A Canadian Love Story in WWI Silk Embroidered Postcards

June 28, 2014 | Bill V.

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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. 

 

Silk WW1 embroidered postcard - flower design with insert and longer letter on back

 

Open up the lace flap on this card and see the small printed insert "To my dear friend". 

 

WW1 Silk embroidered postcard with insert. Flowers on front longer letter on back

 

"Dearest B,  Love from far away. Bombardment now on which makes a terrible noise. Love Vernon X."

 

To my Dear Friend printed and then in handwriting  Dearest B Love from far away. Bombardment now on which makes a terrible noise. Love Vernon.

                     To My Dear Friend - Souvenir de Glorieuse Memoire

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.

 

WW1 Silk embroidered postcard flowers on front with pouch and insert card  message on back starts dear Beatrice  A razor would be very handy
"Dear Beatrice - A razor would be very handy to me as the army razor is no good and I lost all my personal belongings but Mother can buy me one and send it to me out of my money which is going home. Your father and the boys will need theirs. Love yours as always Vernon.


This is the Christmas card that Vernon wrote Beatrice.

WW1 Silk Postcard Happy Christmas with flags of France and England and holly and with insert May the next one be with you
WW1 Silk Postcard "Happy Christmas" with flags of France and England and holly. Printed insert "My Christmas Wishes"  and handwritten note "May the next one be with you"

 

Below is the back of the card:

WW1 Silk Postcard Happy Christmas back message Dear Old Top    I wish you all the joys that one can have and hope that next year will be ours - Love from your own Vernon xxxxxx....
WW1 Silk Postcard "Happy Christmas" back message "Dear Old Top, I wish you all the joys that one can have and hope that next year will be ours - Love from your own Vernon xxxxxx...."

 

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.

WW1 Silk embroidered postcard Christmas Greetings (with pine cones and Church scene) November 29 1915. Mailed to Miss Beatrice Thornton at 93 Bellwoods Ave in Toronto.
WW1 Silk embroidered postcard Christmas Greetings (with pine cones and Church scene) dated on back Belgium November 29 1915.
 

The back of the card has a lovely Christmas message from Vernon but the address and name are faint. 

WW1 Silk embroidered postcard Christmas Greetings with pine cones and Church scene November 29 1915.  Dear Beat, with love and best wishes for a Merry Xmas and Happy New Year - your affectionat
WW1 Silk embroidered postcard Christmas Greetings (with pine cones and Church scene) Belgium November 29 1915. Dear Beat, with love and best wishes for a Merry Xmas and Happy New Year - your affectionate Vernon


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.  

Christmas Greetings Silk embroidered WW1 postcard 1915 with Beatrice Thornton's address and message Dear Beat With love and best wishes for a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year your affectionate Vernon
WW1 Silk embroidered postcard Christmas Greetings (with pine cones and Church scene) Belgium November 29 1915. Mailed to Miss B. Thornton at 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." 

On November 24 1915:

  • 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.
     
War Diary November 24 1915 of 3rd Battalion from Archives and Libraries Canada digitized copy.
War Diary 3rd Battalion Canada November 24 1915 (pg 9 of Nov 1915)

 

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)

 

In 2012 the British auction house DNW sold off Hugh Vernon Spence's medals.  

Hugh Vernon Spence WW1 medals from DNW auction site
A Great War D.C.M., M.M. group of eight awarded to Sergeant H. V. Spence, 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry.Hugh Vernon Spence was a pre-war member of the Canadian Militia, being an N.C.O. in the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, but it was for his gallant deeds in the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry, that he was awarded his D.C.M. and M.M. He was also mentioned in despatches in Field Marshal Sir John French’s despatch dated 30 November 1915, and awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre (London Gazette 12 July 1918 refers).


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.

 

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