Thank you to our guest author Ashley Henrickson for this interesting post. Ashley is a M.A. student at the University of Lethbridge and the Museum Educator at the Galt Museum and Archives. Her research examines the experiences of young people living in the Canadian Prairies whose fathers or brothers served overseas during the First World War. Ashley received the Roger Soderstrom Scholarship in 2017. The funds from this scholarship allowed her to visit archives across Alberta and present her research at “Children, Youth, and War,” a symposium hosted by the University of Georgia.
A never-ending cycle of children, chores, and neighbors cut through Isabelle Brook’s home, constantly interrupting the letters she wrote at her kitchen table. Isabelle apologized for her “jumbled up” proses as she paused to prepare dinner, answer the door, or tend to her busy children: “Alice is here wiggling around like a little eel, so I must quit”; “Gordon is wakening up I must go”; “Glen’s upset the ink over the table cloth now.” The constant movement suggests that life for Isabelle and her five children may have been lonely without their father, but it was not dull.
The hundreds of “jumbled up” letters that Isabelle wrote from her kitchen table in Craigmyle, Alberta, are a valuable and vibrant record of Alberta’s past. She sent these letters to her forty-five-year-old husband, Sidney Brook, who served on the Western Front with the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1916-1918. In response Sidney sent hundreds of letters to his family, which were preserved alongside Isabelle’s by their descendants and then donated to the Glenbow Archives. The Brook’s collection is especially valuable because very few letters sent from families living in Alberta to soldiers serving overseas have survived to the modern day. This is because soldiers, like Sidney, were constantly moving across the Western Front and had to carry all their personal belongings with them. This forced them to destroy all but a few precious letters that they could fit in their pocket.
These valuable letters provide us with a unique window into the Brook’s wartime home as Isabelle described the hardships that she and her five children, Gordon (eight), Arnott (six), Lorne (four), Glen (two), and baby Alice faced. Isabelle’s letter demonstrates that the boys clearly missed their father during the war, as she eloquently described their sadness in a letter to Sidney, writing: “We miss you so dear— the light of life seems to have gone out.” Although only four years old when his father left, Lorne continued to speak about his “Papoo’ almost every day,” as did Gordon and Arnott. Arnott told his mother that he would like to send his father an “aeroplane” for Christmas, instead of the customary package of socks and tobacco, so that he could fly home. Arnott also secretly collected all the cards that his father sent him and hid them in a little shoe box on his bookshelf, meanwhile Lorne stuffed a letter he swiped from Isabelle’s nightstand under his covers. The boys desire to hold on to these tangible connections to their father demonstrate how dearly they missed him.
Sidney’s letters clearly demonstrate that he missed his children as well: “I would give most any thing to see you my love and our dear boys,” he wrote in 1916. He also worried that he would not recognize his growing family when he returned. “How is Alice May?” he asked, “And little Glen is walking and talking eh? Guess I won’t know the family when I return.” To help subdue these fears, Isabelle worked carefully to ensure that each child had a unique and individual presence in her letters. Arnott, she explained, was very popular with the neighborhood children and was quite a “likeable little fellow.” While Gordon didn’t “mix with the others so much.” However, Gordon did well in school and was “very bright about learning,” while Arnott struggled. Isabelle described two-year-old Glen as a “mischievous cute little chicken,” who was always “up to all kinds of mischief.” She also provided many stories to back up this claim, including an incident which she found Glen “sitting at the open cabinet door helping himself to a whole duck!” Glen also caused havoc with the salt and pepper shaker, dishwashing tub, harmonica, and her writing paper. Isabelle described four-year-old Lorne as a loving boy and she regularly told Sidney that Lorne missed him and asked about him. “Lorne asks so often very pitifully for “Papa””, she wrote, “he can’t seem to understand why you don’t come.” She also related many stories about Lorne “doting” over his baby sister. Isabelle described baby Alice as a pretty little girl who smiled often.
