Letters from the trenches
Pencil, paper and abiding love of fiancee sustained soldier through First World War
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/11/2014 (3056 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Stanley Evan Bowen was just 20, and a few months from going to war, when he became smitten with 19-year-old Mary Irene McNair at a local church.
Little did the couple know those brief months of courtship would have to suffice for more than three years with an ocean and a war separating them.
But, instead of Cupid’s arrow, or the firearm he carried, Bowen had two other powerful weapons in his rucksack: a pencil and paper.
Throughout most of the war, whether it was on a train, a ship or in a trench, Bowen wrote to his true love. Sometimes it was just a short note, other times it was a letter several pages long.
“Expect as many letters as I can possibly write and remember although they may seem rather dry and unaffectionate, my heart is full of love and all the things you like from me,” Bowen wrote from a camp outside of Ottawa en route to a ship to take him overseas.
The letters — more than 150 in total — sustained the relationship and 82-year-old Barb Sarson is living proof: She is one of two children born after they got married and she still has the letters, notes and photos her father sent from overseas.
“My dad never let me read them when he was alive — that was from the time when you don’t tell women how awful the war was,” Sarson said recently.
“But they were kept in the basement and I would sneak down there and read them. They were so romantic.”
Bob Sarson, Barb’s son and Stanley and Mary’s grandson, said he was about four when his grandfather died. He is now 60.
“My grandfather was a gardener — an extraordinary good one — and he had a large cutting garden,” Bob said.
“I can remember walking through the garden and holding his hand and being at the level of bees. He designed his garden to make sure there were always flowers for my grandmother through the whole growing season.
“It was a beautiful place.”
Bob says he still has souvenirs his grandfather crafted in the trenches — a letter opener made from a piece of shrapnel and a baby’s face he carved in a bar of soap.
“When I think of him as I remember, and read the letters, I think how his life was. Here he was, 18 or 19, very enamoured with his girlfriend, going off for years into the maw of the beast. And then for several months really vanishing.
“It is wondrous that he managed to maintain this vision of his future while going through this experience. It just awes me.”
Sarson said her dad had a less poignant reminder of his war years.
“My dad would say ‘don’t touch my leg.’ It was full of shrapnel.”
The letters chronicle the ups and downs of the long-distance relationship, but also offer a glimpse the life of young Canadian soldiers in the Great War that was supposed to end all wars.
Even with many of the letters subject to a military censor first, Bowen provides insight into what the ordinary soldier thought when decisions were being made by commanders many kilometres away.
And Bowen certainly didn’t know — he signed off most of the letters saying they expected the war to end soon — that it wasn’t ending soon.
The only time Bowen’s letters stopped was during the months he spent in hospital and convalescence after he was wounded in the trenches, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a time when his fiancée and his family didn’t know where he was.
Bowen likely received as many letters as he sent. He kept them all until they became too bulky to transport in the trenches.
He was forced to burn them — which he recounts in a letter home — and then continued to regularly destroy them through the war years.
Here, in much of Bowen’s own words, is the story of love in the trenches:
● ● ●
Bowen was five-foot-seven, with greyish blue eyes, brown hair, and just one month shy of his 21st birthday when he walked into the office of the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force on Sept. 18, 1915, to voluntarily enlist to serve in the army.
In the months to come and into 1916, Bowen began writing Mary even though he was still in training at both the Minto and Broadway Barracks in Winnipeg and occasionally seeing her in the city.
But on May 26, 1916, with the war in Europe having raged for almost two years and with Bowen’s training complete, he and the rest of his battalion marched down Main Street to the Canadian Pacific Rail Station on Higgins Avenue.
Bowen waved goodbye to his family — and gave Mary a quick kiss — before the troop train pulled out.
Almost immediately, Bowen began a letter to Mary after reading a note she had given him.
“I have just opened your first note and it brought you so close I cried like a baby. It was truly the sweetest note ever written, but I wanted you so much and felt so helpless.
