In a carefully crafted collection of hybrid Canadian poetry/flash creative non-fiction, Port Alberni author Jacqueline Carmichael brings to life the “little true stories” from the First World War.
Tweets From the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life and Death on the Western Front was published earlier this year on the 100th anniversary of Canada’s 100 Days—the final 100 days of the First World War. Carmichael, the granddaughter of two First World War veterans, said she was inspired by the writing of her paternal grandfather, George “Black Jack” Vowel.
“Looking at my grandfather’s journals, they were written in such terse language,” said Carmichael. She said that the writing reminded her of “hashtags” because it was so concise and succinct. “It was the social media of their time. It was just slower. These are the things they said in moments of stress and fear.”
Both her grandfathers—Vowel and Charles W.C. Chapman—enlisted in 1914 and stayed for the duration of the war. Vowel corresponded with a journalist and writer named Louisa Watson Peat throughout his enlistment, and eventually the letters were returned to his family.
Like social media, Carmichael said, his words are “still circling out there.”
Tweets from the Trenches started as a social media experiment where Carmichael created a Twitter and Facebook account for her grandfather (@BlackJackVowel), but the project evolved into something more.
“I read hundreds of letters and memoirs from soldiers and other people,” she said. “I kept digging because I didn’t want it to be just my grandfather’s story. I wanted to capture the diversity of Canada.”
Carmichael said she spent “thousands” of hours researching for Tweets from the Trenches in an attempt to capture a picture for everybody. The book includes excerpts from women of the war, like Milunka Savic and Dorothy Lawrence—who dressed as men in order to join the battle—and Nurse Edith Cavell, who was killed at the hands of a German firing squad. It also offers the voice of Lt. Albert Mountain Horse, the first Alberta First Nations man “allowed” to enlist, and Chaplain Capt. Rev. William A. White, who was the only black commissioned officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Tweets from the Trenches even offers a verse for Sgt. Stubby, a regiment mascot.
One person whose words appear in the book is Port Alberni soldier George Morton Bird, who didn’t make it back from the war. Carmichael composed a song for him called “Over the Top” that was inspired by his letters.
“Sometimes their excerpt was so perfectly written, I’d just leave it as is,” Carmichael explained.
Carmichael didn’t just read—she also travelled overseas to walk on the Western Front in Belgium, France and Germany as part of a personal research project.
“I walked where my grandfathers fought,” she said. “I wanted to understand what they had experienced. I was just bowled over by the history. [These places] had been completely disrupted by this war. They still carry the scars today.”
Tweets from the Trenches is set up chronologically, with poems separated into “chapters” representing each year of the war, and ending with a chapter called “#Long After” that explores the long-term effects of the war, including post-traumatic stress disorder and its effect on families.
Carmichael said she learned “a little compassion” for her grandfather.
“He was badly damaged from the war,” she explained. “I think I learned a little compassion for what he had gone through.
“These guys did what their country asked of them. We owe them a lot. Many of them had good reason to be very afraid.”
Carmichael, who is currently working on another novel, resides in Port Alberni. She is on the board of directors for the Federation of B.C. Writers and is also active in Alberni Valley Words on Fire, a monthly spoken word event that takes place at Char’s Landing on the last Thursday evening of every month.
“I love being a part of a local writing scene,” said Carmichael. “It’s a very warm and encouraging group—I think probably one of the best on the Island.”
Tweets from the Trenches is available on Amazon, as well as at select bookstores. In the Alberni Valley the book is available at Alberni Valley Home Hardware, Alberni Valley Visitors Centre, and Rollin Art Centre.
For more information, visit tweetsfromthetrenches.com.