Letters, photos & sketches submitted by Erin Johnson, great-granddaughter of WWI veteran Hugh McLachlan
The late Hugh McLachlan of Fernie, B.C. was a young Canadian headed to war in 1916 when he met a young woman at English Bay. They struck up a friendship and promised to write one another. What followed was a lifelong correspondence between McLachlan and Gladys Cale; most notably an exchange of letters that spanned McLachlan’s time overseas while serving in the first World War.
Ms. Cale saved the letters from McLachlan and they eventually made their way to McLachlan’s remaining relatives via the Fernie Museum and Archives.
Erin Johnson, graphic designer at The Connector, is Hugh McLachlan’s great-granddaughter and offered to share these letters with our readers as we look to honour our veterans this November 11 on Remembrance Day.
Correspondences such as this were important lifelines for service men and women in decades gone by. McLachlan frequently showed his impatience to Cale wondering when the next letter was coming, typically apologizing profusely following their eventual arrival. It demonstrated how much the letters meant to him, especially on those darkest days sitting in muddy trenches and wondering if he would survive.
What follows are brief excerpts of some of the letters and sketches McLachlan shared with Cale while overseas:
1st War letter July 20th 1916
Stationed at: Shorncliff, Eng.
I guess you thought I had forgotten to write to you. ...We’re only one mile and a half from the English Channel and we can see France plainly and also hear the guns at the front.
We were out at a rifle range close to Dover for two weeks and we were camped
right at the edge of the cliffs. We had no tents so I didn’t have dry clothes on all the time I was there.
...It took us 19 days to get here. We were on the boat 9 days and we had fine
weather all the way and I enjoyed myself fine despite poor grub and sleeping
quarters away below the water line, so we had to sleep on top of the parade deck when we got into the danger zone. I can’t tell you what boat we came on or how many troops for this letter will be censored.
Well I think we said enough for this time hoping you’ll remember the soldier you met at English Bay and write to me sometimes for I sure look forward to a letter from B.C. Hoping this finds you in good health as it leaves me fine. Give my regards to your brother.
2nd War Letter Sept 22, 1916
Just a few lines in answer to your letter of August and I was sure glad to hear from you for letters are few and far between here.
I’ve just come back from leave. I had six days left in the heather country and I enjoyed every hour of it. I spent two days in Glasgow and visited all the important parts and suburbs.
I saw Bothwell Bridge where the battle of Bothwell Bridge was fought. Also some of shipyards. Then I went to Edinburgh and went through the castle etc. I have relations in both places. I’m enclosing you some heather I picked near Bothwell Bridge. If you look up the Scottish history you’ll see accts’ about it.
The Corporal is just calling out the names of all men who are on draft for Sat. I just heard my name called so it means France, on Sat. There’s an enormous amount of Canadians leaving here every week. I don’t know what they do with them all. I would have been over long ago but I missed the last draft on account of being in Quarantine for mumps. One of the boys in my tent had them but they can’t send me over too soon as anything is bettter than this. We get up at 5:30 dress, fold our blankets, roll up our tents and out on parade in fifteen minutes. Drill for an hour, get breakfast consisting of porridge, tea, bread and ham. Wash, shave, polish our equipment and gun and fall in again in 3/4 of an hour, drill till noon, get dinner. Soup, spuds, tea, bread, and meat, fall in again at one, drill till 4:30 get supper, tea, bread, soup and some kind of dried fruit. We’re free then till 9:30 p.m.
...Well, you’ll have to excuse the pencil and writing as we have no accommodations for writing and have to use the ground for a table. I made a first class marksman in my musketry course and I expect to be made a sniper in France. It has been my aim ever since joining, I generally always get what I try for if I put all my heart into it.
Well I’ll have to close, hoping you’ll answer soon, as I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you. Give my regards to Gordon and I think my next letter will be from France. I hope so anyway. Wishing you all kinds of luck. With best regards to all.
Your Friend, Hugh
Pte. Hugh McLachlan
Can. Pioneer Training Depot
Ceazars Camp. S
Shomecliffe, Kent Eng.
P.S. I’ve seen several zepps now. There was one right over our camp one night it made a pretty sight with all the search lights turned on it and shells bursting near it making red and blue flashes.
3rd War Letter Nov 17, 1916
I received your most welcome letter of Oct. 15 and am glad to see you’re still alive. I’m over where they hurt people now but they haven’t hurt me yet.We left Eng. on Sept 27.
...I was just coming out of the trenches when someone said this is Halloween night. I thought then of home and the times I use to have on that night. We couldn’t play any tricks on anybody here only fritz and he aint sleeping esp. at night, though we keep him pretty well on the jump all the time. My chum was killed a few weeks ago, also a lot more young fellows from my home town (Fernie). We’re billeted in a small village just behind the firing line. It has been awful wet weather lately but has cleared up again, and turned frosty and cold though I’d sooner have it that way for the mud is fierce in the trenches.