"I crawled into my bunk and let my feelings go. This may seem very childish from a corporal in the king’s army, but I couldn’t help it.
“Keep on being brave, dear, you acted like a thoroughbred this morning and taught me a lesson in self-control and courage. Remember we are only separated for a time and it won’t be long.”
● ● ●
The train headed east, stopping briefly in small northwestern Ontario communities, before the troops arrived at a military camp outside Ottawa. He took leaves from trees he hadn’t seen before — a Canadian maple and a cherry blossom — and stuck them in an envelope he sent to Mary.
Bowen and his fellow troops marched to Parliament Hill, where they were inspected by Col. Sam Hughes, the country’s Minister of Militia and Defence during the early war years, and the Duke of Connaught, before their journey continued to Halifax.
“This may be the last letter for a week or ten days, but will write you everyday while on board ship and then mail them in England,” Bowen pens on May 30, 1916.
“I said goodbye at the station and although my heart was nearly wrenched in two I couldn’t help feeling how lucky I am to have you waiting for an undeserving fool like me. I knew then that God couldn’t punish you by having you wait in vain and that I am only to be away until I am fit…
"Remember I am only being made into a man and that some day I will be worthy of you and will come back and claim my own.
“Try and imagine I am only away on business and only for a short time and that you are cheating yourself and me by being worried.”
On June 10, two simple words are on a cablegram Bowen sent to Mary, which arrived at her parent’s house at 662 Corydon Ave., from England: “Arrived. Bowen.”
● ● ●
Shorncliffe Camp on the southeast coast of England became Bowen’s home during the next few months. He describes to Mary that his training included marching through the rolling countryside and digging trenches.
But Bowen also tells her about camp conditions, a camp which had been hurriedly expanded to house the influx of foreign troops, as well as his leaves that took him to wartime London or to a nearby town.
“The nights are very cold and we had only one blanket and no mattress. The grub was very poor, mostly bread and tea and not very much of that. We have three blankets now and a straw mattress and the grub is a lot better.”
Whether Bowen was trying to keep Mary’s heart up so she wouldn’t worry — or whether the soldiers really thought it was true — he continually wrote throughout the weeks in England about how close the war was to ending, not knowing it would last for more than two years.
“The general impression over here is that the war is just about over and that all the new battalions will never see the front. The instructors tell us that we will never go as all the wounded men on furlough have been given orders to report to the nearest base should peace be declared.”
A few days later it was “although nothing definite is known yet, there is every prospect of me staying in England for six months or more and then the war ought to be over by then.”
Bowen mentioned in early July that he bought a camera for about C$1.60 so he would take some photographs and send them back. Several of the photos are still in the family’s possession.
He also said he had followed her request and had his finger measured so he could send her a wire ring.
“Of course I haven’t the least idea of what you want it for but am sending it just to oblige,” he writes, tongue in cheek.
● ● ●
By mid-July, Bowen had no doubts casualties were mounting on the front lines of France and he knew who to blame.
“That Kaiser is appearing to be a bigger monster every day and will certainly have a lot to reckon for some day. I never thought of all the men he has sacrificed because they all entered into the game voluntarily and had the glory and excitement at any rate.
"But now all the misery and pain he has caused to the women who have to stay helplessly at home and simply hope and wait, seems to overshadow everything else and I am sure will be reckoned as his greatest sin in the final judgment.”
In mid-July he also went on a week-long leave to London and played tourist. He saw the play Fishpingle at the Royal Haymarket Theatre, Joyland at the Hippodrome, a special performance for soldiers at the Palladium, and the movies Shanghaied with Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat. (Watch a clip of Shanghaied or The Cheat.)
He finally had his corporal stripes sewn on properly by a tailor and spent time at the New Kensington Museum and the Tower of London.
He also went to the London Zoo, and while he describes seeing animals from mice to elephants, he makes no mention of seeing a certain black bear cub from Canada named Winnie.
For a soldier who had never left Winnipeg, let alone Canada, Bowen was very impressed by London’s double-decker buses.
