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Maritimers' First World War letters home : spirits remain high despite terror of war


There are no survivors left of the First World War, but their letters speak for them.

Ross Hebb’s new book, In Their Own Words, contains letters of three Maritimers writing home from the Great War.

Here are some of the letters from Eugene Atwood Poole, a front-line soldier from Paradise, Nova Scotia; Pauline Douglas Balloch, a nurse from Centreville, New Brunswick; and Harry Heckbert, a fisherman from Summerside, P.E.I., who was conscripted in the final year of the war.

Eugene A. Poole of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia

August 29, 1914

Valcartier Camp, Quebec

Dear Sister,

I have not much to write but will fill in a few lines while I have the time.

It is raining out tonight and bids fair to become a dismal day; on the morrow my duties as Orderly Sergt begin at 12 o’clock tomorrow. I do not relish it very much as it ties one to the camp and keeps a person always listening for the calls. There is a lot of sick feeling fellows alright – a lot of them not passing the physical exam. I have a cold which is not very nice, but I think I will get by the finals all right; would certainly hate to get thrown down now. We have not our Sergt’s mess yet, but will have it now the first of the week; we have pretty good fare though for army life.

A woman was found the other day masquerading as a man, she was sent to prison. Another man felt so bad that they did not pass him he foolishly cut his throat. There was some talk of us going by way of Saint John, so your going to the landing was not too foolish. Fred and I tried to get leave Wednesday night of our departure but as we had a session before us they would not let us off. But we should not worry, it’s all over now. Wait till the sun shines Nellie and Johnnie comes marching home.

Yours lovingly,

Sergt E. A. Poole No 8 Company 3rd Provincial Battalion

* * *

Born: July 10, 1891

Birthplace: Paradise, Nova Scotia

Parents: Father: Frank J. Poole; Mother: Foretta (Bockman) Poole

Siblings: Vera, Ida, Leila

Joined: September 27, 1914

Discharged August 1919 (serving an amazing three years, one month in France)

Unit: Canadian Corps, Cyclist Division

* * *

April 10

Shorncliffe Camp, England

Dear Sis,

As you see by this letter I am still in England altho in full sight of France. I have not written lately as I fully expected to have been in France by this time as a lot of Nova Scotians are, but we have been held as a reserve and only been picked as drafts when needed and I have not yet been called. You will be surprised to hear I am now a cyclist!

They asked for volunteers for the “divisional cycle corp” and I, thinking that it would mean seeing the front sooner, have got on it. We will be in Hounslow 12 miles from London for a short time and then for some merry sport. My accomplishments will be, and in fact are now, expert cyclist, motor cycle, signaling “Morse code” etc. Some study and work I’ve had to do. We will have none of the hardships of the trenches but will have lots of chances for ‘distinction or extinction’ all right.

Some of my friends will be pleased to know that Lt De V. Chipman is our officer. Your interpretation of CCCF with which I signed off my last letter was correct tho somewhat silly of you not to have known it. If I had come to England on a pleasure trip we could not have found a more appropriate place than Folkstone, a summer resort nearby where we are. The weather here is very spring like and our quarters are fine. The Lark Hill mud is beginning to be a dream of the past. If you get this letter in any kind of season please write and ask father if he can spare a few pounds to send Aunt Mary as I can then draw some from her as I will. No matter where I may happen to be and anywhere I have been yet, money has been of some use. My allowance of pay is pretty small and irregular at that, so thus the plea for a relief fund. I got your last OK and the snaps. I have not written because I wanted my letter to bear the “active service stamp” when next they arrived. Hope you will like the souvenir enclosed. Would have sent more only did not have change enough to get them. Send my best wishes to all home and remember me to all my friends. If any one wonders why I am not in the trenches tell them that the opportunity is still strong for seeing all the fighting one needs.

Yours lovingly Corp E.A. Poole

PS: I reverted again when I volunteered. It takes me most of the time changing stripes.

* * *

Eugene Atwood Poole of Paradise, N.S.,(top right, standing) with five of his friends. Five of them are wearing large cyclist cap badges. - Contributed
Eugene Atwood Poole of Paradise, N.S.,(top right, standing) with five of his friends. Five of them are wearing large cyclist cap badges. - Contributed

April 22

Belgium

Dear Father,

Received a letter from Vera lately and she mentioned that you were sick with the pleurisy. I hope to hear soon that you are yourself again. It seems so strange for the old iron horse to go wrong that it worries me more than any of Fritz’s favourite shells. The weather here is simply rotten, it only clears up to rain and it doesn’t have to mark time long for that either. Has my dog grown up to be a fool or what is he like? I look forward to seeing him as much as I do anything else nearly. I wonder if he will know me.

