Thursday, September 17, 2009

Letters and Diary Entries from World War I

My sister sent me a link to some diary entries sent home during World War I by our great-uncle George Walter Adams. He was born in England, emigrated to Canada to be with his widowed mother Emily and later fought in WWI. The diary entries and letters from his mother are now part of the Canadian Letters and Images Project.

Great-Uncle George enlisted when he was just 20 years old, younger than my son is now, which just boggles my mind. However, his father died young and George started working full time at the age of fourteen so I guess he grew up fast. The "Nora" he refers to is my grandmother, i.e. his sister, born in 1889 and who died just shy of her 99th birthday just months after my son was born. I attended her funeral with him in my arms. "Ernie" was my grandfather. "Edie" was George's sister. Actually George's mother Emily was my grandmother's stepmother (her own mother died when Nora was 2 and her sister Edith was 4) and I don't think they got along. My grandmother told me that when she was a child of about seven, she remembered her stepmother going on and on about how much she hated Canada after the move here. My grandmother said she liked to hop around and sing The Maple Leaf Forever, over and over, just to spite her stepmother.

Once I started reading George's entries I couldn't stop until the wee hours. It's remarkable to read someone's first hand account of the war, particularly a relative. He writes of mundane things at first, the stuff that would interest a teenage boy - cold weather and getting off work early to attend a ball game or play pool or ice skate on Grenadier Pond in Toronto, and even attending the opera featuring Madame Ferrabini as Carmen. He bought a suit from Lorne's for $31, which is funny because I've been buying coats from there for over thirty years, even traveling back from Montreal to do so (seriously, their coats are amazing.)

I laughed out loud when I read the entry on Christmas Day, 1914 "I believe the presents I gave different people cost far more than the presents I received but such is life." (Who thinks that their diary is going to go online for the world to see!) His birthday presents on September 25th 1916 consisted of pajamas, "sox", gloves and an umbrella so clearly the trend continued.

After declaring his $5 a month pay increase, he states war has been declared by Germany against England and describes the mood in Toronto and the difficulty getting news. On Sept. 5th, 1914 at the age of 18, he gave my grandmother away at her wedding, obviously feeling quite chuffed since he says "was told that I did it beautifully" and said they left for New York on their honeymoon. I have a letter from my grandfather to my grandmother from New York City a few years later, describing how New York had changed.

Small tidbits describing life back then - dinner at a hotel for 50 cents, sailing near Oakville, afternoon tea with my grandmother, getting electric light "in house" in 1916 - interspersed with news of the war. "Germman cruiser Emden sunk in Indian Ocean by Australian cruiser Sydney. The Emden has done more to worry peaceful British commerce than any of the other enemy boats. In the three months that the war has been in operation she has sunk or captured 24 vessels including cruisers of the French and Russians. The value of the ships sunk is estimated at $10,000,000 not including cargo."

The tone changes, because he then lists friends who are at the front or in training. In October 1916, he enlisted. Sent overseas, he arrives just outside of Ypres in April 1917 and describes seeing "big guns" and "aeroplanes being shelled by the Germans" and gas attacks. He goes on to talk about his part in the war and coming home, but you might want to read it yourself.

To read more about George Walter Adams, in George's own words, go to The Canadian Letters and Images Project where you will find diary entries from 1914 - 1919. They end with the birth of my dad's older brother George Stuart Patchet (George's nephew) and his return to work.

(Next up: investigating a possible link to the Titanic)


nightsmusic said...

I'm going to have to set aside a day to read this. I love this kind of stuff. It fascinates me how such young men had such a strong sense of honor and their country.

It still does.

dykewife said...

not completely related, but i remember back when i was a kid reading my dad's love telegrams to my mom when they were engaged. dad was a station agent for the cnr so he was able to send them free. she kept them all. they were tied up on a red ribbon. i think they're still in one of the old trunks at home along with her gorgeous wedding dress, a nun doll (in the ursuline habit), the suit dad was married in (he can still fit in it, the old sod), and other memorabilia.

iBridget said...

Ooh, Pam, what made you post this? I was just looking for something exacty like this, having started a new project a few days ago. Neat.

A Novel Woman said...

Well I stayed up half the night reading them. I was very close to my grandmother, so I was quite moved to read about her wedding day and afternoon tea with her friends, all of whom she outlived. She told me that was the hardest part about living so long.

Dykewife, that is SO sweet. We get to see our parents as people not just mom and dad.

Bridget, I don't know why, but it felt too important not to. It also made me homesick, even after 26 years away.

Julie K said...

How wonderful - it must have been so fascinating! What a terrific project!