by Sam McBride
1916 was a terrible year for Fritz Peters’ mother Bertha.
It began well, as she was living in a rented cottage on the southeast coast of England where she regularly hosted her son Private Gerald Hamilton Peters on his leaves and when he was undergoing officer training. Another son, Private John Francklyn “Jack” Peters, had been missing since the Second Battle of Ypres the previous April, but she had been told by relatives that he was safe at Celle Lager prison camp in Hanover, Germany.
However, in late May 1916 she was informed by Canadian authorities that the Red Cross reported that Jack was definitely not a prisoner of war in Hanover, so it was assumed that he died “on or after” April 24, 1915. He was killed in the heroic stand that day by Canadian troops against a massive German attack that used poison gas at a time when Allied soldiers were not expecting poison gas and therefore had no gas masks.
Then just a couple of weeks later Bertha learned that her favorite child Gerald, now a lieutenant with the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion (the same unit Jack served with, but with almost complete turnover due to heavy casualties), was missing after a counterattack by Canadian troops on June 3, 1916 in the Battle of Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient. By the first week of July she got confirmation that Gerald was dead.
The following five letters illustrate the pain and desperation of the era, as letter-writers share their own sad experiences from the war with Bertha. It was during this period of grief that Bertha turned to spiritualism as a way to get in contact with her dead sons, particularly her soulmate Gerald.
Susan Cummins to Bertha c. August 1916
My dear Bertha,
I see in today’s Book of Honour the sad news that your uncertainty about dear Gerald is at an end. I can only say how intensely I sympathize with you, in your dreadful bereavement. Only God knows what a mother feels at such a time.
…If this war goes on much longer even the old men will have to go, I fear.
…I remain with heartfelt sympathy,
Your loving cousin,
Susan E. Cummins
Mary Wilkins to Bertha August 4, 1916
938 Fitzgerald St., Victoria, B.C.
My dear Mrs. Peters,
I feel I must write a few lines to assure you of my real sympathy with you and your husband in your sad loss. How the years have gone. I cannot realize that your dear boys had grown to manhood. How many hearts and homes this cruel war has broken. One wonders where God is and how long before the end. Sadness seems so rife just now.
…This lingering tuberculosis is an appalling thing, but I must not trouble you with my troubles. I hope Fred is well, remember me to him. How the old Windsor1 days come back when I think of Windsor and our college boys…
Yours very truly,
Mary A. Wilkins
1 – the Windsor referred to is likely the Windsor Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia.
Canon Rix to Bertha August 22, 1916
Canon G.A. Rix, St. Andrew’s Rectory, Prince Rupert, B.C.
Dear Mrs. Peters,
For some time I have had it in mind to write to you, but for the reason of the uncertainty as to the fate of your son. I hesitated until I might learn something more definite. Recently word has come through in regard to Gerald and I must no longer refrain from sending you a letter conveying my most sincere sympathy. I am quite well aware that no letter can possibly convey any real comfort to one so grievously stricken, but I nevertheless wish you to know that you have been very much on my mind and that never in my life has my earnest sympathy gone out so completely as it has to you.
You have been called upon to sacrifice two as fine boys as the nation possessed; clean were they in body, mind and soul and so far as the ordinary eye could tell, both were destined to lives of great usefulness and certainty of great comfort to you.
They have been taken (I earnestly trust that yet Jack will return to you) but as you so well know, they have offered themselves on the altar of loyalty – and as the years pass your increasing pride will be that they have done so.
…Your sons not only offered themselves but you said not “nay”.
…It was my pleasure at a meeting held to arrange for a patriotic demonstration on the second anniversary of the war to move that Mr. Peters give the address. This was carried out and although I had to be out of town and did not hear the address, yet I have been assured that it was the finest effort of that kind ever made in Prince Rupert1. I am sure you will be pleased to hear this.
Again I assure you of my own and Mrs. Rix’s most sincere sympathy and our earnest hopes that you are well and that ‘ere long we will see you back in Rupert again.
I am, yours very sincerely
1 – Her lawyer husband, former PEI premier Frederick Peters, who at the time of the letter was City Clerk in Prince Rupert, was an experienced public speaker who was often invited to speak in support of the war at community functions.
Women’s Club secretary to Bertha Sept. 25, 1916
Dear Mrs. Peters,
I have often thought of you in your great sorrow and have wished to write, but it was such a sorrow that I felt I hardly dared to do so. Then, at our last Women’s Auxiliary (W.A.) Mrs. Hiscolks who is now our President, asked me to write.
Dear Mrs. Peters – what you have gone through since I last saw you at your daughter’s wedding1. It was a short time before my mother’s death when you wrote me such a kind letter. Now, how can I express to you how we all feel for you in the loss of your brave boys whom you gave up for their country so bravely and unselfishly. This is such a terrible war and the poor fathers and mothers are called upon to give up so much. One knows that the Man of Sorrows is with the dear ones at the Front – for are they not following his example of giving up their young lives for us, and He alone can comfort all the sorrowing hearts in the Homeland too…
I wrote to you when I heard of your eldest son’s distinction in the first naval engagement2. I do hope he is safe and well, and that your youngest boy3 is still with you. May God keep them both safe and comfort you in this great trial. With love and sympathy from all of your friends in the W.A.
I remain, yours very sincerely
E.C. Morie, Sec of C.C.C.W.A.
1 – Helen Peters married Ted Dewdney in June 1912 in Esquimalt, B.C.
2. – The Battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea, where Fritz’s heroism was acknowledged with the Distinguished Service Order medal.
3. – Gerald’s twin brother, Noel Quintan Peters, was still at the family home in Prince Rupert. He was rejected for military service, likely because of a slight, but noticeable, mental disability. He was finally accepted into the Canadian Forestry Corps in 1917.
Patricia Garlink to Bertha October 31, 1916
46 Devonshire St., Portland Place
Dear Mrs. Peters
Do forgive me for not writing before, but I have had another shock since I saw you last. My husband’s belongings have been returned to me through the Germans. When I tell you that some of the things were thickly stained with blood you will understand what I have been going through again.
I should like very much to have tea with you before you leave. Will you drop me a line to say what day.
The medium Mrs. Leonard still says that Frank is alive and is now almost well, and my mother-in-law still says she firmly believes he is alive. In spite of everything she feels it very strongly. I am writing this on duty so will have to stop.