Letters Home


A Cowboy Soldier in WWI 

Twenty-one-year-old Raymond Bell and his 18-year-old brother, Aubrey, were in a race against time as they finished the 1916 harvest. 

“We stacked hay like demons,” Raymond recalled, “rolling up that good old prairie wool with the bucking pole and side.” 

Their hard work was rewarded by their mother, who prepared a special meal of two roast ducks, shot by the boys that morning. Fifty-six years later, Raymond explained that the special meal was “a memory to carry one a long way.” And the brothers certainly had a long way to go; the next day they returned to Sarcee Camp and began their journey to the Western Front. 

Raymond served with the 100th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers) and fought at Amiens and Arras. Aubrey was eager to enlist and joined the 187th Battalion (Central Alberta) a few days after his 18th birthday. 

During the war both brothers sent hundreds of letters to their family, who continued to ranch in Millerfield, Alta. The letters detail Raymond and Aubrey’s new lives as soldiers. They also capture in vivid detail the loving and humorous relationships they shared with their 17-year-old sister Marjorie.

Raymond and Marjorie had a particularly close relationship. Raymond kept his “fling” in Seaford, England, hidden from his family, except for Marjorie with whom he shared “the unadulterated truth.” He explained that one woman “had the strangle hold on [him], but [he] managed to wriggle loose.” It appears that Marjorie also shared stories with her brother that she did not share with the rest of her family. 

Specifically, she told Raymond that she had seen a man at 2:30 a.m., causing Raymond to reply: “as for this 2:30 A.M. stuff, nix on that, or rather on the kid, as I am afraid he would be “napoo” (that’s a new one eh?) if he tried any of these stunts.” In a later letter, Raymond clarified that the word napoo is from two French words, which mean ‘gone under.” This definition suggests that his earlier message was a humorous threat. 

Like many brothers, Raymond also teased his younger sister. After she wrote to tell him about her new boyfriend, Raymond explained that he was “pleased to hear that [she had] a man at last,” teasing that she had “quantity if not quality” in her romantic ventures. Raymond also poked fun at his own dating life, asking Marjorie to send him “a nice engagement ring, or perhaps half a dozen would be better.” 

In addition to teasing Marjorie, Raymond also respected and praised her. He was especially proud of the farm work she performed. As Raymond explained in 

The Grass Roots of Dorothy, a 1972 community history book, Marjorie was a “husky girl,” who was called upon to “replace” her brothers while they served. During the war, Raymond commended Marjorie on her ability to break colts and brand calves. He was happy to hear that the ranch continued to grow during the war, telling Marjorie that the ranch would soon be big enough that she could call it “Riverdale Ranch without a blush.” 

Raymond wrote hundreds of pages telling Marjorie about his new friends and the weather and asking her about the homestead and their younger siblings. He also told Marjorie about the battles and violence he saw. In September 1918, he described the Battle of Amiens, telling Marjorie: “It was the grandest sight of my life that morning, you [could] see for miles behind the lines for cavalry, artillery and tanks all moving up to go over.” Raymond’s descriptions of war were not usually this poetic. Far more often they were blunt and dry — suitable reflections for a war that was rarely poetic or beautiful. First World War soldiers spent much of the war slopping around muddy trenches in the summer and frozen wastelands in the winter, hiding from snipers and praying that destructive shells would not fly in their direction. Soldiers spent the majority of their time outside the front lines digging trenches, transporting supplies and performing military drills. Large attacks provided the promise of action and 

heroism but often found soldiers facing barrages of machine fire and mustard gas. 

The disillusionment soldiers like Raymond felt was personified by “Old Bill,” a lazy and mischievous cartoon character created by British artist Bruce Bairnsfather. Old Bill was a relatable soldier with a dry sense of humour who was trying to survive, but not necessarily thrive, in a miserable war. Raymond appears to have especially enjoyed Bairnsfather’s cartoons and adapted this humorous tone when writing to Marjorie. When Raymond shares some of these humorous stories, he refers to himself as “little Willie,” a name that is perhaps modeled after Old Bill. For example, Raymond told Marjorie that the men in his machine gun company were often forced to clean the machine gun without him because at “cleaning time little Willie was nowhere to be seen.” Like many soldiers, little Willie also wished for a blighty, or a non-life-threatening injury that would allow him to leave the front lines and return to England to recover. Specifically, Raymond 

told Marjorie that he hoped to get the flu, as it “might mean another trip to [the] hospital, which would tickle little Willie all down to the ground.” Finally, Raymond told Marjorie not to expect him to win a medal for bravery, as little Willie often “duck[ed] when a code-box [came] over.” [“Code-box” was trench slang for a shell.] 

