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Lonesome Canadian officer yearned for a ‘peaceful' life

Lieutenant's letters bear witness to the vagaries of war in the months leading up to V-E Day

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

He wrote often, sometimes every evening, in tight slanted script on blue Armed Forces Air Letters. The forms were rationed to one a week, but Lieutenant William Richard Graham secured a steady supply to tell his Doodie how much he loved her.

Mostly he begged for news from back home in Newmarket, Ont., especially about the baby girl he barely knew. His mail wasn't getting through regularly and he was so lonesome.

The letters, written after Lt. Graham sailed for England on Christmas Day, 1944, bear witness to the vagaries of war in the months leading up to V-E Day.

In the United Kingdom, the former milkman deemed the alcohol pricey, the weather chilly and the toilet paper scarce. In Belgium, a meal of eggs and chips was dear and the buildings seemed to “breathe the continental atmosphere.” In Germany, however, he found himself in “very dramatic circumstances.”

“I'll certainly be glad when this is over. And I say that with more fervour than I ever thought possible,” the 26-year-old wrote by candlelight from a destroyed German house on Feb. 24, 1945. “It will be so nice to settle down and live peaceful, normal lives again. I adore you my own dear wife. ... Take care of yourself and Susan. We'll all be together soon.”

Six days later, on March 2, Lt. Graham of the Essex Scottish Regiment was killed in the battle of the Hochwald Forest in Germany.

Four days after he died, a letter from his wife arrived bearing two small snapshots — one of a Christmas tree, the other of baby Susan — and news that the Pablum Eater, as he called her, had learned to roll over in her playpen. “I love you with all my heart and Susan and I will be waiting right here for you,” she wrote.

The letter was returned to Mrs. Graham stamped “Reported Deceased” with a Return to Sender label that said: “The Postmaster General deeply regrets the circumstances which make this necessary.”

Just over two months after Lt. Graham fell, Germany surrendered and V-E Day was declared on May 8, 1945.

For the better part of six decades, his letters lay forgotten in his rattan steamer trunk tucked in a dusty back corner of his brother-in-law's basement. In late 2003, Todd Taylor, Lt. Graham's great-nephew, discovered the chest — which also contained his shaving kit, utensils, gas mask, medals, photographs, an ashtray fashioned from a bombshell and a Nazi arm band — and began a mission to find out more about the great-uncle his family never really knew.

“I wish we took better time to remember what's gone on before us,” said the 28-year-old Toronto-area teacher, who uses the trunk to teach his students about the Second World War. “It puts a human face on the war. You suddenly realize that this is someone who had a family here.”

Lt. Graham's widow, Doodie, remarried and died in the late 1990s. Mr. Taylor said the family has lost contact with Susan.

These excerpts from Lt. Graham's letters to his wife tell the grim and personal story of war:

Dec. 26, 1944: Well we are on our way darling. And the sea is really rough. ... The ship is really heaving, and from all indications my stomach is going to be doing the same soon.

Dec. 31: I could write and tell you what a wonderful year this has been darling and all the happiness you have given me. But I am trying to think of other things. If I don't I'll be weeping all over the place.

Jan. 1, 1945: Happy New Year darling . . . I didn't even stay up for the celebrations. ... There is only one woman on board (the ship's nurse . . .) and the fellows got her pretty high. She tried to dance with some of them but the rolling and the drinks only made it a comedy.

Jan. 2: We are still rolling madly around the Atlantic. It is awfully monotonous. I sometimes think I'm going mad.

Jan. 4: Great excitement to-day. A baby whale was spotted. Unfortunately I didn't see it. But we have something to talk about now.

Jan. 7: I went to communion this morning. It was quite a show. It was hard to keep balance whilst receiving the wine.

Jan. 9: We land in a very few minutes. It has been a very interesting day. We saw two robombs exploded in the air. They were an awful long way away so we didn't see the bombs themselves. But it was quite a reception.

Jan. 10: [Telegram] DARLING ARRIVED SAFE ADDRESS LATER LOVE BILL GRAHAM

Jan. 11: With luck I go on leave for nine days to-morrow. I wired Granny to-day. It will be nice seeing them again. I hope it knocks some of this lonesomeness out of me.

