On November 3, 1917, a young man “somewhere in France,” serving in the Canadian Army as a battery commander’s assistant, sat down to write a letter to his wife back home in New Brunswick. She was due to give birth to their first child.
“I have been gazing into the fire, daydreaming,” he wrote to her that early November day. He visualized their living room, with a cradle in it, his wife holding their baby. “Would I not like to be there and to take both of you in my arms,” he wrote.
That soldier’s “carefully penned letters reveal almost nothing about his combat duties,” wrote David Wilson, editor of The United Church Observer, “but they reveal a great deal about his struggle to maintain some semblance of a personal life. He plays down the dangers he faces, and plays up the minutiae of a soldier’s day. He writes about the men serving with him as if they were friends of his wife’s too.”
And by then, they probably were.
Wilson received the letters from the soldier’s youngest daughter. Cleaning out her parents’ home, she found a packet of letters written by her father during his two years in the trenches of World War I. “Historians can explain the politics and strategies of the Great War for us,” Wilson commented, “but artifacts like these are our only link to the people who fought in it. They are priceless.”
Writing letters – on paper, with ink, by the light of a campfire – may seem hopeless antiquated in these days of instant electronic communication. But Twitter, with its buckshot of ignorance, instant opinion, and text-speak acronyms, will never provide the human detail of a proper letter.
FaceBook, blogs, and listservs are slightly better. But they’re usually written for a vague and unknown audience. Personal letters are personal. The letter writer in the trenches of France wrote to one person he knew well, someone he could trust with his inmost soul.
But simply because personal letters are personal, many people destroy letters. “They were too personal,” they say, consigning the letters to the fire or the shredder. “No one needs to know those details.”
But once those letters are gone, their wisdom, their insights, their experiences, cannot be restored. There are no carbon copies, no backup files.
That’s why museum archives welcome letters. It’s the job of Archives to keep those experiences safe. So that long after the writers have gone, other can re-live their experiences.
Jim Taylor, Honourary Life Member of the Lake Country Museum and Archives