Remembrance Day 2013

Soldiers' stories told through their letters

By Sarah Ferguson, The Tribune

From left, Private Stephen Atkinson (standing) and Private John Spicer (sitting). Submitted Photo.

From left, Private Stephen Atkinson (standing) and Private John Spicer (sitting). Submitted Photo.

 

What Norma Dilts has learned through pages of letters more than 100-years-old has given her a glimpse into what life was like on the war front.

“This is how I got to know these people,” Fort Erie resident Dilts said of the letters her father, private Stephen Atkinson, and her uncle, private John Spicer wrote to Dilts’ mother Lillian Spicer during the First World War.

“They wrote about what they thought and what they went through,” she added.

The men talked about what was happening back at home in one sentence, and in the next they would talk about what was happening on the battlefield.

Both men served in the war and had died before Dilts turned six-years-old.

Hidden away inside a box, Lillian kept letters from Stephen and John. When Lillian passed away in 2003, the letters were passed to Norma.

Dilts said it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like serving in the trenches in the middle of the battle.

“These men were sitting in fox holes and dugouts while shells were flying.”

Dilts has spent years scanning the letters to preserve them in a binder so future generations of her family will know first hand what her father and uncle went through. She is now focusing on putting the letters in chronological order.

“These guys had to be tough,” Dilts said.

The letters reflect a period in time many people can’t quite understand.

“They definitely phrase things differently in their letters. They represent a different time and place. It’s amazing what a difference 100 years makes,” she said.

“It’s clear from what they write about, that they valued their history and their historical background.”

In the letters, Stephen and John wrote about their dedication to being a soldier and their thoughts about serving in the trenches.

“They talk about how this is what they had to do. They wrote about how they served and believed in it because it was for their country,” Dilts said.

“It’s clear from their letter that they didn’t have a good opinion of men who had to be conscripted. They believed they had to go out and fight for their country.”

Dilts said she will pass on these letters to future generations of her family because they highlight the sacrifices many men and women have given for their country.

Sarah.ferguson@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: s_ferguson25

 

Excerpts from letters written by Stephen Atkinson and John Spicer.

“Well, we had a snow storm last Thursday night, only about an inch of snow but it made the roads very slippery to walk on. It froze very hard on Wednesday night. The snow has not gone yet. Well, I was out building trenches, and digging. I was five days at it.” —John Spicer, Bramshott Camp, Dec. 16, 1916,

“I am ready to die for the flag, if need be. I will do my best and trust in God, and if He is willing, I will go through alright.” —Stephen Atkinson wrote about his dedication and belief of “the cause,” Jan. 1, 1917.

“The Germans crawled at the battle of Vimy. They had a boy tied to one of the guns. He was not over 15. How he survived under our shell fire God only knows but he was not hurt and he never fired a shot, just stood there as white as a corpse. He was taken prisoner by the British. They treat their prisoners good and fed them well.”— Stephen Atkinson, July 5, 1917, from Moore Barracks Hospital England.

“I saw one man get shell shock. … He cried like a baby but he got alright after he went in the hole and had a sleep. One wanted to get the rifle away from him. One other lad got upset one night or lost his head, nearly bayoneted an officer.” —John Spicer, March 6, 1917.

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