“They resemble a tally-ho with an upper storey and although they seem too top heavy to keep upright, they can cut more corners and come within an inch of more collisions than any dare-devil Winnipeg ever saw including myself.”
But it’s the women in London he was most shocked about.
“There are plenty of girls here and they bother the Canadians something awful, but of course I kept well away from them… the soldier without a girl is certainly the exception… You can’t walk a block without having two or three speak to you and after dark they’ll even take your arm or grab your waist.”
● ● ●
Before Bowen knew it, he was back at the camp — where sometimes the war came closer than the Western Front.
“Yesterday a German machine was brought down about a mile from camp during the noon hour. Today they put everybody in camp on a special picquet with rifles and ammunition as they expected an air raid, but nothing happened.”
Increasingly, as it got closer for troops to be deployed to France, Bowen found himself not seeing eye to eye with his fellow soldiers.
“They make me positively sick. I argue with them occasionally and asked them if they joined for patriotism or just for the sake of a job — because they all cry like yellow streaks, because the time is drawing near for actual soldiering. It quiets them for a little while, but they soon start yelping again.
“I can understand a person being worried about going to the front, because I’m not anxious myself to get away, but I couldn’t go back in civilian clothes now and, when my time comes, I’ll go without grumbling and will do the best I can.”
● ● ●
After weeks of waiting, Bowen and his fellow troops realized they would soon be facing action in France.
On Aug. 19, Bowen writes “they are very secretive about where we are going… I don’t know what to say in this letter, dearest, my heart is almost too heavy for me to write… I suppose I mustn’t be too mournful because that would be losing faith, wouldn’t it, and then I have a certain duty to perform and the sooner I get into action the sooner I’ll get back.”
Just four days later, Bowen crossed the English Channel and could only say he was “somewhere in France” because of the censors.
“Well, girl, I left as expected but came straight across. The trip was rather long and a few were seasick. France seems quite similar to England.
“Goodbye, sweetheart, don’t worry too much, we are getting such good training we will be able to take good care of ourselves and the war is nearly over anyways.”
A week later, Bowen is still upbeat as he tells Mary about life in their camp well behind the front lines. And while staring at the possibility of death, the men are playing hijinks on each other.
“One fellow washed all his underclothes and hung them out to dry on a fence. This morning he found that someone had very kindly taken them and left the dirtiest outfit in exchange that I ever hope to see.
“A sergeant pulled off a great stunt today. Whenever the orderly sergeant comes around looking for a fatigue party, everyone makes himself scarce and the sergeant has no end of trouble getting enough men. This time he passed the word around for our battalion to fall in with their pay books.
"Everyone expected it was a pay parade and not only came in a hurry, but routed out everyone else. The sergeant marched them off close to the pay office and then gave a halt and about turn.
"Well you never saw such a surprised and indignant bunch in your life when he detailed this section to clean out the wash-house, this section to pick up all the waste paper and so on.”
While training in France, Bowen doesn’t fail to notice that it was not only the soldiers who were having to slog through poor conditions.
“We went through three small villages and it was startling how few men there are left. Most of the women and children look to be absolutely poverty stricken and half starved. What few men there are about are very old, but seem to be working very hard.
“Excuse the poor writing. I’m writing on a tent floor and my position is a bit cramped.”
● ● ●
Tents for the soldiers were crowded — Bowen says there were 15 in his alone — but there were also other unwanted occupants.
“A tribe of lice have become attached to me and refuse to leave,” he wrote on Sept. 12.
While fighting in the First World War, Cpl. Stanley Evan Bowen also fought to keep the flame alive between him and his sweetheart in Winnipeg by writing more than 150 letters. Imagine if Bowen had been able to tweet. @SignedStanley is now tweeting. Some will have exact quotes from Bowen’s letters, some will be based on information in them, but all will tell the experiences faced by just one of the thousands of Canadian soldiers who fought in the First World War, which took place from 1914 to 1918.
