A Canadian Love Story in WWI Silk Embroidered Postcards
Come with me gentle reader and admire some silk embroidered WW1 postcards as they tell the love story of Vernon and Beatrice. The Toronto Reference Library owns a small collection of these postcards, three of which a soldier sent back home to his Toronto girl.
Open up the lace flap on this card and see the small printed insert "To my dear friend".
"Dearest B, Love from far away. Bombardment now on which makes a terrible noise. Love Vernon X."
How poignant that Vernon wrote his loved one during a German bombardment. I imagine him in a trench or hut and writing by candlelight with his pencil - he was possibly afraid for his life and thinking of home.
The back of the card is below and has a more commonplace practical tone.
This is the Christmas card that Vernon wrote Beatrice.
Below is the back of the card:
This is another Christmas card Vernon wrote Beatrice. It's dated Belgium November 29 1915 and has her Toronto address. Through the combination of her name and address we were able to more fully trace their story.
The back of the card has a lovely Christmas message from Vernon but the address and name are faint.
I asked our Digitization and Preservation Department at the Toronto Reference Library to scan the back and enhance the name and address. Through the wonders of technology, and much like CSI, they did and it became very clear that Beatrice was Miss B. Thornton of 93 Bellwoods Ave in Toronto.
With her family name and address I used the Might's City Directories on the 2nd floor of the Toronto Reference Library (part of the Genealogy Collection). I discovered the Thornton family, including Beatrice and her brothers, living at this address. These directories are helpful for family research as they are arranged by both name and address. They are also available online if you want to use them from home. Here's the 1913 Might's Toronto City Directory.
From there I used Ancestry Library Edition / Ancestry.ca, a genealogy research tool, that is available free for use only on Toronto Public Library computers.
Beatrice Thornton married a Hugh V. Spence July 19, 1919. Searching his name I found V stood for Vernon. The mystery of who Vernon was suddenly became much clearer.
Library and Archives Canada has an online tool where you can look up Canadian WW1 soldiers by name and I found a great deal of information about him.
His attestation papers showed he enlisted at the beginning of the war on September 26 1914 when he was 24 years old. He had also served in the Queen's Own Rifles (QOR) for six years prior to his enlistment. He stood 5'10 1/2 inches and had dark complexion, brown eyes and dark brown hair. He had a scar under his chin. His unique service regiment number was 9068.
Very unusually, Hugh Vernon Spence's entire military service file has been digitized as a pdf by the Archives and there are 56 pages of military documents relating to him. He joined the 3rd Battalion, Infantry, Canadian Expeditionary Force and started the war as a private and ended in 1918 as a sergeant. He was awarded several medals including the Distinguished Conduct Medal on January 1916 ( the second highest award for gallantry (after the Victoria Cross), awarded to non-commissioned officers and soldiers for acts of distinguished conduct in the field). He was mentioned for outstanding service in dispatches. He suffered shell shock concussion and gas on June 17 1916 and was admitted to the No 2 Canadian Field Ambulance service.
Libraries and Archives Canada has online versions of the period War diaries of this unit (and others). When Vernon wrote Beatrice in November of 1915 his unit was at Dranoutre Belgium and also in the trenches. On November 6 - "Mud very bad, dugouts fallen in" according to the unit diaries and November 18 - "Considerable artillery activity on both sides."
- 9 a.m. Guns opened on trenches and wire opposite D section and other places. Fire continued intermittently till 1:30 p.m., and from then heavily until 3:30p.m. German wire cut in many places and trenches wrecked, large heads blown in parapet and many casualties caused. Germans who bolted from the shelled section over the open were badly caught by machine guns. One of the “Towers” of MESSINES CHURCH demolished, the other hit but not destroyed.
The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada Museum and Archives has transcribed all the war diaries of the 3rd Battalion on their own site arranged by year. This labour of love and respect is very helpful for research purposes as you can search them looking for specific names. In the transcribed 1918 war diary I did a search for Spence and found this:
The Belgian Government has awarded the CROIX DE GUERRE to No. 202001, Private A. Colvin, (deceased); No. 9068, Sergt. H.V. Spence (Stretcher Bearers)
Today, June 28 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria which was the spark that lit the tinderbox of Europe that became World War I, the Great War, the war to end all wars. The War that pulled Vernon from Toronto and Beatrice over to Europe and then back home.
Vernon was demobilized in late April 1919 in Toronto and married Beatrice in July of 1919. We don't know how Vernon's medals ended up for auction in England. Nor do we know how we got his and Beatrice's postcards. But now we know a bit more about their history and his military record.