Erin Doupe Transcript

So the project called The Story of a Soldier. And we take names from the Guelph cenotaph. We're looking at the World War One fallen from Guelph, and we use the Library and Archives of Canada website and some other primary source database piece to piece together what their lives were like before they became a soldier, and then to find out what happened to them during the First World War.

And in the end, the students create a one page short essay, and we mail it to their former homes so we can find where they used to live in their attestation paper and their digital service files through the library and archives. And so we find where those homes are today in Guelph, and we send a letter to the occupants of that current residence and let them know a little bit about the history of their home and the people that used to live in it.

We've actually had one time where we sent a letter to a home where the family still resided in the home. So it was a niece of the soldier that had been killed in the First World War, and she actually came right to the school. She was so excited to get a letter to talk to the student and meet with them and talk a little bit more about the research that the student had done. And then she could fill in some of the information for us that we couldn't find in the historical record. 

We've also sent letters to churches because quite a few of the soldiers that are on Guelph cenotaphs had fathers that were ministers. And so we sent a letter to the church, and members of the congregation have reached out and they had some pictures in their church as well that they've invited the students to come and see.

We've even had just people who knew nothing about the history of Guelph, who've recently moved to our city, received a letter, and they were so interested in learning more. They've contacted us about how we found the information. If they could send if we could send them the website so they could look it up as well. 

And we had a World War One historian receive a letter, and they sent a book that they had written to the student that had wrote the letter as well. So we've had really great response from our community when they received these. 

I was listening to the radio and they were talking about a professor in Peterborough that had been sending postcards for the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War to members of the 60th Battalion, which was where his grandfather had fought. And I was thinking like, you know, we could totally do that in Guelph.

We have so many old homes. We have this military tradition in our city. And so I started looking into the cenotaph. I found a great article by Ed Butts that had provided a bit of a summary of everyone that was on the cenotaph. And then we started digging around in the service files and finding the addresses, and it just kind of came together.

And we that first year we sent out those letters and we had a great response from the people that received them. So we just thought, let's do every one. So each year since, we've just been tackling more of the names on the cenotaph and we've now sent a letter for every single person that died from Guelph in the First World War.

The students have been passed that cenotaph a hundred times, a thousand times, and really didn't pay much notice. They knew it was there for Remembrance Day, but they really didn't understand the significance of it. 

Doing the research and realizing that these young men and we do have one woman, a nurse from the First World War on the Guelph cenotaph don't really have a final resting place that their families could have visited, most of them were buried over in France and Belgium.

Some of them, their bodies were never found after they were killed in battle. And so they don't have a place for people to go and to remember. And that's why the cenotaphs were created. And so we passed by those names and we don't have a connection to them anymore because of the time that has gone. And so this allowed our students to do the research and to breathe life back into those men and the woman on Guelph cenotaph and see who they really were as people, and to recognize that they had lives very much like their own right.

We found the young men that had enlisted when they were 18. Some had enlisted when they were 17. We found one guy who tried at 16, got caught, tried at 17, got caught. My students could identify with that. They were 15 and 16 years old. We went into the War diaries and that gave us a snapshot of what a day in the life was. And we looked up specifically the day they were killed in action to find out what kind of fighting was happening and what that fighting was like. And I remember sitting beside one of my students and he had a soldier that was killed on the first day of action of the last hundred days. And when we pulled up that date in the war diary for the 13th Battalion, it talked about 10 hours of hand-to-hand combat. And it just completely changed the nature of war and what these young people went through. What we asked teenagers to do for their king and for their country. 

We love stories. We use stories to teach. We use stories to learn about our society and the people that we are and have become. But some of the stories we tell are only half the story. And when we study history, we're looking deeply at the story. We're looking at what's been left out. We're thinking about why things have been left out and we're trying to craft a narrative that includes more of the voices and more of the experiences and understanding why we haven't had a complete version of this story. 

When we did this assignment my students knew about Vimy Ridge. They they knew a little bit about Passchendaele because there was a movie that had come out. They didn't know about Hill 70. They didn't know about Mount Sorrel. When we took a look at the War Diary and we looked at where our soldiers were, were falling in action, it was St Eloi Craters.

These weren't glamorous victories. These were hard battles, and these were times where Canada had lost. And it wasn't part of that narrative in that glory of the First World War that we often talk about as our nations coming of age experience. And so my students got to see the true nature of war, and they got to see what it did, not just to the the young men fighting, but also to their families back home.

We noticed a pattern when whenever there was a soldier who had a father that had passed away and a surviving mother, she often was renting and she typically was moving at least once a year. So her address kept changing in the record. So we reached out to the museum to find out why are the women moving. And so we found out that a lot of the landlords were raising rents. And so the women weren't the ones who negotiated the rent. And so they were often left scrambling, trying to find funds to pay the rent and were moving from place to place because they had an insecure housing situation. We actually had one woman that moved into a church for a period of time. So it really challenges this idea of people coming together with the war effort, working together as a community.

Here were women with sons at war, with husbands that had died and they were on their own, like people weren't looking out and taking care of them, and they were moving every couple of months or every year to a new place of residence. So it really kind of challenge some of the things that we thought or assumptions that we had made about what wartime society was like.