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Author explores World War One through stories ‘Heard Amid the Guns’

Heard Amid the Guns book cover
Heard Amid the Guns: True Stories from the Western Front, 1914-1918.

A new book released this month takes readers into the trenches of World War One to explore stories of heroism and tragedy.

Heard Amid the Guns: True Stories from the Western Front 1914-1918, published by Heritage House, contains personal stories of more than 150 men and women, including some from Fort Macleod.

British Columbia author Jacqueline Carmichael set out to write a book that showcases the diversity of the men and women who served in World War One.

A journalist who has written for the Edmonton Sun, Dallas Morning News and other publications, Carmichael became interested in the First World War through her two grandfathers, who both served four years after leaving the ranches in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Their experiences in war affected both men, and by extension their families.

“One of them came back and was the most pleasant, jovial, wonderful person ever and a fantastic father. One came back very damaged.”

One grandfather served in the artillery, while the other was right in the trenches. It was the latter’s letters home that told a grim story.

“His letters got darker and shorter and less charming as the war went on and I think by the time that he came home he was very damaged.”

Reading a bundle of letters written by that grandfather, George (Black Jack)Vowel, Carmichael became fascinated with the personal stories of the people in the war.

That led her to write her first book about what was known as the Great War. Tweets From the Trenches told the soldiers’ stories as though they were present-day messages through Twitter. That book was shortlisted for a Whistler Independent Book Award.

Author Jacqueline Carmichael
Author Jacqueline Carmichael

Carmichael knew, though, there were many more stories to be told about World War One and decided after a trip to Europe that another book was needed.

Carmichael could feel the history all around here as she walked in the footsteps of long ago warriors.

“I walked on the Western Front where they had fought. I actually went into the trenches and saw these places where it had been life and death for everybody and I realized this war was so much bigger than my two grandfathers. That’s when I started getting into the stories and really diving in.”

During the course of her research, Carmichael read more than a thousand pages of documents and letters. Although much of it was grim, she found inspiring stories of how war brought out the best in people.

The amount of information and interesting stories was staggering and Carmichael is relieved that in addition to her own efforts, other writers are also working to preserve the stories.

“What I thought to do was to have a diverse range of stories,” Carmichael said of narrowing the content for Heard Amid the Guns.

The stories are of men like Albert Mountain Horse from the Blood Tribe, who is reputed to be the first man from a First Nation to enlist in World War One. He fought with distinction and was gassed on the front lines.

Mountain Horse was invalided home but died in Montreal hospital before returning to the Blood Reserve. He was widely celebrated for his courage.

Victoria Cross winner James Peter (Pete) Robertson, who was among the first to enlist at Macleod after Canada joined the war, is also featured in Heard Amid the Guns.

During the battle of Passchendaele, Robertson single-handedly knocked out a German machine gun that was devastating the advancing force. Robertson was killed that same day assisting wounded soldiers.

Mountain Horse and Robertson’s stories are among the personal stories of more than 150 men and women from across North America in Heard Amid the Guns.

There are stories about soldiers “shot at dawn” for desertion or cowardice, of women dressing as men to get into battle, and of a Canadian Member of Parliament whose PTSD-induced death was barely acknowledged by Ottawa for nearly a century.

“War is terrible,” Carmichael said. “I found the stories absolutely gutting in some instances.”

Heard Amid the Guns also features profiles of people from across Canada and the U.S., including soldiers of Indigenous, Asian, Indo-Canadian, Latino, and African-Canadian and African-American backgrounds.

The book is illustrated by World War One-era photos, postcards, documents and the author’s contemporary photos from battlefield sites and monuments.

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