There were millions of letters sent home to loved ones in Canada during World War I; sometimes it took three or four weeks for them to arrive, an excruciating delay for those hoping for positive word from the front. Telegrams were faster but typically bore bad news.
For the families who read them then and the future generations they may have saved them for, those letters home along with diaries and other documents provide a fascinating insight into what life was like during the war for the more than 600,000 Canadians who served.
Huntsville’s Scott Winchester is part of that future generation. His grandfather, Arthur Scott Winchester who went by the nickname Don, served in World War I and his letters home have provided a glimpse of what the elder Winchester endured, all relayed matter-of-factly and with a touch of humour.
Although it has been sometimes frustrating for Scott to try to suss out information—some of it is likely is forever lost to the past—he has been able to piece together a surprising amount of detail from the documents passed down from his grandmother, to whom all of the letters are addressed.
Just four days after being sworn in as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Ontario, on June 5, 1916, Arthur Scott Winchester passed his physical exam and was told to report for service the following Monday. During the intervening weekend he became engaged to his sweetheart, May. They would marry 13 days later and enjoy a short honeymoon together as well as a weekend leave to take a trip to the family cottage “Winoka” on the eastern shore of Peninsula Lake before he had to leave for Ottawa in early August.
In his diary he wrote that leaving home was, “a very hard thing but harder for May who acted the heroine.” It was hard on Arthur’s father, too—though neither could have known it then, it would be the last time they would see each other.
Arthur didn’t sail for England until late September, arriving in Liverpool from Halifax on October 6, 1916 after a nine-day voyage. His letters home that fall—all of them beginning “My darling Maisie”—were mostly light recountings of his training, his travels to visit family while on leave and other activities like attending concerts.
He didn’t report to the front until the following year. In May 1918 Arthur landed in France. Three months later, on August 17, he was ordered to go up the line after Sir Arthur Currie led Canada into the battle for Hill 70 near the city of Lens.
On August 29, 1917, May received a telegram—a heart-stopping event, no doubt—that began “Sincerely regret inform you…” It wasn’t until the third line that she would have learned that Arthur had been wounded 11 days earlier, the day after arriving at Hill 70.
A man of dry wit, Arthur wrote to May that he “got a little bit of what was coming to me, it doesn’t amount to anything,” a letter that didn’t arrive until weeks later.
He had been lucky. He was wounded by shrapnel from a shell blast 40 feet away, one that killed three other soldiers—just a handful of the more than 9,000 Canadian soldiers who died at Hill 70. When those three fell and he sustained his injuries, Arthur “jumped up and beat it to the medical hut.”
Years later he would point out a dark scar on his forehead to his grandchildren and tell them it was shrapnel from the first world war, but he didn’t say much more.
Arthur never returned to the front. He spent time convalescing at a military hospital in England, and then the armistice was signed on November 11. He remained in training until the following spring when he learned that his father was ill. He boarded the R.M.S. Orduna in Liverpool on May 7, 1919 and landed on Canadian soil on May 15. He was too late. His father had died May 8 in Toronto.
More than 66,000 Canadian soldiers didn’t return home, but Arthur and May would enjoy a long life together—three children, 11 grandchildren, and many happy years later, Arthur Scott Winchester died November 12, 1982 at age 94. May died three years later, also at age 94.
Earlier this year, Scott and his wife Marg made a trip to visit the first and second world war memorials in Europe, including the gravesite of a friend of his father’s who had served and died in World War II at the age of 22. It was a humbling experience, says Scott. At that point, he hadn’t yet read through all of the letters but now wishes he had. “I wish I could back and do it again now that I know so much more.”
Don’t miss out on Doppler! Sign up for our free newsletter here.