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The First World War, firsthand


“My dear Will,” Emilie Florence Knight wrote to her son, William, a sergeant in the Newfoundland Regiment, on July 18, 1916. “I received a card from you dated June 20th ... I was in great trouble for a time, after that battle. I was expecting to see your number. Oh! It was dreadful, ten times worse than it really was and it was bad enough. I thought of you when you told me always to remember no news is good news. I didn’t eat anything for days.”

The letter was eventually returned to Emilie, with “Dead” written on the outside of the envelope in red ink. Will, 23, had died less than three weeks before she sent the note, killed at Beaumont-Hamel.

Emilie’s letter to her son still exists in Memorial University’s archives, and is a particularly touching part of writer Jenny Higgins’ new book, “Newfoundland in the First World War.” She doesn’t simply quote from the letter, she includes a reproduction of it in its entirety, in pullout form.

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“That letter breaks my heart,” Higgins said. “Seeing the mother’s handwriting — I can’t put it into words. I had to show it.”

Published by Boulder Publications, “Newfoundland in the First World War” is Higgins’ second book. Her first was 2014’s “Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Seal Hunt Disaster,” which won the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing.

She’s not technically a historian or an archivist, though for all intents and purposes, she’s both. She has spent the last 10 years working on MUN’s Newfoundland and Labrador heritage website, so she has long been surrounded by history.

“I’m just a writer who found herself in the happy situation of working in archives,” she explained.

Higgins admits writing about Newfoundland’s participation in the First World War is a sprawling topic, but after “Perished,” which was set just two years prior to Beaumont-Hamel, with similar themes, she was inspired to keep going.

“They are stories about human bonds in very trying situations,” Higgins said. “How human relations come together in tragedy and how they are bound together even when they’re separated by distance.

“I had been asked as part of my job to write a series of documentaries on the First World War, and I started digging into the archives. Once you start, you get obsessed.”

Higgins’ latest book is nothing short of stunning — hardcover and glossy with four sections: Mobilizing a Dominion, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Other Forces and After the War.

She touches not just on battle, but life on the homefront, women’s involvement, the naval reserves and the post-war economy.

With design and layout by Mona Atari, the book — like “Perished” — includes hundreds of photos and a pullout on every other page, just about.

There’s a reproduction of The Evening Telegram’s front page from Oct. 24, 1914 with a list of the first 500 soldiers to head abroad to unfold; postcards from soldiers to their family members back home, tucked into velum envelopes; an excerpt from the notebooks of Cluny Macpherson, inventor of the gas mask; and a soldier’s pay book.

“Kindly convey following to Mrs. Eric Ayre,” reads a life-size reproduction of a hand-written telegraph from London, which can be removed from its envelope. “Painful duty to inform you Captain E.S. Ayre killed in action 1st July.”

The documents came from MUN’s Archives and Special Collections, The Rooms Provincial Archives and other libraries.

The hardest part of writing the book, Higgins said, was deciding what to leave out.

“There was never enough space for all these stories that I wanted to tell, and it was really hard to stop researching and start working on the book,” she said. “There was a point when the printers said we couldn’t include all the pullouts I wanted to because the spine of the book would break when anyone tried to close it. I felt it was important to tell this story using the archival documents, and maybe that’s what sets the book apart. They draw you in. There’s a sense of immediacy and an emotional punch.”

Higgins’ goal was to make the book accessible and interesting to people of all ages, from school kids on up, partly because of her own experience with reference books as a child. She remembers splaying out on the carpet at home with her parents’ encyclopedias, and the sense of wonder that gave her.

Higgins and Boulder Publications will launch “Newfoundland in the First World War” Thursday from 5-7 p.m. at Broken Books on Duckworth Street, adjacent to the war memorial. Higgins will read from the book and sign copies.

The book is available in bookstores now.

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

The letter was eventually returned to Emilie, with “Dead” written on the outside of the envelope in red ink. Will, 23, had died less than three weeks before she sent the note, killed at Beaumont-Hamel.

Emilie’s letter to her son still exists in Memorial University’s archives, and is a particularly touching part of writer Jenny Higgins’ new book, “Newfoundland in the First World War.” She doesn’t simply quote from the letter, she includes a reproduction of it in its entirety, in pullout form.

Related story:

Sealing disaster told in new way

“That letter breaks my heart,” Higgins said. “Seeing the mother’s handwriting — I can’t put it into words. I had to show it.”

Published by Boulder Publications, “Newfoundland in the First World War” is Higgins’ second book. Her first was 2014’s “Perished: The 1914 Newfoundland Seal Hunt Disaster,” which won the Democracy 250 Atlantic Book Award for Historical Writing.

She’s not technically a historian or an archivist, though for all intents and purposes, she’s both. She has spent the last 10 years working on MUN’s Newfoundland and Labrador heritage website, so she has long been surrounded by history.

“I’m just a writer who found herself in the happy situation of working in archives,” she explained.

Higgins admits writing about Newfoundland’s participation in the First World War is a sprawling topic, but after “Perished,” which was set just two years prior to Beaumont-Hamel, with similar themes, she was inspired to keep going.

“They are stories about human bonds in very trying situations,” Higgins said. “How human relations come together in tragedy and how they are bound together even when they’re separated by distance.

“I had been asked as part of my job to write a series of documentaries on the First World War, and I started digging into the archives. Once you start, you get obsessed.”

Higgins’ latest book is nothing short of stunning — hardcover and glossy with four sections: Mobilizing a Dominion, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Other Forces and After the War.

She touches not just on battle, but life on the homefront, women’s involvement, the naval reserves and the post-war economy.

With design and layout by Mona Atari, the book — like “Perished” — includes hundreds of photos and a pullout on every other page, just about.

There’s a reproduction of The Evening Telegram’s front page from Oct. 24, 1914 with a list of the first 500 soldiers to head abroad to unfold; postcards from soldiers to their family members back home, tucked into velum envelopes; an excerpt from the notebooks of Cluny Macpherson, inventor of the gas mask; and a soldier’s pay book.

“Kindly convey following to Mrs. Eric Ayre,” reads a life-size reproduction of a hand-written telegraph from London, which can be removed from its envelope. “Painful duty to inform you Captain E.S. Ayre killed in action 1st July.”

The documents came from MUN’s Archives and Special Collections, The Rooms Provincial Archives and other libraries.

The hardest part of writing the book, Higgins said, was deciding what to leave out.

“There was never enough space for all these stories that I wanted to tell, and it was really hard to stop researching and start working on the book,” she said. “There was a point when the printers said we couldn’t include all the pullouts I wanted to because the spine of the book would break when anyone tried to close it. I felt it was important to tell this story using the archival documents, and maybe that’s what sets the book apart. They draw you in. There’s a sense of immediacy and an emotional punch.”

Higgins’ goal was to make the book accessible and interesting to people of all ages, from school kids on up, partly because of her own experience with reference books as a child. She remembers splaying out on the carpet at home with her parents’ encyclopedias, and the sense of wonder that gave her.

Higgins and Boulder Publications will launch “Newfoundland in the First World War” Thursday from 5-7 p.m. at Broken Books on Duckworth Street, adjacent to the war memorial. Higgins will read from the book and sign copies.

The book is available in bookstores now.

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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