GUELPH – Hundreds of letters, tucked into white envelopes and adorned with bright red poppy stickers, have been mailed out across Guelph to the former homes of soldiers who died during the First World War.
Written by students at John. F. Ross Collegiate Vocational Institute, the letters are short historical essays depicting each soldier’s life and death.
The students unearthed the soldiers’ stories by analyzing primary and secondary sources including war diaries, attestation records, and historical newspapers.
The letters are at the core of their Grade 10 history project, “The Story of a Soldier,” organized by teacher Erin Doupe of Fergus.
This week, Doupe was awarded the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching in recognition of the project.
The award is administered by Canada’s National History Society with support from the federal government, and recognizes teachers who strive for excellence in teaching Canadian history.
It’s Canada’s top history honour and is supported by “leading agencies of Canada’s history and heritage community,” states a press release from the history society.
Governor general Mary Simon was to present Doupe with the award during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 22.
Doupe said the students put themselves in the shoes of local war dead, noting many of the soldiers were close to the students in age and walked the same streets a century ago.
“Their city came to life,” she said. “These old stories were in the brick and mortar of the buildings they walk by.”
Amber Spira, who completed The Story of a Soldier project two years ago, said it took a lot of research, but was fun, engaging and made what they were learning “feel real.”
Spira said “Ms. Doupe’s class sparked a love of history in me.”
Doupe was inspired by a professor in Peterborough who sent postcards to the former homes of soldiers who served in the 60th Battalion.
Initially Doupe planned for her students to send postcards – but they discovered so much interesting information, Doupe said, that little postcards just wouldn’t cut it.
“We wanted to share what we had found with the people who live in that soldier’s old home,” she said.
For the past five years, Doupe’s students have delved into historical records, researching where their soldier lived and worked, family members, what happened the day they died, and how their personal journeys impacted the war as a whole.
“These soldiers, 100 years removed from my students, became family members while we were doing this research,” Doupe said, and the bonds between students and soldiers continued well after they completed the project.
“Former students come up to me all the time and say ‘I still remember my soldier.’”
And students’ discoveries “really challenged the mythology of the glorious dead.”
They learned about trenches collapsing and burying soldiers, hand-to-hand combat lasting 10 hours, flooded trenches, and landscapes with “craters created by shelling from previous battles” that looked more like the surface of the moon than the Earth.
The project sparked inquisitive conversations, including grappling with the magnitude of what “our country asked teenagers to do” during the First World War.
Doupe said one of her student’s breath was literally taken away by what he learned about the 17-year-old soldier he researched.
“‘This could have been me, if I was born in a different time,’” Doupe recalls the student saying.
Spira said the project changed her “whole perception on how much people had to give up and how much of a sacrifice it was to go to war.”
For Spira’s solider, joining the forces meant leaving his four children behind.
William James Whittaker
Spira, now in Grade 12, said she still clearly remembers the soldier she researched in Grade 10.
His name was William James Whittaker; son of Elizabeth Whittaker and husband to Uma Masterson.
Finding his wife’s name was challenging, Spira said, as most documentation had his mother listed as next of kin.
While researching Whittaker Spira said she got a sense of his personality. For example, she discovered that during his service he left for a couple vacations in Paris – and was penalized for returning late both times.
“I thought, ‘Oh, he’s a rule breaker,’” Spira said with a chuckle.
She also discovered Whittaker’s home was a few blocks away from her own.
Her family lived in Guelph during Whittaker’s lifetime, and Spira realized her ancestors may have known Whittaker, or other soldiers her classmates researched.
Whittaker was one of the first of about 10,000 Canadians killed, wounded, or missing in the battle of Canal du Nord, Spira said.
Doupe said another student unearthed the “very tragic story of Cecil Holland.”
Holland was sent to Canada as a British home child when he was nine years old.
He lived on a farm in Palmerston, moved to Erin as a teen, and then went to Guelph to enlist at 17.
He was turned away the first time because of his age, but tried again the following year and this time went to war.
Holland listed his next of kin as Dr. Barnardo’s Home, the British organization that sent 30,000 children to live in Canada to address Britain’s over-population.
Reading between the lines, Doupe said she and her students felt an “overwhelming sense that he was trying to go home, through war.”
But Holland never made it home; he died of appendicitis and is now buried at Guelph’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
John Alexander Ferguson
Former John. F. Ross student Jasmine Newall wrote of her soldier, “John Alexander Ferguson wasn’t just another private, he mattered.”
Ferguson was born in Armstrong Mills (in Guelph/Eramosa Township) in 1894.
Newall writes Ferguson “famously lassoed the bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I,” sinking it in the lake at Victoria Park in Kitchener – an act of vandalism she said was one of the factors leading to Kitchener scrapping its former name, Berlin.
Newall discusses Ferguson’s parents and fiancé as well as his fair skin, blue eyes, and modest height.
Ferguson was one of more than 4,000 Canadian soldiers who died during the battle of Passchendaele in 1917.
‘I couldn’t believe it’
When Doupe received a phone call about winning the award, she had to sit down to take in the news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Doupe, who already felt honoured to be included with the 15 teachers short-listed for the award.
Doupe said the shortlist was an “incredible group to be part of” and showed examples of the “amazing work going on across Canada.”
Doupe has received a lot of attention since receiving the award, but she said it’s the kids who deserve recognition, noting, “It was a lot of hard work for 15-year-olds.”
Spira said Doupe is an “incredible teacher” and Doupe’s class was her “favourite” in all of high school because of how engaging she was as a teacher.
“I was never bored in that class and I remember everything about my soldier and the wars,” Spira said.
“When she was up there teaching she just commanded the room” and it was always clear she was knowledgeable about the content.
Spira added she’s not the only one who feels this way – “everyone who was in my class loved that class.”
She said Doupe made a strong connection to her students and to history.
“Every day was a new engaging way of learning that I think worked for everyone,” said Spira.
She added she was reminiscing with a classmate recently about how “Ms. Doupe got down on the ground, replicating what a view of a soldier would be.”
Now that students have researched each of the First World War soldiers on the Guelph cenotaph, Doupe has plans to expand the project into Wellington County.
She said many students at John F. Ross live in Guelph/Eramosa and Puslinch, so they will move on to names on the Rockwood cenotaph next, and the Aberfoyle cenotaph after that.
Doupe has dreams of compiling her students hard work into a digitized map so others can read about the soldiers they studied.
Doupe has taught at John F. Ross since 2007 and has lived in Fergus since 2006.
For more information about The Story of a Soldier project and the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in teaching visit canadashistory.ca.