by Sam McBride

This is the first of two postings of letters from Private J.F. Peters, who was a younger brother of Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters, VC, and son of former Prince Edward Island premier Frederick Peters.

These are the full transcriptions of his letters between December 1914 and February 1915.  Most are written to his mother Bertha.  Others in the second posting are to his cousin Evelyn Poole in Guildford, England and his younger brother Gerald, who was training in Montreal and soon to leave himself for the front.

I transcribed the letters and provided these notes for the Peters Family Papers in 2008-2010.  These letters were one of the resources referenced in my biography of Fritz Peters titled The Bravest Canadian, scheduled for release later in 2012.

Jack to his family in Prince Rupert     December 18, 1914

{sent from England}

Just received yours of Nov. 23rd.  As it is pouring with rain we can’t go out on parade so I’ve got a chance to answer it.

Capt. Harvey1 gave us a lecture on attacking a fortified position between 9 and 10 this morning.  About which he doesn’t know much.  All the old soldiers are busy imitating him now.  They, of course, know what a real attack is like.  Although, as a rule, they don’t say much about the Boer War.

I was very glad it rained today as I was feeling tired after a day’s work digging on the railway about five miles away from here.  The pick and shovel work caused many casualties amongst the company.  Mostly, the “lurking fever”.  They all claimed it was vaccination, but the hard-hearted doctor sent them all back to work.  Except one to whom he gave some medicine.  The others all agree that it is lucky that he took it first before they tried it.  My arm hasn’t bothered me at all.  I hope to escape inoculation.

It’s awful to be ill at camp.  “Sick Parade” sounds at 7:15 and you have to parade at the doctor’s tent then await his pleasure.  Needless to say, it prevents anyone from going sick when they aren’t.  The ones who really are ill, generally die.  I believe I’m feeling quite well, so far.  Eric Poole2 is in hospital as a result of trench digging on a wet night.  Ray3 is a major now.  We are all a bit excited owing to the bombardment of the East Coast.  One fellow in the next hut whose house is in Scarborough had his home destroyed, and feels that his people may have been killed.  The general nervousness in camp is not owing to anything like that, but whether Christmas leave will be stopped.  All the old soldiers live for the huge bust that they go on when on leave.

I am down for leave from Dec. 30 to Jan. 4. I expect I’ll go up to Hodsocks4 and have a cheap holiday. London is a little expensive.  I arrived in camp with 1/35.  If I hadn’t been taken I would have had to work with pick and shovel to enable me to get back toLondon.

I feel sure that we will be in Franceby the time you get this.  Of course, we will be at least eight weeks at the base or on the lines of communication.  The 1st B.C. regiment are the cracks of the Contingent.  Some of the Eastern men are awful looking mutts quite on a par with Kitchener’s rather scraggy army.

I’ll send you a photograph as soon as I can.  My uniform will soon be all messed up.  They provide us with slacks and a khaki shirt which I generally wear.

(continued Sunday)

We had parade on Friday afternoon.  I saw the biggest aeroplane that I have ever seen.  The plains are alive with them.  They have a Union Jack painted on the bottom of the planes.  I’ve seen as many as 5 in the air at once.

Saturday morning was the hardest on record.  We paraded at 8:30 but had to go on fatigue instead and help the engineers build a heavy truck road.  I had the job of carrying ties about 8 feet long weighing a terrific amount.  It was pouring with coldsleet and rain as well.  We labored for 3 hours.  The hardest in my life.  I was over to see Harris on Friday evening.  The 72nd are about a mile away from here.  I got lost coming back in the dark.  Hundreds of huts all looking the same.

I had a two hour job finding my own hut.  Harris goes on his holiday this week.  So I can’t go to Yorkshire with him.  Gus Lyons of Victoria fame is in the 50th Highlanders right near us.  I haven’t found Willie Abbott6 yet.

We had a church parade this morning for the first time since my arrival.  Mr. Barton I believe is our chaplain.  It was cold out in the open air.  I didn’t envy him in his thin surplice.

Fritz has written to me several times since I came.  He can’t give any news.

The war in the opinion of most people will last for 18 months at least.  The Russians have just been badly beaten by Von Hindenburg.  The Germans again threaten Warsaw.  So it is up to Kitchener to finish the war as neither France or Russia can.  I expect you don’t hear anything about the Russian defeat in Rupert.