Tweeting the Great War
While fighting in the First World War, Cpl. Stanley Evan Bowen also fought to keep the flame alive between him and his sweetheart in Winnipeg by writing more than 150 letters.
Imagine if Bowen had been able to tweet.
@SignedStanley is now tweeting. Some will have exact quotes from Bowen’s letters, some will be based on information in them, but all will tell the experiences faced by just one of the thousands of Canadian soldiers who fought in the First World War, which took place from 1914 to 1918.
“I never told any of the boys until last night and I never had such a good laugh in my life. In about two minutes, everyone was scratching and twitching about… the best of it was that no one wanted to sleep near me and I had enough room to stretch out comfortably for the first time since sleeping in a tent.”
In the same letter, Bowen writes of what could easily be a premonition of the severe wounds he would receive almost one year to the day.
“Last night I had the strangest dream. I was back home again, dressed in kilts, and one leg was bandaged up about a foot thick… I couldn’t get upstairs with my crutches and so your dad carried me. Just as I reached out to touch you, your mother placed her hand on my bald head and then I awoke and found it was the rain that felt so cool instead of her hand.”
Even at the Western Front, life went on and Bowen details movies and plays he saw and the songs he heard.
“I often wonder if there are any new songs in Winnipeg that I haven’t heard or if I would hear all the latest ones before you,” he writes on Sept. 15.
“I can’t think of any now except a great favourite of the boys, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag.’ Has it reached you yet?"
● ● ●
In October, Bowen entered the “danger zone” for the first of many times. He celebrated his birthday there and wrote that it was “certainly a novel one and I couldn’t help thinking how different it was from other years. If you can imagine me in a great big clay ditch with a small hole in the side, big enough to curl up in, eating pork and beans and oxo soup, you’ll get some idea.”
He told the family years later he purposely left out the part where he decided he would celebrate his birthday by opening his present from Mary even though he was still in the trenches, his daughter Barb Sarson said.
That present turned out to be a ring from Mary, sized from the wire he had sent a few months before.
Sarson said that while her dad opened the present, “he leaned back to sit down on a pail just as a shell came over and beheaded several of his men.”
She said her dad also told her he took the ring off the next day so he could wash up at a well, forgot it, and then had to sneak through the lines to get it back, something that would have caused him to be severely disciplined had he been caught.
She said he vowed never to take it off again, keeping that promise until he nearly lost his finger working at an aircraft plant in Winnipeg during the Second World War.
● ● ●
On Nov. 12, Bowen describes how, months after leaving Winnipeg, he burned the large pile of letters Mary sent him.
“I would have liked to have kept them all until I got back, but was always afraid of losing my pack and having someone else lay hands of them. They made quite a bit of extra weight… I guess I had about 50 because when I had crumpled them up they made a pile about three feet high.”
Weeks later, Bowen celebrated Christmas Day in the trenches.
“Just a few lines direct from the trenches on this Xmas day… I am in a small dugout 7×7 with a good fire and am quite warm.
"There isn’t too much room for the two of us as we have to keep our woodpile in with us or someone else would, but managed to sleep quite comfortably considering…
"Dinner consisted of head cheese (a parcel from my sister) bread and butter, jam, cocoa, cheese and plum pudding. Of course it was nothing like other years but the novelty and the conditions helped and we felt very thankful and cheerful.”
● ● ●
It was only a few days into 1917 when Bowen asked Mary to help him replace his good luck charm, something he thought had helped him through a few tight spots.
“Do you think it was your charm or just that I’ve a charmed life?
“I had six men down a deep shaft with a sentry on the lookout at the entrance. I had just taken the sentry’s place while he went down to light a candle when a shell hit on top and caved part of the shaft in, between me and the rest of the men. They all thought I was dead and I imagined that at least some of them would be hurt, until they got out by another entrance and reported safely back.
“Another time I was crawling out of a shaft when someone spoke to me and I stopped just as a piece of shrapnel lit in the trench ahead of me. If I’d kept on going I’d have been hit sure.”
