Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Now Far From Home

As historians, we are taught to be objective in our understanding and representation of the past. But today I can't be objective, because on Remembrance Day I always end up thinking about the various members of my family who served in the two world wars. I am sure that I am not alone in this feeling. And perhaps we're not meant to be objective today, or on any day that has particular significance for one's own sense of self. The reason I chose to pursue a degree in Public History has a lot to do with a box of letters written during World War One to my great-grandmother from her then-fiancee Gerald Blake. They are a piece of the past that, gradually, have become a piece of me. I can't separate my understanding of these two people from the words on the page, and the sad juxtaposition of love, battle tactics and war-weariness.

My mom and I have talked about doing something with these letters for a long time. As a history student I, of course, was a proponent for somehow making them available to the public. The letters are no doubt intensely personal and romantic but they are also (and here is a bit of a historian's objectivity coming into play) an amazing resource for students and scholars of World War One history. Our only question was how to put it together; what it should look like. And what would they, the protagonists of these letters, have wanted?

An idea has finally taken shape as I have spent these last nine weeks immersed in the Public History program at UWO, and I've decided to begin the project this June, 2010. I'm going to put the transcribed letters up in a blog format exactly 95 years to the day that Gerald wrote these letters. There are hundreds of them and it will take over a year to complete, but after all our discussions on open access content I'm pretty convinced that this is not only the best way to get this story out there, but also what Kathleen and Gerald would have approved of. Interestingly enough, I will also be the same age (22) as Kathleen when she received these letters. The tentative title of the project is "Now Far From Home" (more on that later).

A couple of weeks ago I performed a simple Google search to see if anything like this was out there already, and sure enough I was not disappointed. An English man did the exact same thing with his grandfather's letters a few years ago: check out WWI: Experiences of an English Soldier. If possible, I think it would be great to digitize the letters themselves and put them up alongside the transcribed blog posts. I would also include photographs and background information on the people and events described.

I'd love feedback from classmates and anyone who is interested. I think my mother and I know that these amazing pieces of history should be shared. Of course, I am biased in this respect. But like I said, I'm not being objective today.

Though the project would not officially begin until June, I thought that I would include the very first letter. It is written the day after Gerald leaves for France. He and Kathleen were engaged the previous night.

New York
June 19, 1915

Dear Kathleen,

I'm a pretty sad little devil today and philosophy doesn't help much. I hope you're all right my dear. I felt wretched leaving you looking so wretched and so we're pretty wretched all round. But some day if I hadn't gone we all would have been ashamed. I would have been a grouch for the rest of my days- and now perhaps I will be only half the time!

I am alternately proud and humble. I'm so proud of your really loving me that my head's nearly turned right around back to front- and I feel so weak and unworthy that it makes me very serious.

I'm afraid I'm a very poor sort of a lover my dear. I can't express all the beautiful things that are inside. I'm just struck dumb. I haven't an idea what I said to you- only I felt most immensely and I expect you know what I wanted to say.

I feel like a little lost child at one moment and the next like a King. You know I feel that I'll come through all right now that I managed to tell you before going. You know I'm a shy little coward and it took an awful effort.

Do take care of yourself, my dear, and don't get glum. Heaps of love to you,


PS: By the way, I didn't tell anybody anything- tho' I felt like shouting to everybody in the street the fact that you loved me. You tell anybody anything you like- or everybody everything you like. I'm your humble servant. Excuse my incoherence- I'm in a chaos.


  1. This sounds like an excellent project and a great way to employ the techniques we are learning about in public history. If you could get funding I am sure there are a number of related projects you might do as well. Also, I have to know, did Gerald come home from the war?

  2. I don't want to give that away! You'll have to wait a while, I'm afraid. Thanks for the input Tim!

  3. Shelagh --

    I think that this is a wonderful idea for a project and certainly something from both a personal and a professional perspective that will be worth the time and effort.

    Perhaps as a way to employ some of the other techniques that we've been learning about you could try creating a mashup -- marking a Google Map with the locations and dates that he sent the letter from and then maybe scanning a copy of the letter onto that spot as a visual?

    Also, you may speak to Johnathan Vance -- I think that the public history option he offered for projects on his WWI graduate course has something to do with publishing the diaries of WWI soldiers. Perhaps he could provide some suggestions or guidance on next steps / possible funding.

    Again, fabulous idea. Please let me know if there is any way that I can help!

  4. That letter is absolutely beautiful. I agree, this is an excellent culmination of all the things that we have been discussing in class. I have to echo Tim's sentiments. You have me hooked, waiting for the ending, so now you have to finish the project.