Kitchener rules…

 1 — Captain Rupert (aka Robert) Valentine Harvey (1872-1915) was born in Liverpool and taught school there before moving to Canada in 1899 to teach at Queen’s School in Vancouver.  In 1901 he took over as headmaster and then in 1908 merged his school with UniversitySchoolin Victoriathat had been founded two years before by Rev. W.W. Bolton (who had taught Fritz Peters at his school on Belcher Avenue in Victoria before Fritz went to England for preparatory school in 1900) and J.C. Barnicle.  Harveybecame Warden of the University School(now known as St. Michael’s University School, the largest residential school in B.C.).  In a 1917 letter to his father, Fritz Peters mentioned meeting Harvey several years earlier and discussing schoolmastering with him, which Fritz was considering as a career at the time.  Harvey was a strong believer in cadet corps and scouting, but he didn’t serve in the Boer War.  In 1914 he left with his regiment, the 7th Battalion, as Captain for overseas duty.  OnApril 24, 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres he and the No. 3 Company he commanded were surrounded by Germans in their full-scale assault on Canadian forces. Harvey was seriously wounded but refused medical treatment until injured men in his company were taken care of.  He was taken prisoner, and died in a prison hospital in Germany on May 8, 1915.  Captain Harvey’s signature is on Jack Peters’ attestation papers.

 2 – Jack’s cousin Eric Skeffington Poole was a son of Bertha’s sister Florence Gray Poole.  He was born in Nova Scotia and lived in Englandafter the family moved there in 1905.  He was a Second Lieutenant with the West Yorkshire Regiment in July 1916 when he suffered from shell shock during theBattleof the Somme.  He had recurring periods of confusion after returning from medical treatment, and then on October 5, 1916he wandered away from his platoon at the front.  He was arrested by military police and faced a court martial for desertion.  Despite evidence that he was still suffering from the shell shock (or what today could be referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) which made him anxious and confused, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.  British Field Marshall Douglas Haig could have commuted the sentence, but chose to make an example of him to demonstrate that officers were subject to the same basic military rules as their men.  In his diary entry of Dec. 6, 1916 Haig wrote “it is highly important that all ranks should realize that the laws is the same for an officer as a private.”  Eric was shot at dawn on December 10, 1916 at Poperinghe, Belgium, about 10 km west of where his cousins Jack and Gerald Peters had died earlier in battles near Ypres.  He was the first British officer to be executed for desertion.  The trial and execution were not publicized in the press at the time, apparently in deference to Eric’s father Henry Skeffington Poole who had aristocratic connections and was ill at the time of the court martial and would die in March 1917.  It is possible that the family agreed to not contest the verdict if authorities kept it secret.  The fact that Jack would comment on Eric being in hospital in a 1914 letter – two years before the “desertion” incident – is interesting because it shows that Eric had longstanding health problems.

3 – Major Henry Raynauld (Ray) Poole was Eric’s older brother.  The obituary published after the funeral of his mother, Florence Poole, in 1923 listed a surviving son Major H. R. Poole, DSO, MBE, indicating he won the Distinguished Service Order medal and was accepted as a Member of the British Empire.

4 – Hodsock Priory, a stately manor and estate in Nottinghamshire, was the residence of Col. Henry Mellish, a bachelor who was an expert sharpshooter and enthusiastic amateur meteorologist.  Mellish’s mother was Margaret Cunard, a daughter of Sir Samuel Cunard and sister of Fred’s mother Mary, so he and Fred Peters were cousins.  One of the envelopes of letters that Fritz sent to Bertha in 1916 was addressed to her at Hodsock Priory, which was one of several addresses Bertha had while inEnglandwhen she was there for about a year during the First World War.  From these letters, the Peters family members appear to have had an open invitation to stay at the huge Hodsock estate virtually whenever they desired.

5 – The standard for stating British currency at the time (pounds/shillings).

6 – William Hamilton “Willie” Abbott was Jack`s cousin.  His mother was Mary Stukeley Hamilton Gray, sister of Jack`s mother Bertha Gray.  His father was William Abbott, son of the Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott.  The Abbott home in Montreal was a regular stop for members of the Peters family travelling by rail to or from England.  Willie, a civil engineer, survived the war.  He was interviewed by the  Montreal Gazette in 1943 after his cousin Fritz Peters received the Victoria Cross.  Willie was a greatuncle of Oscar-winning Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.

This is a photo of first page of Jack's Jan. 27, 1915 letter.

