Young Soldier’s Letters Provides Personal View of Western Front a Century Ago

By Robert Konduros

In the 1980s a treasure chest of papers and photos was purchased at a house auction in Cambridge containing the letters of a young soldier who was born and educated in Galt and who fought in World War One.

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Frank Eason was 23 when the War started in 1914. He was a cadet stationed in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In beautifully written letters home which are excerpted below he described to his mother and father being shipped to Europe with the 12th Battalion in the First Canadian Expeditionary Force; training Canadian soldiers in England how to shoot rifles, and going to France and Flanders and then being wounded in 1916.

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Initially he assured his mother he would stay away from the fighting and work as a payroll officer and as an instructor teaching “musketry” in England.  However, as the need for manpower grew he inevitably went to the front line trenches. The telegram home announcing his injury in 1916 was brief and uninformative and must have been traumatic for his parents to read.  Although he minimized the extent of his injury and was able to come back to Galt several months afterward in order to raise recruits for a new battalion, one of his letters from 1918 reveals that he was back in the hospital for treatments over a year and a half later.

Frank Eason married after the war and had two daughters. He died on July 19, 1943 at the age of 52 and is buried in Cambridge.

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On August 5, 1914 while still in Fredericton, Frank Eason assured his mother that, “it is not possible for us to be ordered away unless we offer our services and I will not.”

When he was transferred to Valcartier, Quebec which was the training camp hastily established by the Canadian government for the first contingent of soldiers destined for overseas combat, he told his mother: “First of all you will be relieved to know that I am not with the fighting branch of the service …I will be sorry to miss the glory of a victory yet feel that I can do just as much for my country at home.  In case the troops go over to England our offices would be in London [England] and not at the front.”

By the next month, in early September 1914 he was sailing with the troops from Quebec for Europe: “I have a very comfortable cabin and our meals are excellent.” He wrote to his mother: “It was a grand sight to see all the other [troop] ships, 30 in all, passing down the [St. Lawrence] river and the terrace at the Chateau [Frontenac at Quebec City] was packed with people.”

 

At Gaspé the troop ships met up with an escort of five British Royal Navy battleships: “It makes one realize the great power and protection of the British navy…”.  As the ships sailed in single file they were soon joined by the Newfoundland Contingent.

Seas got rough: “…I am still not sick while a number of the officers are on their backs and I do feel sorry for them. Some of the boys tease the sick ones awfully by offering them nice greasy things to eat but I keep my mouth shut as I may get sick yet. We are tossing around like a cork….”. The sea voyage took nearly three weeks.

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As an omen of things to come it rained for the first ten days they were in England. He described their camp: “Our present quarters are very comfortable, being huts built of sheet-tin like the Preston people make, and lined with heavy paper.”  He described for his mother his daily drill and on November 18 wrote:  “This afternoon while out on a route march we saw 12 Bi-Planes all at one time…. It looks fine to see them glide along but personally I prefer the ground.”

He told his father he had, “a dandy trip to London” and visited his Aunt Rose and Uncle Henry. Like the majority of Canadian soldiers he had close family ties to England.

On January 6, 1915, a fellow Galt friend, Ross Buscoe, was shot and killed in an accident at the firing range in England.

On January 8, 1915, Frank wrote to his father saying: “The people in Canada have been extremely good to us during the Xmas season….”.  In the same letter he wrote of being moved to the continent as early as March.  He talked about teaching musketry and portentously said, “I hope the rifle will stand the work it will be called upon to perform at the front.” He was referring to the Canadian made Ross rifle which malfunctioned so badly in battle that soldiers lost their lives as a result.

On March 10 he told his dad, “I am always glad to get your letters for they are not full of hot-air and sympathy, but of course women do look on the serious side of things.” He also wrote: “This will be our last move before going to France and everybody seems very happy at the thoughts of getting so near the fun.” He added that his outdoors work, “must agree with me for I have put on 24 lbs since coming to England. I am feeling very fit and hope it will continue”.

Two months later he was still in England and wrote to his mother on various topics: “I won’t say anything about the war for I am fed up on the whole thing…Jack McIntosh from Galt appeared in my [musketry] school to-day… My work here requires so much travelling that I have purchased a motor cycle….I met a very swell young lady at a tea we gave but it costs too much to run about with her.”

By July he was given a promotion which came with a horse.

On September 8, 1915 he wrote his father from France: “Dear Dad- Just a line to let you know we are over here for the big picnic. Came out of the trenches this morning and expect to return tonight…. Am feeling fine and enjoy the change of conditions.”

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On September 18 he told his mother he, “was viewing a German trench 50 yards away.”  He added that he was keeping busy: “… with 4 or 5 hours on the horse every day one should keep pretty fit. I weigh 150 lbs and am hard as nails…”.

