Homer News – Grandpa’s Letters

Grandpa’s letters give glimpse of WWI


For those who have served in America’s wars, Nov. 11 honors their service. For World War I armies, the armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, meant their war ended. For my grandfather, Pvt. Roy Armstrong of the 48th Highlanders, 15th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, the armistice meant liberation. After more than three years imprisoned in German prisoner of war camps, Grandpa was coming home.

Recently, my cousin, Pam Poe, sent me copies of letters Grandpa sent to our grandmother, then Lillian Harvey, a young woman living in Toronto, Canada. From Grandpa’s first letters about training in Salisbury Plains, England, to a letter sent shortly before the war ended, his letters show a POW trying to stay sane — and a man wooing the friend who would later become his wife.

In September 1914 at age 20, Grandpa enlisted in the 48th Highlanders, and shipped off to England with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

His first letters described the winter of 1914-15.

West Camp, South Down, Salisbury Plains, England: “Gee, this is some place. It’s all plains as far as I can see and it’s darned cold, too.”

A few weeks before the 48th Highlanders shipped out in February 1915, Grandpa wrote again.“I can’t say much as I have a rotten cold … Well, kid, we are going to France in two or three weeks and I hope you will write to me there won’t you because it’s good to get letters from old Canada.”

In April 1915, Grandpa fought in the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium. On April 24 a German chlorine gas attacked rolled up toward the 15th Battalion at the top of Gravenstaf Ridge. The attack decimated the 15th, killing 220 soldiers. Of the survivors, the Germans captured 257 soldiers — including Grandpa.

Lillian didn’t get a letter from Grandpa for a year, on March 15, 1916, after Grandpa got Lillian’s address from her sister Flo.

Prisoner of War Camp, Gottingen, near Hanover, Germany: “Hello, Lil. I guess you think I have forgotten you … I lost your address in the mix up I got into, ha ha. …. Hoping to hear from you when you have time to write and also from Flo.”

In February 1917, the Germans transferred Grandpa to a POW camp near Cassel. Under the rules of war then, enlisted men could be made to work in non-military jobs. On July 1, 1917, Grandpa wrote.

Camp of prisoners of war, Cassell, Germany: “I am working on a farm here. We must work you know. … We all have great hopes of being home soon. Nearly time, eh, over two years now so you see there’s nothing bright about staying here. … Well, old friend I guess I am tiring you of this rubbish so will have to ring off so excuse my scribbling as I was never any use with a writing stick.”

Over the next few months, their correspondence picked up. Grandpa wrote about learning German and French in his spare time.

Cassell, Germany, Aug. 5, 1917: “My dear Lil, I have received your most welcome letter and photo this morning. … You have changed a lot. So you had a cold 24th (May 24, Victoria Day) this year. Well, cold or not, I hope to be home for the next one. This lot is getting on our nerves here. We are all ‘fed up’ as the saying is. I guess the prisoners in all lands are about the same. There is also another saying we have here that is ‘stick it Gerry,’ so I guess we will have to ha, ha. …

Working is not so bad it keeps us from thinking too much. German is easy to learn. … I suppose things have changed a lot in Canada in three years. Just think it’s that long since I have seen Canada, ha, ha. Oh well, hope to see it soon again this can’t last forever.”

As time dragged on, Grandpa’s handwriting changed, and became messier and crooked — and his spirit darker.

Cassel, Aug. 17, 1917: “Dear Lilly, Just a line to (say) I am well but damned lonesome today. But I cheered right up when I received your kind letter. … As a prisoner here it’s a tiresome job ha, ha, rather hard on the nerves when over two years here.”

In another letter Grandpa described trying to patch a pair of well-worn pants.

Cassell, March 3, 1918: “I cannot patch those trousers any more they are wore out and as to skirts I have discarded those years ago … my kilt was too badly torn in the battle so I had to discard it and wear pants after I came to Germany.”

German regulations limited him to two letters a month home. One letter went to his Muir relatives and the other to Lillian.

May 19, 1918: “Everything in regards scenery is beautiful here in this month of May, but I would rather see it at home in old Canada, and I am always wondering when I will get back home again. I hope it will not be long now, don’t you?”

As the war went on, Grandpa wrote of hope that he might get exchanged with German POWs.

June 23, 1918: “Say, kid, my hand is just too shaky to write my nerves are bad these days so you must excuse the scribble. … We boys here have some hopes of being exchanged but don’t really know if it is true or not time will tell of course.”

The last letter Lillian received spoke again of coming home, and how prisoners incarcerated more than 15 months would be exchanged first.

Aug. 4, 1918: “As I am over three years I expect to be with that lot but I don’t know when it will be. I expect it will be the same as all military matters plenty of red tape but I expect to smell the salt air in a short time. So it might not be long before I am back again in good old Toronto. Then I am afraid you will have to put me on a chain as it is possible that I will kick up a devil of a row if I once break loose. … I remain as ever your sincere friend, Roy Armstrong.”

Grandpa had to wait until Jan. 9, 1919 for freedom. He returned home on March 3, shortly before his 25th birthday. A photo shows him standing on the front porch of the Muir home on Montrose Street before a British flag and a “Welcome Home” sign.

After the war, Roy Armstrong and Lillian Harvey married. Eventually, they moved to Miami, Fla., where my father and uncle, Allan and Warren Armstrong, were born. Grandpa left his family during the Great Depression. As a young boy, I grew up not knowing much about my paternal grandfather. In 1963, when I was 7, our family reconnected with Grandpa.

He never spoke of his war — until now.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.