Jack to his mother Bertha  January 27, 1915

 {sent from England}

Dear Mother.

Just got yours of Jan. 8.  I am going right through it and answering the various questions in it.

Re mattress…Straw pallets were tried at West Down South1 but from reports that I heard they soon became rather unpleasant, “lousy” in fact.  The cold does come whistling up through the chinks in the floor, to which many colds are attributed.  It doesn’t bother me any.

My vaccination took very little.  I haven’t been inoculated yet for anything at present.  They inoculate for typhoid, tetanus and for something else, cholera, I think.

I’m glad that Clifford was able to see you at Christmas.  I don’t think they can be having such a very tough time of it at the Willows.  I think he is in luck not going to the front until the spring…

I suppose by the time you get this you will have read all about the naval battle2 in which Fritz figured when the “Meteor” had a shell put through her killing four and wounding one, putting her out of action.  I’ll try and get an account off Fritz, if possible.  It must have been pretty exciting while it lasted.  I’m sending you a Mirror.  These papers don’t give any news at all here.  Not a paper has published any thing about the “Audacious3 which was supposed to be lost off Belfast.  We don’t know anything about it yet except what we see in the Colonist.  If I come across any good account in the paper written by a “Meteor” man I’ll send it to you.  The trouble is that we often don’t get any papers in this wilderness.

We were served out with our new “Webb” equipment and trenching tool.  The latter reminds me of a toy shovel.  Thank the Lord it is very light.  The new equipment is made out of webbing like a football belt.  Our old “Oliver”4 equipment was leather and the corners used to cut into my shoulder giving you awful pains and aches.  It’s sheer will power that keeps a lot of us from falling out of the march sometimes.

We expect to leave here on Sunday or Monday.  I believe this is the real thing this time.  We hope to go to the South of France to recuperate for a month.  I hope we do.  It sounds warmer down there.  Ten weeks in the cold and wet doesn’t suit you for the colder and wetter trenches.  Much better to go to France in the sunny spring.  If we do go to the front right away, of course, you needn’t worry about me because I don’t intend to put my head up above the trench to shoot the Germans.  Me for where the earth is thickest and highest.

We may go toWinchester but I don’t think we’ll do more than just pass through.

My cold is better.  All I want now is a change of air and a bunch of good food, which I’ll get if we go to Winchester.  You can’t get it here.  All leave has been stopped and everyone recalled who were away.  Forty men from the base company were transferred into ours, to bring it up to full strength.  All the sick being put in the base company and will be left behind.  All these things make me think that the hour is approaching.

You speak of spinal meningitis.  It has been in the other regiments for some time.  We had a case at New Year’s in G Company and another one in B Company.  I believe one died and the other recovered.  Both huts were isolated and every precaution taken in fact anyone with a tickle in his throat was rushed to the hospital to be watched.  I think all danger is over now.  One hut will be out of quarantine before we go.  No need for you to be alarmed.  Although I felt a bit scared when I first heard of it myself and saw the rows of stretchers passing by.  All containing men with colds who thought their last day had come.  You know how rumours about these things spread.  It was living in the wet that caused it.  Well I must stop

– Jack

P.S….I notice you say that the cavalry and artillery have gone.  They are still with us3.  We fought a battle with the cavalry yesterday and won out.  It was very easy as we were the supports and did nothing until the end when we doubled into action to help the others who didn’t need us.  I only saw one of the enemy all day and he was sitting in a field firing at about 200 of us quite calmly.  Unfortunately the Colonel made us skirmish all the way home which means doubling about two miles in our full equipment.  I couldn’t speak for half an hour afterwards.  I’m sure we’ll never be called up to do so much on active service.

I notice you ask for a timetable.  I believe I sent you one.

Reveille           6:30 am

Breakfast           7:30

Parade          8:15-12:00

Dinner            12:30

Parade          2:15-4:00 pm

Supper             5:00

Lights out         9:45

1 – In Salisbury Plain southwest of London, the central training area for the British Army for many years.  Jack had trained there with other forces of the Canadian First Contingent in the winter of 1914-15.  The weather was the worst on record – so bad that many soldiers were looking forward to better conditions at the Western Front.  Soldiers lost out on much of their training – most notably, training for life and combat in trenches — because the exercises could not be held in the mud and water of Salisbury Plain.

2 – This was the Battle of Dogger Bank in theNorth Sea in January 1915 for which Fritz was “mentioned in dispatches” for heroism in his service as lieutenant on the destroyer Meteor.  He would later receive the Distinguished Service Order medal for the same action.