On April 3, 1916 from Flanders he informed his mother that he had just returned from 7 days in the trenches.  The next day he told his dad: “We had a very hot time in the trenches last trip and were shelled pretty hard. I spent 7 days in and got an average of 3 hours sleep per day….  Our casualties were heavy as High explosive shells followed by shrapnel always cause trouble but I was fortunate to come out with a whole skin. I was hit in the shoulder once the first day in, but stuck it out and feel alright now…Today noon I was put in charge of a guard over some German prisoners we captured and have to visit them every hour…. I had a chat with 4 of the officer prisoners and they were very interesting to talk to. Two of them wear the Iron Cross and I persuaded one to give me a piece of ribbon…. [T]he situation is very difficult to size up. Both sides are confident of success… but of course we must eventually wear them down.  It is now time for me to go out and check up my Huns again so must close. Many thanks for your regular letters…”.

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On April 20 he wrote: “We are now at a section of the line where the Princess Pats did the hot fighting, and there is hardly a tree or a blade of grass left.  The ground is just a mass of shell holes, and hardly a building to be seen, where two years ago a prosperous town was situated [St. Eloi].”

Easter Sunday, “was a beautiful day and I attended service held by a [Church of England] chaplain in an old barn.  It was full of dirt and pretty rough but the service went on just the same.  It was rather peculiar to hear the guns during the sermon and made us realize how little it mattered how fine a church is, so long as the spirit is there.”

It was the end of winter and the, “weather is beginning to get better now but the mud is still quite bad, and it is most uncomfortable still to walk or work in….  Before turning in at day break I generally heat up some beans or bacon over a candle and make a cup of tea…it tastes very fine when you have walked up and down a trench all night…. If you want to send anything please send chocolate for it goes mighty good in the trenches.  Best love to all + write when you can.  Sincerely, Frank.”

The next month he added that, “of course socks will always come in handy.”

On June 3, he was in the thick of the fighting again: “Fritz is putting a few shells at a Battery a couple of hundred yards to my left so I am crouched down behind our house…. On June 8 he wrote:  “I am still well…. [I] t is very important that the boys get their mail as it keeps their spirits up to get letters from home.  On June 15 he said: “Everybody here is busy night and day putting forth every effort to uphold the good name of the Canadians.”

Then, on June 20 a Great North Western Cablegram was sent to his parents in Canada with the cryptic words: “Gun Shot wound right leg sever.  Easen.”  It is not clear what “sever” meant.  Three days later Frank himself cabled from London:  “Wound progressing favorably feel good and am well looked after”.

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He later explained to his mother that he had been hit on Friday, June 16:  “The shot went right through the calf of my right leg and beyond a little stiffness there is very little pain to it… Things were pretty hot in front of Ypres when I left about midnight on the 16th and, outside of leaving my own men in it, I was not sorry to get away for the Bombardment was terrific, and the trenches a mass of shell-holes filled with water and mud.”

 

In mid July he was sent to convalesce as a guest of Lady Clementine Waring in the Scottish countryside and said he was, “very fortunate to have such a beautiful place to stay.  There are only 5 others here…. One is from Australia, 3 Canadians and 2 Englishmen so you see we have quite a collection. The country here is beautiful and everything so quiet yet we have a very jolly time to ourselves.  Lady Waring has 2 cars and horses for those who can ride… There is excellent trout and salmon fishing on the estate but I am not able to walk enough to enjoy it at present.”

 

On July 23 he wrote his mother: “Tomorrow there is a big tennis tea to be given by Lady Waring….Several of the girls who are coming have titles to their names so you see I am mixing in real society for once in my life.” He added: “These country people certainly do enjoy life, but of course it costs money.” He later said he would always cherish the memory of Lady Waring’s generosity and kindness.

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Frank Easen also told his mother he had been offered the rank of Major for a new Battalion, “and it would mean a long stay in Canada.” By September he was back to Canada although not fully healed. The Galt Reporter noted that when he arrived in Galt he was met by Mayor Edwards. The purpose of his visit was to encourage enlistment.

 

He returned to England and was back in hospital in November, 1917. In April of 1918 he was still hospitalized. After this point there are no more letters. Frank may have been more injured than he let on to his parents. The Waring  estate was used as a convalescent home for neurasthenic soldiers suffering from “shell shock”.  His obituary in 1943 notes that Frank Easen had been invalided home in 1918.  He was survived by his wife and two daughters.  He was given a funeral service at T. Little and Son Funeral Home and was buried at Mount View Cemetery.

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About WW1monuments/Canada

Born in Toronto Canada, Richard is a graduate of Fine Arts from York University. He is currently completing a photo book that documents the most significant World War 1 monuments and memorial sites in Canada. The book is to be published in 2014.
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