Western history professor Jonathan Vance likens them to today’s text messages. Postcards sent from Europe by the men and women who served Canada during the First World War.
“The postcard was used to communicate quick thoughts, and they flew around in the millions during that time,” said Vance, a Distinguished University Professor and military scholar.
Over the past 15 years, Vance has read thousands of the postcards, archived as part of the Ley and Lois Smith War, Memory and Popular Culture Research Collection, and accessible to the public through the Wartime Canada website. The cards carry messages from – or pictures of – those who served during the war, from 1914 to 1918.
Now Vance is delighted to share those messages and pictures more widely through a special project, in which more than 400 replicas of the postcards are being mailed back to the original Canadian addresses that received them.
As the postcards re-enter the public realm around Remembrance Day, Vance hopes they’ll help connect Canadians to their compatriots of the past.
“I wanted to use this project to remind people that the men and women deeply engaged in the war were in their world, their communities and in their neighbourhoods. They have a connection with us in 2023, and this is just one way to remind people of that.”
The project got underway this past summer and was only possible, Vance said, through the commitment, enthusiasm and “dogged research skills” of recent graduate Alejandra Largo Alvarez, BA’23, and current fourth-year students Rylee Brooks and Bailey Ashton.
The most labour-intensive step for the students involved going through approximately 15,000 postcards to first ensure there was representation from different cities across the country and then, aligning the addresses from service records with those on Google Maps Street View, to determine which postcards corresponded with existing houses.
Ashton found the project to be “really fun,” but the service records sobering.
“There’s definitely a lot of emotional content in these service records,” she said. “Many of these people died before they could return home, and it’s noted there. Just thinking about family who still are alive with an emotional connection to some of these people definitely helped us feel the importance, and that this was something special we are getting to do for them.”
Reproducing the postcards required resizing to adhere to Canada Post guidelines, blocking out the original postage and name, and inserting a brief description of the subject or the sender, based on the students’ research, to give the recipient context.
Messages focused on home
The postcards also retain the original messages, reflecting a common theme – a focus on home and everyday life. Vance said what may seem like mundane talk about crops, cars, farm animals and neighbours, underscores the soldiers’ desire to feel part of home, while isolated on the front.
“The most consistent message is their desire to preserve these important family ties. I think that helped soldiers through difficult times. Everyone wants a reminder there’s a normal home life they can return to at some point,” he said.
Each postcard has a QR code for the Wartime Canada website and Vance’s email, for recipients seeking further information. Vance is eager to hear feedback from homeowners receiving the cards, but above all, hopes the experience causes them to pause and perhaps reflect more deeply this Nov. 11.
“I’m hoping they look at the picture, look at the message, and really think about the people who inhabited their house a century beforehand, and remember that these people were just like them, but just separated by 100 years.”
As time takes us further away from the First World War, Vance says the postcards help remind us of the sacrifices and service of veterans and keep their individual stories alive.
“The First World War is not a long dead historical event. It’s part of our community fabric, it’s part of our neighbourhoods. If the postcard gives them a few minutes of thinking about that, that would be terrific. If that happens, I’ll be happy,” he said.