Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: The Baragar Letters
During the First World War, letters going to and from the war front were plentiful as they were the main method of wartime communication. The ability of soldiers at the front to communicate with friends and family at home was considered “essential to morale” by both the Canadian and British armies.  Archival collections containing letters from the First World War are not uncommon, but comprehensive letter collections that follow a soldier throughout their service during the war are less readily available.
The Frederick D. Baragar fonds, held by the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, is a collection of letters written by Canadian soldier Frederick (Fred) Drury Baragar. The fonds is comprised of letters sent home to his family and fiancée between 1914 and 1919. Baragar graduated in 1914 at the age of 22 from the University of Manitoba’s Wesley College with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in early 1915 while obtaining an Education degree from the University of Toronto. Baragar trained in Kingston, Ontario, and then went overseas in August 1915. The letters in the collection follow Baragar through the war until his decommissioning in Canada in the spring of 1919.
The largest portion of the collection is letters sent to Baragar’s fiancée Edith Robertson. Dan Azoulay, in Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900-1930, argues that still-existent large collections of letters for this era, which provide evidence for romantic relationships and how they were carried out, are quite rare.  Moreover, Azoulay writes that preserved collections of this type generally provide evidence for “upper class” people. Baragar’s letters to Robertson give us evidence of middle-class romantic interactions spanning the entirety of the war. The couple got engaged in May 1915, and the day of their engagement was the last time they would see each other until Baragar returned to Manitoba post-war.
The letters to Robertson and Baragar’s “Folks at Home” also provide a myriad of references to daily life on the family farm in Elm Creek, in Winnipeg, at Wesley College (then of the University of Manitoba, now the University of Winnipeg), and other tidbits of Manitoba’s wartime history. The letters detail soldier training in Canada, in England, and at the front lines in France, as well as the process of officer training later in the war. There are also glimpses into the work of military doctors in England and of British/Canadian fighter pilots thanks to the work of Fred Baragar’s brothers Art (Charles Arthur) and Frank (Francis B.). Baragar’s letters further cover topics such as soldiers’ food, bathing habits, sleeping quarters, mail history, and the availability of resources and entertainment at the front lines. And though censorship caused Baragar to address his letters as from “The Somewhere,” by matching up the dates with the official war diaries for the units in which he served, we are able to pinpoint the locations where most letters were written, and track military activities, which could not be relayed in letters at the time.
One of the most exciting features of this collection are the letters that detail the author’s experience of the November 11th armistice. Baragar describes the general atmosphere, providing us with some insight into the end-of-war experience at the front lines. When the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, Baragar was serving with the 1st Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery, positioned at Quarouble, France. On 12 November 1918—the day after the armistice events—Baragar wrote two letters: one to his fiancée Edith Robertson, and one to his brother Ernest Baragar. In Baragar’s post-armistice letter to his fiancée, we are quickly presented with an emphatic, end-of-war declaration: “Oh Edith – Thank God – the ‘great killing’ is over, the victory ours. Peace again shall reign in the land.”
Baragar’s letter described his journey back to France on the 9th, after taking leave in England; he was halfway back to his battery when news of the armistice reached him on the evening of 10 November. On the morning of 11 November 1918, Baragar travelled by freight train:
He explained that he spent the night of 11 November in a Chateau before he “hopped a lorry” and reached his battery on the 12th. Baragar also observed the postarmistice experience of the local French people near the front line: “On the roads all day have been the sad sight of impoverished people seeking again their homes – bearing all their goods in hand carts & wheelbarrows.”
Baragar’s letter then turned to talk of his homecoming and his and Robertson’s now more imminent nuptials. He expected to arrive home “before next mid-summer at latest”—his actual return date to Manitoba was in April 1919. In relation to wedding planning, this letter provides detail on Robertson’s income as a trained female teacher in wartime Winnipeg, as well as information about Baragar’s army earnings.
On 9 November 1918, Baragar wrote to his sister Jennie Laing, a letter that provides additional context for the content in Baragar’s message to Ernest Baragar three days later. Here, Baragar wrote joyfully of nearing the end of war:
Despite being on his way back to the front lines, we can see that Baragar was optimistic about hearing news of the armistice. “God knows we are fed up with the cursed war – but we are glad that we’ve stuck to see a fitting and honourable end,” his letter announced.
In Fred Baragar’s post-armistice letter to his brother Ernest, his tone is slightly different from in the 9 November 1918 letter. The tone of the 12 November 1918 letter is relief, yet it contains a palpable note of sadness for the lives lost and destruction caused by the fighting.
At the time of his enlistment with the Royal Air Force in August 1918, Ernest Baragar was alternately attending classes at the Manitoba Agricultural College and working on the Baragar farm. The brothers, born a year apart, were regular correspondents throughout the war; it was to Ernest that Fred Baragar sent items for safekeeping while overseas. When the Canadian government enacted conscription into the Canadian Army in 1917, Ernest was exempt as a farmer. However, as we learn from Baragar’s September 1918 letters, Ernest voluntarily enlisted and was expected to head overseas in November 1918.
A single sentence dropped into the middle of the letter highlights Fred Baragar’s feelings regarding his brother’s enlistment post-armistice: “And you’ve no idea, Boy, how glad I am that you will never see France as an airman.” The issue of Ernest’s enlistment and service so concerned Baragar that he had written of it in his 9 November 1918 letter to their sister: “How glad I am that Ern will never see France as a warrior”; and again in his subsequent letter home to family on 19 November 1918: “Surely Ern’s enlistment will be cancelled now. I greatly hope so.”
The letter to Ernest Baragar emphasized Fred Baragar’s eagerness to get home. He described the upcoming work for the Allied forces as “mopping” and expected it to involve much “marching and flag waving”. As with the 12 November 1918 letter to Robertson, Baragar wrote optimistically of his homecoming, expecting that he could be home by “midsummer” 1919.
The Frederick D. Baragar fonds also contains nearly thirty post-armistice letters following Fred Baragar through Belgium to Germany, then back through Belgium and France to England, and then home to Canada. Baragar writes of his distaste for the post-war occupation activities, including this comment from his 11 December 1918 letter, written after entering Germany:
In his New Year’s Eve letter to his sister, while reflecting back on 1918, he comments, “I don’t believe we celebrated the Armistice here as much as you people – but way down deep, there was a wonderful feeling of gladness.” Additional details like these from the post-armistice letters help to further the story of how the end of the First World War played out for Canadians both at home and on the front lines. The armistice letters in the Baragar fonds capture a significant moment in history from a Manitoban perspective, but taken with the whole of the collection tell a piece of the larger story about Canadian history and the history of Canadians involved in the First World War.
For more on the First World War letters of Frederick Baragar, visit www.fromthesomewhere.tumblr.com or view the originals in the Frederick D. Baragar fonds at the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.
1. Alan Johnson, “World War One: How did 12 million letters a week reach soldiers?” BBC News Magazine, 31 January 2014, Accessed 13 April 2016, http://www.bbc. com/news/magazine-25934407.
2. Dan Azoulay, Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900–1930, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011, page 3.
Page revised: 28 February 2019