Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, July 6, 2020

"Send Real Money"—Letters Home from a Canadian Private

By Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester

Pvt. Gordon Lawrence McLaren
The letters home of Gordon McLaren of the Canadian Expeditionary Force's 1st Division (April 1917 to January 1919) epitomize the range of soldierly observations, complaints, requests, and “lack of news” that show both the mundanity and the misery of service on the Western Front. Of course, there was undoubtedly “news,” but McLaren chooses to say little about news that could worry his parents back on Prince Edward Island. Instead, there is much written about parcels, mail logistics, and, of course, friends and family back in Canada. 

He frequently refers to himself or his circumstances as “jake,” Great War slang for “all right/satisfactory” that appears to be Dominion terminology rather than the Tommy slang we know from the mother country. One recurring theme to his parents is McLaren’s unending need for cash; the paymaster for his unit is presented as sorely limited. Frustrated Gordon repeatedly tells his parents to not send checks or money orders, as they are just about un-cashable—on 22 Feb 1918 he writes:

I thought I made it plain enough that a cheque is almost useless here.  Don't send anything but real money.  I don't care what currency it is in so long as it is real money.

Mail woes can be encapsulated by this letter of 8 December 1917: 

In fact I've had no mail for almost a month.  Even though my letters are irregular, I wish you would write as often as possible because while I can't always do it, surely some of the family could manage once a week anyway.  I can't carry paper around without getting it wet & the envelopes gummed up because the rain goes right through my knapsack.

McLaren started out in the ammunition column, then requested a transfer to trench mortars, and ultimately was sent back to the ammunition column. His stints with the column involved working with the mules to the point where he writes: 

I have a pair of mules which I expect to give me a "blighty" any time & believe me it keeps me awake. (5 Oct 1917) 

After the War with Wife Katie
By 29 Jan 1918 he expounds more on his dislike of the column and manages in his tirade to describe some of the hellishness of the front that he usually holds closer to his chest:

In fact I've lost more stuff, kit & private property in the D.A.C. [divisional artillery column] then [sic] while I've been attached to other units.  So you see I'm feeling fed up with the D.A.C. & am looking for a change.  I'm fed up with the whole army in fact & wish this was over.  Believe me, if I get back, I'll have learned enough to make me appreciate my advantages at home.  It may not have done me much good financially or in the line of education, but it's made me see "there's no place like home".  Just what a lot that means, you can't realize until you've faced death, hunger & thirst in a country which war has made desolate & homeless, dyed with blood, & turned into a wilderness by the most destructive forces of modern science.  Nothing I have read can produce such a picture of desolation as is shown in the parts of the country over which the war has been carried on.  I'll see some more if I go to the T.M. [trench mortar unit], too.

McLaren doesn’t go much into battle details, but he does allude in a 22 Feb 1918 letter to having received "a little dose of gas…Not very sick at all, just sore eyes & off my grub."

On 26 May 1918 he continues downplaying the danger: 

Its [sic] not so much the danger & uncertainty of it all that worries one as the days of monotony that seem to drag on like clockwork.  Just going round and round like an endless chain.  In [fact], a spell up the line with meal work is a real relief.

That endless chain ended with a shell burst on 21 August 1918 that shattered McLaren’s right forearm, a Blighty if ever there was one. He was lucky not to have had it amputated before reaching Britain. He describes his progress in recuperation in a letter to his mother of 19 November 1918: 

I think the feeling in my fingers is gone for good & my arm is a bit crooked.  They have decided that a massage will not help it more & I can hardly get it straight yet.  It will be some time before it is strong again for taking things all around.  An inch higher and the elbow joint would have been smashed into umpteen pieces.  You know what that means.  Finding out how brittle ones bones are.  The piece that I have now is only about 1/2" long & the one that went through must have been smaller yet the ulna was broken into about 30 pieces.  The artery was cut too and the doctor wonders why they did not take the arm off & they don't waste time patching up arteries when there is a big push on.  

McLaren muses a great deal on education, politics, and diplomacy, and what to set as his postwar goals professionally. By the end of this collection he appears to be moving toward civil engineering. Having gone to France on the Olympic, he returned to Canada aboard the Araguaya in late January/early February 1919. 

By 1922 McLaren was married, to Katherine (Katie) McIntyre, and the two shortly thereafter moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and raised a family. To some degree his arm recovered, but feeling in most fingers was lost. Finances dashed his hopes for a civil engineering career, to his sadness, but he did become, in the words of a grandson, a “respected carpenter…a project superintendent.” He bore a large scar on his wounded arm, noted in his discharge papers. McLaren continued to be a thinker, a writer, and an advocate for the working man. He died in 1948, a stalwart wounded veteran of the Great War.

Letter excerpts, photos, and documents published with the gracious permission of Pvt. McLaren's grandchildren.


  1. Love McLarens views and how candidly he expressed them. Glad he survived!

  2. Really cool to get this perspective into my great grandfather's life in WWI! Honestly, I really didn't have any idea he served and I obviously never got the chance to meet him -- I was born 50 years after he passed.