“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 – 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 to 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 in his honour.
Capt. George McKean, who immigrated to Edmonton from England at the age of 14, received three separate medals for acts of valour including the Victoria Cross. McKean made it out of the war, returned to England and was killed in a freak 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 Sept. 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 firsthand accounts like these that need to be remembered and shared as the world looks back 100 years after the armistice ending the First World War, Carmichael said.
“I think if we don’t look at (war) and recognize it and remember it, we could be doomed to repeat history.”
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