A letter from a soldier to a kindhearted volunteer back home has found its way to Alberni Valley Museum collections curator Kirsten Smith’s mailbox. And the letter reveals snippets of life during the First World War—both from a resident serving overseas and another who helped the war effort from the home front.
“Dear Mrs. Burde,
Your parcel received two hours ago. Many thanks. It sure was kind of you to think of me and socks are what we will certainly need before long…
”How is Alberni same as ever I suppose? I had eight days sick leave which I spent in London. It sure is some busy. A person would have to live in London for a few months to see it properly…”
In August 1916, a soldier by the name of Mack was stationed in Bramshott, a small village in Hampshire, England. He was a member of the 102nd Machine Gun Section with the Canadian Army, and had just received a care package from home in Alberni. The package was welcome, he wrote to its sender, Mary Eleanor Burde, particularly since he had recently spent seven weeks in hospital with rheumatism. The heat in England was oppressive enough in August that regiments could not hold drills, but Mack expected he wouldn’t be long for England, and the heat would disappear soon enough.
“Letters are always interesting. I find they’re interesting bits of history,” said Smith. She received this particular letter as a gift from a cousin who is an archivist with the Seaforth Highlanders Regimental Museum in Vancouver.
Her cousin had loaned a uniform to a travelling exhibit in 2016 called “British Columbia’s War, 1914–1918,” hosted by the Royal BC Museum and which spent time at the Alberni Valley Museum (November 2016 to January 2017).
Letters are becoming rare gems, said Smith.
“That’s one of the things archivists talk about is that people do e-mails now. You don’t get letters—it’s not as common, a hand-written letter. Everything is in the digital sphere so they don’t pop out of the woodwork the same way.”
Mrs. Burde was married to R.J. Burde, who was a colonel in the First World War. One of her portraits is at the Alberni Valley Museum, and Smith was able to track some of her history to connect with the letter.
“Where has this letter been,” she pondered. “It wasn’t in Port Alberni. It got shipped back here from Vancouver. It was written in 1916, it’s been kept around, somebody saved it in its original envelope with the postmarks, and now it’s made its way back to Port Alberni.”
There is another connection between the soldier, Mrs. Burde and the museum.
For the 2016 First World War travelling exhibit, students from Alberni District Secondary School researched several men and women from Port Alberni who were involved in the war.
During research for the exhibit, staff discovered a pattern for socks knit during the First World War—likely a similar pattern that Mrs. Mary Eleanor Burde used for the pair she sent to Mack in his care package.
The museum creating a sock knitting class using the pattern, and it was so popular they held several classes, said Smith, who is also a knitter.
While the letter was sent to Smith personally, she said she will likely donate it to the Alberni District Historical Archives, which takes care of paper records for the Alberni Valley (the museum looks after physical artefacts).