By mid-February, Bowen was “writing from a dugout down under the ground where we are fairly comfortable. Have a wire bunk to myself and we have an improvised stove made from an oil can. I consider myself very well off and will be sorry to move up to the next line tomorrow.
“The weather has been bitterly cold lately.”
Bowen also describes that his fellow Canadian soldiers had carried out several successful raids and the Germans they captured “have lost all heart and are scared to fight. Our boys are on alert all the time and all raiding parties are made up of men who have volunteered to go over.
“You can understand what an advantage it means when you put men who are eager to fight against men who are chicken-hearted and have no fight in them.”
And, not knowing that in the decades to come he would be known for his gardening prowess, Bowen writes “you certainly have a lovely picture of our own house and surely it will come true soon. I’m not much of a hand at gardening but I guess love will find a way, don’t you think?”
● ● ●
Early in April, Bowen was part of the historic Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Two days after the battle began on April 9, he wrote one of his shortest letters to Mary.
“I suppose you will be pretty anxious just now as the papers will be pretty full of news about the Canadians… our dugout is none too deep and as shells are lighting fairly close, the concussion jars the place continually. We can hear machine guns firing away and our own guns are going practically continually.
"In spite of all that, though, the boys are all talking away as though miles from the line. One is playing a mouth organ and the tunes certainly make me think of our good times together.
“Was carrying out a wounded officer from a German dugout the other night and while waiting for the shells to ease up a bit had a real German meal. We had some of Fritzie’s black bread, tins of Maconachie rations, tins of blood pudding and German coffee from the German waters bottles. Altogether we had quite a meal and certainly a unique experience.”
● ● ●
By May, Bowen’s main enemies are bugs and rats.
“I was quartered up near the front line in some old German dugouts and I caught a fine assortment of Fritzie’s lice too. They are little tiny red beggars, awful hard to catch, but by gosh they certainly are active.
“It really is a dandy place except for rats… I got so mad at one particular son of a gun the other night… I grabbed my rifle and loaded her up… I pulled the trigger, missed the rat, blew a shower of dirt all over the table, my mess tin and rations, nearly deafened myself, lost my temper for fair, had a half dozen fellows run down to see if I was trying to commit suicide, and all for nothing.
"I got so mad I went outside and poured water down every rat hole I could find just to relieve my feelings.”
Bowen continued to be lighthearted when discussing dangerous incidents in the trenches.
“Everybody carried a stick of some kind to carry the materials on and when we were halfway up Fritzie started to put over a few iron rations. They didn’t come very close to us and he soon stopped but say you’d have laughed at the speed we dug ourselves into the side of the trenches with nothing but those sticks.
"I had a heavy cane and believe me I was almost out of sight before you could count 10 and the rest weren’t far behind.”
By early June, Bowen has received a reply from Mary in which she likely chastised him about his meal in the German trenches.
“I suppose you’re right about that German food and I’ll promise to think twice the next time. Still, if you had seen how quickly they had to beat it you wouldn’t worry. When you see a man leave his dinner pail behind, you can feel pretty sure he left in a hurry.”
But, noting his cooking prowess with a mess tin on a trench cooker, he said “whenever you feel a bit blue and wonder at the uselessness of this war, just remember what a dandy cook I’ll be on a picnic. I’ll bet I’ll be able to get up a meal with nothing but an old tomato tin and a jackknife.”
A letter later that month showed that, even though he was overseas, news from home still got to them: Bowen knew the Canadian government had approved conscription and the Manitoba government, the year before, had passed legislation allowing women to vote.
Bowen also said he felt sorry about any soldier who is drafted into the army because he knows how unpopular they will be with the soldiers who earlier had volunteered.
“They’ll be about as popular amongst the old-timers as a Jew in Scotland,” he wrote in the language of his times.
“I know the Imperials who enlisted before conscription was adopted in England take every opportunity they can of letting the newcomers know who they are,” he writes.
