REMEMBRANCE: Letters preserve memories of the First World War

Brothers (from the left): Oswin (Sweeney), Angus L., and John Colin MacDonald enlisted in 1916. This photo was taken shortly before they departed overseas.

JUDIQUE: Today it is difficult for many people to imagine what it was like for families on the home front waiting for news during the First World War.

For one local family, letters home preserve the story of three brothers from Port Hood who served together in the Great War.

“People starved for contact,” said Morag Graham, who keeps a collection of wartime letters and documents from her uncles, Oswin (Sweeney) MacDonald, John Colin MacDonald, and Angus L. Macdonald (who later became Premier of Nova Scotia and Minister of Defense for Naval Services).

“We think today that communication is so instant, but in those days it wasn’t. They would wait for weeks and weeks, and the only way they could get news was from a letter, and of course, letters were opened and censored.”

Families who sent soldiers to war did not know when, or if, they would see or hear from them again. Graham recalls one story that was passed down through her family from the time before her three uncles departed overseas in 1916.

“Before they went to war, Angus L. was very nervous that he might not come home,” said Graham. “John Colin, the youngest, was happy-go-lucky, but his mother [said] that before he went away, he went up to the hill… and he looked out over Port Hood. And when he came back down the hill, she knew that he wasn’t going to come back. Sure enough, he was the one who was killed.”

This post card was sent from John Colin MacDonald to his mother on May 9, 1918.

Family members were especially eager to receive letters that might contain some news of what was happening in the war. Prior to his death, John Colin sent a letter to his mother during a visit to London in 1917.

“It’s my first trip down since last November and there seems to be quite a change since then. Lights are not darkened as much as they were last fall and the people seem more cheerful,” he wrote.

“… Germany is no doubt making her last stand, she is out-gunned and out-manned and they know it…”

Often, however, communication was less informative. It was common for families to receive post cards from soldiers that were pre-printed with standard greetings, containing only the sender’s signature and a date.

This was a Christmas card sent by John Colin MacDonald to his mother in Port Hood.

Because of the distance, it was difficult for families to comfort each other in times of tragedy. When John Colin MacDonald was killed on August 26, 1918, his mother, Veronica, would have learned of his death by telegram. Angus L. Macdonald wrote a letter home to his mother on September 5, 1918 describing how his brother was killed and the location of his burial in Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery, near Arras, France. He knew Veronica would have received few details, and would not have the chance to visit her son’s body.

“His grave is marked with a cross, bearing his name, number, and the date of his death…. All the men who were with him spoke in the highest terms of his courage. He was in the very front of the battle and no grave is nearer to the enemy than his,” MacDonald wrote.

“We will mourn for him of course, but in our mourning let us not forget that he died in a course that is just, that his record is clean, his honor unstained.”

The telegram sent by Angus L. Macdonald to his mother to inform her of his brother John Colin’s passing in 1918.

Although Graham remembers Angus L. and Sweenie later in life, most of the family’s knowledge of their time in the war comes from the letters and documents preserved by Graham’s aunt, Sister St. Veronica (Mairi MacDonald), who became the first female professor at StFX in 1937.

“They never spoke at all of the war. They say Angus L. was a changed man when he came back from the war, much more serious than when he went into it. He never spoke of his brother’s death,” said Graham.

Pictured is the original wooden cross that marked the spot where John Colin MacDonald was buried. The cross has since been replaced.

The war ended on November 11, 1918, less than three months after John Colin’s passing. The brothers’ letters home continue to serve as a window into a family’s history, and document what life was like for those fighting in the war as well as their families at home.