Wetaskiwin soldiers faced hardship, loneliness in WWI

Letters from local soldiers who fought 100 years ago

This Sunday, on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. I would like to share a short story of three local men who looked forward to the day hostilities would end.

John Freeman Talbet Kelley was born on November 16, 1897 in South Dakota. He enlisted at the age of 18 in Montreal on December 8, 1915 and served in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in the Eastern Ontario Regiment. On November 5, 1916 he sent the following letter from the Branksmere Auxiliary Hospital, Kent Road, Southsea, Portsmouth, England.

Dear Natalia,

Your very welcome letter arrived this a.m. and was perused with great pleasure and enjoyment. You will have had the letter I wrote you from the 5th Southern before this and will know all about my good fortune on the 21st of September last. It certainly was the luckiest day of my life and I intend to celebrate its anniversary as long as possible. Will you help me in 1918?

How does Burt like the army? Tell him for me to stay in Canada as long as he can, because he will have enough of Europe before he’s through with it. I had a money order a short time ago and on the back of it was “Hello Freeman” signed by Van. Tell him, please, that I intend to write him as soon as possible, and in the present time his greeting is most heartily returned.

Larry Humnig[?], one of the 5th University Co. has been given 6 months furlough in Canada. Isn’t he a lucky dog?

He was wounded on the 16th of Sept. and contracted pneumonia (?) and the result is – Canada. Victor Horner is getting on nicely. Reg Boyce has lost a leg- Jack McAlring [?], Rennie Barnes, and Clyde Smith are still all right, as far as I know. Jack and Clyde joined the battalion on the 18th after we had been cut up on the 15th and 16th of September.

The leg is getting on splendidly and I’m afraid that I will be sent to a Convalescent hospital soon. However, I’ve had a pretty good rest and can’t complain, can I? There is absolutely no news to give you, Natalia, so I had better bring this to a close. Please write soon, and I will try to do better next time.

Yours as ever

Freeman

A couple of weeks after this letter was written, John’s father, Freeman Edward (F.E.) Kelley enlisted on November 20 at the age of 42. A month later, on December 27th, F.E.’s older brother Edward Richard Roden Talbot Kelley enlisted at the age of 43.

From their attestation papers we can learn a little more about the Kelley brothers. Edward and F.E. were born in Minnesota on April 16, 1873 and December 13, 1874 respectively and were living in Wetaskiwin when they enlisted. Like their son and nephew, both brothers had a fair complexion with blue eyes and light brown hair. The elder Edward was a laborer. He had previously served for three months for the 151st Oversees Battalion and stated he was willing to be attested to serve in the Army Service Corps. He was declared fit for service by the local Medical Officer but written across his personal information is the word “Rejected”. Edward listed his brother as his next of kin.

F. E. Kelley was married to Elizabeth Kelley, and they resided in Wetaskiwin. Mr. Kelley worked in real estate. He sent the following letter to Mrs. Chas Boyer from “Somewhere in France” on November 12, 1917.

Dear Mrs Boyer,

Received a Parcel tonight with shortbread in it so am sure it was from you and Charlie, although found nothing to indicate who was so kind to me. Now I will tell you what happened when it was handed to me we were at supper and of course I opened it. Just like a kid “you know”. At our table there are six Calgary boys besides myself and a Kamloops chap who is my “sidekicker” making eight of us all told. Well when I opened it and saw what it contained I had to share up but managed to get the tobacco in my pocket without them getting wise, so we had a jolly feast. The boys (all young chaps) all said they were going to get a wife like you when they get back to Gods Country, and I told them they were wise for I’d do the same only that I had one now a little bit better. It was not very nice for me to say that was it Mrs Boyer, but you know I could not help it. Now the (Brutes) swear they will all come to Wetaskiwin when this scrap is over to see you and my sweetheart so be prepared for a rough house when I get home.

How is Charlie and is his business still prospering. There is no news I can give you more than you can get from Mrs Kelley but someday I hope to be able to interest you in relating my experiences for the last few months.

I thank you and Charlie for your kindness for I can assure you it was a real treat and I appreciate it. Tell Charlie I love to get a letter from him and when you have nothing better to do you might drop a poor lonely chap a line.

Your Friend

F E Kelley

We do not have confirmation of when F.E. Kelley returned home to his family and friends. His son never did.

Lance-Sergeant John Freeman Talbot Kelley was killed in action on September 28, 1918, the day before the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor that the military situation facing Germany was hopeless – 45 days before the hostilities ended. Only 20 years old, John was buried in Canada Cemetery (Tilloy-des-Cambrai), Nord, France. His friends took this photo of his temporary grave marker and sent it home to his family. John Freeman Talbot Kelley was awarded the Military Medal Posthumously on November 2nd 1919.

We will remember them.

Dr. Karen Aberle is the Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Wetaskiwin & District Heritage Museum. She can be reached at wdhm@persona.ca.

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