November 18 marks the centenary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, an event that passed essentially unnoticed, though it was a seminal event in the development of modern Canada. Its carnage was over 1.1 million casualties from a combined population (both sides) of about 170 million. (For a scale, there have been approximately 35,000 U.S. casualties in Iraq from 2003-1016.)
I became interested in the Battle of the Somme earlier this year due to a sheaf of papers in the back of my mother’s china cabinet, which I noticed while she was moving.
The papers were copies of transcripts of letters from the front by the adjutant of the 75th Canadian Battalion (4th Canadian Division), one of the battalions which led the closing assault at the Battle of the Somme. While other war-time correspondence in family archives tended to be sincere but dreary epistles, these letters were full of interesting details about life at the front – not just mud and food, but flares, “dug-outs”, young men having horse races, sightseeing at Amiens Cathedral five days after a battle in which 25% of the battalion were killed or wounded, the moral quandary of court-martialing soldiers who had wounded themselves to avoid further battle, typically because of what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder, with penalties shocking to today’s sensibility. In this note, I’ve collated all of the china cabinet letters available from the china cabinet, interweaving with information from War Diaries, to provide a narrative (pdf).
In the transcript, neither the author nor addressee were transcribed. From details in the letters, it is evident that the author was Miles Langstaff, then a recent graduate of Osgoode Law School. I presume that his correspondent, who had knitted him a sweater and walked with him in the valley of the Humber River in west Toronto, was my grandmother. Langstaff was killed on March 1, 1917 in an ill-conceived raid at Vimy Ridge, a month before the major victory in April 1917.
Transcript and narrative here.