The Shoebox

A shoebox full of papers is handed over to AFHS President Ron Gilmore while visiting relatives one summer. It contains some photos, letters and postcards connecting Ron to his grandfather who signed up to fight for Canada in World War I. These letters contain letters from the trenches and are priceless discoveries.

From Ron Gilmore’s website

Yup, it was actually a shoebox of old letters that my dear Aunt Gertie passed to me during a short summer visit. It took me some time to open the box and review the contents but when I did, I found some 60 or so letters from the WWI era. Wow!

Most of the letters were written by my grandfather, Thomas McCracken Gilmore, to his wife, Agnes. Thomas, at the time, is in the trenches of Northern France and Belgium with a machine gun battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, fighting the Germans.

Agnes Gilmore, my grandmother, is back in northern Saskatchewan, on a somewhat primitive homestead, raising their four small children, the youngest a mere infant of 6 months.

Thomas fights in the famous battles of Vimy Ridge and Paschendaele, is gassed three times and returns to Canada at the end of the war pretty much an invalid, unable to perform physical labor. Sadly, the returning soldiers brought with them the dreaded “Swine Flu” and Agnes dies within weeks of his return.

Sadly, I only found one short letter from Agnes to Thomas. During his time in the trenches, Thomas also receives two letters outlined in black. Typically, such a letter designated a death in the family. One such letter advised him of the death of his mother back in Ireland. The second alerted him to the untimely death of his youngest brother from pneumonia. One can only imagine the emotions that tore through his mind at such times. Thomas sends letters to his local newspaper back in Canada. He writes poems and short stories, seeking to have these published. He reports on seeing friends and neighbours. He is frustrated at being ordered to serve for a time as a “batman” to a senior officer. His faith in God remains evident.

From all these letters in the shoebox, I had each one transcribed and arranged chronologically in a booklet. The original letters I have retained in non-acidic plastic sleeves in my safe. The people, places and events mentioned were explained in a series of notes, along with a timeline of the war itself. One item in one of the letters confused me. Thomas sent a request to Agnes for some “HD”? What is “HD”? Thankfully, my cousin Yvonne was able to explain that this meant “hair dye”. Apparently, Thomas was going gray somewhat prematurely. He was only 28 years old but remained concerned about his appearance, even amidst the gory chaos of the trenches on the Western Front of the war. When this project was completed, I shared copies to my immediate family and to all my paternal cousins, a fascinating peek into the lives of our grandparents during a radically different time.

Join your local genealogical society to learn more about capturing your own family history stories.

Ron Gilmore, President, Alberta Family Histories Society

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