Harold McGill and Emma Griffis, a doctor and nurse from Calgary, made an unlikely pair – he was shy and reserved while she was outgoing – but when Harold signed up to serve on The Western Front in 1915, he asked Emma to write to him. Emma also joined the Canadian army as a Nursing Sister in 1917 and was stationed in England. The couple married in December 1917, returning to Calgary after the war.
Sadly, Emma’s letters no longer exist, but Harold’s are safe in the archives at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and can be viewed online. They tell a fascinating story; aspects of war you rarely find in the history books blended with a tenderly unfolding love story.
Some of Harold’s descriptions of the battlefield – the guns growling, a shower of shells, night as dark as a wolf’s mouth – are chillingly evocative. And when he talks about standing in a trench at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1915 to watch the old year out and witness the blast of artillery fire from all the batteries announcing the birth of 1916… well it makes the hairs on the back of your neck prickle.
He talks about their rotation through the trenches; 6 days in the trenches – where they must sleep in their clothes and only remove their boots to change their socks – followed by 6 days in the brigade reserve, followed by another 6 days in the trenches, then 6 welcome days in divisional reserve billets where they have the opportunity to rest up before the whole process starts over again.
The gas alerts when the wind blows in from the east.
How ‘one smokes a lot at this game’.
A regimental dinner held in a convent.
The daily rum ration when in the trenches.
Having to go for 15 days without changing his clothes followed by the sheer joy of a hot bath and clean bed.
But it’s the love story that is the most touching. He starts off addressing Emma as Dear Miss Griffis and signs off Sincerely yours. Following his proposal of marriage in July 1917, that changes to My dear Emma and ends Yours truly. And after their marriage in December that year, it’s My Dear Wife from Your loving husband.
His concern when he discovers she’s assigned to the ‘lungers‘ ward at Bramshott Military Hospital in England, and his ‘mortal terror of TB which is more deadly than Fritz’s trench mortars’.
He makes an interesting comment about how men approach married life. ‘Usually when a man asks a woman for the privilege of making her everlastingly happy,” he writes, “what he really wants is for her to make him happy and worship him as a tin God.”
Only after they became engaged, when he was on leave in England in July 1917, do they really start learning about each other. He tells her he has an older brother and two younger sisters (one of whom, Margaret, is also serving in France) and that his parents died within 10 days of each other when Margaret was only 15.
There is so much more. I can only offer a sliver of the richness of his letters here and encourage you to click on the link at the top of the page and check them out yourself. As to why her letters didn’t survive… Harold offers the intriguing hint that he would ‘love to keep them’ but it is ‘difficult on active service’ and he must ‘burn them’.
It’s a wonderful story, isn’t it! Wish someone would turn it into a movie.