My grandfather landed on a Normandy beach on D-Day when he was 35 years old. He was a Canadian officer on loan to a British regiment, so he landed with the British on Sword Beach rather than with the Canadians on Juno. The British were running out of officers and preferred to promote Canadians to higher ranks over lower-class Brits, a practice my democratic-minded grandfather didn’t have a high opinion of. He despised war and never spoke about it, apart from making remarks about the British class system, and that’s why it was such a strange surprise to find all of these war souvenirs after he died. We were emptying out his house before it was sold, and in a damp basement gardening room I found an old trunk at the bottom of a stack of old luggage. The trunk was locked and musty-smelling, and my father and one of his brothers, exhausted after days of cleaning up what was mostly junk, wanted to just throw it unopened into the big garbage container out on the street. It was heavy, and I thought it looked older than the other disused suitcases it had been buried under, so I protested. They sighed, dropped it and moved on.
I broke the lock off with a screwdriver. Packed neatly inside were all my grandfather’s WWII field maps (about 60 of them on beautiful rag paper, covered in red tactical notations and some stamped TOP SECRET), aerial army photos of locations in Normandy, Belgium and Holland, his army hat, all of his letters home from the war, all of my grandmother’s letters to him (those are in much worse shape since he’d kept them in his pocket in the trenches), and some war souvenirs. The packing was so tidy it was probably the work of my grandmother, who died in 1963. Opening the trunk and finding these things was a disturbing moment. I still feel it whenever I think about it. Just the fact that these things had been stowed in a mouldy corner at the very bottom of a stack of empty suitcases made sense, if you knew him.
Since under army censorship my grandfather was forbidden to write to my grandmother about locations or events, the letters are full of the minor details of trench life. He repeatedly wrote about the number of days that he’d been in the field without taking his clothes or boots off. 5, 15, 30. There’s something in that detail that is more evocative of war than some of the more horrifying details that appeared in later letters, when the censorship had become more lax or disorganized. Even so, he never mentioned the killing and you can clearly see that he was trying to protect her. In the field they were so short of materials that one of his letters was written on a scrap of paper that he said he had taken from the pocket of a dead German soldier. He wrote that he was writing the letter at dusk while sitting on a box in a field, rushing to finish it before a runner came for the mail. At the time he was also receiving and responding to her letters, one of which had contained a request from my 8-year-old father asking for a German “stel [sic] helmet” as a souvenir. My grandfather never wrote anything hateful about the young German enemy soldiers, whom I think he pitied as the Allies brutally pushed them back through France (“I don’t how Jerry can stand it”), but he did write back saying that he couldn’t bring a steel helmet back because “I can’t stand the sight of the things.”
Shown here are two of the first letters he wrote after the D-Day landing, followed by his aerial photo of Banneville in Normandy (one of the many towns his regiment liberated, all appearing in the photos), and some Vancouver newspapers announcing the end of the war, probably saved by my grandmother. Her own brother, my great-uncle Robert, was killed soon after D-Day in the French town of Louvigny and buried there. He was posthumously decorated for bravery, and I always wondered if this exacerbated the survivor’s guilt my grandfather must have felt. The boots above would have been my grandfather’s training boots from Canada; the filthy uniform he’d worn in the trenches would have been disposed of in Holland, when he left the European continent for England on his way back to Vancouver, but I still have the army jacket he returned in. The last photo shows the trunk with its clasp pried off.
Please note these photos are for family purposes mainly so please don’t reproduce without permission. Thank you. If you’re interested in these materials for research historical purposes, please contact me.
See also this post from Remembrance Day 2012 on anti-war poems by veteran soldiers Siegfried Sassoon and Randall Jarrell.