Bowen also told Mary: “I envy you your chance of voting but I’d love to see you going into the polls for the first time.”
Bowen was now fighting a new foe: fleas in former German dugouts.
“I have had Canadian lice, English lice, French lice and German lice, each one a little more irritating than the last but fleas are something new and they sure are active.
"You can become accustomed to lice and not be bothered by them, unless you get a whole community of them and they start to celebrate, but these fleas, oh my word, they raise a lump like mosquito bites.”
● ● ●
By mid-summer, there are signs the front-line soldiers — including Bowen — wondered about the direction the war was going and were second guessing their leadership.
“There’s lots of things only those in supreme command understand, that appear to us in the ranks as so monotonous and useless, whereas if we only knew the object and reason of them we’d realize their value.
"Take the recent glorious victory of the Canadians, where so much was won in such a short time. It led one to wonder why it was not done long ago and gotten over with and avoided the trials and hardships of a winter in the trenches of apparent inactivity.
“It just goes to show, Mary, it pays to be patient and just bide your time.”
But Bowen and his fellow soldiers likely didn’t have much time to think deeply about war strategy when they were constantly fighting to survive.
“One night we were going along an open road well back from the front line when one of Fritzie’s machine gunners, who must have been drunk, let loose a couple of stray shots and, as they were lighting around our feet, we soon scattered in quick order,” he writes, later noting that the man in front of him received a wound so serious he had to be shipped to England to be treated.
In fact, Bowen told Mary that even though he wasn’t injured during that attack, others thought he had and congratulated him on being alive when he returned to camp.
“Everyone has been around me shaking hands today… It’s kind of queer though as this is the third time the same kind of rumours have gone around.”
By mid-August, Stan was taken off the front lines twice to take part in courses, one on how to deal with poison gas. But it also gave him time to try to answer a question from Mary that he had been trying to answer himself many times through the war.
“Dearest, you asked me a pretty stiff question as to whether I ever wished we’d been married before I came away. I’ve thought it over lots of times but never could decide…
"Sometimes when I think of the danger over here I feel at first that I’m thankful we’re only engaged, but then I consider it would be just the same anyway, sweetheart, so I’m as undecided as before.”
● ● ●
Bowen’s war: Official documents
Stanley Evan Bowen was born in Winnipeg on Oct. 27, 1894.
According to his attestation paper when Bowen enlisted, he marked his next of kin as his sister, Mrs. Alice Woods, of 711 Furby St. He listed his trade as a clerk — he worked at the downtown offices of Scott-Bathgate Ltd., the candy maker known popularly as the Nutty Club.
Bowen enlisted in the 90th Battalion, but when he was discharged on April 8, 1919, he was serving in the 78th Canadian Battalion.
Bowen was 145 pounds going to war, but when he was discharged he was 160 pounds.
Under identification marks, scars or deformities, a discharge doctor listed a shelling scar over his right scapula (shoulder), a two-inch vertical scar on his back, and a two-inch scar on his jaw. All occurred when he was injured on Sept. 16, 1917.
Little did Bowen know, when he penned a letter on Sept. 1, that his life was about to change dramatically. He was lighthearted and pleased he had completed the gas course and even encouraged Mary to go see a funny movie he had just seen.
“Fritzie’s gas is not very dangerous to us now as we have such good protection against it, but it gives one a lot of confidence to know all about it. Poor Fritzie, he’s never attempted anything yet that we haven’t come back on him with and always by superior methods. He’ll be getting discouraged soon.
“I was at a movie last night and certainly enjoyed a good laugh at Charlie Chaplin. The film was called Charlie’s Automobile Elopement and if it every comes to Winnipeg be sure and see it. (Watch a clip)
“Goodbye, sweetheart, God bless you, comfort you and keep you safe till I come home. Worlds of love,
Within days, while fighting at the front lines in Maricourt, France, Bowen was struck by shrapnel from an exploding shell.
