Fred Hawksley reaches gingerly into his briefcase and withdraws two handwritten letters slowly, as if they could break.
Black-and-white photographs are clipped to the letters — correspondence from relatives of Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the First World War nearly 100 years ago.
The pictures show the soldiers in their Royal Newfoundland Regiment uniforms and the letters describe their war experiences and their lives back home.
“This is amazing content to me,” Hawksley said. “I’m hearing the voices of grandchildren and family members who have, in their own family stories, these rich and vivid memories of a soldier of the regiment.”
The letters will be a great help to him as he works on his next play.
Hawksley is an actor and past artistic director of Beothuck Street Players, and teaches drama and education at Memorial University.
His 1997 play, “Face in the Rock,” dealt with the devastating effects of the First World War and acknowledged Newfoundland’s contribution to the British war effort.
Over the past several years, Hawksley’s quest to learn more about Newfoundland soldiers of the First World War has been fuelled by his friendship with local author and historian Gary Browne.
Hawksley wrote the foreword to Browne’s “Forget-Me-Not: Fallen Boy Soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment — World War One.” The book honours 272 teenaged soldiers.
In its conclusion, Browne mentioned Hawksley’s research into the lives of soldiers who returned home from the Great War and the play he’s writing.
People who read Browne’s book started contacting Hawksley to share their family stories.
The idea for the play was born when Browne and Hawksley first talked about reproducing Robert Sherriff’s play, “Journey’s End,” as the Newfoundland Great War Veterans Association did in St. John’s in 1930. The play is based on Sherriff’s experiences in the trenches.
Hawksley and Browne decided that Hawksley’s play should focus on the challenges the soldiers faced on “the new battlefront” as they fought to reintegrate into society.
Many soldiers suffered from post-traumatic stress and struggled to find work. Some men couldn’t leave the war behind, Hawksley said, and took their own lives.
“There are just so many stories that have not been told, like stories of just how much the Great War Veterans Association did to protect their comrades and tried to help the men,” Browne said.
Hawksley said that thanks to Browne’s input and feedback, he’s about halfway through writing his play.
As Browne looks through one of several large binders that contain research, he stops at a quote by Thomas Jordan.
The 17th-century American soldier describes a way of thinking that Browne and Hawksley hope has changed.
God and the soldier we alike adore,
In time of danger, not before.
The danger past and all things righted,
God is forgotten, the soldier slighted.
Anyone with information to share about Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers of the First World War can contact Hawksley at Memorial University, Box 4200, St. John’s, NL A1C 5S7, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.