by Sam McBride
Below are letters from Jack Peters in the six weeks before his death on April 24, 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres.
Jack to his brother Gerald March 11, 1915
I was awfully glad to hear from you at last. I was wondering where you had got to. You’ve done the right thing alright in joining the Victoria Rifles1. I suppose you are in England by now. You’ll just get in on the war at the right time. I don’t think you’ll be sent to Egypt. That is just the usual rumour2.
You want to visit Aunt Florence and Aunt Helen and the Hodsock bunch if you get leave. They’ll treat you well. Only take my tip and just spend a day at each place, because they are rather boring after that time.
I’ve been in the firing line quite a while now. There hasn’t been much excitement. You remember Boggs3 who used to command the High School cadets. He was killed by a sniper a few weeks ago. He was a lieutenant in E Company. Pretty hard luck so early in the war.
I’m writing this letter in the actual firing trench. Shells whistle over me every minute and now and again a bullet hits the parapet above. Sounds exciting but it isn’t. Just a little monotonous. We go out for a rest tonight to our billets, which are generally barns. We get plenty of freedom and can go to the villages to buy what we can – which isn’t much because they only give us three francs a month. I’ve got nearly $50 to my credit now which I cannot draw. If I were you I’d have some pay assigned because it’s so easy to fritter it away inEngland.
I suppose you know about Fritz winning the D.S.O.4 and being mentioned in dispatches. Won’t Father and Mother be tickled to death! I dare say he is quite satisfied, but I should think that it certainly should help his promotion a lot.
Any time you have a magazine or paper you might shoot them along to me, and milk chocolate always comes in handy. I’m going to send you money to buy things for me soon. The minute I can raise it from the Paymaster. If you want ₤5 I can easily spare it. Just say the word.
Good bye, Old Man
1 – Gerald initially joined the 24th Battalion (Victoria Rifles regiment) in Montreal and served as a private with them for four months in the Ypres trenches starting in September 1915. He went back to England in February 1916 for officer training and began as a lieutenant with the 7th Battalion in May 1916, 13 months after Jack went missing while serving in the same battalion.
2 – Weather and ground conditions were so bad in Salisbury Plain that soldiers were suffering and missing out on training because training programs were often cancelled. As a result, the Australian government took their soldiers away from England and had them trained in Egypt instead. But Canadian soldiers stuck it out in England. Unfortunately for the Australians, training in Egypt meant they were conveniently located for transport to the disastrous Dardanelles campaign.
3 – Lieut. Herbert Boggs, 22, of the 7th Battalion, son of Beaumont and Louise May Boggs of Victoria, B.C., died February 26, 1915 at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle in the Ypres Salient. He was among the first Canadian officers to die in the war. By coincidence, the Boggs family that the Peters boys knew in Victoria lived next door on Fort Street to Mr. and Mrs. Arthur W. Currie. When Herbert died Currie was Brigadier General in command of the 2nd Brigade, which included the 7th battalion. It was Currie’s responsibility to write personal letters of condolence to next of kin, who in this case were neighbours he knew well. Beaumont Boggs and Arthur Currie had both been realtors in Victoria before the war. Currie went on to lead Canadian forces in taking Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and command all Canadian forces in Europe. According to Pierre Berton, Currie was “the only great general Canada ever produced”. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was reported to have said in 1918 that if Douglas Haig was to be replaced as head of the British Empire forces, he would nominate Currie. There are no references to Currie in the Peters letters, but as acquaintances of Herbert Boggs the Peters boys or their parents may have also known the Curries. This may have been one of the connections that the Peters family used to help get Gerald accepted for Officer Training in early 1916.
4 – On March 3, 1915 Fritz was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions in the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915. The DSO at the time was the military decoration for the U.K. and Commonwealth countries, awarded for meritorious or distinguished service by officers in war time. The only higher decoration was the Victoria Cross.
Jack Peters to his cousin Evelyn Poole April 4, 1915
Many thanks for your letter. Letters are one of our few excitements. At present we are in reserve behind the firing line after six weeks in the trenches. Three days in them and three to rest. Our stay there was very quiet. The Germans opposite to us generally preferring to let us rest as long as we didn’t bother them. During two days of the Neau Chappelle2 fighting we kept up a steady rifle fire and our artillery shelled their trenches. The German snipers are very good shots and once in a while they would account for one of our men. They have telescopic sights which is more than we have.
This town is out of shell fire [range] so beyond aeroplane bombs dropping now and then you would hardly realize that a war is going on. On a clear day there are aeroplanes to be seen being shelled — hundreds of shells seem to explode all around them but I’ve never seen one brought down. All our other billets have been within easy range of the enemy guns, shells used to fall in the streets but seldom hurt anyone. A few houses would be smashed up.
My correct address is Pte. J.F. Peters, 17417,
1st Canadian Division, British Exped. Force
2nd Infantry Brigade, 7th Battalion, No. 4 Company
I haven’t been able to find where Willie Abbott3 is although he must be nearby. I hope Eric4 is alright again by now. He has had hard luck in being stationed so long on the East Coast. I got your Punch – any magazines always come in handy. We are well-clothed, you needn’t bother about socks or anything like that.
Good bye for the present,
1 – Evelyn Poole was a daughter of Bertha’s sister Florence Poole in Guildford, southeast of London, England. Jack’s correspondence with her would have been much faster than letters to and from his family that had to go across the Atlantic by boat in wartime conditions. She was the same age as Helen Peters and they appear to have been close as cousins. It is possible that Helen’s daughter Eve was named after her.