In addition to Sidney’s fear that he would not recognize his children, Sidney also worried that they would not remember him when he returned. Phrases like: “I hope they’ll remember their papa,” or “has Lorne forgotten his papoo yet[?]” filled his letter. This fear is understandable as Sidney did not know how long the war would last and his children were very young when he left. To help them remember, Sidney sent countless letters and gifts across the Atlantic.
Sidney was not alone in his endeavor to be remembered; Gordon, Arnott, and Lorne also worked to make sure that their younger siblings and Isabelle remembered him. When Isabelle referred to two-year-old Glen as “Mamma’s baby,” Lorne reminded her that Glen was “Papa’s Baby” too. This nickname stuck, and Glen was referred to as “Papa’s Baby” throughout the war. A few months after this initial nicknaming, baby Alice arrived and Lorne began calling her: “Papa’s baby” so Isabelle asked him “whose baby was Glen then” and he replied, “two babies – Papa’s two babies.” The family’s persistence at referring to the youngest children as “Papa’s two babies” demonstrates one way that they kept Sidney’s memory alive in their home. The boys also preserved their father’s presence by teaching baby Alice about him. Gordon and Arnott worked with Isabelle to teach Alice to say “Papa,” and Lorne informed her that she had “had a nice mamma & nice papa a-n-d nice ‘buddies’ lots of buddies (brothers).”
Gordon, Arnott, and Lorne also created an image of Sidney by talking about what he would do if he was home. Lorne did this by rocking baby Alice and singing, “Papa would kiss you. Papa would kiss you.” Meanwhile, Gordon and Arnott told Isabelle that Sidney would be happy to see the new home renovations when he returned. Remembering their father was also part of the boys’ nightly routine as they mentioned Sidney in their prayers, asking God to “bless Papa, and care for us all.” The boys also tried to share specials days with their father. They packed Christmas parcels for him and wrote to tell him about the gifts they received. Gordon also tried to send Sidney his first baby tooth, but Isabelle advised against it.
When we think about wartime labour on the homefront, images of women in munition factories or men harvesting wheat to feed distant troops, often come to mind. However, the continued effort of the Brook boys to remember their father, and Isabelle’s ongoing effort to share these stories with Sidney, are other important forms of wartime work. This work helped to maintain their family bonds and provided Sidney with important emotional support. The First World War was notorious for destroying the mental health of soldiers, and numerous historians including Michael Roper, Kristine Alexander, and Martha Hannah, have demonstrated that the emotional support soldiers received through letters was important in maintaining their mental health. Historian Martin Lyons, aptly described these letters with messages of past happiness and future hope as a “humanizing influence in a sea of brutality.”
After hearing about his growing family for two years, Sidney was finally reunited with them in the summer of 1918. Sidney likely looked very different to his children, especially the large wound on his shoulder, and his family had undoubtedly changed as well: Glen was no longer a wiggly baby but an active toddler, and “baby Alice” – whom Sidney had never met –was a year and a half old. Eight-year-old Gordon and four-year-old Lorne had also aged and were likely changed by the wartime stresses they had faced. Young Arnott was never reunited with his father as he died in 1917 after contracting diphtheria. The Brook’s war time story is unique because it has been preserved in Isabelle’s letters, however their experiences were shared by many Canadians. Approximately one fifth of the over 400,000 Canadian men who served overseas were married, and therefore likely had children. By studying the Brook letters, we can learn more about the challenges these families faced and we can begin to identify some of the important, but often unrecognized ways, that these children contributed to the war effort.
Written By: Ashley Henrickson (M.A. Student, University of Lethbridge and Museum Educator, Galt Museum and Archives)
Alexander, Kristine. “An Honour and a Burden: Canadian Girls and the Great War,” in A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War, ed. Sarah Glassford (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012).
Brook Family Fonds, Glenbow Museum, M-9076
The Brook family letters have been digitized and transcribed. They are available at: http://www.glenbow.org/collections/search/findingAids/archhtm/brook.cfm
Lyons, Martyn. The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, c. 1860-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Roper, Michael. The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War. Manchester: Manchester University, 2010.
Hanna, Martha. Your Death Would be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.