Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life & Death on the Western Front

British Columbia soldiers, nurse among many featured in BC author’s new book about WWI

  • Nov. 1, 2018 1:30 a.m.

A new book of hybrid Canadian poetry/flash creative non-fiction was released on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s 100 Days, the final hundred days of the First World War.

British Columbia stories include those of Arthur and Alice Leighton of Nanaimo, the Victoria Cross for Edward Ballew of Kamloops, homeward plans for Harold Monks of Tofino, a war bride for Norman Young of Salmon Arm, a song about going over the top at the Somme for George Morton Bird of Alberni, William Lowry’s description of recovering in a Qualicum convalescent home for soldiers, Vancouver resident Maurice Bracewell’s reaction to the carnage of war, the death of Esquimalt nurse Gladys Wake, the loss just before Armistice of Victoria’s Ray Brewster (the son of the B.C. premier), and Carmichael’s own grandfathers, including Charles W.C. Chapman of Ladysmith/Alberni and Parksville.

From Aug. 8 to Nov. 11, 1918 became known as the 100 Days Offensive, and author Jacqueline Larson had two grandfathers on the ground throughout the fiery battle on the Western Front. Her curiosity about the experience of George “Black Jack” Vowel and Charles W.C. Chapman led to walking on the Western Front herself as part of a research project.

Tweets from the Trenches: Little Stories of Life & Death on the Western Front came from that experience, the Port Alberni, B.C. resident said.

“My aunt gave me the trench journals and letters of her dad, George ‘Black Jack’ Vowel, as well as two books of the World War I era that mentioned him, written by his main correspondent, Irish author Louisa ‘Bebe’ Watson Small Peat,” Carmichael said.

“Before that, I didn’t know anything about him, other than that my grandparents had separated and that he could be cranky. He died before I was born.”

The 168-page book is written in flash documentary creative non-fiction, and features small stories and illustrations about many Canadians, including 10 from British Columbia.

A journalist, Carmichael found that through transcribing his words, she learned more about her grandfather.

“He was this charming man who could be a very effective writer – and he described enough about the horrors of war that I got a totally different perspective about him. I believe he had post-traumatic stress disorder, which was probably why his behaviour at times made him very difficult to be with,” she said.

She wrote some newspaper articles about him, and did a pop-up museum exhibit about Black Jack at the Ellis County Museum in Waxahachie, Texas.

While she was writing for the Edmonton Sun, she found herself thinking that his terse notes would be fascinating social media posts. As an experiment, she gave him a Twitter account of his own, @blackjackvowel and #albertaWWIsoldier, and around Remembrance Day, she posted in his name on Twitter and Facebook – as if he were posting from the trenches of Flanders, Belgium and France.

“I was struck by the compelling simplicity of his words. He wrote things like, ‘Delivering rations to the front/dodging bullets & mortar fire both … Bullets ripped the dirt up all round me but none of them were marked Black Jack,’” Carmichael said.

“I envisioned him as @BlackJackVowel or #AlbertaWWISoldier, ‘hunkered down under a hunk of tin’ amidst pouring rain and artillery fire, desperately trying to be safe, while using a smartphone to communicate with loved ones a world away. I thought perhaps using a dominant modern tool like social media would help people reconnect with history, and I was pleased to find people taking an interest in this anachronism – a Canadian/American soldier with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, posting desperate messages from a century earlier,” she said.

In 2016, on a travel writing research trip, Carmichael traveled to Belgium, France and Germany, and walked portions of the Western Front where both her grandfathers were soldiers for most of the duration of World War I.

She crouched in a trench at Passchendaele, she stood on the heights at Vimy Canadian National Memorial, she looked up at the Cologne Cathedral her grandfather had been amazed by almost a century earlier – and she paid tribute at graves where his comrades laid their lives down, and at the Menin Gate where the names of thousands of soldiers missing in action are memorialized.

A 2016 graduate of The Writers Studio at Simon Fraser University, and a 2018 graduate of the TWS graduate novel program, she found poetry a great way to quickly tell little stories with great impact.

“I consider this a kind of flash documentary creative non-fiction,” Carmichael said, noting most of the pieces fit on a page or less.

She honed her craft through local poetry circles like Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry, New Westminster’s Poetic Justice, Nanaimo’s 15 Minutes of Infamy, and Port Alberni’s Words on Fire.

Along the way, she found many stories of valour and heartbreak on the Western Front, embedded in letters and journals and historical accounts of other soldiers, and nurses.

Using her own poetry and excerpts from letters, journals and memoirs of others, and images on almost every page, she brings over 100 of these “little true stories” into Tweets from the Trenches.

From Edith Cavell, a nurse executed in German-occupied Belgium for rescuing British soldiers, to the men who were “Shot At Dawn” under charges of desertion or cowardice, there are many thousands of such accounts. Carmichael found stories of women cross-dressing to get into battle, Milunka Savic and Sapper Dorothy Lawrence. The book includes short tales of domestic animals who played a vital role in the war – Sgt. Stubby the war dog and Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon with a medal. There were citizens who did what they could in the war effort, like the French woman in German-occupied France who hid a British soldier in a cupboard for three years.

Memoir excerpts included in the piece include an escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp; among the letters excerpted, the last letter home from Alex DeCoteau, an Alberta Olympian who was the first Aboriginal police officer in Canada. Some pieces look at trench life, or the use of rum, or in the difficulties men faced adjusting to life after the battle, including the dramatic example of Canadian Member of Parliament Samuel Simpson Sharpe, whose suicide induced by the trauma of war was barely acknowledged in Ottawa circles for almost a century.

“I sometimes found myself in tears over these stories,” Carmichael recalled. “I was struck by their vitality and their youth, and saddened to see their young lives sacrificed. Reading these century-old accounts made me realize how much like us they were, a generation wrapped up in world events.”

Carmichael puts the book’s pieces in chronological order for readers, and uses a timeline as chapter headings to help orient the stories year by year in the bigger picture of the history of war. Using poetry, prose, and deep fact-filled footnotes, as well as images of WWI-era photos, postcards, and documents, as well as her own photos from the Western Front and those of researchers and guides, she offers a multi-faceted volume rich with the realities of the Great War.

Her website, tweetsfromthetrenches.com will feature stories and links from the war. A curriculum guide for use with the book is available for teachers hoping to bring history to life for their students.

Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life & Death on the Western Front is available on Amazon as well as at select bookstores.

For more information, visit tweetsfromthetrenches.com.

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