James Aitchison

The grimness of his own situation led him to fear that 1916 would be the ruin of not just himself, but his entire family.

As Private James Aitchison of the 14th Canadian Battalion crouched in a trench at the frontlines of the Somme, his thoughts drifted to the loved ones he had left behind. “There are hours and hours in the trenches when we have nothing to do but lie in our dug-outs, and my thoughts are of home all the time,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, Elizabeth, back in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Aitchison’s sporadic war letters paint the picture of a man trying his best to keep steady in the most trying of circumstances. He grows concerned after learning that whooping cough has infiltrated his home. The household drama unfolds over a period of months in tortuous, slow, and uneven bursts of information. With each new letter, he is updated: in one, he learns that his wife and two youngest children are sick. Another letter carries the terrible news that his infant son has died. Later, he is told his daughter, Nettie, has also passed away.

In his letters, Aitchison tries to console his wife, but the grimness of his own situation in France led him to fear that 1916 would be the ruin of not just himself, but his entire family. “We are all fatalists here but that doesn’t stop us from keeping our heads down when the bullets are flying,” Aitchison wrote to his wife in August 1916.

As the months wore on, Aitchison wrote of his wish to receive a medical discharge due to deafness — just one of the many conditions that should have prevented him from enlisting on June 25, 1915. He was also missing his right index finger and he was the sole support for his wife and then eight children.

On October 10, 1916, his wife read a newspaper story that said her husband had been injured by shrapnel and sent to England. Aitchison hoped that the injury would send him home. “I am all right for some time to come, and it is possible, owing to my deafness, they may not send me to the front again,” he wrote from his hospital bed in Woolwich. “Oh how pleasant it is to lie in a clean bed.”

His hopes of returning to Saskatoon would be dashed however; Aitchison died of his wounds on October 15, 1916 at a hospital in England. “My grandmother suffered sorely from her husband’s death,” said Aitchison’s granddaughter, Katheryn Broughton. “She and her eldest daughter Pringle could do nothing but stay in bed for two weeks.”

As soon as Aitchison’s death was reported, the soldier’s allowance for his family ceased and it took about a year for the widow’s pension to begin. In the meantime, the family was in such dire straits that Elizabeth took one of her daughters out of school to work. Elizabeth was also forced to apply for financial aid from the city of Saskatoon—a gesture that Broughton said was terribly humiliating for her. “She later attempted to return the money she had received from the city, only to be met with surprise and shock at her unprecedented independence.”

Eventually, the four eldest daughters secured secretarial jobs to keep the family afloat. The younger siblings were the only ones to receive a university education.

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