Friday 23 June 2017

Voices of the War: Letters from 1917

By this time 100 years ago, the First World War had been raging for nearly three years. Canada was a huge part of the war effort, whether on the front or at home. The Archives has many records relating to the Great War. This week’s blog features a handful of them from 1917.

The war touched many lives, and Archbishop McNeil was not immune. His 30-year-old nephew, Tom, spent a great deal of time overseas and periodically wrote his uncle.

In the Field
Oct. 24th, 1917

Dear Uncle:
Have been putting off writing you from month to month.
Thought you would be more or less interested in my whereabouts.
Cannot possibally (sic) write a letter of any interest from the field but as soon as I go to England I will write you a good letter.
I am in my third year in the field and I am planning on going home on leave should this war last any longer than the spring.
We are advancing every day now and the oppinion (sic) on this front is that the actual fighting will be over in March .18.
Up to the present I have been on all parts of the Western Front. When we came to France first early in .15, we were continually bombed by the enemies[’] planes. Some wonderful change now. Where any work or move was on the enemy planes were always overhead. Now we do not see an average of 1 plane a day from the other side.
Cannot write any of my account as the censor rules are very strict.
I am enclosing a cheque. Very sorry same was so long delayed. Do hope you will pardon me.
Hoping you are in good health and taking good care of your-self.
Your fond nephew

MN AA03.35
Archbishop McNeil fonds

Archbishop McNeil also knew priests who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Fr. Julius Pirot wrote this letter to McNeil about his duties at a hospital in France and a charming account of the soldiers’ reactions after battle. Pirot also mentioned sunken hospital ships. By the time this letter was written at the end of April 1917, ten British hospital ships had been sunk during the war, almost all of them torpedoed by German U-boats. As McNeil's nephew indicated in his letter above, censors were very strict about what information could be shared. Evidence of this can be seen in Pirot's letter, where parts have been scratched off or cut out (and subsequently fixed by an ARCAT archivist).

In France, April 27th, 1917

Your Grace,
I must let you know that I am still alive. Indeed, thanks God, I am always well and happy in my work. I spent three months at the camp of Shornecliffe, and was sent here on the 5th of March. The work is practically the same everywhere. I am now in charge of a Canadian hospital and of an Imperial camp. There are about 700 Catholics in the camp and 50-70 in the hospital. Of course the patients just pass through in their way to England. You have heard that some of our Hospital-ships were sunk, what’s certainly an awful thing. Is this the end of the world? God only knows what we are going to see this year. [censored] Nevertheless our boys are wonderful. You should see them after a battle! When they arrived here from Vimy, a noisy joy filled the hospital. They were proud, of course! and how dirty! And they fell in the cots, and it was too sweet for anything to hear them snoring! One cannot help loving them dearly, for it is a fact that the fire of battle purifies their hearts and spirits. I never heard any of them complaining. And they’re so glad to see the priest! – I have my billet at the parish-house, but we board at the hospital. In this part of France, one fourth of the people go to church. The others are indifferent. War did not improve them very much. Poor France! She has not suffered enough yet; but the Catholics here have no courage: they let the others do as they like, and the others, laughing at them, continue to destroy the Church. [censored] 
I hope that Your Grace is enjoying good health. Toronto must be very nice by this time with her great display of tulips. In France we have no flowers yet; spring is very late, and it is cold. “no bonne” say the soldiers; and they know what that means in the trenches!
Please Your Grace pray for us
J. Pirot
Chaplain C.F.
No. 2 Stationary Canadian Hospital, France

FW CS01.26
First World War fonds

People often asked the Archbishop for prayers or comfort or help. Understandably, wartime increased these occurrences, as people had more reason to be concerned about their loved ones.

Vancouver, B.C.
June 5th, 1917

Your Grace:
My son Gerald has joined the Royal Flying Corps and leaves for Toronto on Thursday of this week to do his little bit for his country.  I have given him a letter of introduction to you and Mrs. Barry and myself would take it as a great honor and favour if you would take a little interest in him.
We have never had one anxious moment about him, and now that he is a man we feel that his habits are well formed and that he has strength of will to take care of himself; yet this being the first time he will be away from us for any length of time we would like you to have your fatherly eye on him.
Thanking you in anticipation for any trouble we may be putting you to. I beg to sign myself on behalf of Mrs. Barry and myself
Yours faithfully
J. F. Barry

MN AH06.85
Archbishop McNeil fonds

More than anything, Gilbert A. Sim, a gunner in the CEF, wanted to be a chaplain. He wrote multiple letters to Archbishop McNeil from 1915 to 1917, hoping that McNeil would help him in that regard. In Sim's last letter to McNeil, which is written in a booklet measuring just 14 x 8.5 cm (5.5 x 3.25 in), Sim listed the many battles he took part in and again expressed his desire to be a chaplain. 

