In World War I, from 1914-1918, Canadian men were sent by the thousands to fight for their country in the battlefields of Europe. Many of these soldiers were young men, barely adults, yet they still ended up participating in one of the deadliest wars in human history. One of these brave young men was Edward Joseph Seidelman. Joseph, as he was more commonly called by, came from a Jewish family in Vancouver, BC. He lived with his mother and four younger siblings in the Grandview neighbourhood. In 1916, when Joseph was 18 years old, he enlisted with many of his fellow classmates from the University of British Columbia to fight in the Canadian Army. During his time in the army, Joseph wrote letters that he sent home to his family, 87 of which are in the collection of the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC. The subjects of Joseph’s letters ranged from descriptions of a soldier’s life to advice on household matters, with plenty of playful sibling teasing thrown in between. Along with Joseph’s wonderfully handwritten letters, he also sent postcards, telegrams and photographs. Tragically, Joseph was killed in action during the Battle of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917 and was not able to return home at the war’s end. Through these letters, the memory of Joseph as a caring son and brother, who dutifully served his country, lives on. (Click on the photos below to see the complete versions of each letter)
Joseph has arrived at Camp Hughes in Manitoba to begin his military training for the war. At the top of the letter, Joseph indicates he’s a part of the 196th Western Universities Battalion in Company no. 4. Joseph addresses this letter to all the members of his household (his mother, younger sister Rachel, and younger brothers Harry, Ben, and William), but directs it primarily to his mother. Joseph recalls his train journey from Vancouver to Manitoba, giving a funny account of his experience with the poor-tasting food on the train and the large sack of food given to him from his family at the train station. Joseph writes, “Now I must say I was mighty glad I was given that gunny sack full because the truck the C.P.R. doped us with on the train was simply rank and, instead of eating it, I threw it out of the window and ate what was given in the sack.” Joseph does however note some of the poorer selections contained in his food sack when he says, “By the way what on earth made you give me a jar of pickles? I could not use it and did not feel like using it so I have it unopened with me still and I do not know what to do with it”. It’s rather amusing, because it’s not hard to imagine an 18 year old today saying something like that, word for word. It seems that some things just don’t change, even after 100 years. After arriving at Camp Hughes, Joseph mentions that he and his fellow soldiers were received by the Duke of Connaught. At the end of the letter, Joseph’s older-brother style of teasing is evident when he writes to his mother, “Tell Rachel not to be lazy and refuse to write the letters to me or to anybody for you. The letters she writes for you on important business matter should be well punctuated and not foolish and should be good English.”
Joseph sends a postcard to his younger brother William, whom he calls “Willie”. The front of the postcard has a vivid painting of the mountain landscape of Mount Sir Donald in British Columbia. Joseph most likely bought this postcard at a stop along his train journey to Manitoba, and sent it to William at a later date. Joseph addresses the postcard to “Master William Seidelman”, and caringly writes to his younger brother that “If you are having a rotten time at home as you say I will send you some ice-cream in a letter which will make it better.” He then signs off the postcard with “from your lofty brother, Joe”.
Starting with this letter, for the most part, Joseph addresses all his following letters to his sister Rachel. At the time that Joseph is writing this letter he and his fellow soldiers are on “Harvest leave”, for a break from training. On his leave, Joseph stays on a farm in Tyvan, Saskatchewan. Joseph remarks that, compared to the food at the army camp, he receives some “classy meals” on the farm. Or as Joseph puts it, the meals on the farm “beat the army meals all hollow”. Joseph also mentions a “little creature” that was caught on the farm, and says the farmer’s wife gave him a photograph of the creature as a way to remember his time on her husband’s farm. This photograph of the creature (which is most likely a badger) is enclosed with the letter, and Joseph tells Rachel that she can keep the photograph for him.
Joseph writes that he spent the Jewish holidays with a Jewish family in Brandon, Manitoba, which cost him a total of 55¢ for the whole trip going there and back. About five or six families had wanted Joseph to stay with them for the holidays, but in the end Joseph stayed with the Kisners. Joseph adds that Mrs. Kisner’s 18 year old sister “certainly is some good looking chicken.”
Joseph has now left Camp Hughes, and is heading towards the East coast of Canada, most likely to board a ship to England. He spends most of the letter talking about family financial matters.
Joseph and his battalion are now in England for further training before going to France to engage in battle. In England, his battalion is stationed in Seaford, Sussex. Joseph sends a postcard with embossed paper edges and colourful embroidery of a dragonfly on the front, and has it addressed “To all the folks at home”.
Joseph begins this letter by jokingly poking fun at Rachel, asking her, “What sort of a mess did you make in the mid-term exams?”, regarding her university courses. Joseph talks about some of the differences he notices in the food options in England; specifically mentioning “We do not use butter in England but something much better than butter, called margarine. It is put up in blocks much similar to butter and cost only one shilling (25¢). You can get a good large cup of hot cocoa in Seaford town for only one penny (two cents) while you would have to pay 5¢ for in Vancouver.” Joseph also reports that a case of measles has broken out in the camp and thus some men are being quarantined for 16 days. He tells Rachel that he came close to being quarantined too. Towards the end of the letter, Joseph notes that his battalion is changing into an Officers’ Training Corps, which will require several more months of training.