The next two letters to Mary, one from a cot in the St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital near the front on Sept. 17, the next from a hospital bed in England, talk about his wounds, but minimize their seriousness.
“I hope I’m the first to let you know that I’ve been wounded because you won’t worry at all when I explain how slight it is, in fact they’re so small they hardly bother me at all now.
“Just after we had taken over the front line, Fritzie decided to irritate us and one of his whizz-bangs lit rather close to me as I was visiting the sentries.
"Three very small splinters hit me, one on the back of the shoulder, one on the jaw, and one on the finger. They were all very small and, as no bones were broken or any internal harm done, you can see I’ll soon be well again.
“Goodbye for now, dearest, please don’t worry the slightest bit… heaps of love and kisses, Stan.”
Two weeks later, Bowen writes he hopes Mary knows he’s “only slightly wounded and am really having a holiday.
“My wounds are all doing splendid now and I’m able to walk about already. My finger has given me quite a lot of trouble as they didn’t remove the shrapnel from it until day before yesterday and as it had festered a little, it was a bit painful.
“I had my jaw X-rayed a day or so ago and saw the plate this morning. The bone is not fractured but it is splintered a little. It is mending rapidly though, and I’ll soon be better. My back is doing splendidly and doesn’t bother very much at all now. I’m still supposed to be a bed patient, but am up most of the time and was downtown to a picture show this afternoon.
“Somehow my hands seemed to feel very awkward because they wanted to hold a certain someone else’s hand. Do you remember whose it used to hold? I miss you more over here than I even did in France… everything reminds me so much of home I get frantic. The nurses in this hospital are about the silliest lot I ever saw, but just because they (are) women, they remind me so much of you and make me realize how far away you are.”
● ● ●
And then the letters ceased. Bowen, who wrote home continually, had vanished without a trace.
Barb Sarson said nobody knew where he was for several months. It wasn’t until his older brother, who was also serving in the war, found him recuperating at Granville Special Hospital in Buxton, England.
“He was labelled with the wrong number, but his brother found him,” she said. “He was a mess for quite awhile. Some of the shrapnel was never taken out.”
Finally, in late March 1918, both Mary and Bowen’s sister, Alice, received letters.
The letter to Mary, dated March 21, was written while Bowen was on guard duty back at the Shorncliffe camp. He is apologetic for not corresponding.
“Am on guard and as today has been my first day in harness for six months you can imagine how tired and sleepy I feel now (2 a.m.),” he writes.
“I have just read the first half of your letter dated Feb. 17 and oh my poor little girl it made me feel so ashamed of myself. I can’t help thinking what a poor specimen I am, Mary, and how little worthy I am of a girl like you and what a poor opinion everyone must have of me.
“It’s just about 22 months since I pulled out of Winnipeg, Mary, but, gee, it seems like 22 years. It’s far too long.”
Two months later, and not knowing the war really was finally winding down, Bowen shows evidence of the brittle state of his mind in the wake of his injuries and long recovery. For weeks he writes some of the most emotional letters to Mary.
“I get so panic stricken when I think of all I’ve done to you, my heart drops below zero and my courage fades away altogether and I want to run away from everything and everybody. I’m sure nobody will ever be able to understand, not even you, because really I can’t understand myself.
"I’ve always wanted to write you, but when I tried I felt so dismal and such a cad my mind seemed to go numb… putting it off from morning till afternoon till the next day. You’ll have some idea of how I’ve been. Honestly at times I think I must be part crazy and perhaps I am.
“I feel like hiding away somewhere and being a baby and having a good cry.”
Bowen then recounts one incident where he was in a state of semi-consciousness — he couldn’t wake himself up even though he could see his fellow soldiers around him.
“I’ve got such a gnawing longing to just hold you tight in my arms and to just allow the wonderfulness and delight of your nearness sort of soak in and wash away all my lonesomeness and misery.”