Heavy T.M. Battery
3 Division Canadian
Dec. 1917

My Lord Archbishop
I beg to wish Your Grace a very Happy New Year, and also to mention a subject which is very much on my mind.
Your Grace knows very well under what conditions I enlisted and I have now been in the Army over two years, the best part of that time having been spent in France and Flanders in the front line.
I was in action at the third battle of Ypres, the second Battle of the Somme, Causalette (sic) [Courcelette] and the taking of Beaumont Hamel, the Battle of Arras and the storming of Vimy Ridge, and lastly in the hard fighting in Belgium which included the taking of Passhendale (sic). I have endeavoured all through this to be true to my beautiful Faith and to my calling as a Cleric, and I feel that I can now approach Your Grace as to my future.
I had intended to apply for a Commission but have been advised by Chaplains, many of whom I know, to write first to you, to see if it would be possible for Your Grace to procure for me a discharge that I might be enabled to continue my training for the Priesthood, for which end I have already devoted so many years of my life.
I might then be able to return to the Army with the only Commission for which I really long and for which I think I should be most suited. Your Grace already has my papers previous to my enlistment. With regard to my military record I can refer to my Commanding officer Captain Bennett, M.C.
Begging a blessing 
I have the Honour to be
My Lord Archbishop
Yours most respectfully
Gilbert A. Sim, C.F.A. [Canadian Field Artillery]

FW GC02.12
First World War fonds

In order to deal with requests such as Gilbert Sim’s, Archbishop McNeil may have referred to the statement from the Office of Militia and Defence sent to him by Col. Charles F. Winter, Military Secretary of the Militia, which explained methods of dealing with personal requests concerning soldiers serving overseas in the CEF. Requests included promotions, commissions, leave or discharge, and return to Canada.

Letter from Charles F. Winter to Abp. McNeil,
Feb. 1917

FW CS01.23
First World War fonds
Memorandum Regarding Methods of Dealing with Personal Requests Concerning Soldiers Serving Overseas
with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 
Feb. 1, 1917

FW CS01.23
First World War fonds

During the war, life changed dramatically both overseas and at home. Fr. Melville D. Staley wrote Archbishop McNeil about the shortage and high cost of food in France and also noted that he had received a shipment of socks for the soldiers. 

No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital

July 2nd/17

Your Grace,
I write to advise you that I have left England and am now located at the above address. God has blessed me with good health enabling me to carry on my work quite alright. Food is very dear here and suffering and misery from the war is plainly evident on all sides, but one cannot help it but admire the spirit of the people. I see in a shop window melons, small ones, at twenty francs a piece which will give you an idea of the price of foodstuffs which varies accordingly.
I received not long ago a very nice consignment of home made socks from Our Lady of Lourdes Patriotic Association. It was indeed a great gift and the soldiers appreciated them very much. I have brought a few I had left with me.
Remember me kindly in your pious prayers and with every good wish. I remain
Your obedient servant
Fr. M. D. Staley

FW CS01.32
First World War fonds

Sending food and items of clothing were just two of the myriad ways in which Canada contributed to the war effort. This booklet briefly details all aspects of Canada’s role in the war up to March 1917. Its sections cover departmental war activities, economic effects, the nickel problem, the Ross rifle, and preparations for after the war. More specific topics – including equipment, censorship, and the work of Canadian women to establish Canadian hospitals overseas – are also described.

Canada's Effort in the Great War to March, 1917

FW WE01.33
First World War fonds

The booklet contains a list of contributions in kind, such as food, clothing, bedding, games and so on. The numbers are remarkable, and they continued to increase as the war progressed.

Canada's Effort in the Great War to March, 1917,
pp. 77 and 78

FW WE01.33
First World War fonds

For most of us, it is impossible to grasp the hardships that soldiers, their families, and their communities had to endure throughout the First World War. As archbishop, McNeil would have had the challenge of dealing with requests from individuals across the country and overseas while thinking about his own friends, colleagues, and family members who had joined the fight. The records highlighted here, as well as many others in ARCAT's collection, bring personal war stories to life and further remind us to be thankful for those people we hold dear.

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