes are being used to drops bombs, but being a pilot is one of the most dangerous things out here. The medical care and treatment here isn’t all that great, but at least we have it. If we didn’t, a lot more men would be dead. There are thousands of casualties from physical wounds, illness, and emotional trauma. A lot of the guys have emotional trauma from the shells constantly going off. All the nurses here are women, the women do a great job of taking care of us injured soldiers.

    From your loving son,

  3. Dear, Sister

    April 22nd, 1915
    The trenches have been horrible. The smell is absolutely revolting of dead, rotting bodies, men who smell of bad odor, and cigarette smoke lingering in the air. I suppose I will grow used to it like the other men. The trenches are infested with rats congesting themselves with human remains. We sleep in fear as we can feel them scampering across our bodies. I have shaved my head due to the never ending lice problem, breeding into my hair and clothing, constantly making me itchy. During the day, we do our chores, filling sand bags, mending the barb wire and rebuilding trenches that were covered in explosions.

    May 1st, 1915
    I remember sitting in the trenches the first day I arrived, my eyes were beginning to feel irritated and I was finding myself hacking more than normal. My throat began to dry, and it was only getting worse. Many of the other soldiers had the same symptoms, I remember seeing the soldier next to me struggling for breath like he was drowning. I couldn’t do anything for him. I was writing to you when I heard a soldier yell to put the mask on, so I did, as did the soldier next to me. I didn’t know what was going on, and I was scared. I thought that for sure I would die. I then found out the Germans let off Mustard Gas, and many soldiers had been left blinded because they were not able to get to their masks in time. Others had died from inhaling too much. The soldier sitting next to me was taken to the nurses, and has not made it back yet. I wonder if he is okay... I miss you my dear sister, I hate being away from you and Mother. I love you, and I hope to hear back from you soon.
    Your Brother

  4. To my Family
    Hello Mom and Dad, I’m glad I got the time to send you a letter. It’s really hard getting around to writing it though being really busy with my war duties, but I managed to finish it. I’m going to get you guys up to speed with what I’ve been doing because I know you are worried sick and hope everything’s alright. In case you don’t know I forgot to mention I was in the battle of Somme. I know I’ve been held up about a week now but here we go.

    First of all I had to do some trench warfare on the field… it was very cold, damp, there was lots of dead bodies in my way while moving around in the trenches. Lots of the soldiers down there with me had gotten diseases and/or lice. It was horrible.

    The roles of technology used in the war was a big factor. The machine guns mowed down 85% of Royal Newfoundland regiment. The large artillery attacks were also doing good damage. The airplane attacks would take out soldiers fast. The soldiers also contributed but the machine guns were the massive factor in the battle of Somme were I was enrolled.

    The roles of the women in the war was that they would stay home and support the soldiers. If not that they would join armed forces services working as nurses & ambulance drivers behind front lines. The women couldn’t join the fight so they had to do what I mentioned above.

    The quality of military leadership wasn’t very effective as we lost a ton of soldiers. 24,000 Canadian casualties & over 1 million total. Because of this it was called the “bloodbath.” Our commander Douglas Haig did his job and got many killed. There was no clean victory anyway, only 11 km gained.

    The morale of Canadian soldiers was intense. Many must have been scared of being the next soldier getting dropped, watching all the soldiers around them getting shot dead. The fear of a bomb or airplane shooting or dropping down on them would have been very scary to, well it was. Or even seeing a soldier getting the upper hand and shooting you.

    So there it is Mom and Dad. That’s what’s been going on in the war right now. I know it sounds scary and believe me it is, but you don’t need to be worried, I’ve been doing fine I’ve been shot once but got healed up. I hadn’t had a gas mask and came into contact with some mustard gas. My vision is affected mildly but is doing well none the less. I’m making sure I will be fully prepared for anything else for now on to the best I can. War is war, wish I wasn’t here but I’m serving for everyone back home and I know I’m doing well. So don’t worry about me, I’m going to come home soon and everything will be fine again. I can finally wash all this filth off and finally eat a proper meal. Just put this behind me. A memory. Until next time:

    Sincerely your son Adam.

  5. France
    April 20th, 1917

    Dear Father,

    I am finally able to write to you. I have been receiving many letters lately from home since mother’s passing. I wish I could have been there during mother’s last hours. I have many regrets for not being there for you and her. I have spent many hours in the damp lonely trenches thinking of home.

