Tweeting the Great War: Free Press retraces steps of Winnipeg soldier

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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.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/05/2016 (2385 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

Well, that’s what the Winnipeg Free Press will do starting from Bowen’s first letter he wrote 100 years ago Thursday after he had marched down Main Street with his fellow Royal Winnipeg Rifles to board a train heading east. The Free Press will tweet his letters all the way to the final one written on Sept. 29, 1918. 

Starting Thursday at 11:11 a.m., tweets from @SignedStanley will begin going out. 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.

Bowen was also one of the Canadian soldiers who experienced and survived the historic Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Free Press based a Remembrance Day feature story on the letters in November 2014, but all of the letters have since been gifted by the family to be preserved at the Archives of Manitoba at 200 Vaughan St. near the legislature.

Bowen said goodbye to his family and gave his girlfriend, Mary McNair, of 662 Corydon Ave., a quick kiss just before the troop train pulled out of the station.

He then sat down, pulled out a pencil and began writing a letter.

“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.”

It turned out to be far longer. Bowen didn’t return to Winnipeg until after his discharge in 1919.

And while Bowen had to burn the letters he received from McNair, because from what he writes in his letters she was as prolific as he was, she kept his letters through her life, passing them on to her daughter, Barbara Sarson. 

Kathleen Epp, Manitoba Archives’ senior archivist, said if people want to, they can go there to read the complete letters of Bowen as well as other ones sent back home by other Manitoba soldiers.

Stanley Bowen outside a church somewhere in England during First World War before serving at Western Front.

“It’s all preserved,” Epp said. “It is in file folders in our vault.

“Some are in protective sleeves because they are do delicate. But people are welcome to come in and read them.”

Epp said Bowen’s letters are fascinating.

“It adds to the collection of letters we have,” she said.

“They were all telling a similar story, but they are all telling their own story, too. It gives us a glimpse of how soldiers were presenting their stories at the time.

“I think it is a fascinating window into Manitobans 100 years ago.”

Epp said the archives have also been doing a weekly blog based on the letters of George Battershill, a soldier from East Kildonan who died at Vimy in 1917. The blog is updated every Monday here and the letters go from March 1916 to April 1917. 

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

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.

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