“I couldn’t move a muscle or say a word. I tried to call out but couldn’t make a sound and mind you I saw this fellow reaching for his plate and bowl and tried to attract his attention and then I felt so relieved when he did shake me and wake me up. He said I was as white as a sheet and I certainly did feel queer but don’t know why I should have such a nightmare unless it was too much dinner.”
“I’ve got such a gnawing longing to just hold you tight in my arms and to just allow the wonderfulness and delight of your nearness sort of soak in and wash away all my lonesomeness and misery.”
Bowen later recalls the day — two years before and a lifetime away — when he last saw Mary.
“I kissed you and then swung back onto the train as it pulled out and oh, Mary, I could picture so plainly how you looked as last I saw you so forlorn my heart almost broke. I felt so helpless to comfort you and yet you bore up so bravely.
“I’ve seen men, Mary, with the fear of death in their eyes but they never looked as if they had so much to lose or never controlled themselves as nobly as you did.”
But while Bowen saw this fear in his fellow soldiers, and while sending detailed letters about what he was doing overseas and his love for Mary, there is a glaring gap in all of his writings.
There’s never any mention of Bowen firing his weapon at the enemy. There are no lines on paper saying he saw any dead bodies during his time at the front lines.
There’s nothing about whether he had to kill anyone.
After the war
Bowen kept those details out of his letters and didn’t let his fiancée know the full horror of what he was facing.
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After more than two years of writing to Mary — and with the war’s end just weeks away, Bowen pens the final letter his family has in its possession. It’s dated Sept. 29.
“Germany is getting such a hammering now, Mary Mine, it won’t be long until I’m back and dearest there’s such a big chance of me not going back to France again, meaning that I’ll come back to you as sound as I left and be able to start real life without the handicap of injuries as so many men will have to.
“I’ve got such a gnawing longing to just hold you tight in my arms and to just allow the wonderfulness and delight of your nearness sort of soak in and wash away all my lonesomeness and misery.
“Millions and millions of hugs and kisses dearest girl of mine. I’ll be home soon and will make up for all by present blackness. I love you and want dear little lover.
“Your own lover, Stan.”
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Although it is the last letter to Mary in the family’s possession, Bowen wasn’t discharged to head back to Canada until April 1919.
But Bowen did write to his sister, Alice Woods, in Portage la Prairie, on Nov. 24, to say the war was over and he would be coming home. He just didn’t know when.
“It seemed unreal. One can’t say it was unexpected but Fritzie has sprung so many surprises it was hard to realize that he had at last accepted defeat. I know I couldn’t really believe it myself. I knew that it must be a fact, but somehow I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm. I was just scared to believe it I guess.”
Bowen also makes brief mention of what would become another fight around the world in the next year — the Spanish flu. It claimed as many as 50,000 lives in Canada and 100 million around the world.
“The flu raised quite a stir here for awhile but there are no fresh cases now and things are down to normal again. I consider myself mighty lucky in never being affected by it. From what I hear it’s apparently raising the deuce in Canada and the States and I sincerely hope it doesn’t affect any of the households.”
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Bowen and Mary did get married on Jan. 21, 1920, less than a year after he came back to Canada.
And while Bowen’s letters criticized Mary for going to work with Eaton’s during the war years, she went back to work at the department store for several years, after raising their two children — Barb and Stanley Jr.
They lived in a house on the Assiniboine River in St. James where Bowen had a large flower garden, planning it so there were always flowers blooming, which he could take inside to his wife throughout the growing season.
Their descendents include eight grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren and six great-grand children.
Their love story continued together for almost 40 years after the war until Feb. 19, 1959, when Bowen died at the Grace Hospital.
Mary outlived Bowen by 25 years. She died March 25, 1984, after a lengthy illness.
Both are interred in Chapel Lawn Memorial Gardens at the west edge of the city.
The marker, flush on the lawn with irises carved in the stone on either side of their names, is inscribed with “The Gardener and his Love.”
But, while Bowen grew flowers for the love of his life, the ultimate irony was what he didn’t do after the war.
“He hardly ever wrote a letter,” his daughter said.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.