On Nov. 3, 1917, a young Methodist minister named Rev. Merrill Wilson was “somewhere in France,” serving in the Canadian Army as a battery commander’s assistant and desperately longing for home. Thousands of kilometres away in Newcastle, N.B., his wife, Jean, was due to give birth to their first child.
“I have just been gazing into the fire for a few minutes, daydreaming,” he wrote to Jean on that early November day. “I could see you in the front room, with a cradle in the middle of the floor and you standing at the end of it with a little one in your arms. Would I not like to be there and take both of you in my arms.”
Rev. Nettie Hoffman of Toronto is the youngest of Merrill and Jean Wilson’s four children. She recently stumbled upon a bundle of letters written by her father to her mother during the two years he was overseas in the First World War. Hoffman brought them to me one morning late last summer; I spent the rest of the day poring over them. Historians can explain the politics and strategy of the Great War for us, but artifacts like these are our only link to the people who fought in it. They are priceless.
Wilson’s carefully penned letters reveal almost nothing about his combat duties, but they reveal a great deal about his struggle to maintain some semblance of a personal life. He plays down the dangers he faces and plays up the minutiae of a soldier’s day. He writes about the men serving with him as if they were friends of Jean too. He wonders about mundane domestic matters, and occasionally turns his pen to theology. But mostly he professes love for Jean and their unborn child, and his yearning for the comforts and peace of home. He is doggedly cheerful — too cheerful, it seems.
Paul Merrill Wilson was born on Nov. 12, 1917. Not quite a year later, his father addressed a letter to his son, writing as if Paul were going to read it. It’s a painfully awkward attempt to connect with a child he has never seen. “Just imagine,” he writes, “a whole year old. A year ago I was not so comfortable in either mind or spirit as now. . . . Then it was rather difficult to get any sort of shelter at any time from shellfire. However, I have been spared another year and hope to enjoy many more with you and your Mama.”
Merrill Wilson returned home in 1919 to take up his calling as a minister. In 1936, while he was serving at St. Paul’s United in Waterloo, Que., his son Paul fell under a train and was killed. He was 18. Two years later, at the age of 46, Wilson himself died after suffering a ruptured appendix. Another son, Ralph, would perish in the Second World War.
The joys and sorrows of the future must have seemed impossibly distant on Nov. 11, 1918, when Wilson wrote, “Hostilities are at an end!!!” A couple of sentences later, he admitted there wasn’t much rejoicing in the trenches: “There was scarcely a cheer, scarcely any excitement.” Reading between the lines, you sense the exhaustion and emptiness of men who have fought and survived and cannot believe they do not have to fight again.
It’s been almost a century since the end of the First World War, and 67 years since the Second World War ended. As time passes, I find it a struggle to relate to that day each fall when we remember the dead from the great conflicts of the last century. Not because I don’t care, but because they fell so long ago, and so much has happened since. This year, though, it’s going to be different. The letters of Merrill Wilson have made it real again.
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