...hoping this finds you all in good health as it leaves me fine at present, give my regards to your brother Gordon. Hoping you’ll answer this right away for a letter looks as big as a ten dollar bill here.
so Au Revour, Hughie
War Letter Nov 26, 1916
Just a few lines, seeing I’m still above ground.
...I just heard that my chum’s body was never found I’m hoping he is still alive, but a prisoner of war. He was a corporal of the bombers. They were making a bombing raid at night which is no job for a man with nerves. They get over to fritz’s wire on no mans land and fritz heard them and opened up on them. He was known to have been wounded. They had to leave him. They went back and searched for him two nights but never found him, so if he wasn’t buried with a shell he may still be alive. I only hope I get a chance to get even if I do I’ll take advantage of it.
Somewhere in France 22/12/16
Just a few lines to let you know I haven’t started to push up daisies through the sod yet. I’ve written you two letters, this makes the third, so your ears will be burning if I dont get a letter soon. It may be that one of my letters was stopped, still I hope not. The rules are stricter now regarding war news, so we can’t say much if we want our letters to get through.
... Well Gladys I suppose you are all looking forward to Xmas. I hope you all enjoy yourselves. Did you get the hankerchief I sent you? We’re going to have some kind of entertainment and feed here so we’ll be able to tell it’s Christmas anyway.
Well I just heard from home that they’re all moving to the states...so I feel like I haven’t got a home now as Fernie has always been my favourite place.
... I remain your Friend
Hugh M. McLachlan
I received your ever welcome letter last night ...
It seems as though everything is with our friend Bill one day it snows and then rains for a change, with the usual result Mud. Nevertheless we gave the hun a good boost out of a nest he considered impregnable.Believe me I haven’t forgot Easter Monday for a while or the days following. We’re staying in his dugouts and tunnels at present and they’re not very comfy after a few bombs have made an entrance uninvited.
I have lots of souveniers and if I ever get out to a place that looks like a town I’ll try and send you one. For a start this note paper was in this hole when I got here along with several other articles. They had to leave everything. Some didn’t have time to get their hats and tunics on. They seemed to be pleased to be taken prisoners; still a few showed fight, they’ll never fight again in this world. I got some nice tassels the N.C.O’s wear them on their bayonets so if the censor will pass it I’ll send you one. Well I’ll stop the war talk or the waste paper basket will grab this on the way.
...I’d like to be coming down Hastings and catch four girls arm in arm blocking the sidewalk.
...Say, what does a girl look like anyhow? I haven’t seen one for a month now. I didn’t see anything that looked like a photo in your letter, have you forgotten? Hurry up for our time might come any day here. You’ll have to excuse this scribble, Gladys, as fritz didn’t dig these holes for comfort and there’s always someone pushing past. I’ll be able to sleep on a telephone wire when this is over and live on peace talk...
I remain your friend, Hugh
France March 22. 18
And the war still goes on
Just a few lines to let you know I’m not dead yet though I am thinking you are, as it is several months since I last heard from you.
.. I’m back with my unit again and am not sorry either it’s just like leaving home to go away among new faces and strangers. I’m enclosing a P.C. (post card) of a ruined church, it was the scene of hard fighting at one time. I lived just behind it for quite a spell it was right near there where we went swimming. I told you about it in one of my letters last summer. I’m sorry we have to cut the name of it, but it is against regulations.
Belgium Nov 26. 18
Your ever welcome letter of Oct. 24th reached me yesterday.
...Well it is needless for me to comment on the finish of the war as we know so very little about it, at present we are in Namur, on our way to the Rihne [sic] and all things considerd [sic] we are having a good time, though we are all longing for a sight of the boat which will take us back now our duty is done.
...Here’s hoping the sun shines on both sides of the Rhine and beer is as cheap as ever.
Votre Frere, Hughie
Germany Dec 17. 18.
A few lines while the chances are good. We have been marching steady lately, but at last we have reached our objective, “across the Rhine.”
We expect to be here about a month yet it will be some time before we’re back. It can’t come too soon to suit me.
Your Bro. Hughie
1847 Broadway, Spokane, Wash.
May 27th, 1919
A few lines to let you know I am in God’s country, or was rather, again. I know you will be dissapointed [sic] at me not coming to the coast, but I had no choice about it, I was in an Ontario Btn. so we were all discharged in Toronto, I came home via Winnipeg and Medicine Hat. I stayed over in Fernie two days and then on home, gee but it is great to get home and see all the folks again...I expect to start work by the end of the week. I’m fed up loafing now. Well Gladys I won’t say any more this time. I’m too restless as yet , you know how it is when you just land home.
So I will write again as soon as I settle down and give you all the news. Hoping this finds you well as it leaves me Jake.