Wednesday, January 6, 2016

World War Wednesdays: First World War Fondness from Aylmer, Ontario

Letterhead of a note dated July 1916, from Pte. C. Ramey to the Secretary Treasurer of the Aylmer Travel Club
      It's been a while since we've covered anything related to the First World War, and we're also due for a good old Elgin County topic, so this week combines the two! Basically, it's been a while since there's been anything besides the Fingal Bombing and Gunnery School, so we'll give it a bit of a break. In preparation for the post, I started combing through the First World War collection from Elgin County Archives, and came across something that instantly captured my attention. All photos and information are from Elgin County Archives and the overview of the Elgin County Cultural Services education project, A Sock to Remember.

     During the First World War, a massive amount of articles were produced by the various women's groups across Elgin County to provide comfort to local men serving overseas. The accumulation and shipment of these items was coordinated by the Canadian War Contingent Association, which ensured that every soldier was looked after. City, county, and township councils of Elgin voted grants of money to Women's Institutes and Patriotic Societies in support of the countless shirts, pajamas, towels, pillow slips, candy, and especially socks that needed to be collected and sent overseas.

     One such group that took on this important role was the Aylmer Travel Club. Its members knitted socks and collected other items which were then distributed at the Front by the Canadian Field Comforts Commission. A cloth label was attached to each pair of socks bearing the name and address of Miss E. Lewis, who was Secretary Treasurer at the time. Consequently, an equally large number of letters were received by Miss Lewis in acknowledgement of these gifts, and all have been collected and are maintained at the Elgin County Museum. These letters often included fascinating glimpses into life in the trenches and other firsthand experiences of the First World War.

     Here's an excerpt of the letter from a Pte. C. Ramey which was written under the lovely picture seen above:
     Dear Friend
I am writing a few short lines to you and would write a good long letter to you if I knew you, but being a stranger to one another I hardly know what to say but will endeavor to do the best I can. 
     The way that I received your address was  by a pair of socks which I received yesterday from St. Thomas and I am wearing them at present and feel quite comfortable in them and I thank you very much for them and I suppose that you are very anxious to find out who received them so I thought that I would let you know.
     We are sleeping in huts and have a couple of Aylmer boys sleeping in the same hut and we have a great time amongst ourselves and all the boys.

     As with any look into a wartime experience, every happy and uplifting story seems to be met with many more of tragedy and loss. In some sad cases, the Aylmer Travel Club's correspondence included soldiers who would not live to see the end of the war and be able to thank Miss Lewis and her club in person back at home. One such soldier was David Arnold Gill from Rodney, Ontario.
     Serving with the 91st Batallion, Pte. Gill fought at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, and Amiens. He was killed at Amiens on 8 August, 1918, just shy of his 27th birthday.
   Like so many other grateful recipients, Pte. Gill penned a letter of thanks to the Aylmer Travel Club after receiving a pair of socks in December of 1916. It reads:
      France           Dec. 8/16
Dear Friend
     Just a word of kindness to thank your club ever so  much for the nice pair of socks, and what made them so much nicer for me at the time when they came I just came in with wet feet and they certainly was a treat to put on. We are having a little wet weather just now...
     It will be nice when we get old Fritz beaten down and can get back home again.
     So again thanking you. I wish yourself and the club a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.
     I remain
Pte. D. A. Gill 
2 Batt.
Machine Gun 

     Reading these innocent words of thanks to a kind group of strangers, especially his hopeful thoughts for the future, is heartbreaking to say the least knowing how Pte. Gill's story ends. There is an added element of melancholy when thinking about how we are entering the 100th year since it was written-- that an entire century has passed since was alive, being rained on, manning a machine gun, and writing letters. I think what strikes me the most about these major war anniversaries is not so much the time that has passed since lives were lost during an event, but the years that have gone by since the times before, when those people were alive and experiencing things the same way we all do. One hundred years ago this very day, a group of caring people in the small town of Aylmer, Ontario were putting together packages that would make life a little easier for young men like Pte. Gill, who in turn were sitting down with paper and pencil to send their thanks and well wishes. It's stories like these that speak to us all, and I like to think that we'd do it all again if the circumstances demanded it in 2016.

     Thanks for reading,

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