Jan. 22: Your description of Susan's first Christmas made me feel I could see all these things she received — and her Mummy got ‘tanked up'. And so did Granny! Shocking! I wish I could have been with you darling. But we were on the ship that day. I couldn't let you know. We were under a security guard that was real.

Jan. 24: We have completed our move. ... we have a good bunch of fellows in the hut. . . . We have started the S.P.C.E.L. — Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the English Language. There is a fine of threepence for every cuss word.

Jan. 25: We just moved to another camp. . . . It was two months yesterday that we left Vernon and we hadn't done any thing in the meantime. . . . Our quarters are better. No warmer I'm afraid, but at least there is a place to write and a shower. . . . One thing I am happy to say — the food is good and is plentiful.

Jan. 26: Everyone seems to think the war in Europe will be over by late Spring or early Summer. I hope so. . . . (I just thought of something you can include in my parcels darling. Toilet-paper! This stuff is cruel, and not too plentiful.) . . . I have had four redirected letters from Debert, but none direct from you darling. And I am desperately short of cigarettes.

Jan. 30: Oh happy day! I received two very wonderful letters from you my darling. . . . Gosh — imagine our daughter 17¼ lbs! She must be a terrific size. . . . There is no fun being so far away and depending on snaps to watch your daughter growing up.

Feb. 5: I don't know what is happening to my mail darling. . . . all the Toronto fellows got a stack except me. But I know it isn't your fault darling. You are using the right address too. I don't understand it.

Feb. 6: Oh happy day! I received a letter this evening. . . . Believe me darling, I wish I was home too. . . . Please godam war finish soon.

Feb. 11: (I think)he wrote after the date The pay-off battle has started in Europe. I hope to get over to the unit soon — very soon. . . . I dreamed of you all last night. I hated waking up this morning. The terrible part of it was, we both knew it was a dream and we kept saying it was too bad that I'd be waking up in England.

Feb. 13: There has been no fuel at all for three days now. . . . At least we'll have hot water in the morning, I hope.

Feb. 14: Valentines Day — but I don't have to ask you to be my valentine, darling. I know you are mine. . . . I am afraid you'll have a break in your mail for a couple of days. But it is entirely out of my hands dearest. . . . Please don't worry about me. I have our love to look after me. And I'm not out for any medals or promotions. I love you and Susan too much to take any unnecessary risks.

Feb. 19: [Datelined Belgium] The people have made a very quick recovery. I expected to find the children, in particular, showing signs of the years under the Nazis. But everyone is very healthy looking. The women are not at all shapely by our standards. But their morals are shockingly and disgustingly low . . . Say — I just re-read the statements . . . don't misinterpret them . . . I know you love me darling and it isn't necessary for me to ask you to trust me. . . . The day was spent censoring mail. That is a very distasteful job. I hate reading mail other than yours my darling. . . . The hateful part of leaving England was the destroying your old letters. I couldn't even put them in my trunk.

Postmarked Feb. 27: [Letter's date was blacked out by a censor. Datelined Germany] At this moment I am in very dramatic circumstances. It is from such positions that wars are won. At least the movies lead one to believe it. I am in a ruined house with a candle in a bottle, artillery is roaring overhead and machine guns chattering in the distance. But don't worry darling, it is quite safe. We are some distance back. I have my own platoon and they are a great bunch of fellows. . . . I'll be glad when this mess is finally finished and we can settle down as human beings. It will not be long now.

Feb. 24: [Datelined Germany] I am afraid my letters are going to be few and far between dearest. I am kept pretty busy. . . . I can't tell you anything about what is going on. . . . How is our Susan? . . . Does she miss her Daddy? The little devil probably gurgles and chuckles away to herself and is completely ignorant of my existence. But I love her just the same. I certainly miss her too, darling. Have I told you that I love you . . . my own Doodie? Well I do darling. More than you'll ever know.

In conjunction with the Dominion Institute and its Memory Project, we asked readers to submit the last letters of Canadians who died in the final months of the Second World War. This week, we present three of the soldiers' stories.

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