Let me know what regiment Arthur Whitman is in or if he is in hospital or wounded, killed or what. It’s strange that I have never seen him as almost every fellow I ever knew I have seen over here but never one that knew his name even. Starrett has a staff job where he is safe as if he were home by the fireside, his people need have no fear of him never coming back. Probably it is bad everywhere now though so we will have to make the best of it.

The guns shake things up pretty well around here whether it’s wet or dry. My powers of description are limited as to military matters but I will have enough to say when I come back to make up for it all. Four of our fellows got scratched up a bit lately – nothing very serious though.

Today is the anniversary of the Germans’ first gas attack and the guns boom oftener from our front; the morale of the Canadians has not diminished a particle, rather increased since that time and the gas or other barbarous stratagems have no effect now.

I am billet orderly today so have it pretty soft for a day, thus the inspiration to write a few words. While I think of it, if you are ever anxious to send me anything, send the “Monitor” once in a while or as a special treat send a pound of honest to God butter. It would only be enough for one piece of bread, but I have forgotten what it tastes like. My address is the same as time of last writing so remember it as you will never see it again on any letter. By the way, I think I will get a few pounds assigned home to help the finances.

So long, with love to all, from your son EA Poole

* * *

December 25,

France

Dear Mother,

Just a few lines on Xmas night to give you some idea of how we spent the day. On xmas eve we went out all night on a working party but the line was pretty quiet, both sides remembering the date although nothing much different was noticed except the sign in the officers dugout “Merry Xmas to All.” Most of the day was spent in sleeping but tonight for high tea we had a pretty good xmas dinner consisting of mashed potatoes, cabbage, chicken, pudding, cake, oranges and nuts.

Besides numerous parcels which were received by the boys in our dugout I got your parcel safely and it was much appreciated. I also received another from Washington D.C. – a very fine one. Well, I haven’t much to say. I hope that my presents reached you in time for xmas and that you all had a good day. I expect to get on leave some time before long. I will have my time then. I must get dressed now to go out shortly. It is just one damn thing after another as the saying goes. I guess the “day of Peace” is over by the sound of the guns, however, we should worry.

With love to all E. A. Poole

* * *

Pauline Douglas Balloch, of Centreville, N.B., seated at her desk. She joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps in the spring of 1917. - Contributed
Pauline Douglas Balloch, of Centreville, N.B., seated at her desk. She joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps in the spring of 1917. - Contributed

Nursing Sister Pauline D. Balloch of Centreville, New Brunswick

December 17, 1917

No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital BEF, France

Dear Dad and Mother,

A little more than a week and Christmas will be here. Never have we been so far away from each other at this time, but there are thousands of others in the same case with far less to comfort them. For you I believe are snug, comfortable and well and I am in such excellent condition that you should feel no anxiety concerning me. We are having our first snow. We have had frost of course though the ground has been frozen only on the surface, but today everything is white and lovely for the time being, a borrowed beauty that will vanish with the first warmth from the sun.

Things are pretty much with us as they have been with not much that one can write about. The sisters who have been to hospitals in need of reinforcements have nearly all returned, so we shall be all together for Christmas.

Two (Canadian) engineering Battalions have been in rest nearby one of the officers is Wilkinson – “Willie” Wilkinson’s son.23 He is such a nice chap, and seems to regard me as a sort of relation. We spent yesterday afternoon together and he is coming tonight for a band concert given by the 61st Div band. We are having such music these days – xmas time, it is lovely for us all, but splendid for our convalescent men. I wish I were on the nursing ward for xmas, however there is no hope, so I must try to content myself. Young Wilkinson has lost a brother, a cousin, and his chum since November. I must write Margaret.24 I quite often see Captain Manchester and I like him very much. I have not heard from Ruth for some time. I am sending her a little xmas box which I hope will reach her.

Heaps of love, daughter Jane

* * *

Born: February 23, 1882

Birthplace: Centreville, New Brunswick

Parents: Father: Robert Wilmot Balloch; Mother: Alice L. (Garden)

Balloch

Siblings: Guy, Jack

Joined: May 2, 1917

Unit: Canadian Army Medical Corps

* * *

Harry Heckbert of Summerside, Prince Edward Island

May 6, 1918

Bramshott

Dearest Wife,

This is Monday night and I am up on top of a big hill trying to write.

