Canadian War Museum: Letters that remind us to remember sacrifice of service

The Canadian War Museum is marking Remembrance Day on Nov. 10 at 4 p.m. by hosting an event called Letters in a Time of War.

Memorable and poignant letters written by Canadian soldiers in wartime will be read aloud by media personalities, actors, students, professional athletes and veterans.

Among the readers will be Ottawa Senators great Daniel Alfredsson who will read the the letter of condolence sent to the family of Ottawa Silver Seven hockey legend Frank McGee who was killed at the battle of the Somme

Former CBC reporter David Halton will read letters from his father the famous Second World War correspondent Matthew Halton. 

Author and historian Charlotte Gray will read from letters from uncles of hers killed in the First World War

The adventurer and cave diver Jill Heinerth will read from the diary and sketchbook of her grandfather, Russell Rabjohn, who fought in the First World War.

And Col. Patrick Kelly and Maj. Jaime Phillips will reading from their own accounts of their time in Afghanistan. For tickets:

Here are some of the readings:


A newspaper clipping reporting the death of Frank McGee. Courtesy Canadian War Museum.

Read by Daniel Alfredsson:

Lieutenant-Colonel Elmer Jones.
To the family of Frank McGee, Ottawa (reprinted in the Loyola College Review, No. 3 1917)
October 18th, 1916:

“I have intended writing to you ever since Frank left us, but I have a great deal to do. That is my only excuse. 

Frank only came back to me two days before we went over on the morning of the 15th of Sept.

I left him with the reserve during the first attack, but during that day, I lost every officer save one, and in the early morning of the 16th, Frank brought up 50 men to hold the line and push on past Courcelette.

He reported to me, and I put him in command of my first line. He knew what it meant, and he laughed as he went into it. 

He took most of his men through and reached the front trench. I had a message from him there, telling me his disposition, and that he would gather up more men and push on. He had to go up under extraordinary shell-fire. He then came back and was gathering men there for another attack, when he was killed.

I need not tell you what he was like under shell-fire, because you know better than I can write; but his bravery always inspired the men under him.

When he was with me first, I had learned to rely on him, but in the Somme, during his few hours there, he was wonderful.

I can’t tell you more. He was buried where he fell, and where so many of my battalion lie. 

If I come home, I will be able to tell you more, but it is harder writing than you can know.”

Read by Charlotte Gray:

Letter from Capt. Harry Colver
Western Front, France
May 19, 1915

My darling Sisters All,

Very many thanks for all your letters and parcels.

Am feeling awfully fit and happy. Having the usual gay time but the weather is the limit just at present. Fearfully cold and wet. The trenches are awful. Mud up to the eyes. You really should see the mess we all get in.

Will you break it gently to Mother not to write me too — how shall I say it — dismal letters. We have quite enough to think of here to keep us from thinking too much of the rotten outlook for us.

Mother means very dearly but when she talks about telegraph boys coming up the drive, well I don’t quite like it.

If we die, we die, if wounded, lucky, if we get home, very lucky. Am sure you will understand.

We all get a bit dismal now and then, so don’t want more adding.

Had rather a thrilling time in the trenches the last time. As you know we have been making, or rather having a good go for the Germans. Well, we were the extreme left of the line in France, where the fighting started and had to keep the enemy as occupied as possible so we now and then opened a terrific rifle fire. Of course they answered back. I lost five or six men out of my platoon.

The artillery started and, it being the first time under artillery fire, it was rather thrilling. Stephen Rhodes lost a few of his men. A shell burst in the middle of a section and there was an awful mess. Really fearful. We lost our first officer the other day, Hugh Raby, really an awfully nice boy. Really rotten luck. We don’t mind getting pipped in the trenches but when one is at Headquarters and just walking about and a stray shot gets one, well it’s rotten. Shall strengthen my dug-out a lot. We are making our trenches very comfy and as safe as possible.

Where our 2nd Battalion are, they have even cabbage patches and gardens. They are the prize trenches. The French peasants are making some reserve trenches for us. Very model ones indeed. Of course as we work mostly day and night, there will soon be little to do, unless it gets knocked down by Germans.

A lot of men who we have met here, mostly Rifle Brigade, are missing or killed. They were a ripping lot. They were none too pleased to see us here, for it meant they would off it to a very much warmer spot. Now Kitchener’s army have turned up here so we wonder if we are offing it. We hope not. How are the kids? I think Pamela looks awfully sweet, quite good looking.

Fancy you taking the trouble to type write my letters, it’s a wonder you can read them I know. I have to write now as often as possible, for later we may be booked up with work.