    I have seen many astonishing acts of courage, as well as horrendous things in the trenches. There are bodies everywhere along with the hundreds of injured and ill soldiers. Each man demonstrates such strength as we suffer through hunger, cold and fear together. I have witness first hand the bravery of my fellow soldiers, as we try to protect each other and ourselves from the enemy, who is a short distance away. Some men have lost their minds due to all to all the bombs and gunfire. It is an illness some have called “shell-shock”. It looks terrifying. Thankfully, my division’s morale seems strong and hopeful at this point, as we are leaving from the trenches for a couple of days to get a good nights rest a few kilometers back of Vimy Ridge.

    I was lucky surviving Vimy Ridge, as my weapon kept miss firing and then blew up in my face. Luckily, I survived with a few scraps and burns. The weapons I have used have been terrible. One of the men in my division was killed from a shell blowing up in his weapon. I am thankful that we ended up getting helmets. Mine has been damaged in a few spots and it is a bit rusty from use by another soldier, who sadly has no need of it now.

    Vimy Ridge was a beautiful site, watching all four divisions fighting together. The battle was something never seen before. Huns were dropping like leaves from a fall tree. By the time it was all said and done, the Huns that weren’t dead had to retreat or surrender. When the British soldiers heard about our victory, they were very pleased and proud of the Canadians pulling off an extraordinary job.

    I should inform you that I am well enough with only minor wounds such as broken toes, fingers and minor cuts. The medical treatment is saved for only those in dire need of life saving care, so I will suffer with my few wounds silently. Trying to maintain good hygiene continues to be a challenge, as the foul rats are everywhere I look. I detest these filthy creatures, as they spread disease. One time a sly rat stole our loaf of bread for the day. All the men in my trench went crazy, slaughtering all the rats they could see. When the massacre was finally over about fifty rats were killed. I have been trying to stay as clean as possible. Washing and making sure the food is healthy to eat. A few men have been throwing up and many are coughing, so I seem in better health than most.

    I hope the rest of the family is helping you through mother’s passing. I miss you very much. I hope this miserable, but necessary war ends soon, so that I may return home to the love and safety of my family. Please continue to write, as it keeps my spirits up.

    Sincerely your son,
    Nathan Smith

  6. Josiah fisher

    Ypres, France
    April 26, 1915
    To My Dearest Mother

    First of all I would like to thank you for the effort you put into writing those letters you sent me, although the cookies were by far the most appreciated gift we receive in trenches. The boys and I will make you an honorary General if you send another batch. I am not sure what has become of Richard, since I have not seen him since we disembarked the ship. We were separated the first day we arrived into different companies. I was assigned to the 17th battalion of the first division, which was sent to hold St. Julien against the Huns on the front line. Fighting alongside fellow Nova Scotia highlanders is not the adventure I was expecting. The division is under the command of a British Lieutenant general by the name E.A.H Alderson. The fighting is brutal, and many of us have died or were put out of service by injuries. Whenever any faction tries to advance their troops are mowed down by machine gun fire. In order to avoid enemy fire, we were commanded to dig trenches for shelter. The constant banging of German artillery is most likely going to drive me mad before the war is over. The fighting is not the worst part of it though. Everyone has lice, and I would guess that the only thing that outnumbers the corpses are the rats, who accompany us in our cots. The mud in the trenches goes up to our knees and absolutely everything soaked and filthy. I can only hope that the conditions that Richard has to endure are less hellish, wherever he is. Everyone thinks the war is pointless, and morale among the men is low. The ground is torn up, and the countryside is shredded by the current and previous battles here at Ypres. I can’t imagine trying to farm this land around the mines, shell craters and barb wire after the war is over. I hope to see you soon, but I fear my hopes may be in vain.

