By now, I’m sure pretty much everyone in Canada knows that the First World War started a century ago.
I don’t think we can come close to really understanding the significance of the event. Back in 1914, I imagine things were a bit different. For one thing, it wasn’t called the First World War, or even the World War, it was just a war, which later became known as the Great War. People thought it would be over in just a few months.
Our real challenge in comprehending the conflict comes from the fact that the world of 100 years ago was so very different from the one we live in today.
For instance, communication was dramatically different. Forget the Internet. In 1914, not only was there no television, there was no broadcast radio. For the vast majority of the population, news of the war came through newspaper stories, newsreels shown in movie theatres, and of course, in the form of letters.
Soldiers wrote mail to their families, to their friends, and to their sweethearts. They also received replies. Many of these have been compiled in a book, Love Letters of the Great War. These are stories which make history real. A German wife pleading with her husband’s commander to grant her husband a leave so he could satisfy “her natural desires,” formal letters proposing marriage, formal letters ending engagements, and tragic letters between family members who will never meet again.
These letters, which had to pass through the hands of postal workers, military censors, and be exposed to the violence of war, then travelled by ship or train between two sides of the ocean. A simple matter of thanking someone for a kind thought could take weeks.
For me, this is a fascinating period of postal history. Canada’s small military postal corps, formed only in 1909, was tasked with the job of keeping a steady flow of letters and parcels between those who serve and the home front. It is an honourable job, and one that continues to this day.
Among my philatelic treasures are a few letters: one mailed to me from one of our contributors, Col. John Conrad, while serving in Afghanistan; another mailed home presumably from a Canadian soldier in 1998 with the return address “Dennis in Bosnia” and a United Nations franking in place of a stamp; and a 1967 commemorative cover from the International Commission of Control and Supervision in Vietnam, marking the 110th anniversary of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, which I bought out of curiosity, only to find it had been mailed by my philatelic friend Maj. Dick Mallott.
All of those pieces together remind me that even today, in the information age, mail call is still an important time for those in uniform.