Raymond’s detailed letters allow us to reconstruct the close relationship that he shared with Marjorie. Unfortunately, far fewer of Aubrey’s letters are held at the Glenbow Archive (perhaps because the family choose to keep these letters rather than donate them). However, these few letters suggest that 18-year-old Aubrey and 17-year-old Marjorie also shared a special friendship. In one such letter, Aubrey described the towns he passed on his way to the Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec, humorously telling Marjorie that Eastern Canada was “all hills rocks shacks and bush [with] lots of tunnels,” however “Ontario has a pretty good supply of girls. Especially Fort William.” Aubrey also shared some of the frustrations of military discipline, which he faced overseas, telling Marjorie that the soldiers “have to shave every morning before breakfast — half the time the water is turned off, but they 

take no excuses… I have polished until my arms are near bust and nearly cussed my head off.” 

Marjorie likely found humour in these letters, but also worried about her brother’s health and safety. These fears materialized on June 20, 1917, when a telegram arrived at the local post office, reporting that Aubrey had been “missing in action” since June 3. After receiving this dreaded telegram, the Bell family was anxious to know what had happened to Aubrey and quickly began writing to the Red Cross, military officials and other soldiers at the front. Marjorie was not a passive bystander during this stressful time. Instead she searched through local newspapers printed shortly after June 3, looking for hints about where Aubrey’s battalion may have been and if it was possible that he was taken prisoner instead of killed. She then relayed this information to Raymond. 

On August 12, after a stressful period with no real leads, a soldier from Aubrey’s battalion wrote to the family saying he saw Aubrey killed on June 3, the morning he was reported missing. This letter took about three weeks to travel to Southern Alberta, meaning that Marjorie and her family finally received confirmation of Aubrey’s death nearly three months after he was killed. 

After receiving this terrible news, Marjorie continued to search for answers. 

She turned her attention to the mystical realm and enlisting the help of a Ouija board. She wrote to Raymond in the winter of 1917, telling him that the spirits suggested that Aubrey was not dead but, instead, had been taken prisoner. With hopeful doubt, Raymond replied, “I hardly know what to think. If he is [a prisoner], he would surely have communicated with us long before this, but [I] will hope the little board is right.” 

Marjorie was not alone in her ventures to the spiritual world. Countless Canadians turned to spiritualism during and after the First World War as a way to connect with their lost loved ones. The movement was driven by the immense grief caused by the war and the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. Spiritualism was also championed by elite members of British society like Rupert Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, who both lost sons during the conflict. Marjorie’s desire for answers and closure is certainly understandable as the only true “evidence” which proved that Aubrey was killed and not taken prisoner was the word of one man who claimed to have seen Aubrey killed during a violent and confusing battle. Aubrey’s body was never found, and he remains one of the 16,000 Canadian soldiers with no known grave. 

Raymond survived the war but was injured in the Battle of Arras. He was recovering in England when the war ended in November 1918. In January 1919, he returned to Millerfield and continued farming. In his 1956 family history, Raymond reflected on the many changes that had taken place in Millerfield during the war: “I left a district that was truly a homestead economy. Each one had only a few acres of crop, could cut hay almost anywhere, and very few road allowances were fenced. I returned to fair sized fields, quite a few worked by tractor, and nearly all fenced and cross-fenced.” Raymond further explained: “In many ways I found so many changes, I found it hard to adjust. I was restless and forever reliving those days in France. I missed the constant companionship of men my own age, but I seemed to have so little in common with our old neighbors.” Many First World War veterans shared Raymond’s struggle and had difficulty adjusting to civilian life after the war. 

Raymond likely struggled with the effects of war and losing his brother for many years. He also became a successful farmer and continued dating. He quickly found himself in need of a real engagement ring and wed Mary Lawson, a local girl, in 1920. The two went on to have four children: Jean, Dave, Irene and Stan.