Astonishing historical letters

The Weston Historical Society posted a link to The Canadian Letters and Images Project, which preserves letters from soldiers serving abroad.

One group of letters is from Bert Irwin, who was born in Weston. Irwin enlisted in 1915, and his brief letters are sad, occasionally charming, and completely terrifying. You must read them.

Irwin never seems to have believed in glory and honour of war. In a letter from what he calls “Hell” (his family looks to have added “Somme” to the top of the page letter, in pen) only four months into his time in Europe, he tells his parents, on small, pencilled pages, about a few of the things he has seen:

A big High explosive came near me and the flash and powder kind of got my goat and I thought I saw a big hole. I floundered into it on my head and it was only about a foot deep. I was like an ostrich then trying to bury my head in the mud. Just as I hit the bottom a big “dud” unexploded shell came over my shoulder half burying me. When I got back down the line to the old position it was all torn up but one dug out and two fellows were wounded and one shell shocked. I thought I was due for that but I didnt get it. I dont make any bones about saying Im darn scared of shells and anyone who says differently hasnt been there. Yesterday I was filling sand bags and I noticed a mule team on the cusp of the hill. The drivers were dismounted and seemed to be lost. I said to a fellow beside me, “They hadnt better stay there long” Just as said it a shell lit behind the waggon and scared them. They mounted and started off at the trot. I thought to myself “they’re getting out lucky” when a big fritz came shrieking down right into the centre of them. Five mules and two drivers were blown completely The other mule stood there and “hee hawd.” One leg was blown off. Somebody ran over and shot him.

These are the things he would share with his mother.

Irwin survived the Battle of the Somme–as well as Passchendaele and Vimy–and stayed at the front for two more years.


It wasn’t all horror. In June of 1918, Irwin wrestled another Canadian, and took joy in the licking he received:

I was in a wrestling bout for the Brigade yesterday. Went up against a fellow from B.C. who had one time been middleweight champion of Canada (I found this out after) Well I’m not ashamed to say he trimmed me up because he had the Science. All I’ve got is an imposing pose. I had him beat in that anyhow… I stuck it out for another round after that but he got me in the finish. So, bar having a lump on my forehead like an egg and a feeling all over like Id been skinned alive with a razor I dont feel too bad.

He was also arrested in Bologne for impersonating a sergeant so that he could ride in a better carriage.


In the last letters he wrote, he describes being hit.

He seems relieved–and seems to even wish his old friend, Cecil, who carried him to the dressing station–had been hit, too. ” I hope Cecil doesn’t get it”, he says. “I hated to see him go back.”

In the last sentence, of the last letter, he says, “I am in a fine hospital and am going to take my time getting better.”

Author: Adam Norman

I am raising my two children in Weston.