Gateway Gazette

Alberta Family’s Donation of Wartime Letters Enriches UCalgary’s Archives and Special Collections

National Philanthropy Awareness Week celebrates transformative philanthropy in every form

During the First World War, soldiers were issued a limited number of green “honour” envelopes to send personal mail back home from the front.  These were still checked, just not by the soldier’s immediate superiors, and so they established a level of privacy not afforded mail sent in plain envelopes.

“We have a patient belonging to the 58 Field Ambulance who had no less than ten hemorrhages leaving him almost a goner, however, two healthy Tommies volunteered to give up ten ounces of blood a piece so an operation known as a Transfusion was performed and with great success, for the patient will soon be ready to evacuate to Blighty.” – Harry Long, One Canadian General Hospital B.E.F. France, Aug. 16, 1916

A century ago, Canada’s soldiers fought in the trenches of Europe as the First World War raged. The voices of two of these soldiers can still be heard, thanks to vividly worded letters they sent to a central Alberta family from the frontlines.

The Military Museums Library and Archives, operated by UCalgary’s Libraries and Cultural Resources, is the grateful recent recipient of a philanthropic donation of wartime correspondence from the Coppock family. These treasured letters from Harry Long and Joseph Bainbridge keep wartime memories alive and provide an important source of study for future researchers and genealogists.

Long and Bainbridge were both born in the UK, with Long one of the earliest residents of Castor, Alta., a town about 280 kilometres northeast of Calgary. Long served as a stretcher-bearer with an ambulance corps, while Bainbridge addressed one of his letters from the trenches of France, where he once manned a machine gun. Both kept in touch with Castor’s Coppock family while serving in the war.

Page one of a letter from Private Harry Long to the Coppock family of Castor, Alta. 16th August, 1917.

“Harry Long was a friend of my grandparents and my mother — this was a young neighbour they had become close to, and a couple of letters were addressed to my mother, who was about 10 at the time,” says Catherine Schaffner, who donated two dozen letters they’d received from Long and Bainbridge.

“When my mother passed away, the letters were among the boxes of things I brought home. I transcribed them and my daughter used excerpts from them — she teaches school in Castor — but I didn’t know what to do with the originals. I didn’t want them destroyed.”

Instead, Schaffner donated them to The Military Museums’ archive.

Assistant archivist Jason Nisenson says such donations often serve as sources of items for their collection that includes diaries, documents, photos, letters and propaganda dating as far back as the Boer War.

“Someone cleans out their attic and finds these letters and feels that it’s time to pass them on,” Nisenson says, adding that their value goes beyond their use for research. “These are someone’s memories — it’s the last thing left from their experience.” He says the collections attract not only academic researchers, but also people exploring their family history.

Long and Bainbridge both survived the war. Long remained in contact with Schaffner’s grandparents for a time; he became a farmer in Saskatchewan. Bainbridge, she says, became a minister.

“With the Armistice almost 100 years ago, what’s interesting is these letters were kept by the family — it bridges the gap between then and now,” says Nisenson.

For more information on donating documents to The Military Museums Library and Archives, email tmmlibrary@ucalgary.ca.

Photos from Coppock Family Fonds, TMMF0108, Military Museums Library and Archives

Letter excerpts:

“Just imagine me at present writing in a dugout about 25 ft underground among about a dozen jolly Canadian soldiers. I am a machine gunner now … two of our gallant comrades were on sentry a few nights ago … they had stood quite still straining there (sic.) eyes to discover something over ‘no mans land’ when suddenly one notices on the horizon … a peculiar light, the other immediately lined the gun on to it ready to blow anything to Kingdom Come when they decided the light to be the first appearance of the moon. Some joke on them.” – Joseph Bainbridge, “In the trenches in France,” Dec. 15, 1916

“A young lad had been on the (operating) table three times and was most cheerful. He used to play his mouth organ (all) the way to the table and when I came to putting plaster cast on him for removal to England, he remarked that plastering was his trade and he little thought he would be plastered himself.” – Harry Long, One Canadian General Hospital B.E.F., France, Aug. 16, 1916

“I expect you have read all about the ‘tanks.’ From reports here, they are a huge success. One patient … went on to relate of how the (enemy) surrounded it, threw bombs and hand grenades, turned their machine guns onto it but could make no impression, by which time at least 500 Germans must have crowded around it with open mouths, having never seen the like. When suddenly the tank poured lead into the crowd. Not a single man escaped.” – Harry Long, One Canadian General Hospital B.E.F., France, Oct. 17, 1916

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