At this time, Joseph does end up after all being quarantined for measles at his camp. Joseph writes that while in quarantine, the parcels of candy his family sends him have “come in somewhat useful because the only way to pass our time is to eat since we cannot pass it any other way.” Although, knowing that candy parcels are costly to send and that his family does not have much money to spend in the first place, Joseph implores to Rachel to stop sending him more candy parcels and says, “Now this is going too far altogether and should be stopped,- and I hope you do stop it”. However, Joseph adds afterwards to Rachel that, “you can send me socks if you like once and awhile.” After receiving a letter from Harry Dalkin, his cousin from the United States, Joseph asks Rachel to let Harry know that mail from soldiers in England sent to the United States are censored.
Joseph is no longer in the Officers’ Training Corps as it has been broken up, and thus it is assumed that he has departed Seaford and is on his way to the front in France. He informs Rachel that two large transatlantic liners, carrying about 12,000 sacks of mail, were torpedoed and sunk by German submarines. So he advises Rachel not to send him anything valuable in the mail. In the same letter, Joseph reports that the United States has broken off diplomatic relations with Germany. He urges his siblings to help their mother with things around the home, writing, “Say, Rachel, who gets up in the cold mornings at [sic] lights the fire? I suppose Harry does. If so he should continue to do so and not let mamma do it. Does mamma give out the washing? Don’t you let her do an ounce of washing, – make her give it all to the laundry.”
By now, Joseph has been “Somewhere in France” since mid-February of 1917, and is now part of the 46th Battalion. He sends this pre-typed up postcard, provided by the military, for the intention of quickly communicating to loved ones back home of soldiers’ current statuses. In this particular one, Joseph indicates that he is “quite well”.
In this letter, Joseph tells Rachel that he is currently in a hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds to his right leg. This injury might have occurred during the “big Canadian push” that Joseph had written about in an earlier letter dated April 7, 1917, in which he describes the ground being “all cut and plowed up with trenches.” Note the “Opened by Censor” sticker and “Passed Field Censor” stamp on the envelope.
Joseph writes that he still has not rejoined his battalion after his leg injury as another shrapnel piece was found still in his leg, and required more medical attention at the hospital. Joseph tells Rachel that the shrapnel piece was found with the aid of an X-ray scan, and the doctor let him keep the shrapnel as a souvenir.
Joseph has returned to his battalion by now. In this letter to Rachel he recalls that on the night of May 5, 1917, when he received his leg wound, he still made the effort to help out a wounded officer even though he too was injured. A telegram indicating Joseph’s return to the battalion from the hospital was sent to Joseph’s mother, Mrs. Esther Seidelman, on July 5, 1917.
In this letter, Joseph talks about having participated in the Canadian advance on Vimy Ridge in April 1917. This was most likely the “big Canadian push” which Joseph had mentioned previously in a letter from April 17, 1917.
Joseph sends home tags from different chocolate boxes. These particular tags are from the Tobler chocolate company, which later becomes known as the Toblerone chocolate company.
Joseph gives a very detailed account of an afternoon of rest for him and his fellow soldiers. While sitting “on a grassy lawn among the tall shady trees” some place in France, Joseph recalls a moment in which some French boys and girls were selling candy and chocolate to soldiers. He also writes about a Charlie Chaplin film playing later in the day in the “moving picture theatre”, and about buying items from a Y.M.C.A tent.
A short but affectionate note, Joseph reports “nothing to write about” in the last letter that he writes home.
Sadly, this postcard was the last item that Joseph would send home to his family before he was killed in action during the Battle of Passchendaele on October 26, 1917.
Condolence letters on behalf of King George and the Canadian Prime Minister were sent to the Seidelman family. An obituary of Joseph was also published in the Daily Province newspaper on December 13, 1917, which includes a short biography of Joseph and a summary of his time fighting in the war.
Private Joseph Seidelman was one of 15,654 Canadian soldiers killed at Passchendaele on October 26, 1917. All told, World War I claimed the lives of 38 million civilians and soldiers alike, over four years of fighting. Seventy-eight University of British Columbia students who lost their lives during the war, including Private Seidelman, are commemorated at the university’s War Memorial Gym alongside students lost from other Canadian combat missions. The courage and strength of these soldiers to keep going in the face of danger will never be forgotten. Now a hundred years old, these letters bring to life Joseph’s character. They show the kind of person that Joseph was: someone who was willing to serve his country under dangerous circumstances, and who always looked out for his family, even when he was away fighting on the battlefields of France. Though Joseph’s life was tragically cut short, his letters have kept his memory alive for close to a century, and will continue to do so for years to come.
This project has been made possible by the Government of Canada through the Documentary Heritage Communities Program of Library and Archives Canada.
I would like to thank the Board of Directors and staff at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia for their guidance and support during this project.
I would also like to give a special thanks to Perry Seidelman for his support and for providing further insight into the Seidelman family.
The Seidelman Family Fonds was digitized by Junie Chow under the supervision of archivist Alysa Routtenberg. This exhibit was guided by Alysa Routtenberg and Michael Schwartz.