Have you played any tennis yet? We wish we could. Our 2nd Battalion are in priceless billets. Just like home. Am getting rather “fleay” now. If you have a bath it does not seem to make very much difference. Simply thousands of rats in all our billets. They make an awful row during the night. Would give something to be home. Nice bath and clean sheets.

Bye Bye for now, Fondest love to you all,

Your loving brother,


Telegram from York

To R. Colver Esq, Rockmount, Ranmoor, Sheffield.
Dated 22 December, 1915.

Regret to inform you that Captain H. Colver was killed in action December 19th Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.

The war diary of Sapper Russell Rabjohn. Courtesy Canadian War Museum

Read by Jill Heinerth

From the Diary of Sapper Russell Rabjohn.
St. Jean near Ypres, France.
Sunday, Oct.  21, 1917

Five of us put the night in a bivouac. Fritz dropped a bunch of bombs, killing one of the “B” Company men in his dugout, but not scratching his chum who was sleeping with him.

After dinner I was sent with two officers to find headquarters. As luck would have it, we went off the trail a little ways, ducking as a shell went over. This shell hit on the road a hundred yards from HQ, lighting up a platoon (about 50 men) of “C” Company, killing 27. The officers wouldn’t go up for a time in case the Germans shelled again, so an Australian and myself went along the street and looked at the bodies but could identify nobody. Sixteen lay dead, the rest being taken away wounded; 10 dying later in the hospital. One fellow lay cut in half, another head right off, face off, back of head, legs off, arms off. Pieces of bodies lying here and there. Also two touring cars blown up, one still burning while I was there.

At night I had to make the trip again, taking all the runners to show them where HQ was. The Germans were dropping bombs by the dozen in the very place where the men got killed. One turned a truck upside down, blowing it to pieces. A very large theatre and Cathedral are the main spots in Ypres, all blown to pieces.

Read by David Halton:

From Matthew Halton, to his wife Jean Halton
Sent from the frontlines of the Battle of Ortona. The bloodiest battle of the Italian campaign
Ortona, December 26, 1943
Dear Jean,

I did get a parcel from you, actually on Christmas Day. I was looking at your picture then through the broken window of this wretched little shell-broken house when I saw two sweet little Italian children and went down and gave them each two  chocolates…

It was a Christmas Day I shall never forget, a ghastly day. Some Demon has possessed both the Canadians and the Germans. They seem beyond exhaustion and beyond fear. They’ve become bloodthirsty. There is something unutterable there on the Moro River, something I have never seen before … There is something dark and apocalyptic there, something fearful. A battle should peter out in the silence of the grave but the worse the shambles and the butchery became the harder both sides fought.

 Afterwards I came back from the front to a field dressing station where doctors gave me a Christmas dinner. I did a program in the ward where Christmas carols were being sung to the “life” cases – the badly wounded who might live or might not. I saw pictures which would never be believed if I wrote them, the sheerest of melodrama. All I could do was a comparatively tame four-and-a-half minute program. It was tame  beside the truth. 

I will never forget the scene when I went back to the ward to get the microphone. The room was empty except for five wounded men and an orderly and an accordion. And I heard something that made me whisper into the mike “Art, start cutting at once.” A man had come out of a coma and said in a clear gentle voice “Corporal, I dreamed  I was home — please play I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” The corporal sat on the edge of the bed and played and sang  and — but this I couldn’t say in my broadcast —when he had finished playing the soldier was dead.

All the horror that had been hardening and callousing in my soul in the last six weeks seemed to dissolve in pity and I stood in the shadows as weak as a child. That was my Christmas day. I think the last six weeks have been the hardest of my life.

Maj. Jaime Phillips in Afghanistan. Courtesy Canadian War Museum.

From Maj. Jaime Phillips:
“I was 24 when I wrote these, my fiancé at the time, James, who asked me to marry him on our mid-tour break, was 30. We were both deployed as Artillery Troop Commanders within the same Battery, junior officers in charge of 30-35 soldiers in and around Kandahar, Afghanistan, between February and September 2007.”

Date: Tue, 5 Jun 2007 20:48:08 +0430
From: James,
To: Jaime,
Subject: Mortar Engagement

I was doing my shift in the Command Post when I heard you were under attack. That was a tough wait! I guess I know something of how you felt when I was in Helmand province. I know you are doing everything you are supposed to, and you are as safe as can be but it was difficult not to be able to call and ask whether you were okay.  I didn’t find out for hours that things were all good.  So, I am glad that you are getting to do some cool stuff, and I will try not to worry.  

Stay safe please, I don’t know what would happen if I lost you. Love you more than a kid loves smarties,


June 6, 2007
From: jaime,
To: James,
Subject: Regarding Mortar Engagement.

It’s all good, everything is fine, and we’re having a great time. Remember our Operational Security briefing though, your email title isn’t very subtle…

I love you very much too,


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.