Guyside: a little personal history through wartime mail

Posted by on Sep 10, 2014 in Guyside, men, musings | 0 comments

Graves at the Canadian War Cemetery at Bergen-op-Zoom, Netherlands

Graves at the Canadian War Cemetery at Bergen-op-Zoom, Netherlands, where my uncle Bill is one of 1,047 Canadians buried.

Since I’ve been lucky enough to be born in Canada, and since I chose not to enlist in our armed forces in my life, I’ve never experienced war. But there is lots of service in my family. My brother collected a pension after a career in the Canadian Forces; my father piloted a Sherman tank through Holland and Belgium in 1944 and 1945; his brother landed on Juno Beach in Normandy and fought the European campaign all the way through; and two of my mother’s brothers joined up for WWII. Sadly, only one of them came back. And that’s really where this story begins.

My mom died on August 29. She was 89. And part of the family mythology that I grew up with was Uncle Bill. When we went to our summer cottage, she’d remember how Bill would swim from one shore all the way across the lake and back (a swim I was never fit enough to manage, likely two miles or more), worrying my grandmother greatly.

He commanded shore defences in Cape Breton, where my family was from, and gave up a commission so he could go overseas. A land mine grievously injured him, and he died at the age of 33, a bachelor, in Belgium, October 26, 1944. He was buried in a Commonwealth cemetery in Holland.

As my brother and I and our partners prepared my mother’s house for being vacant for a while (neither of us live close by), we came upon a few stacks of letters in the basement, sent by my mother’s uncles from 1942-1945, and a number of other things that related to their service. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the letters so far, but they are remarkable. First, the quantity of letters that Bill produced was amazing for a modern person, who puts pen to paper occasionally at best. He wrote to his parents, to his sisters, to his brother, and probably to friends as well.

Second, the tone of the letters. Ones to my mother, his baby sister, are teasing and affectionate. He calls my mom “Ebby” or “Eb”, a play on words for her name, Evelyn. He teases his other sisters as well, but reserves a more respectful tone for his parents, my grandparents, although he teased them on occasion too. He appeared to have a pretty good handle on what would be censored, because there are only a few passages cut or blotted out. And, likely in part because soldiers were told to be positive in their letters home, he was almost entirely positive, rarely speaking even of the minor difficulties of wartime life, deprivations, cold, wet. His biggest complaint was lack of mail from his family, and it seems his biggest hobby throughout his war was girls.

As I delve into these letters, I’m beginning to see why my mother mythologized my uncle. To use the parlance of the time, his letters paint him as a “really swell fellow — simply grand.” I would love to have had the opportunity to meet him, but we missed each other by 22 years. And I am again struck by the differences — at least the superficial ones — between the men of that time and the men of our time. My father’s uncle Cam, a veteran of the entire European campaign never shared his war experiences with anyone, to the family’s knowledge, and it never seemed to have affected him. It feels as if the men of that generation returned from a global conflict and got on with life. I think I could take a lesson or two from the men of that time in simply getting on with things.

Were the men of that time perfect? Undoubtedly not. They were products of a different time. Some of the attitudes and behaviours not even noticed back then would be considered abhorrent today. But it’s kind of neat to be given the opportunity to glimpse through a window into your family’s history, to imagine meeting a long-since-lost man in your family, to hope that you would find him up to your expectations, and that you would meet his.

Photo credit: The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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