2 – After leaving England for France in February 1915 the First Canadian Division had a quick introduction to trench warfare in performing a diversionary role in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle in the Ypres Salient, which was the site of many battles during the war because it was the only part of Belgium held by the Allies. Allied troops were at a disadvantage in the Salient because its triangular shape often allowed the Germans to aim their artillery and guns at the Allied trenches from three sides. The enemy forces at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle included Private Adolf Hitler who was a runner with the 6th Bavarian Reserve. Runners took messages from station to station in the era before radio communication. Telephones were used, but their lines were often broken by shelling. Hitler was one of the very few men on either side who actually enjoyed trench life and the battles. He only rose to corporal because of his inability to get along with people, but he did win the Iron Cross First Class for bravery. If Jack had lived until the Second World War years, it is likely he would have joined thousands of other veterans who wished they had shot Hitler in the 1914-1918 war.
3 – Jack’s cousin Willie Abbott was a son of Bertha’s sister Mary/Mim Gray and William Abbott, son of Canada’s second Prime Minister Sir John Abbott.
Jack to cousin Evelyn April 13, 1915
A few lines to thank you for your magazines which arrived today and are at present being eagerly read by everyone in the section. In the Illustrated London News you sent me, strangely enough, there is a picture of Plugsteert1, where we were first under fire in February. Plug-street is what we used to call it.
Our rest is over now for we leave for the firing line tomorrow, and from all reports we may really be up against something this time. Smith Dorrien reviewed us on Sunday, and General Alderson2 two days before. It’s been quite like Salisbury Plain again, what with Company drill and bayonet exercises. Every one of us are in good health after resting up, and I’m glad to move as it’s been rather monotonous at this billet as we are away out in the country. The nearest village only having about 8 houses in it. You can barely hear the guns from where we are. We’ve also all been broke owing to our last stay in a town where we spent all our money. Needless to say, the French people make as much out of the Canadians as they can. We only draw to 30 francs so we should be rich when the war is over, at least the ones that are alive.
I’ll have to stop now, as there is a select concert going on in the farm yard, which makes it impossible to do anything except listen to it.
Give my love to all. I’ll drop you a card from the trenches.
Your affectionate cousin,
1 – in the Ypres Salient in Belgium
2 – British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (1858-1930, commander of the British 2nd Army, which included the Canadian 1st Division. He was fired and sent home after losing ground in the 2nd Battle of Ypres in which Jack died. British General Sir Edwin Alderson (1859-1927), served under Smith-Dorrien in charge of Canadian troops. He lost his command as a result of losing ground in the 2nd Battle of Ypres, as well as other setbacks and disobeying orders in previous battles.
3 – This was the last letter from Jack. He died on Saturday, April 24, 1915 in the 2nd Battle of Ypres when Canadian troops were making a courageous stand against a German attack that used poison gas for the first time on the Western Front. The use of poison gas in artillery shells was forbidden by the Hague Conventions which both sides had agreed to in 1899 and 1906, but the German commander at Ypres thought he could get away with spreading the gas directly from canisters and piping from their own trenches, depending on the wind to take it to the enemy. The completely surprised French colonial troops on the Canadians’ left panicked and ran away from their positions upon experiencing the greenish-yellow cloud of chlorine gas late in the afternoon of April 22nd, which left the inexperienced Canadians to fill a four-mile gap in the Allied line protecting the headquarters at Ypres and the coastal ports. Reinforcements promised by the French never arrived. The Germans did not expect the gas to have such a dramatic impact – wind conditions and temperature were ideal for distribution of the heavier-than-air gas, unlike a previous attempt to use poison gas on the Russian front — and were not prepared with reserves to immediately take advantage of the break in the line. They were ready by the early morning of Saturday, April 24th, launching a full-scale offensive with gas directly against the Canadians. Jack in the 7th battalion would have been right in the middle of it. The Canadians found they could function somewhat under the gas by holding urine-soaked handkerchiefs against their faces and partially neutralizing the chlorine. Records show that relatively few soldiers died from just the poison gas; they would be hit by bullets and shells when drawn away from their trenches by the gas and unable to defend themselves. Flame-throwers were also introduced for the first time in the offensive, making a horrific situation even worse for the defenders. If the Canadians had not held the new battle line, the enemy could have easily encircled 50,000 Allied troops and marched to the North Sea to capture ports (as happened at Dunkirk in May 1940 in the Second World War), which would have been a devastating blow to the Allies. British General Sir John French gave the Canadians credit for extraordinary bravery and said they “saved the situation”. The Germans also began respecting Canadians as adversaries after this battle. While we don’t know exactly what happened to Jack in the battle (witnesses died too), it is noteworthy that he was a part of what was probably the most dramatic and important defensive stand in Canadian history. There were hundreds of Canadian prisoners taken in the shifting front that day, and for a period the military authorities thought Jack might be among prisoners in Belgium or Germany, but on May 29, 1916 he was officially presumed to have died “on or after April 24, 1915”. Of 900 men and 24 officers in Jack’s battalion, 580 men and 18 officers were casualties in the 100 hours of frantic action that followed the first gas attack. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians in the battle, including Lieutenant Edward Bellew of Jack’s 7th battalion. John McCrae, a surgeon in charge of a field hospital, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” on May 3, 1915, inspired by the death of a close friend in the same battle in which Jack died.