Letters From the Front

One of the first Camrose men to enlist, and one of the most frequent correspondents to the Camrose Canadian, was Harry Connor. A partner in the Connor Brothers’ bakery, the 32-year-old Connor was fluent enough in French to “get on well” with the locals, and seems to have been attached to a machine-gun section from early 1915. As a letter-writer, Connor’s authorial voice is matter-of-fact and to-the-point, particularly concerning the conditions endured by himself and his fellow soldiers at the front. In his letters home, Connor flatly describes being briefly buried alive by shellfire while taking cover from an artillery barrage in a cellar, seeing a man’s head exploded by a German sniper’s bullet or having to lay motionless in muddy water for up to 48 hours at a time so as not to give away his unit’s position.

Though Connor believes in the cause of Empire (albeit asserting that the war would be sooner won if he and his comrades could rely more often upon their bayonets than the infuriatingly delicate and malfunction-prone Ross rifles Canadian troops were armed with until at least July, 1916) his correspondence is nonetheless brutally candid at times concerning the CEF soldier’s life. In one instance, Connor suggests that in order to understand why the troops are not enjoying “hot meals” at the front, his interlocutors should dig “a hole in a wheat field 6 feet long, 1 ½ feet wide and 4 feet deep, in the rainy season in Alberta, half fill it with ice cold water, get into it and stay there for 24 hours and each time your head comes over the top someone tries to blow a hole in it to air your brains, you may understand how many hot meals we get, or possibly you can see us getting nothing at all if we don’t carry it in ourselves”.

This acid answer to curious civilians wondering at the extent of the hardships endured by the men in the trenches calls to mind Bill Mauldin’s similarly acerbic advice from his 1944 book Up Front, recommending that the folks back home practice sitting in muddy holes for days at a time while imagining that someone might brain them or set their houses on fire if they doze off. As such, Connor’s correspondence testifies to the unchanging commonalities of the infantryman’s experience across time: to the bloody, grimy misery, the resentment, and the devotion to duty, comrades or whatever other ideal inspires those who fight at the most direct level to persevere in the face of the chaos of war.

One thought on “Letters From the Front”

  1. Very cool! I hope you’re going to put this up on your website! I think visitors would definitely be interested in reading this piece. It would be nice if you had a picture of Connor, too, so that visitors can put a face to the story. :)

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