    With love, Jonathon Ferguson

  7. April 9, 1917

    Dear Mother,
    It’s been a long time since I had the opportunity to sit down and write you a letter notifying you on my condition. I miss you and father a lot, wish I could be back home. Even though I can’t be home with you and father I am overjoyed to be writing this letter to you. They made us practice this routine to death. The Captain kept going over and over every detail of our attack plan. It got imprinted on our brains, while sleeping dreaming of it, you know how I love sleeping. I have pondered in the damp and rotten trenches thinking how it is back home.
    I have seen many acts of bravery, as well as unbearable scenes in the trenches. Bodies lying left and right, beside them would be hundreds of other soldiers wounded and ill. Every man that fought the war shows courage as we push through the tough times with lack of starvation and warmth. A number of men have lost their minds due to the loud noises of bombs and gunfire. It is an illness most has called “Shell-Shock”. It’s a terrible sight seeing them jumping up and down at certain periods of time. We are soon to be leaving the trenches for a couple of days to get away from the loud bombs, just a few kilometres away from Vimy Ridge so it could help us get a good night’s rest.
    I am quite lucky to be still alive up to this point, as my gun had always been clogged with mud to make my life really difficult, result leaving me either burns or pieces of shells in me. The weapons we have been given have not been cooperating properly as hoped it had. A couple of men were injured really badly by getting blown up and losing both their legs. Good thing we had helmets so at least we won’t be missing something very important.
    Before all of this disastrous wrecking Vimy Ridge was a gorgeous scene, four divisions fighting together to rule this piece of land. When we had finished the job the news was given out to the British they were delighted and proud of the Canadians on achieving an amazing accomplishment.
    Just to let you know I am perfectly fine even though I might have minor wounds such as pieces of shells and burns on my face and arms. Without the medical assistance here, many would have lost their lives which have been a significant asset to have. One issue no one can help is sanitation, as rats are found everywhere, as I absolutely hate rates which most likely care a lot of kinds of diseases. Whenever we see the rats in the trench, everyone goes crazy and starts going on a killing streak, killing all the rats they see. After the rat killing war was finally over fifty rats were killed. I have been trying to keep all my belongings clean so it doesn’t have rat diseases that could have been left on it. Including food I try to wash everything I eat and touch to prevent getting ill. Many have been ill from the food and the infestation of the rats. I seem in better condition than most men in the trench.
    I hope the rest is family is doing well; I miss you all and hope I could be you guys. I hope this devastating war ends soon, so I can revisit everyone and feel the warmth of my beloved home again. Hope to be in touch soon, as it will cheer me up.

    Sincerely your son,
    William Chen

  8. France
    April 29th, 1918

    To Mother, Father, and Brother

    Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you, I know how worried you guys must be back at home unsure if I have survived the day or not. I would have liked to get back to you earlier, but my rifle misfired during battle and I lost a bit of my pointer finger making it very difficult to right back to you. The woman that came over here to be nurses helped me keep the rest of my finger and I was lucky to not get a bad infection like some of the other soldiers that weren’t as lucky and needed to have the rest of their finger or hand removed. The conditions we are fighting in are horrible. There are lots of rats that we are constantly trying to keep away from our food and out of our beds and there are lice that are spreading through the soldiers. There is lots of illness going around and since everyone is always together in the cold wet trenches it seems to spread quite quickly. The trenches are only about a meter wide and two meters high and they can sometimes have a near foot or more of water and mud in them after a long storm which just makes fighting conditions even worse. As gross as the trenches are it is strongly advised to remain in them as much as possible unless it is very safe to do so like the times when we are putting up barbed fences to try and keep the enemy back or at least delay them. Being out of the trenches in no man’s land was something you wanted to stay away from as much as possible. My friend Mike that I met back at camp Valcartier and his brother were both here fighting. One night Mikes and his brother were on night shift making sure nobody was trying to plan an attack during the night. It was a very windy night and a section of the fence fell over so Mikes brother decided he could go fix it, a German sniper spotted him and shot him six times to the upper body killing him. When mike heard the fire he ran out of the trench into no mans land to try and save his brother but before he was able to reach him he was also killed. They have told us over and over again not to run into no man’s land or you will end up just like Mike and his brother. The thing that scared me almost the most out of all the terrible things in the war was probably the deadly rapid firing machine guns. When you went to attack there would be machine gun bullets firing everywhere with body’s dropping all over the place. I would pray before I made a rush in that I wouldn’t be one of the soldiers killed. I saw something cool the other day that I hadn’t seen, it was a bird type thing with wings and an engine and propeller flying overhead it didn’t have any artillery attached to it or do any damage. I heard somebody saying they were pretty sure that it was just used to give position and report back to the Germans. The same day that I saw this plane we saw one crash about 2 kilometers away which just goes to show that they still don’t have these things completely figured out yet. The Canadians were a great help to the British force. The British were an already strong group of fighters but the Canadians had men who did not give up, that were really strong with great minds for the war coming up with very thought out strategies. Even the Canadian women who came to help out are great at what they are doing given the conditions they are working in. I hope everything is well at home and you are keeping Devin busy with all my chores and everything is still going as well as before on the farm. I would love to hear from you guys again and let me know everything that’s been going on back there.

    Love your son and brother Dylan K