SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. – Despite the death and uncertainty surrounding him in the trenches of France during the First World War, John Edward O’Connor remained a romantic at heart, sending numerous notes and gifts expressing his undying love to his sweetheart back home in Cape Traverse, P.E.I.
Florence Gallant of Summerside now keeps them as a reminder of what her grandparents went through – proof, she says, that there are no boundaries when it comes to true love.
“He was a blacksmith and his wife, Mary, worked in the Cape Traverse post office. She was always excited to get mail from him and share the news with the neighbours,” explained Gallant.
O’Connor joined the 105th Battalion (P.E.I. Highlanders) with three other blacksmiths from Cape Traverse – Ken Bell, Bob Laird and Keith Boswell. They sailed across the turbulent Atlantic Ocean to England, before being stationed in the muddy trenches of France.
“Three came home and one died just a day before the war ended,” said Gallant, pointing to a sepia-coloured picture of a white cross.
Bell was just 18 when he was killed in action.
“Shells were constantly flying over them in the trenches. My grandfather said his hair got frozen to the mud when he slept, and he had to cut it off in the morning. There were mice and rats. It was terrible.”
Special picture postcards became an escape from the horrific reality the soldiers faced, as well as a way of expressing to their family and friends that they hadn’t been forgotten. Some of the postcards are painted and others are embroidered with cotton, silk or lace.
“His words on the back are often short and informal,” said Gallant.
But the romantic images and poetry on the front of the postcard revealed hidden messages of the intense emotions felt, which were often too hard to capture in words or forbidden from revealing.
Moreover, the bright postcards and gifts – silk aprons, handkerchiefs, bottled sand and war art – to his wife helped keep O’Connor centred when all else felt lost.
“He was almost 45 years old when he went to war. A year later, he would have been too old to join. But because he had a special skill as a blacksmith, he was put in charge of the horses (a primary form of transportation during the war), “although sometimes he had to shoot the horses if they got stuck in the thick mud.”
The postcards trickled to a stop when O’Connor returned to P.E.I. after the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
“When the soldiers first went over, they said, ‘we will be back in time for Christmas or spring.’ They had the attitude it would all be over in no time. But when he came back home, he said, ‘I left a little girl and now there’s a young lady in the house.”
The war lasted exactly four years, three months and 14 days.
“He was changed after the war and no longer the happy-go-lucky man that people knew,” remembered Gallant.
But the couple remained married, and in love, right into their old age.
Now, 104 years later, Gallant keeps all her grandparents’ postcards, war medals and art, as well as newspaper clippings, pictures and gifts sent from France in a “time capsule” shoebox.
“I’m going to give them to a museum in Charlottetown because Summerside doesn't have a military museum,” said Gallant.