Lest We Forget

Actual letters and diaries from Canadian soldiers during World War I

We must remember the courage and sacrifice of everyone who gave so much that we might be alive and free today.




Suddenly, like lightning, a colossal flash leapt from the convoy. In a moment it resolved itself into a tremendous flame which shot upward from the water, accompanied by a roar like the passing of an express train. The great column of fire seemed almost to reach the clouds, and the whole convoy was lit up by its brilliance. Then, with equal suddenness, the light went out, leaving utter blackness.

But as our eyes once more grew accustomed to the darkness, we saw the great black cloud of smoke rolling across the sky - all that was left of a cargo destined until now for the machinery of war.

There remained in my mind's eye a picture of the convoy in the brief moment of the illumination; some ships in clear profile, some in silhouette, poised as though, while in the act of forging their way through the water, they had paused to watch the destruction of a friend.

Alan Easton

At blackout we went down the Piccadilly Circus. During the day, it is only another busy intersection, caught in the rush of London traffic; but at night it begins to move on its own, like a whirlpool sucking in driftwood, circling in the shadows, under the arches and in dark alleys, stopping here and there in broken groups, never for very long, moving round and round the pedestal of the statue of Eros.

The "Piccadilly commandos" carry little flashlights, and flick them on and off, or make a circle of yellow light over their feet. Frequently they are quite classy-looking women, carefully groomed, but their prices are laughable, £5, £6, £7. "But do you know what you are saying? That's a fortune." "Take it or leave it, brother; it's for all night."

I was leaning against a lamppost when one woman anchored alongside and invited me home with her. She noticed my Canadian shoulder-flash, however, and broke off astonishingly with, "I'm sorry Canada, I thought you was a Yank." I think she really meant it - I mean as an apology - because she patted my arm as she turned away. What was it? Empire feeling? Family relations? Or just no business? The Yanks do, of course, carry more money than we do.

Donald Pearce

It was a fine day. As we turned at the French coast, we could see our target lying peacefully ahead of us, surrounded by shoals of green water in the deep blue of the ocean. The Halifaxes jockeyed for position on the run in, and the assault began. The sticks fell down the entire length of the island, and it seemed to erupt.

When we finished our run, I decided to go back and watch the rest of the bombing, so I turned left and went down to 50 feet over the sea to make a circuit of the island. There was still a long line of aircraft coming in, and we had a splendid view of the explosions. One of the last Halifaxes to bomb came out of the smoke in a shallow climb, dived a little, then zoomed straight up onto its tail in a stall turn to starboard, which brought it diving steeply toward us.

"That guy can sure handle an aircraft," yelled Scotty, in the upper turret.

I thought that, like us, he was coming back to have a final look. But when his dive turned into a slow spiral, I began to wonder. He went straight on down and crashed into the sea just beside us. The plane didn't break up, but submerged cleanly like a diving bird, disappearing without even a sign of wreckage. We were so shocked that nobody said anything for awhile.

Jerrold Morris

The southern approach to Ortona is flanked by numerous walled villas in whose gardens stand stately palms and cypresses. But 17-pounders blasted unexpected holes in surprising places, and hard-slugging, merciless men, wielding grenades and bayonets, poured through upon the frantic defenders.

As night fell, reports confirmed what we were all too conscious of - the clawing, tearing brutatity of the fighting in the town. It was a medieval battle in its close-quarter violence, groping through suffocating dust and smoke, stumbling over upturned furniture and debris, struggling breathlessly in nightmare darkness, felling, clubbing, blasting, shooting it out.

The very smell of death and destruction reached us in our orange grove, a place of fantastic beauty, hung heavily with ripe fruit and knee-deep in grass. A holocaust of red glowed in the sky, revealing a ragged skyline as tongues of flame leapt into the night. Downwind from the action, the frightful intimate sounds of battle were all too clear: bursts of automatic fire, the Bren and the Schmeisser answering one another, each with its own distinguishing accent. From the intervening vineyards rose a ghostly vapour, like a shroud winding itself about the town.

The most boisterous and profane among us became silent in face of what we witnessed. The morbid fascination of destruction held us in its grip as life and its monuments dissolved before our eyes. Over all, the deafening voice of guns beat a massive dirge like all the unmuffled drums of hell.

