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Vancouver Island writer tells diverse stories from First World War in new book

Jacqueline Carmichael presents ‘Heard Amid the Guns: True Stories from the Western Front, 1914-1918’
Port Alberni writer Jacqueline Carmichael’s latest book is ‘Heard Amid the Guns: True Stories from the Western Front, 1914-1918.’ (Photo courtesy Chris Hancock Donaldson)

Jacqueline Carmichael isn’t done telling stories from the First World War.

Two years ago the Port Alberni writer released Tweets from the Trenches, a book of poetry that drew from letters and journals from First World War. Carmichael said she had a lot of material left over and on Nov. 3 she released her next book on the subject, Heard Amid the Guns: True Stories from the Western Front, 1914-1918.

This time Carmichael is leaning on her journalism background and presenting the collected stories in reportage style. Like the previous book, Heard Amid the Guns goes beyond soldiers and aims to provide many “entry points” into the greater story of the First World War.

“I really wanted to be a bit kaleidoscopic. To be a lot of little stories,” Carmichael said. “To me it felt like if I could present a lot of little stories then people could … find something that resonated with them because there are animals, there are nurses, there are conscientious objectors and [I’m] just hoping to shed a lot of little lights.”

Carmichael read from Heard Amid the Guns this past Thursday at an online Federation of B.C. Writers event called Women Who Write About War. She was joined by Annette Fulford and Susan Raby-Dunne, writers of stories about Canadian war brides and John McCrae, as well as Liz Rachel Walker, author of the Second World War mystery novel The Dieppe Letters.

Among the resources Carmichael utilized in her research was Vancouver Island University’s Canadian Letters and Images Project, an electronic archive containing more than 35,000 letters, diaries, photographs and other personal items documenting the Canadian war experience from the 19th century to the Korean War. In finding stories to highlight, Carmichael said she was interested in participants from various backgrounds and that diversity was a priority.

“I was just looking for a range so there would be different kinds of experiences,” she said. “There were people who were famous and people who you’ve never heard of. People who were from wealthy backgrounds, people who came from poverty. People who lied about their age because they were too young to fight, they fudged on their age because they were too old to fight.”

Carmichael says there are so many stories from the war and her book is “like a fly on the tip of the iceberg.” Heard Amid the Guns focuses on those on the Allied side of the war with strong Canadian representation, including Nanaimo couple Arthur and Alice Leighton. Arthur was a lawyer and Boer War veteran who served in the infantry while Alice worked as a nurse caring for blind soldiers in London.

Their correspondence contained some lighter moments, like the time Arthur sent Alice a German helmet as a souvenir.

“The helmet came all safe and is such a beauty – the men were all so interested in it and I have promised to photograph most of them with it on,” she wrote.

In that letter, from Nov. 15, 1918, Alice also describes the crowded London streets in the aftermath of the Armistice, which Carmichael noted featured very little social distancing as there was a pandemic happening back then as well. Alice also expressed her disbelief that the war was finally over and that she and Arthur would be reunited at last.

“The last week dearie has been the hardest I have had for I was so afraid something might happen at the very last,” she wrote. “I went down on my knees dearie when I knew for sure you were coming back to me.”

WHAT’S ON … To see video trailers for Heard Amid the Guns, click here.

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