Front-line letters give insight into soldiers’ wartime lives

“You’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Those are the words of Second World War veteran Donald White, describing the overwhelming euphoria engulfing the small town of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands after Allied Troops liberated it on April 15, 1945.

As part of CBC’s Remembrance Day special programming, we asked Canadian veterans and their families to read portions of letters that were sent home from the front lines during wartime. 

The letters capture the strength and legacy of Canada’s soldiers — through their own words. 


Private Jan de Vries

Private Jan de Vries was a paratrooper with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion during the Second World War.

Born in the Netherlands, he immigrated with his family to Canada when he was six years old and grew up here. When the war started it was his aspiration to join the air force, but he was rejected because he was colour-blind.

Dejected, one day in 1943 he saw a group of paratroopers. He says he was so impressed by them that he decided it was what he wanted to do. Private de Vries served for three years during the war and was part of D-Day, jumping from a plane over enemy-held territory and making a risky landing in complete darkness.

Private de Vries passed away in 2012. His widow, Joanne de Vries, reads a letter her husband wrote to a friend on Dec. 27, 1943, while training in England.

His letter reveals how the waiting around could be tougher on a soldier than the actual jump:

Private Jan de Vries was a paratrooper with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion in the Second World War, and took part in the Battle of Normandy. He passed away in May, 2012. A letter home that he wrote during his wartime service is read by his widow, Joanne de Vries. 1:12
  • WATCH | The National’s story about letters from the battlefield, Monday Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station, and online on CBC Gem

Edgar Patten

Lieutenant Edgar Patten served with the Canadian Infantry’s Central Ontario Regiment, “C” Company, 58th Battalion, during the First World War.

In his youth he was a gold medalist in mathematics and physics, but right after graduating from the University of Toronto he enlisted in the army. He was sent to fight on the front lines in Europe.

Lieutenant Patten was killed by sniper fire on Oct. 26, 1917, at Bellevue Spur in Passchendaele, Belgium. His family received a telegram informing them of his death a week later.

Dale Patten, his great niece, reads a letter Lieutenant Patten had written to his mother three days after the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In it, he remarks on what a historic victory it was for the Canadian troops:

Lieutenant Edgar Patten served in the First World War in the Canadian Infantry, Central Ontario Regiment. He was killed by sniper fire on Oct. 26, 1917, at Bellevue Spur in Passchendaele, Belgium. His letter is being read by Dale Patten, his neice. 1:05

Trooper Donald White

Now 96 years old and living in Oshawa, Ont., Trooper Donald White was just 16 when he enlisted with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in 1939. He served in the Second World War, fighting in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.

A prolific letter writer, he chose to read a portion of a letter he sent home to his parents on April 17, 1945 — just a few days after he took part in the liberation of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. 

In his letter, he talks about the euphoria of entering the town after liberating it:

Trooper Donald White fought in the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Dragoons. He enlisted at the age of 16 and served in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. He now lives in Oshawa, Ont., and is seen here reading a letter he sent home during war. 1:18

Lance Corporal George Leslie Scherer

Lance Corporal George Leslie Scherer served in the First World War. He left Ridgetown, Ont., in January 1916 at the age of 19 to join the 48th Scottish Highlanders.

He fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry.

A prolific letter writer, many of Lance Corporal Scherer’s letters were to Catherine Crawford, whom he married upon his return.

Lance Corporal Scherer passed away in 1952. His grandson, Norman MacInnes, reads an excerpt of a letter Scherer sent to Catherine from Rome on Nov. 28, 1917. In it, he shares what it felt like pulling the trigger and killing the enemy — something he admitted he was struggling with:

Lance Corporal George Leslie Scherer joined the army at 19 and fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge with the 48th Scottish Highlanders in the First World War. He was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry. His letter home from the battlefront is read here by his grandson, Norman MacInnes. 0:59

Major Jaime Phillips

At 24 years old, Major Jaime Phillips did a tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007.

She was the first female artillery troop commander in Kandahar and had 33 soldiers under her command, just one of whom was a woman.

Major Philips would keep in touch with her friends and family by sending them regular email updates. She reads from one such email where she talks about missing home:

Major Jaime Phillips served in Afghanistan and was the first female artillery troop commander in Kandahar. Major Phllips reads an email she sent to her family during her tour, in which she talks about missing home. 1:00

Remembrance Day on CBC

  • Watch our coverage, hosted from the National War Memorial in Ottawa by the National’s Rosemary Barton, on Monday Nov. 11 from 10 a.m. to noon Eastern Time on CBC Television, CBC News Network, stream it live on Gem, or via our CBC News app or cbcnews.ca.
  • CBC Radio will have special coverage of the Remembrance Day ceremony hosted by Susan Bonner with Karina Roman at the National War Memorial. If you’re in Ontario, Quebec or the Atlantic provinces, tune in at 10:55 a.m. ET. From anywhere else in Canada, tune in at 10:55 a.m. in your local time zone on CBC Radio one or the CBC Listen app.

Read more at CBC.ca