'The text message of WW I': Western University history class sends wartime postcards to original addresses

 By Isha BhargavaCBC News, October 30, 2023

400 postcards will be mailed out across Canada ahead of Remembrance Day

a women in a white sweater wearing a poppy sits with a man wearing a dark green shirt while sorting black and white photos
Jonathan Vance, a history professor at Western University in London, Ont., and one of his research assistants, Rylee Brooks, right to left, are part of a project that involves mailing out postcards from soldiers during the First World War back to the original Canadian addresses that received them. (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

History students at Western University in London, Ont., are mailing postcards from soldiers in the First World War back to the Canadian addresses that originally received them, to give people living there now a glimpse into life during the war.

Students will mail around 400 postcards they've digitized and printed ahead of Remembrance Day on Nov. 11, so people can learn the personal stories of those who lived in their communities more than a century ago to find a connection between the past and present. 

"Countries go to war, but it's people who actually fight the war, who suffer and pay the price. And here's one way you can get a sense of someone's life story who has a connection to yours," said history professor Jonathan Vance. 

"Men and women who served in uniform, who died overseas, they lived in the houses we know and walked on the streets we know. So although for people in the 21st century 1914 seems an eternity ago, each of us is connected in some small way."

These digital copies give readers a window into the world when Canada was at war and the daily concerns people back home had as their lives still went on, he said. 

A few dozen of the 400 postcards that will be mailed to addresses throughout the country ahead of Remembrance Day.
A few dozen of the 400 postcards that will be mailed to addresses throughout Canada ahead of Remembrance Day. (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

Through collecting thousands of postcards over 15 years, Vance said, he was struck by the desire soldiers had to remain in direct contact with their families. He said postcards would be used to communicate big news about the war, but also daily events. 

"They wanted to know exactly what was going on at home so you get everything from the birth of new kittens to the car being fixed. All of the mundane things that we're used to in our lives."

Postcards were a popular form of communication at the time because of their immediate accessibility, said Vance. And for friends and family members, they served as a visual reminder that soldiers were happy and healthy throughout the war's uncertainty. 

"A postcard is basically the text message of the First World War. It's what people used to communicate quickly and cheaply — they were delivered the next day or even the day of," he said.

Postcards focused on personal details, not war 

What stood out to fourth-year history student Rylee Brooks were the battalion postcards because of the hand-drawn images on them. She also found that conversations about the weather were prevalent back then as well.

"I thought they talked way too much about the weather, but I also realized that we do too," Brooks said.

"Everyone starts out their postcard by telling [loved ones] what the weather's like in Europe. So it's funny seeing the things we consider mundane that they decided to share via postcard because of how accessible it was." 

Soldiers were also restricted from sharing too many details about the war and had to be careful not to mention anything that could get their postcards held up, Vance said.

"Their purpose was to reassure their family and friends so when they make reference to the war, it's in very vague terms. It's much more personal details about 'I need new socks' or 'can you send me some more candy,' or that sort of thing."

Vance believes it's important for people to look beyond the conflicts and numbers when it comes to war, and remember that an army is made up of thousands of individual life stories. 

"I hope people take a second to think about the people who lived in their homes and the history that's within the place they call home," Brooks added.

A postcard sent from soldier Oliver Dube on a horse.
A postcard sent from soldier Oliver Dube on a horse. (Submitted by Smith Collection, History Department, Western University)