I’m researching my family’s history, and recently I was able to connect with one of my dad’s first cousins who also lives on Vancouver Island. After seeing a newspaper article about the Canadian Letters & Images project at Vancouver Island University, she revealed that she had a letter I might be interested in. It was written to my great-grandfather, Ole Olsen, by his younger brother, Ingvald, who was serving overseas in the First World War. The letter had been tucked away in a family Bible, and because I work at VIU, the cousin was hoping I could facilitate the letter being added to the project.
Originally written in Norwegian, I was grateful that at some time over the last 100 years, the letter has also been translated into English. I read the letter for the first time on Remembrance Day, and the lines: “I’m sure you have heard the good news that the war is over. It is almost too good to believe for many of us who have witnessed hell on earth,” were incredibly moving for me.
Belonging to a generation that has thankfully only known times of peace, one that is frequently criticized for glossing over the importance and significance of Remembrance Day, I suddenly had a better sense of what it really meant. It’s like Ingvald was writing directly to me. Maybe it takes having a personal connection to a serviceman or servicewoman to really wake up to the importance of why we remember. This shouldn’t be the case. As Canadians, we should honour and respect the service and sacrifice of all of the men and women who have served this country, regardless of having a personal connection or not. But that’s easier said than done. We can willingly take the day off work or school, even observe a moment of silence, or attend a commemorative service, but it can be a little more difficult to really feel thankful.
I’m happy to share that the letter from Ingvald Olsen is now part of the WWI collection of the project, and that both the scanned original and the translated text are openly accessible. Initially, I had wondered if the project team may not be interested in digitizing a single letter, especially one written in Norwegian! I’m a big believer in the value of open access, so I’m not exactly sure what made me doubt. I think it’s because while Ingvald and Ole were definitely important individuals within my own family’s story, neither of them made headline news before, during, or after the war. They were just regular guys, who went on to live regular lives after the war was over.
Ole and Ingvald Casperson, together with a third brother, Paul, immigrated to “Amerika”1 from Norway in the early 1900s. Somewhere along the line in the immigration process they collectively changed their surname to Olsen. The brothers settled in Hagensborg, a Norwegian community in the Bella Coola Valley. Ole married my great-grandmother Konstanse Fyhn at the end of 1914, and started raising a family there.
While the youngest brother Paul volunteered for service in December 1916, it’s likely that Ingvald was conscripted. He was enlisted in November 1917, after the Military Service Act became law in Canada earlier that year. His personnel record includes attestation paperwork clearly stamped “Military Services Act,” and seems to have an exemption claim number – one that must have been unsuccessful.
Both Paul and Ingvald were sent overseas, fighting in France, and both were wounded several times. Paul suffered a gun shot wound to the head in October 1917, rejoining his unit in January 1918 after spending time recovering at field hospitals. In October of 1918, he was wounded again at the Battle of Cambrai, this time suffering a gun shot wound to his right arm. Paul did not return to battle after this second injury. He recuperated at several military hospitals, including Frodsham and Epsom, until he was discharged in February 1919.
Ingvald was wounded at the Arras Front in June 1918. He received multiple shrapnel wounds as the result of a hand grenade explosion during a raid. He spent several months in the Taplow and Bexhill hospitals, healing from wounds in both his legs and his back. His personnel record includes an x-ray of his left shoulder clearing showing three fragments embedded under his arm. I wonder if he ended up going home with those. Ingvald was discharged back to active duty on September 13, 1918. After the Armistice, he was discharged in February of 1919.
Of the 58 Bella Coola men who took part in the First World War, Paul and Ingvald were among those who came home again.2 Paul married Ruth Nordschow in November 1919, and Ingvald married Ida Engebretson in October 1924. Both couples went on to start families in Bella Coola. The bond between the three Olsen brothers seems to have remained strong. After my great-grandparents’ home was destroyed in the flood of 1934, all three Olsen families moved to Vancouver Island, settled together in Sidney.
Ingvald’s letter to his brother Ole was written just after the Armistice. He doesn’t speak to dramatic battles or heroic rescues, but of looking forward to going home. While the letter was certainly interesting to me, I wasn’t sure it would have value for anyone else outside my family.
Before making any assumptions, I should have reviewed the website of the Canadian Letters & Images Project a little more thoroughly. Having first been a history student at VIU, and now an employee, I was already aware of the project, but what I didn’t know much about was its dedication to its objectives.
“Too often the story told of Canada at war has been one of great battles and great individuals, an approach that unfortunately misses the ‘ordinary’ Canadian and the richness of their wartime experience. This project attempts to make visible again those who have made contributions and sacrifices for Canada, but who now have become largely invisible.”3
If I had read this statement from the project’s website earlier, I could have put any unsureness about the letter’s value to the project aside. It’s like this statement was written with my exact doubts at mind. This made me think that there must be a great number of people who share the same reservations that I experienced. If you’ve hesitated about contributing your family’s photos or letters to the Canadian Letters and Images Project – please reconsider.
“Every item that comes to us in the collections has merit and so all collections will appear in their entirety. … Our place is not to judge the historic merit of one person’s experiences over those of another, nor is it to judge the appropriateness of language or content from the perspective of the present.”4
Dr. Stephen Davies and his project team were happy to add my family’s letter to the collection, and even returned it in an archival document sleeve to help preserve it for future readers. I was able to easily deliver the letter to the university, but if you aren’t able to do so, “The Canadian Letters and Images Project will make arrangements at our expense to have any materials picked up and returned by courier to ensure the safety of those materials.”5
If you have any war letters or photos in a family album or keepsake box in the attic, please think about sharing them. We must remember, and contributing to a collaborative project like The Canadian Letters & Images Project can help us to do so. Through this type of project, we can share with one another the wartime experience of “regular” Canadians like Ingvald Olsen, and we can continue to honour their service and sacrifice for years to come. Lest we forget.
1. According to some of my family documents, “Amerika” is what Norwegians of Ole & Ingvald’s generation called both the United States and Canada.
2. Leslie Kopas, Bella Coola Country (Vancouver: Illahee Publishing, 2003), 63.
3. “About Us,” The Canadian Letters and Images Project, Vancouver Island University, accessed December 1, 2018, https://www.canadianletters.ca/content/about-us.
4. “About Us.”
5. “About Us.”