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First World War veterans resurrected through their letters

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First World War veterans are more than just names carved on a fading cenotaph, during Remembrance Day, as the years sail on by, it is all the more important to keep alive the stories of those brave men and women who fought and died for freedom in “the war to end all wars.”
 While the men themselves may have long since passed on, Royal Canadian Legion Service Officer Glenn Miller has madeClarence Cluff looks at one letter  from  John Murray which Service Officer Glenn Miller gave a presentation on at the Galt Museum. Photo by Richard Amery it his mission to bring them back to life— through their letters home from overseas.

Each letter is an integral piece of the puzzle depicting that particular soldier’s life which, when put together, paint a pretty vivid picture of what life was like for a typical First World War soldier. Everything adds to the story from photos they took, to flowers soldiers sent back pressed in old books they were reading at the time, to pieces of the ruins sent back home from Vimy Ridge, which could be easily dismissed as garbage.

“Whenever you think of throwing something away that belonged to your grandfather or great-grandfather, go to the Galt first,” recommended Miller to an attentive crowd at the Galt Museum, Wednesday, Nov. 2 as he painted a vivid picture of the life of 20th Battalion Fifth Brigade Canadian Field Artillery artillery gunner John B Murray, 1892-1961,  according to a photo of Murray’s headstone in the presentation.

“Paper was the primary method of communication over there, even though it sometimes took as long as six months to get back home,”  he said.

“The biggest thing for morale was getting news from home and that was from letters,” Miller said, noting learning things like their sister was pregnant and what was going on with their parents, helped keep the soldiers connected to home.

“Most letters were written on YMCA stationary,” he said, pointing out a rare letter written on paper embossed with the actual battalion’s crest.

 Miller was also in the artillery, serving several tours in Bosnia, and while most soldiers e-mail now, he said it could take a long time to respond to an e-mail, as there were only four computers for approximately 60 men, most of whom would rather shower after a dangerous and extended mission rather than fight over computers to answer e-mails.

 His presentation of Miller’s life was based on research he conducted through a variety of places including the Galt Museum’s, Archives where he found news stories and photos of Murray, his little sister Babe and his little brother after receiving a stack of letters from Miller’s grand-daughter, then uncovering census forms, old photos, Canadian Pacific Railroad documents and a lot more. Some of the letters as well as a folder of the carefully preserved originals, plus photos of life at Camp Hughes, officers, ships and a rare one of the gun Murray would have used, plus newspaper articles, were displayed on an overhead screen for the people to see and read along with.

He read excerpts from the letters which described details of their day-to-day routines, like polishing their brass buttons, though he said soldiers in the field would leave them unpolished as a reflection off them could reveal their location to the enemy. There were also some letters describing a Zeppelin attack. He noted letters were censored to ensure no sensitive information was given away, though most of them were just thrown out rather than blacked out.

 He noted sewing was an important skill for the men to learn as they were far from their families and mothers who would usually do the sewing for them.

Service Officer Glenn Miller shows a book of  letters from First World War veteran John Murray to a group of fascinated young people and Second World War veteran Clarence Cluff. photo by Richard Amery
“They were very proud of their promotions and would sew on their stripes themselves,” he said.

 Miller noted soldiers came from all walks of life including farmers, politicians, teachers and railroad workers.
“The CPR was very important to John Murray. He paid up his dues to protect his seniority. Most of them thought they‘d be back home before Christmas,” he observed.
“Lots of boys came together, and they all expected to be home by Christmas,” he said.
He touched on war time rationing.
“The men were rationed to two eggs a day, and the cook would keep careful track of them because not all of the men ate their eggs, so he would use the extra eggs to make a treat like a cake for the men,” Miller related adding even the writing style of the letters helps complete a picture of them.

“He was a guy who liked to say ‘gee’ a lot. He wrote that a lot, so you can imagine he talked like that too,” he observed after the presentation, which included everything from time spent  training in Camp Hughes in Manitoba, rations,  mess hall “boxing”  while sailing overseas on massive ships ( he said men at the back of the mess line would often fight each other for scraps) and his enthusiasm after finally finishing his training and “getting to fire the gun.”

Miller said while there are a lot of individual letters from soldiers around, he seldom comes across such a thorough collection as this one.
“There are very few collections of letters like this existing in Southern Alberta. He was over there for four years, and they cover all of the stages from ‘I can’t to wait to get over there and see some action,’ to seeing the horrors of war to ‘I can’t wait to go home, I’ve done my bit,’” he said.

 He pointed out a couple letters from Murray advising his younger brother  to “buy” his way out of joining the service, observing if he did join he should try to get him to join his unit so he could protect him.
Clarence Cluff, a 96-year-old Second World War veteran, was among the people enjoying the presentation.
 He noted he didn’t write a lot of letters home.
“ I never wrote a lot of letters. I didn’t want her (his mother)  to get worried about me. So I just told her everything was okay. My mother was disgusted with me,” he said.
“Our war was really short. There was only an hour a year of real fighting,” he said.
“I went over to England in 1940 and didn’t come home until 1946,” he said , adding most of his time overseas was spent training.
“But I was an old man when I went over.”
 A version of this story appears in the Nov. 9, 2011 edition of the Lethbridge Sun Times

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor
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