Enriching UCalgary’s archives and special collections

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A century ago, Canada’s soldiers fought in the trenches of Europe as the First World War raged. The voices of two of these soldiers can still be heard thanks to vividly worded letters they sent to a central Alberta family from the frontlines. 

The Military Museums Library and Archives, part of UCalgary’s Archives and Special Collections, is the grateful recent recipient of a philanthropic donation of wartime correspondence from the Coppock family. These treasured letters from Harry Long and Joseph Bainbridge keep wartime memories alive and provide an important source of study for future researchers and genealogists. 
 
Long and Bainbridge were both born in the UK, with Long one of the earliest residents of Castor, Alta., a town about 280 kilometres northeast of Calgary. Long served as a stretcher-bearer with an ambulance corps, while Bainbridge addressed one of his letters from the trenches of France, where he once manned a machine gun. Both kept in touch with Castor’s Coppock family while serving in the war.

“Harry Long was a friend of my grandparents and my mother — this was a young neighbour they had become close to, and a couple of letters were addressed to my mother, who was about 10 at the time,” says Catherine Schaffner, who donated two dozen letters they’d received from Long and Bainbridge. 

“When my mother passed away, the letters were among the boxes of things I brought home. I transcribed them and my daughter used excerpts from them — she teaches school in Castor — but I didn’t know what to do with the originals. I didn’t want them destroyed.”

Instead, Schaffner donated them to The Military Museums’ archive. 
 

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Assistant Archivist Jason Nisenson says such donations often serve as sources of items for their collection that includes diaries, documents, photos, letters and propaganda dating as far back as the Boer War.

“Someone cleans out their attic and finds these letters and feels that it’s time to pass them on,” Nisenson says, adding that their value goes beyond their use for research. “These are someone’s memories — it’s the last thing left from their experience.” He says the collections attract not only academic researchers, but also people exploring their family history. 

Long and Bainbridge both survived the war. Long remained in contact with Schaffner’s grandparents for a time; he became a farmer in Saskatchewan. Bainbridge, she says, became a minister. 

“With the Armistice almost 100 years ago, what’s interesting is these letters were kept by the family — it bridges the gap between then and now,” says Nisenson.