The Book of War Letters: 100 Years of Private Canadian Correspondence by Audrey and Paul Grescoe
Those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes…
Publisher’s blurb: Duress – the extreme experience war produces – brings out the most remarkable human qualities, and letters written in wartime contain some of the most intense emotion imaginable. This anthology includes letters that date as far back as the Boer War (which began in 1899) and extend up to 2002, when Canadian peacekeepers served in Afghanistan. Between are letters from the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and a number of peacekeeping missions. It contains some of the most powerful writing that Canadians – whether reassuring loved ones, recounting the bitter reality of battle, or describing the appalling conditions of combat–have ever committed to the page.
The letters Canadians have written during wartime are proud and self-deprecating, stoic and complaining, brave and fearful, tender and violent, funny and poignant. The Book of War Letters tells us something about what it means to be Canadian, and what it means to be alive.
About the Authors
Paul Grescoe has been chronicling Western Canadian entrepreneurs for decades–from the legendary Vancouver billionaire Jim Pattison (“Jimmy”) to the Winnipeg couple who founded the Harlequin romance empire (“The Merchants of Venus”). With his wife, Audrey, he is also a compiler of three recent volumes of private correspondence that illuminate Canadian history. The Grescoes live on Bowen Island, a world away from the rest of British Columbia.
Audrey Grescoe has been a freelance journalist and a newspaper and magazine editor; more recently she has written books on travel and nature.
Paul Grescoe has contributed to most of the major Canadian magazines and has also written books, including detective novels and “The Merchants of Venus, about the Harlequin publishing empire. They live on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, B.C.
Review by Gerry Burnie
The Book of War Letters: 100 Years of Private Canadian Correspondence [McClelland & Stewart, 2005] is the second of a three-part series by the husband and wife team of Paul and Audrey Grescoe; the other parts being: The Book of Letters and The Book of Love Letters.
As I have oft stated in the past, it is a real cause for celebration when I come across personal journals, first hand observations, or in this case letters that tell us things about our ancestors and our past that history books can only hint at. Moreover, the several generations covered in this collection may be the last to speak in such a manner, for telephone calls cannot be bundled and e-mails can’t take us back to our ancestors’ ways of behaving and thinking and viewing the world.
This is a monumental work (442 pages of letter) from the Boer War, 1899-1902, The Great War, 1914-1918, The Second World War, 1939-1945, Korea. 1950-1953, The various “Peacekeeping” missions, 1954—, and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, 2003—. However, these should not be viewed as just “war” correspondence, for they cover the gamut of emotions from patriotism to disillusionment; from protestations of love to “dear John letters; from “fear” lurking between the lines to reassurance for the folks back home. They are also happy-go-lucky, sad, resigned, and condoling when written by an officer or chaplain regarding a casualty.
Of course they all contain the admonition that “war is hell,” but the difference here is that this was written by individuals, boys, men, women, who were there, i.e.
About 1:30 the bombardment increased to an indescribable intensity, and shrapnel began bursting overhead. Through the din we could hear bullets whistling over the trench with a sound like the strings of a violin touched sharply and the beating of a gigantic bass drum. Word came down that the Germans were coming over, and we all got up and went back up the trench. The colonel was ahead up on the parapet waving on his men—a hero to the last. The bombardment stopped as suddenly as it begun. Instead the air was cleft and cut and sawed by millions of machine gun bullets. What they saw going on up the trench seemed to madden the fellows. We passed a man with a hole through both ankles, walking toward us. Another with both legs shot off at the hips, fast bleeding to death looking at us in mute appeal as we stepped over his mangled body. An then—but what’s the use—there were hundreds, one as bad as the other … I say we were maddened. It was not bravery nor bravado, nor patriotism, nor fear of being shot that drove us on … I think it was animal instinct and vengeance that prodded us on…
Barlow [Whiteside], July 1916
Having read this message written nearly 100 years ago, the question it has to raise is: Why do so-called ‘civilized’ nations, leaders, men and women continue this barbarous way of settling disagreements? Perhaps it might be of some good to send them all a copy of this outstanding look at the human side of war–with but one word emblazoned on the dust cover, i.e. “Why?”
The Book of War Letters is highly recommended for history buffs, writer and scholars specializing in military history, and for all those who have an interest and fascination in human nature.
Interested in Canadian history? Want to know more? Then visit my new page: In Praise of Canadian History.
It is a collection of little-known people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post: Springhill Nova Scotia Mine Disaster – Oct. 23, 1958: “The Springhill Bump”
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