Past, Present & Beyond – The Great War, Pt. 5 – It is all gloriously exciting…

Barbara Roden's bi-monthly historical feature from the local area.

An intermittent series looking at Ashcroft and area during World War I.

For those on the home front during World War I, letters from loved ones who had gone to war were treasured, as they were the only means of hearing news from them, even if the letters had been written and posted days, even weeks, earlier. In many cases their contents were shared as widely as possible, so that friends and neighbours could hear the news as well. These days we have numerous ways of spreading news from others; but in 1915 the surest way of disseminating information was via the newspaper.

Thus it was that in the May 1, 1915 issue of The Journal there appeared extracts from a letter written by James Rennie Rae, an Ashcroft resident who had been one of the first locals to sign up. In November 1914 a letter of his, describing his voyage to England, had appeared in The Journal, and editor R.D. Cumming used more of Rae’s observations some six months later.

“Since writing last, events have moved rapidly. After a month’s experience in the trenches, opposed by the best of German troops, we have come up to this big French town for a rest and to act as reserve to important positions.

“I enjoyed the trench life greatly . . . the exciting incidents made the days simply fly. One bullet bursting on the zinc roof of our ‘booby’ cut my nose and drew blood. I lived well, and felt perfectly healthy.

“The real life of the trenches begins only after dark. During the day it is impossible to move without one of the lynx-eyed marksmen opposite having a shot at you. As soon as it is dark both sides spring into life. The reliefs come, and food, ammunition and repairing material of all kinds is carried up by land. Patrols go out between the lines to find out what the enemy is doing, or to annoy him by sniping at close quarters; or to mend the wire. It is all gloriously exciting, and in fine weather, is the best of sport.

“The time of the singing of birds has come. Everywhere you can see dancing daffodils, and sweet-smelling primroses. Even in this desolate land the call of spring can be heard.”

The letter would have been appreciated by Ashcroft and area readers who, although far away from the trenches, were doing their best for the war effort. The Red Cross declared that May 23 and 24 would be “Sock Day” in British Columbia, during which every man, woman, and child in the province was encouraged to give at least one pair of socks each for soldiers at the front; it was estimated that 50,000 pairs of socks were needed every week to supply the Canadians serving in France. The Ashcroft campaign raised $123 in donations and 32 pairs of socks.

On May 22, however, locals were reminded of the brutality and unpredictability of war, when The Journal reported that George Christie had been killed at the front. “This is the first of the Savona contingent to meet death,” the paper reported. “Mr. Christie was a great favourite here. The whole community mourns his death. He was killed in action about two weeks ago. In his letters he stated he had been in the trenches for several months. Up to the time he was killed he had not received a scratch.” The same issue of the paper also contained the news that “Our friend [James] R. Rae survived the inferno at Ypres.”

Ashcroft’s W. T. Bond wrote home about his experiences at the front. “Our battery is being sent to the Dardanelles or some such spot to amuse the Turks. So the next letter you get from me – if ever you get one – may come from Constantinople, Jericho, Cairo, or way points. . . . I cannot help thinking how thankful you and others in Ashcroft ought to be that there is a very large ocean and strong British fleet on it, which separates you from Germany.

“There are two classes of women who are coming on top in this war and whose bravery is equal to any, and greater even than that of the men. The first is the hospital nurse, whom the wounded Tommy regards as nothing short of a ministering angel. The second is the woman whose husband or son is at the front while she stays and keeps the home going, and should he come home, nurses him back to health again, in order that he may return sooner to the fighting line. You will see a lot of them every morning when the troop train leaves [London] for the front. And you must remember the front is nearer London than the 150 Mile House is to Ashcroft.

“Send some more Journals, but none of Skookum’s [pen name of R.D. Cumming] poetry books, please. It would damage the battery.” Cumming added a reply: “Which last item the Journal begs to resent.”

Before his departure for the front, James Rennie Rae had worked as a clerk in the Ashcroft post office, and had doubtless been pleased by the news, in summer 1914, that a public building – which would house the post office – was to be built. Perhaps he thought of returning to the town and working in it, when the war ended. But although he survived the “inferno at Ypres” (the second battle near that town, April 22–May 15, 1915), he would not live to see the new public building (now the Museum). On June 10, 1915, six days after his 28th birthday, Private James Rennie Rae, 13543, died of wounds in a hospital in Boulogne, northern France. He is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.

Barbara Roden