Port Alberni author Jacqueline Carmichael counts herself lucky that both her grandfathers survived the First World War.
She was even luckier to have grown up knowing one of them well: Charles Chapman, a member of Royal Canadian Legion Branch #49 in Parksville.
But it was her search to learn more about her paternal grandpa who died before she was born, George “Black Jack” Vowel, that eventually led her to write a book sharing snippets from his letters and journals, as well as the correspondence of many other soldiers.
Calling the book Tweets from the Trenches, Carmichael said she was struck by the similarities between the correspondence of those often young soldiers, and today’s social media generation who use web programs like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram instead of letters and telegrams to share about their lives.
Carmichael will be doing a book signing at legion branch #49 in Parksville (146 Hirst Ave. West) on Dec. 8 during their Christmas Craft and Bake Sale.
“I spent so much time there with (grandpa Chapman) when I was a kid, and I have such great memories of Parksville and the legion,” said Carmichael.
She said she felt lucky to have had that childhood time with Chapman, which she didn’t have with Vowel.
But Carmichael was not without a link to her paternal grandfather. Vowel’s wartime letters and journals were saved, providing Carmichael with unique insight into her grandfather as a young man, and his time in the war.
“I felt like I really got to know him,” she said.
She went on to research the existing letters, telegrams and journals of other First World War soldiers, and found that many sounded like social media posts of today’s age.
“Think of a telegram and you’re trying to save money by using fewer words. That’s pretty much like a Tweet, right? And there were scrapbook posts where there would be a picture and some words about it, and that’s very much like Facebook,” said Carmichael.
While she notes there was far less swearing in those wartime messages, she said the goal of the messages was the same as they are now.
“They wanted to reach out and connect. They were just really hoping that someone would (respond),” she said.
“They had social media just like we do,” said Carmichael. Theirs just wasn’t digital.
Before writing the book, Carmichael began with a social media experiment. She started tweeting and posting to Facebook as @BlackJackVowel or #AlbertaWorldWarISoldier, imagining her grandfather “‘hunkered down under a hunk of tin’ amidst pouring rain and artillery fire, desperately trying to be safe, while using a smartphone to communicate with loved ones a world away.”
In putting together the Tweets from the Trenches book, Carmichael said she hoped to reconnect people now to that First World War generation.
“I was thinking about my own grown sons and helping them understand their roots a little bit more, because both of my grandfathers are among the millions that fought in World War I,” she said. “But looking a little broader… we’re getting further and further away from the World War I generational, but I was trying to help people understand just how much like us they were.”
She said that she hopes her book inspires others to do their own research and find out what correspondence of their family members may remain.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, my grandpa fought in the war,’ and then it’s another thing to know ‘My grandfather was cold and hungry and his boots were wet all the time, and his eardrums were in danger of being blown out, and he saw people cut down right in front of him.’ The world looks different when you look at it that way,” she said.
Carmichael suggested seeking out online resources, such as canadianletters.ca.
Despite knowing her grandfather Chapman while he was alive, Carmichael knows comparatively little about his wartime experience. Nonetheless, she’s included a two-page part in her book about him, having learned a bit about his experience from medical documents.
“I feel really lucky that even though I didn’t know about his wartime service hardly at all except for going to the legion with him, I knew him personally. I knew what a remarkable and wonderful and beloved person that he was, so I feel really blessed that way.”
Carmichael will be signing her book at the Parksville legion Dec. 8 during the legion’s Christmas Craft and Bake Sale, running 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.