Charles Comfort

I went into nursing training. I remember the war almost by hospital wards. France fell when I was on Ward L, Pearl Harbor was when I was on Ward I, D-Day when I was on night duty at the Ross Pavilion. And my friends, after their first holidays at home, and some after the second, began to wear diamond rings pinned to their brassieres, and then wedding rings pinned with them. It was absolutely forbidden to marry while you were in training, but we did, and many did not tell even their own best friends for fear of being expelled. One short, rosy-cheeked little blonde from Truro, N.S., told me one night when we were alone on duty that she had been married on her vacation. She had had a 76-hour leave with her husband. "When he comes back," she said, "we will make it on our own. No handouts for us from our families." But he was killed at Dieppe.

I, too, had married secretly in training. I, too, wrote every day and sometimes twice a day on the blue forms that gave you a good page of small writing. When I finished training, I went to live with another nurse whose baby had been born two months after her husband left for overseas. We rented a basement apartment and each took turns looking after the baby while the other worked. It was a strange life segregated from men. We met lots of women in the laundry room and exchanged our opinions and experiences. Some were like us; some not so segregated. Some frankly worried about the return of their husbands. But nobody was censorious about that.

In December of that year we both went home for Christmas, taking our one little baby between us. We handed him back and forth across the corridor between the berths on the train as we got ready for bed. My friend and her baby got off the train two stations before me. I went on to my parents' home. My husband was killed two days later, on the day before Christmas. My father, a telegraph operator, took the message on the station telegraph key.

Jean Margaret Crowe

Once, in front of Dunkirk, you'd caught 80 or more of them in the open, attacking a company of the Royals trapped between a canal and flooded land. Many fell and disappeared in the flashing, black puffs of your shells. You'd watched with a sense of pleasure and satisfaction, mumbling to yourself a grim litany - "That's for big Jack Cameron, your roommate in England, who wrote every night to his wife with whom he's shared only a two-day honeymoon before leaving for overseas; and that's for Grace's gentle Uncle George, who died while on duty as an air-raid warden in Birmingham; and that's for...."

But now, staring down at the young German whose boots have just stopped twitching, you feel confused as you fight down a flood of compassion that threatens to overwhelm you. You tell yourself that had he got the chance to use that Schmeisser lying beside him, you might be lying dead here instead of him. But logic just doesn't work, and you know you'll never be the same again.

As you gain control of your emotions, you notice the dead man's jackboots are almost new, and you wish you had a pair like them so you could pull them off at night and dry your feet. And when a counterattack came in, you could pull them on again without having to lace them up. As though reading your mind, a rough voice behind you says - "Nice boots, eh? Why don't you take them?" Receiving no reply, and undoubtedly sensing your queasiness, the sergeant reaches down, yanks off the boots and hands them to you.

George G. Blackburn

When will it all end? The idiocy and the tension, the dying of young men, the destruction of homes, of cities, starvation, exhaustion, disease, children parentless and lost, cages full of shivering, staring prisoners, plodding through mud, the endless pounding of the battle line. I can scarcely remember what it is like to be where explosions are not going off around me, some hostile, some friendly, all horrible; an exploding shell is a terrible sound. What keeps this war going, now that its end is so clear?

It is all so abysmally foolish, so lunatic. It has not the dramatic elements of mere barbarism about it; it is straight scientific debauchery. A destroyed city is a terrible sight. How can anyone record it? The million smashed things, the absolutely innumerable tiny tragedies, the crushed life works, the jagged homes, army tanks parked in living rooms - who could tell of these things I don't know. Perhaps everyone should be required to spend a couple of hours examining a single smashed home, looking at the fragmentation of every little thing, especially the tiniest things, from kitchen to attic, if he could find an attic; be required, in fact, to list the ruined contents of just one home. Something would be served.

A job has been done on Europe, and the resulting trauma will be generations long in its effects. It is not just the shock of widespread destruction, nor the shock which the defeated and the homeless must have suffered, that I am thinking of; it is even more the conqueror's trauma, the habit of violence, the explosion of values, the sense of power and the pride of strength. These things will afflict the victors as profoundly as other things will afflict the victims; and of the two I am not sure that a crass superiority complex is the more desirable. Perhaps I underestimate our ability to return to normal again.

Donald Pearce

Read more letters from World War I, 1914-1918