3 – The H.M.S. Audacious, a superdreadnought that was the third largest battleship in the Royal Navy, sank after hitting a German mine on October 27, 1914 off the Firth of Clyde in Scotland while temporarily away from its regular base which was undergoing repairs.  The White Star passenger liner R.M.S. Olympic – sister ship of the R.M.S. Titanic which sank two years before – was only a few miles away when the Audacious signaled for help.  Thanks to the Olympic and other rescue ships, the entire crew of Audacious was saved before the ship went down.  The Olympic tried to tow Audacious to a safe port, but the warship sank in the process.  The British authorities tried to keep the sinking secret for security and morale reasons and did not admit to it until after the war, but many American tourists on the Olympic witnessed the rescue and took photographs and film footage that was shown in the United States and reached the rest of the world from there.  Jack had seen reports of the sinking in clippings of the Victoria Colonist newspaper that someone mailed to him.  This was one of many instances of clumsy censorship and propaganda during the war.

4 – There was a great controversy in the first two years of the war about the uniforms, equipment and rifles provided to Canadian troops.  Canada’s hard-driving and outrageous Minister of Defence and Militia Sir Sam Hughes was using the war as an opportunity to showcase Canadian industry, including products of contractors who were among his political supporters.  The Canadian soldiers and their British generals often found the equipment uncomfortable and faulty.  The shovel Jack mentions could be one of the infamous MacAdam shovels with a large hole in the blade that a secretary of Hughes designed and patented.  The idea was that a soldier could look through the hole at the enemy as he was shoveling above the top of the trench.  However, the shovel proved to be useless for stopping bullets and also no good for shoveling, so the 20,000 purchased for use by Canadian soldiers were scrapped.

Jack Peters as a boy in Victoria, B.C.

Jack to his mother Bertha    February 5, 1915

Lark Hill Camp1

Dear Mother,

Just received yours of January 13th.  Our training is finished now apparently because we are practically doing nothing.

The King and Kitchener2 together with a small army of generals and a stray admiral reviewed us yesterday.  We were stationed just opposite the royal stand so we were able to see nearly all the contingent march past.  It certainly was a wonderful sight.  Every regiment did well.  The cavalry and the artillery headed the procession.  The 1st B.C. were nearly at the end, the Highland regiments being behind us.  Kitchener said that there had been a great improvement since he last reviewed the Canadians.  He himself looked quite a mild, good-natured old man.  His mustache is quite gray.  He towered head and shoulders above the others.  The King looks very worried and has rather a strawberry nose.  I had a good view of him when he passed in the train.  We all lined the track and cheered him as he slowly went by looking very depressed.  This was our farewell review before going to France.  All the men are reviewed by the King before they go out.  Colonel McHarg3 reminded me very much of poor old Captain Stork4 when he said to us “Boys, you’ve done well.”

My cold has gone now.  I cured it by going down to a small village nearly three nights in succession and getting enormous meals.  The camp food seemed to sicken me for a while.  My appetite is back now and I once more eat with relish.  They won’t allow you to go into the villages, pickets being placed all around them but of course they are easily dodged.

We expect to go to France any day now.  Ammunition has been served out to us.  I think we are going to take the Ross Rifle5 to the front with us after all.  The new Webb equipment is fine to wear and doesn’t hurt my shoulders at all.  The old Oliver equipment used to be leather and would cut right into your flesh.  I think we shall be billeted in South France.  I hope so, anyhow.  The chances are that my next letter will be censored so you can’t expect any news in it.  In case they won’t allow us to write where we are, the following may come in handy.  If I begin my letter “My Dearest Mother” it means that I am billeted in South France. “Mother” (alone) means that I am at the base.  “Dear Mother” means that I am going to the front right away.6

I wrote to Fritz for an account of the battle but haven’t received any answer so far.  I wish I could have seen him before I left.  I’ll be gone before Gerald arrives.

The five hundred men from Canadaincluding the 125 from Victoriahave arrived.  They are stationed at Tedworth about 6 milesfrom here.  They were quite useless as far as I can learn, as a reinforcement for the P.P.L.I.’s7  as they were practically untrained.  I expect they will be drafted into the various battalions.  I haven’t come across any of the Rupert men yet.

I suppose Gerald has gone by now and you are feeling low.  I hope you’ll be able to make it in the summer.  Just about the time when I am invalided back toEngland.

