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Letters from the war front

Manitoba archives to unveil exhibit marking 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War

Kathleen Epp and Scott Goodine stand in the vault of the Manitoba archives.


Kathleen Epp and Scott Goodine stand in the vault of the Manitoba archives.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/4/2014 (2260 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In song and film, the First World War Christmas truce is legendary.

The unofficial ceasefire, also known as Christmas in the Trenches, occurred early in the war when both sides were locked in a stalemate just metres from each other. Soldiers walked out onto "no man's land" to exchange gifts, food and cigarettes, sing carols and even play soccer.

At a site of so much brutality and death, it was a rare story of peace of compassion.

But that's not how one Winnipeg soldier saw it.

In a letter to his mother dated Dec. 27, 1916, George Battershill described how the Germans left their trenches on Dec. 23 and "gave us beer and cigars.

"Some of the boys shook hands with them, but not for me. I have had many of my chums killed by those square heads and I would sooner turn a machine gun on them than shake hands."

Battershill's letter is one of many from the front that are preserved in file folders and tucked away in boxes at the Archives of Manitoba.

Unlike glamourized songs and films, archives can provide a cold, stark view of events as they unfolded.

Archivist of Manitoba Scott Goodine said not only does the archives store letters Winnipeg and Manitoba soldiers wrote home to their loved ones, but also photographs, booklets instructing people how to support the war effort and other life-shaping documents during the time nine million soldiers lost their lives overseas between July 28, 1914, and Nov. 11, 1918.

As the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War approaches, the archives will be unveiling an exhibit next month that examines wartime lives of Manitobans.

"We hope (the public) will come to see the records we have," Goodine said. "They'll see the lives Manitobans lived at the time. The role they played in the war. The importance of the Hudson's Bay Company and its importance to Winnipeg and the Empire at the time."

More than 620,000 Canadians fought in the Great War, and more than 60,000 died fighting or in training. Another 170,000 were wounded.

'I expect that you all at home are broken-hearted about it and I don't wonder at it. However we will have to make the best of it.'‐ Soldier Charles Battershill, writing about plans to visit the place where his brother was buried

Battershill and his brother, Charles, were just two of thousands of Manitobans who fought -- about 18,000 Manitobans enlisted in the war's first year alone.

George was a private with the 61st Winnipeg Overseas Battalion and was stationed in Shornicliffe and Southampton, England before being shipped over to France.

He died at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

Charles was a sergeant in the machine gun section of the 196th Battalion, which was stationed in Seaford, England. He returned to Winnipeg, got married in 1925 and moved to Tacoma, Wash., where he died in 1976.

The two brothers wrote home often in separate letters to their mother, father and sisters.

While they often wrote lightheartedly to their sisters, they were more serious with their dad.

In a June 17, 1917, letter to one of his sisters, Charles tells her he doesn't have much to say but notes they had "a peach of a thunderstorm" the night before and he hoped "you are well again and not worrying too much. This war and all its sorrows are hard to bear, but still we must stand it as best we can."

Meanwhile, in a letter Charles wrote the same day to his dad, he mentions "I will certainly see the place where George is buried, you can be sure.

"I expect that you all at home are broken-hearted about it and I don't wonder at it. However we will have to make the best of it."

He goes on to talk about other horrors of war, including a bomb dropped over London that landed on a school and killed many children. "It was sad to see so many kids killed," he wrote.

Kathleen Epp, senior archivist at the Archives of Manitoba, said the letters can be poignant and heartbreaking, but also happy and filled with information about the times.

"These are all private letters," she said. "They weren't writing them for history."


Canadian soldiers in the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917 during the First World War.


Canadian soldiers in the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917 during the First World War.

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Many of the lives of Manitobans at home are captured in wartime booklets.

One of them, War Cookery 1918, prepared by the Recipe Committee of the Local Council of Women, has pages of suggestions for creating meals during food shortages.

A section called Wheat Saving Desserts gives a recipe for economy pie, which replaces wheat flour for the pastry with a combination of rye flour and "stale, sifted bread crumbs" moistened with golden syrup.

Elsewhere are meatless recipes, including sausages using ground walnuts and boiled rice as the main ingredients, and Boston roast, which contains mostly cooked white beans.

Epp showed a card called the Food Service Pledge, which was expected to be hung on walls.

Because "Great Britain and our Allies look to Canada to help to shatter Germany's threat of starvation, I pledge myself and my household to carry out conscientiously the advice and directions of the Food Controller that requisite foodstuffs may be released for export to the Canadian Divisions, the British forces and people and the Allied armies and nations," the card reads.

The times are captured in photographs -- many by legendary Winnipeg photographer L.B. Foote.

"He captured soldiers marching on Portage Avenue, but he also took other photographs of people still going to beaches on Lake Winnipeg or people getting married," Epp said.


-- -- --


The archives also store documents from a little known piece of history: Hudson's Bay Company's strong connection to the war.

Anna Shumilak, archivist for the Hudson's Bay Company Archives, which is housed at the Archives of Manitoba, said the company signed contracts with the French government as well as the governments of Belgium, Romania and Russia, to ship food, military and other supplies overseas.

"The first contract was signed in 1914, and business continued until 1921," Shumilak said, adding the company used hundreds of ships -- not just its own, but others it rented.

"It is an example of inter-Allied co-operation, but the HBC also saw it as a commercial opportunity. They ended up shipping somewhere around 13 million tons of supplies."

The HBC records include a letter dated Aug. 14, 1914, saying the company has decided to add "war risks" to its marine insurance coverage.

"Not all of the ships made it -- there were serious risks involved during a war," Shumilak said. "And not many people know about this activity (of the HBC) during the war."


-- -- --


The archives preserve mainly documents, while bulkier items -- uniforms and medals -- are usually stored elsewhere, including at the Manitoba Museum.

Epp said donating the personal letters and diaries written by people preserves them for future generations -- and not just for the general public.

"A person who donated their dad's diary is glad they did because they told us they had a fire and she said they would have lost it if it had still been at home.

"We continue to look for items of significance to Manitoba."


Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

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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