I recently came upon a series of letters written in 1918 between two Canadian soldiers serving their country during World War I and their families back home near Toronto. The letters were donated by the families to an archive in Canada. Along the way, the family members also took the time to transcribe the letters since so many of them were written in cursive handwriting, a style that is not widely used today.
There are many letters in the file, but one stood out. It is the last letter that Lieutenant Geoffrey Heighington of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles sent home to his sister, Dora. That letter was written on October 16, 1918. Lt. Heighington asks his sister how she is doing after reading in a previous letter from their mother that Dora had fallen ill with a fever:
“Sorry to hear you’ve been laid up – or down – with the flu, which seems to be running through Canada same as it has in Europe. You bet we know what it’s like. It went through our outfit this summer, some were pretty ill with it, it is miserable. I was lucky enough to get away without a touch, wonder of wonders, eh what, in view of my past history. But I can sympathise just the same, and hope you’re going about again, as no doubt you are, and none the worse.”
The next letter in the collection is from November 5, 1918, from “Gertrude” to Captain Wilfrid Heighington, Geoffrey’s brother. Gertrude was a cousin of Wilfrid and Geoff living in England. In it, she expresses her sorrow on losing Geoffrey:
“As I am going through the same sorrow that you are having to bear now, you will understand that I know just how you feel, and with all my heart sympathize for you as I feel you will be doing for me. Geoff was to you all that Jack was to us, and this terrible separation from those we love seems all too hard to bear, yet one thing my sorrow has taught me is, that it is only a separation, and some day we shall all meet again.
I think out of all the men whom we saw soon after we heard the news of Jack’s death, Geoff was the one whom I felt really understood how much we were all feeling it, and tears came into my eyes, an unusual thing for me, when he kissed me because I could feel his wonderful sympathy for us all.
I know how much you all loved him, he was so splendid and so worthy of it all and I know how much he loved and admired you especially. The night he arrived he was not wearing his kilts, and in other officer’s clothes looked exactly like you and I told him so, in his nice quiet way he thanked me and said “that is the greatest compliment you could pay me.” I know Wilfrid, cousin mine, that it is an awful time for you to bear yet I know how splendid you will be through it all and what a comfort you will be to your sisters.
Geoff was one of the best and had lived such a splendid life that 1 am proud to be his cousin. I am hoping to go to the funeral with the rest of my family on Thursday. How I wish I could help you more.”
At some point between October 16 and November 2, Lt. Heighington caught influenza while on leave in Torquay, England. A letter from Wilfrid to his sister explains what happened, based on letters he received from Geoff’s fellow soldiers:
“Mrs. Hume Crawford or rather the mother of Hume called on Mother to-day and when I came home I found her quite broken up. Hume was with Geoff on his leave down at Torquay and in a letter from Geoff, which I received dated October 2st1, they were having a good time and seemed well. On the 26th Hume wrote to say Geoff was feeling rotten and the others went out motoring leaving him in bed. On the 27th he wrote to say they had a good doctor looking after Geoff and on the morrow intended to see him safely into a nursing home. Crawford ‘s leave was then up and he returned via London, visiting Argyle House and the Compstons whom he acquainted with the news. So it appears probable that Uncle John might have been there in time. At any rate, we can be thankful Geoff was under a good doctor, among friends and in a good clean hospital. Hodgson died too, and it seems Geoff might have caught it from him. Dear old Geoff – the true example of his college motto – “Terar dum prosim!” – best of soldiers, finest of men – “O the pity of it!””
These letters and many others like them tell us the story of what happened in the influenza pandemic of 1918. That pandemic was not contained to that year. We know now that it happened in waves, as most pandemics happen. In 2009, the last influenza pandemic began in northern Mexico and the southwest United States in the early spring of 2009. The virus quickly found its way around the world, but the activity in the US died down during the summer. Then, come fall, the virus returned along with its other influenza cousins, causing a very active 2009-2010 influenza season.
As we go through the COVID-19 pandemic, we should be mindful of our communications and how they will be read in one hundred years. Historians and scientists will want to know the details of what went on in these times, aside from what the official sources and the media have to say. Who is saving your letters to friends and family?