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Pte. Walter Neil McLean - Letters from the Great War


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Walter is one of many men in my family that have served this country. I am currently helping my grandmother write a family Biography from the first time our ancestors stepped foot on Canadian soil in 1784 to our current relatives here in 2010. If this gets enough positive feedback, I'd be more than willing to post more. I may also scan a few of the original documents, letters and photos.

Pte. Walter Neil McLean was the second son of William and Annie McLean, born in 1878. He left home to find work in the early years of the 1900's. His letters home to his brother, Allan Hugh, reveal some information about his life.

After his homestead was flooded and his possessions destroyed he joined the 68th Overseas Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, on 17 September 1915 at Edmonton. He gave his occupation as telephone lineman.

Letters from the Great War
(The letters have been sorted in chronological order. Text reproduced from the physical letters.)

10 Feb. 1916 - Edmonton
I joined the army about Sept. 12th & am pretty near a soldier now. Expect to go to England March 1st so thought I would let you know & in case I do not come back anything I have will go to you direct. I will go direct from here to England without stop so will not likely see anyone before I go... Things are getting strict as hell. There guards are █████ out with ammunition & fixed bayonets & orders to stop anyone between 9.30 & 7.30 a.m. If they don't stop shoot them. We have had some very cold weather & 2 hours on 4 off for 24 hours is not as pleasant as it looks. I was glad when it was 42° below, on from 4 to 6 - 10 to 12 - 4 to 6a.m. I have a pretty good time when not on duty.

22 Mar. 1916 - Edmonton
We had little trouble, put on extra guard, orders to halt anybody, if they did not stop shoot them. Also some rioting about places employing German help & the city employed German help. All the Germans were discharged but it was no fun to patrol the streets half the night in cold wether. I do not believe we will leave the country because from all reports the war will be over before long. There are 11 Batts in town now, nearly 10,000 men in uniform.

20 Apr 1916 - Edmonton
I am leaving tomorrow for England. I will send you a picture with the mascot the bull dog. He is 10 times uglier than his picture. He is sitting at my feet. We are great friends. We have been issued all our kit & confined to barracks so we are going for sure. We are going to have a swell trip. The Japanese squadron* are going to escort us across. That is what is said.

*On August 7th 1914, the Japanese government received an official request from the British government for assistance in destroying German raiders in and around Chinese waters. Japan sent Germany an ultimatum on August 14th 1914, which was unanswered, and then Japan formally declared war on the German Empire on August 23rd 1914. On the 18th December 1916, the British Admiralty again asked Japan for naval assistance. Four destroyers were sent to the Mediterranean Sea, and were based in Malta. The Japanese squadron made a total of 348 escort sorties from Malta, escorting 788 ships containing around 700,000 soldiers, thus contributing greatly to the war effort. Walter had already crossed to England in May 1916.

12 Jun. 1916 - Shornecliff
We have been on the move. We stayed 2 weeks in the first camp & moved 20 miles to Sydd and put in 1 week at musketry & shooting on the range & they took out 500 men of a draft & sent them to France. The rest stayed a week in Sydd & we came over here yesterday. We always move on Sunday start at 2 a.m. $ always walk carrying our full kit & rifles. We expect to leave mostly anytime for France. We are always falling out falling in & doing nothing, only making like miserable. I won't be sorry when we do get into the trenches. You cannot move without permission. I tried to get a pass but up to date did not get one. This is a queer country. I have not had a decent meal since coming over here & 2\3 the it is drizzling rain & cold. If I go back to Canada no more soldiering for me.

25 Jun. 1916 - Shornecliff
We are going to France today in the draught to the 8th Batt. The 66th is no more. I got a pass for 6 days & went to London & had one hell of a time. If I am lucky enough to come back I will have another time. About the insurance & the Farm it will go to you & will make a will if possible & send it to you.

17 Jul. 1916 - France
I have got there at last & it is not so bad. We left our bull dog in England.

23 Jul. 1916 - France
We are alive yet some of the boys have gone under & some have gone to England wounded. Saw a boy I knew here has been here for 20 months "from the west" & only wounded twice slightly.

4 Aug. 1916 - France
Yours of the 29 of July received when I was in the trenches. Sent you a Postal Card every week since I have been in the front, a field Card. Well I have came off O.K. so far & trust in luck for the rest of the time, Can't give you any news as we are forbidden to tell anything. We had a good trip, trenches this time very few casualties. Our first Batt are all split up in different Batt & the first draught & yesterday we happened to meet. We had a fine afternoon what was left of them. Did you get that Will I sent you. You said nothing about it last time.

12 Aug. 1916 - France
Things are going on about the same. It is pretty warm here and dry. It has been nice weather for some time & crops look good. You know more about the war that we do. I saw some Edmonton papers and there was more news than we heard for some time.

2 Sept. 1916 - France
The guns make quite a noise but not much like a thunder storm. I would rather a thunder storm. I have done a lot of marching since coming to France & it does not bother me any. Get along a good deal better than expected when I came over here. There are lots of funny things to be seen if one only travelling on his own. There are lots of things to see that cannot be seen in America. I like France what I have seen of it much better than Belgium. The people are far nicer more refined I mean civilized. They are great workers. The women work out in the field & wear big boots like the kind the dagoes ware to the R.R., hobnails & all. Some even ware wooden shoes & as the most of the roads are stone sounds like horses going down the street. I hope what you say about war is right. Well I will write field card, we call them WhizzBangs & will write a letter once and a while. Did you get a registered letter from England I sent before I came over. Put a will in it so look after it. We have different names for things. If a person is killed it is "Wapoo" or R.I.P. means Rest in Peace. If wounded & sent over to England to the Hospital it is a good Blighty. If only to a rest station & some place in France it is not considered a Blighty. However things take their own course. There are lots of things I could tell you about but would not pass the censores so will only write you whizzbangs from this on & send me some money once in a while as we do not get only 20 cents per day here & it does not go very far. Anything is sent comes. We get our mail right in the front line & the food we get is surprising how good it is right along no matter what happens.

7 Sept. 1916 - France
A "whizzbang" (field card) was mailed on 7 September 1916. Walter's message was:
I am quite well.
Letter follows at first opportunity.
I have received no letter from you lately.

8 Sept. 1916 - France
Pte. Walter Neil McLean is killed in battle.

Allan Hugh received this communication from N.H. McGillivray, Lieut. & Adjutant, Headquarters, 8th Canadian Batt., (90th Rifles), dated 14 July 1917:
In reply to your enquiry regarding Pte. W.N. McLean, killed in action 8th Sept. 1916.

I regret to inform you this soldier lost his life during the offensive in the Somme area. Owing to the severe nature of the fighting at that time his body was not recovered for burial. His body may have been recovered later, but I have no record of any grave location being received in this office.

The Canadian Corps had passed July and August in the always dangerous Ypres Salient, then the 1st Canadian Division, of which Walter was a part, was ordered to the Somme battlefield at the end of August, 1916. They entered the line on September 2nd/3rd, 1916. Walter was killed on September 8th.

The Battle of the Somme ended on November 18th, 1916.

For an average soldier serving in a front-line battalion the chances of being killed was one in four. Two out of four were wounded, and only one in four came through the war unscratched. More than 1,200,000 men were killed or wounded to gain 2 ½ kilometers of Somme farmland.

Walters body was never recovered.