We never went to the East Coast.  I notice that you ask the question in your letter.

The rain has come back.  I personally like it as I’m used to it.  It’s the cold that bothers me.  It is warm when it rains and we can’t have any parades either, which is a great thing.  Good bye.  I’ll drop you a card when we are en route.

– Jack

P.S. Socks and coloured (dull) handkerchiefs are always acceptable.

P.P.S. Aunt Helen8 has been very good and has sent some fine socks.  Next time you write you might thank her.

1 – Salisbury Plain in England

2 — King George the Fifth and Britain’s Minister of War Lord Horatio Kitchener, whose stern likeness was on recruitment posters throughout the British Empire.

3 – Colonel William Hart-McHarg was commander of the 7th Battalion (British Columbia) in which Jack served.  His signature is on Jack Peters’ attestation papers, along with Captain Harvey’s.  Hart-McHarg was a sergeant in the Boer War and 46 in 1915.  In about 1900 he was a lawyer in Rossland, B.C. and was an officer in the local militia known as the Rocky Mountain Rangers.  This was the same time that Jack’s 20-year-old future brother-in-law was working as a clerk at the Bank of Montreal and active in the Rossland unit of the Rocky Mountain Rangers, where he rose from private to lieutenant over seven years of service, in which he was an officer at the same time that and later was a lawyer in Vancouver, where he served in the militia before rejoining the Canadian forces at the outbreak of war in 1914.  He won Canada’s national sharpshooting competition’s Palma Medal in 1908 and 1913 using the Ross Rifle.  Its effectiveness for sharpshooting was one reason why Sam Hughes was such a strong supporter.  Unlike other senior officers who generally stayed safe in headquarters several miles behind the trenches, Hart-McHarg was in the battle zone on April 23, 1915 during the 2nd Battle of Ypres reviewing the new battle lines with two other officers when they encountered German soldiers in the open about 100 yards away.  As he was running back to the Canadian line he was hit by rifle fire.  He made his way to the medical centre, but died the next day on April 24, 1915, the same day Jack died.  A viaduct in Vancouver and a scenic mountain in the Kananaskis Park in Alberta were named in his honor.[i] 

4 – Originally from Bolton, Ontario, Alfred Stork was mayor of Fernie, B.C. before moving to Prince Rupert in 1908.  He established a large hardware business and became Prince Rupert’s first mayor.  He was commanding officer of the first military organization in the city, the Earl Grey’s Own Rifles, which Jack, Gerald and Noel Peters joined as cadets in their teens.[ii]

5 – Canada’s Defense and Militia Minister Sam Hughes insisted that Canadian soldiers use the Canadian-made Ross Rifle, against the wishes of British generals and Canadian soldiers who found the rifle jammed when hot after rapid firing, or if wet and muddy.  It wasn’t even good for bayoneting, as the blade tended to break off.  In man-to-man combat, Canadian soldiers were often only able to use the rifle as a club.  When they could, Canadian soldiers took Lee Enfield rifles from dead British soldiers and used them instead of the Ross.  After the 2nd Battle of Ypres, a quarter of the 5,000 surviving Canadian soldiers had replaced their Ross with a Lee Enfield.  However, orders came through after battles that all Lee Enfields had to be returned, and the soldiers would receive new Ross Rifles.  On orders from the Defence Minister, further use of the British rifle would be punished.  In 1916 the rifle issue went to Commander in Chief Douglas Haig, who ruled that the Ross – though excellent for sharpshooting — was inferior for battle conditions and should be scrapped, except for use by snipers.  Hughes, who had a strong base of support among Orangemen in southern Ontario, was finally dropped from cabinet by Prime Minister Robert Borden in December 1916. 

6 – Letters Bertha received from her sons later in the war had a stamp “read by censor” on the envelope. Censorship became stricter as the war progressed.  Under the Defence of the Realm Act in Britain and the War Measures Act in Canada, authorities were empowered to censor mail and do virtually anything in the interest of security and the war effort.  Any use of codes such as Jack suggested were expressly forbidden.  You could also get in trouble if you made disparaging remarks about soldiers or the nation’s military in general, so there was often a climate of fear as well as mourning in the homefront. 

7 – Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry

8 – He is referring to his aunt, Helen Francklyn, residing near Bristol, England, whose mother was Sarah Cunard, daughter of Sir Samuel Cunard and sister of Fred’s mother Mary.