Students bring Great War to life through one family’s letters

Michelle Hamilton was looking for a way to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. What she and her students found was an intimate portrait of a prominent local family.

After sifting through and transcribing thousands of pages – from nearly 500 letters – Hamilton’s students, enrolled in Western’s Public History program, curated a book, This Hour of Trial and Sorrow: The Great War Letters of the Leonard Family. The collection features selected wartime correspondence of London brothers Ibbotson and Woodman Leonard, who were stationed in Europe, and their family members – the Leonards of London’s E. Leonard and Sons foundry – who were enduring the effects of the war at home.

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“This is a historical, documentary book. The Leonard family was pretty well connected, well known and in a lot of local publications,” said Hamilton, who teaches History at Western.

Every year, the Public History program commits to a real-world project that connects students to the community. This family, and its lengthy written history, was a good opportunity for students to do just that. With some 495 handwritten letters – some of them 20 pages or more in length – the Leonard family stories housed within were relatively inaccessible to the public. Hamilton’s students transcribed the letters, all of them, word for word, and selected ones they felt were most important to feature in the book.

“What makes the letters interesting is it’s two brothers, Woodman and Ibbotson. Woodman was a major and well up; Ibbotson was a private colonel. They didn’t start off as privates; they were already high up, which makes it different. They’re in a position where they know more than a private and they have more time to write,” said Scott Dickinson, one of the students in Hamilton’s class.

Not only do the letters paint a wartime portrait of events and battles in Europe, they also give a glimpse of life in London at the time. Stories about the Leonard foundry, shortages and even intermittent power outages in London show up in the brothers’ letters.

But the 14 students in Hamilton’s class got to know more than battles, front lines, war history and London happenings. They also got to know Ibbotson and Woodman – personally – so much so, when speaking casually about their project, they refer to the brothers as ‘Ibb’ and ‘Wood.’

“Ibb and Wood were very different people. Ibb is very proper and sentimental; Wood is kind of a jerk,” Dickinson said.

“Anytime you read correspondence between family members that was meant to be private, it’s difficult not to develop some sort of attachment with who you’re working with,” added classmate Frank Smith.

Woodman died in 1917, during the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge in France, an iconic Canadian battle. While he never returned home, Ibbotson returned in 1918 – 10 days before the ceasefire. He was granted a request for compassionate leave; the case he made to the appeal board was his father was bringing the family business into questionable finances.

“Most of the letters I had were from the father – business letters – and they kind of get old. But after Woodman dies, you get a brief glimpse of his personality and his emotion, which at the time, you don’t get a lot of (from men). But you get that he really did feel for his sons, Reading, ‘He was such a good boy.’ Reading even one line after many letters of boilers, that gives you a glimpse,” continued Dominik Svehla, another student in the class.

Transcriptions of the letters will be put into Western Archives, where Woodman’s personal diary can be seen, Hamilton said.

“The students did research to contextualize the events that may not mean anything to the average reader – but now the whole package is more accessible. We will be donating a number of copies to the London Public Library system, the Middlesex County Library system and to Weldon, as well,” she added.

“We found descendants that live in Toronto, who are interested in their family history and we will be sending them a copy as well. There’s a personal connection and a London connection. It’s a good time to remember the people who went overseas and fought, and the people who stayed home and dealt with the struggles here.”

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‘This Hour of Trial and Sorrow: The Great War Letters of the Leonard Family’ is available through The Book Store at Western, Attic Books and various online book retailers.