SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. - Surrounded by death and uncertainty, John Edward O’ Connor sent numerous brightly-coloured postcards and gifts, while stationed in France during the First World War, to his sweetheart in Cape Traverse of his undying love.
Some postcards are painted and others are embroidered with cotton, silk or lace.
Florence Gallant, from Summerside, keeps them as a reminder of what her grandparents went through, and proof that there are no boundaries when it comes to true love.
“He was a blacksmith and his wife, Mary O’Connor, worked in the Cape Traverse post office. She was always excited to get mail from him and share the news with the neighbours,” said Gallant.
O’Connor joined the 105th Battalion (P.E.I. Highlanders) with three other blacksmiths from Cape Traverse – Ken Bell, Bob Laird, and Keith Boswell. They sailed across the turbulent seas to England, before they were stationed in the muddy trenches of France.
“Three came home and one died just a day before the war ended,” said Gallant, pointing to a sepia-coloured picture of a white cross.
Bell was just 18 when he was killed in action.
“Shells were constantly flying over them in the trenches. My grandfather said his hair got frozen to the mud when he slept, and he had to cut it off in the morning. There were mice and rats. It was terrible.”
Special picture postcards became an escape from the horrific reality the soldiers faced, as well as a way of expressing to their family and friends that they hadn’t been forgotten.
“His words on the back are often short and informal,” said Gallant.
But the romantic images and poetry on the front of the postcard revealed hidden messages of the intense emotions felt, which were often too hard to capture in words or forbidden from revealing.
Moreover, the bright postcards and gifts – silk aprons, handkerchiefs, bottled sand, and war art – to his wife helped keep O’Connor centred when all else felt lost.
“He was almost 45 years old when he went to war. A year later, he would have been too old to join. But because he had a special skill as a blacksmith, he was put in charge of the horses (a primary form of transportation during the war). As a blacksmith he played a pivotal role.
“Although sometimes he had to shoot the horses if they got stuck in the thick mud.”
The postcards trickled to a stop when O’Connor returned to P.E.I. after the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
“When the soldiers first went over they said, ‘we will be back in time for Christmas or spring.’ They had the attitude it would all be over in no time. But when he came back home he said, ‘I left a little girl and now there’s a young lady in the house.”
The war lasted exactly four years, three months and 14 days.
“He was changed after the war, and no longer the happy-go-lucky man that people knew. Even when he returned to work as a blacksmith, he was withdrawn,” remembered Gallant.
But the couple remained married, and in love, right into their old age.
Now, 104 years later, Gallant keeps all her grandparents' postcards, war medals and art, as well as newspaper clippings, pictures and gifts sent from France in a “time capsule” shoebox.
“I’m going to give them to a museum in Charlottetown because Summerside doesn't have a military museum,” concluded Gallant.