When you read these two letters from France written by Robert Burns Florence in 1916, you will notice the dramatic change between a young man shortly after arriving, and the same young man just one month later, after doing battle at The Somme.
In honour of the World War One centenary, I want to share with you these two letters. Happily, both my father’s and my mother’s families love oral and written history, so I have access to a wealth of previously unpublished photographs, documents and oft-told tales of the past.
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Robert Burns Florence was the son of Peter Florence and Annie McRobbie, who emigrated to Manitoba from Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1881 — the first Florences in my branch of the family to arrive in Canada.
They homesteaded near Balmoral, Manitoba and had eleven children, including son Robert Burns who was born on May 16, 1895. He joined the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary force on November 17, 1915 at the age of twenty, and the following year found him in France.
This first letter was written home to his mother Annie. (Perhaps conditions were not quite as comfortable as he describes, but I wonder how many young men told their mothers the truth.)
I’ve transcribed the two letters, but I’ve also scanned the pages, as I always think a person’s soul shines out through their handwriting.
The first letter was written from a shelled town like the one shown here.
187569, #8 Battalion
Somewhere in France
September 22, 1916
From R. B. Florence
Dear Mother –
Just a line before they collect the mail to let you know I am still well. Our battalion is out resting just now but I don’t know for how long. Oliver or Stan have not got up to the firing line yet, just myself. It has been raining hard this last 2 or 3 days but it is a beautiful day today. It is a lovely country here, but is pretty well wrecked, a lot of it with shell fire.
We are billeted in an old town that has been shelled bad once but the house we are in, although it has been struck, is still very comfortable yet when we put a fire in the old fireplace. I have lots of company on my shift, but we don’t mind that out here! Good job it’s not at home, eh!
It’s some experience to be under shell fire, but believe me, we give them five times as much as they give us now. Frank Jeff is here in the platoon in front of me so I have some company, and I expect Stanley will be here when we come out of the trenches for the next rest.
Well, I guess I will cut this short as the Sergeant is coming around to collect mail. We have to be very careful what we say in our letters out here or I would give you more news. Well, goodbye till the next time.
Write often, from your loving son, Bob.
The second letter was written just twenty-four days later to his sister Kathleen, who would have been nineteen years old at the time. I wonder how she felt when she read such a sad and awful letter! Yet clearly poor young Robert needed to pour out his heart to someone from back home, his favourite younger sister.
By this time Robert is in Dublin, Ireland, at a hospital called Dr. Stevens. Here is a photograph of the hospital as it appeared then – it looks like a gloomy place, but Robert has nothing but praise for the staff.
Dr. Stevens Hospital
Well Kathy, I guess you have got my letter by now and have heard what has happened to me. I am in a lovely private hospital here, and I never was amongst nicer people in my life before. The head nurse is just like your own mother and the rest of them are very nice, too. I have visitors almost every day and one woman comes 5 miles into Dublin to see me, she is going to take me out when I can get up.
It is a funny feeling, this shell “shock.” It just feels like electricity running through you at times. I am very nervous at nights, too. They kept hot bandages on my heart when I came first, but they have taken then off now. The Doctor let me get up to go to the lavatory yesterday, but my head seemed to spin around like a top.
I was on the Somme battle front in the big bayonet charge the day we took Thiepval and Combles, in which we lost nearly the whole battalion.
I saw sights that would make your blood run cold, men lying by the hundreds dead and dying, and their cries I will never forget. The shrapnel and big shells make some ghastly wounds and poor fellows, no one can get out to help you till it is all over.
I saw men when I was crawling in over No Man’s Land with their bodies cut in two, and I stayed with one trying to help him but he died. Oh, I will never forget it. I think that is what makes me so nervous at night time. I dream of it and wake up in a cold sweat.
The back parapet of our trench was built up with dead bodies nearby and earth and sand bags and the smell is horrible. I don’t know myself how I am out here alive. Four times I was nearly killed, once I had a machine gun turned on me when I was crawling. I just saved myself by rolling down in a shell hole, but I am here and I will get better in a few months.
When writing put across corner of envelope “wounded in Eng” so as it will not go to France.
Write soon. This is Sunday. Love from Bob
I found this photograph of Canadian soldiers fixing their bayonets to their rifles, just before going “over the top” in a bayonet charge at The Somme.
The Battle of the Somme lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916. By the time it ended, there were a staggering 600,000 casualties on each side.
And here is the aftermath, stretcher bearers taking away those fellows who were still alive after the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. Perhaps my great-uncle Robert Burns Florence is the one lying on the stretcher.
He survived the war, came home to Manitoba, married but had no children, and died in 1959 at the age of 64.
His words will live forever, a grim reminder of a ghastly war.
Rest in peace, Robert Burns Florence.
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