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Letters from the Front: Bowen Island's Cameron Smith

Smith's distinguished career included champion distance running and heroism at the Battle of Vimy Ridge

On July 6, 1916 Cameron Smith wrote from Halifax to his father Herbert Smith on Bowen Island saying, “We’re saying good bye to Canada today and in some ways we’re glad to do it. Will write from the other side. C.L.S.”

This postcard would start the series of correspondence between Cameron and his father, from the time he enlisted for the war effort in World War I and until the final telegram announcing Cameron had been killed in action. These recently donated letters from Hugh Welch - Cameron was his grand uncle - are featured in the Bowen Island Museum and Archives Remembrance exhibit.

Cameron Smith is one of the five names listed on the Bowen Island cenotaph from WWI along with Miles Green, Charles Redmond, Norman Vickery, and Lewen Tugwell. Most of the information that we have on these men has been diligently researched and compiled by our archivist Cathy Bayly. Cameron’s attestation papers list him as a logger by trade.

When he enlisted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) he was assigned to the 7th Battalion, British Columbia Regiment of the Canadian Infantry. He was also known as an outstanding long-distance running champion participating in numerous races, winning the Goldseal in 1912 among others.

Bowen Island Legion Branch #150 built the cenotaph in 1937, to ensure that we would not forget those that did not return home. William Linklater, an uncle of Cameron Smith, built the form of the cenotaph from an old army cot. James Collins, along with other community members, mixed the concrete.

Letters provided emotional sustenance and comfort between soldiers and their loved ones during the war, helping soften the pain of separation. Telegrams were used for urgent communication by soldiers to let their families know that they had survived a battle or had been capture or wounded. In worst case scenarios, telegrams quickly notified families of a death.

However, the letter remained the main form of communication with Canada sending over 85 million letters throughout WWI. Mail would be sorted at roadside carts and wheeled to the front lines to be delivered to individual soldiers.

Cameron continues on September 3, 1916:

Dear Father, Read your letter O.K. and was pleased to hear from you the first edition of the ‘world’ arrived two weeks ago. It was very kind of you to send it and I appreciate it very much. We are having very wet weather here just now, the mud is something fierce. We’ve expected to move to winter quarters today but, have not done so yet, it’s not a very nice prospect, sticking around for another winter……….The price of everything a soldier needs has risen to a ridiculous height here for the reason that we have to or will have them at any price. There was a young lad around camp with pears for sale 30 a piece, about two bites in each one, everywhere else is just as bad……Well it’s getting near bedtime, so I’ll have to close, you’ll excuse the scribble. I hope, for the position is not very suitable for writing, sitting down with the pad on my knees. We have no environment of civilization around here. Hoping that you keep in good health and wishing you all kinds of good luck. I remain Your Son, C.L. Smith

This photo, donated to the Museum by Hugh Welch, was taken on Bowen in 1915, the year before Cameron Smith enlisted. Cameron (right) is seen playing with his sister Bessie Agnes Smith, two young children, and a dog. / Bowen Island Museum & Archives

France, February 9, 1917:

Dear Father, just a few lines in an answer to yours of the 9th, I’m glad to hear that you’re keeping well this winter, life is not very pleasant to a sick man now is it? Up to the present, I’ve been lucky enough to continue, my duties as a soldier and hope to keep on doing so for some time. Your opinion of my favored profession is not very complimentary, but I think your ideas would undergo quite a change if you knew the circumstances…."

The correspondence runs up to the telegram that would inform Cameron’s family that he was killed in action at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 and continues in the search for his personal effects. They offer a window into pieces of the life of the person who went to war, not just the war. Carrying on the torch of those who directly remember the love and loss of events during war helps us understand who we are and what we are capable of as humans.

We share the stories and memories to remember with purpose. This collective and cultural memory shapes our future. Remembering our collective past is fundamental to being human. History is about preserving, understanding, and interpreting our memories.

Every year during the lead up to Remembrance Day on November 11, we honour those who have served Canada in times of war military conflict and peace. Please join us at the museum after the ceremony at the cenotaph for this exhibit featuring letters, film, photos and artifacts, on your way to the Legion.

We are open November 11 until 3 pm.