I wrote four or five letters before but in case you do not get them I will keep them going. I am pretty well and we are having a fairly good time now but they drill us pretty hard. Well sweetheart, I hope you are well and not too lonesome but cheer up honey, your old man will be home sometime. Oh sweetheart, what a happy day for me when I can land in dear old Summerside. I don’t feel as bad as I did first.

How is dear little Gertie and all the rest? I hope your mother and grandmother are all well. Give my love to them all. Where are you staying now? I was just wondering if you were staying home or not. You must take good care of yourself sweet. Are you going to plant any garden this summer? I suppose it won’t make much difference for father will look out for us anyway in that line. The time is five hours later here than it is on the Island and when you are getting your dinner we are getting supper here. I wrote some letters before and asked for a few dollars but I don’t know if you will get them or not. We don’t get any white bread here at all, but we do get lots of rabbit stew. I don’t know why they keep our money back, someone said they would give it to us when we went on our furlough, but I don’t know whether it is true or not. It is awful to be broke so far from home. All I got was one pound since I came here.

Oh sweetheart, I would have just died for one big hug tonight but I will have to wait til I get home. There is some pretty wild boys here but me, oh honey, I am so lonesome sometimes for you I don’t know what to do. I will just have to grin and bear it for a while. I was on Church parade Sunday and the first hymn they sung was “Abide with Me.” It made me think so much of home I could hardly keep from crying, but I can’t act the baby now. I like it a little better than I did, but, oh sweetheart, when I think of you I get sick of the whole business.

All our letters are opened and I can’t say much about the trip we had over but when I get back I will have some story to tell. How are they all at home? How is Tony, is he in Summerside yet?

Harry Heckbert in uniform. Heckbert was a Summerside, P.E.I., fisherman who was conscripted in 1918. - Contributed
Harry Heckbert in uniform. Heckbert was a Summerside, P.E.I., fisherman who was conscripted in 1918. - Contributed

* * *

Born: May 3, 1887

Birthplace: Summerside, Prince Edward Island

Parents: Father: Rufus A. Heckbert; Mother: Eliza J. (Johnson) Heckbert

Siblings: Ella, Fred, Lena, Bruce, Florence, William, Earl

Married: Iva Mae Currie, September 5, 1917

Conscripted: March 23, 1918

Unit: First Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Reserve; (in France)

The Royal Canadian Regiment

* * *

August, 1918

Bramshott Camp

Hello Sweetheart,

Congratulations. I received two letters from you today with the good news, “O.K.” Oh sweetheart, how proud I am and how glad too that everything is alright. A little fisherman too, just think I told you what it would be, didn’t I? He must be pretty if he looks like the old man (ha, ha). I am so glad he has got my good nature. Oh hon, you can’t imagine how bug I feel now to be called daddy and you must give him a big kiss for me, won’t you? I hope you isn’t disappointed because it is a boy. You must get your pictures taken as soon as you can and send me one right off. You won’t be so lonesome now or at least I hope you won’t anyway, but I know dear you must be lonesome. I know I am. I found a four-leafed clover last night, the first I saw in England. I just said to myself, everything is alright and this is good luck and it came true sooner than I expected. The old man must have gotten quite a surprise when your mother told him. I know dear he will be good to you and the baby. When I get my pay I will buy a little broach with baby sheep on it and send it home. I saw some the other day.

I was out on a long march today and I’m pretty tired now. I didn’t fall out either, the good news cheered me up so much I forgot to fall out. I bet I will dream about him tonight. Some weight to him, I kind of thought he might be very small but if he weighed 8 pounds he is no toy. I hope you are well again by now and baby too, dear. I got a letter from Mr Newsham today and when I get my pass I am going down to his place. It is about 200 miles from here. It won’t cost so much. When I get my pass, I am going to wire to old Gardener for money. I guess he will send it alright. Please don’t think I am extravagant over here dear, but it takes a lot of money to get along and I don’t waste it either. Oh hon, if I could just walk in tonight. What a meeting it would be. Well dear, I guess I will have to close for this time, so with two million kisses and all kinds of love I will say bye, bye dear.

Full series: ON THE 11th HOUR: when the war went quiet

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