The Ross Playfair Letters Project Is…

An Historical Artifact

The letters on this website provide an interesting cross reference of cultural, military and Canadian history. For historians Ross Playfair’s observations are a unique trove of primary source material. From his descriptions of the everyday life of a soldier to his wry observations of his own circumstances, Ross provides a unique viewpoint of not only the day-to-day activities of a soldier at war but the influences on a soldier both inside and outside. Through Ross we learn that the soldier at the front was not immune to the impact of the news media, news from the home front—and the very divergent opinions between the men themselves. He also emphasizes the genuine comfort and enjoyment the men took from each other’s company and provides a glimpse of how soldiers survived in the face of some the worst conditions imaginable.

On sentry duty in a front-line trench. On sentry duty in a front-line trench. France, Sept. 1916.
source: W.I. Castle/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000568

We have tried to let the letters speak for themselves. However, where appropriate we have provided background notes and other media to give context to the world Ross is writing in. Chief among these background materials are the Battalion Orders and War Diary. These materials were downloaded from the Library and Archives Canada website. On that site the Orders and Diary were together in one file. We have taken the liberty of separating the two types of documents, since they provide two different kinds of information. The Orders provide an immediate view of the activity of the battalion, detailing their route, location and actions to be undertaken—the logistical elements in some detail. The War Diary is a brief summary of the actions after completion. It provides a clearer overview of the battalion’s activities, but sometimes, as with all documentation written after the fact, it is a little out of sync with the Orders or with Ross’s letters. The fallibility of the War Diary is illustrated by the daily entry for November 31, 1917. It is sometimes hard to know which source to trust.

Canadians giving a lorry a helping hand on a shell battered road on Vimy Ridge. Canadians giving a lorry a helping hand on a shell battered road on Vimy Ridge. April, 1917.
source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001238
View over the crest of Vimy Ridge showing the village of Vimy, which was captured by Canadian troops. View over the crest of Vimy Ridge showing the village of Vimy, which was captured by Canadian troops.
source: W.I. Castle/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canda/PA-001446

We have also provided period photos, film footage and samples of period news media. In an attempt to “colourize” the context, we have included recent pictures and video of some the places Ross and his Battalion passed through.

Readers who would like some more background can consult the page on our site entitled, “The Context: WWI, August to November 1917.” Those who are well-versed in the history of WWI will, of course, not need this information.

Those of Ross’s letters that we are providing on this site (the first 90 of the 350 he wrote) were written while Ross was moving back and forth from the front and marching to and participating in the battle of Passchendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres). In them he ties together the keen observations of his environment, politics, literature and popular culture with his love of people, using a playful, gentle writing style. The backdrop for these observations is his passionate and complicated love for his wife Mary. Despite the restrictions placed on him by both the censor and Mary and the untenable circumstances of the war itself, Ross’s letters impart a steady foundation of hope as well as remarkable faith in humanity.

A Reference Site for 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion—and the Lives They May Have Touched

A railway car used by the 50th Battalion. A railway car used by the 50th Battalion. They dubbed themselves “Mason’s Maneaters” after their first commanding officer, Col. Mason.
source: The Military Museums, Calgary

Many names appear in Ross’s letters: comrades, family and friends. It is our hope that Ross’s letters and the other material provided will serve as a research source for people looking to find information about their relatives and/or the communities they live in. To aid in this we have provided two sections that list all the names Ross mentions. All of the people Ross mentions (family, friends and acquaintances as well as military personnel) are listed in “Who’s Who,” and “Brothers in Arms,” allows those who wish to focus only on the military men that Ross writes about. To aid individuals doing research we have provided a search feature that allows users to filter the letters based on words or names of their own choosing.

A Grandson’s Labour of Love

Clockwise from top left: Michael, Mary, Ross, Kathy, Philip, David, Jonathan

Ross and Mary were my grandparents. I do not remember them—apart from a few fleeting memories from the perspective of a 5-year-old. It is really through family legend and anecdotes that I know them best. The process of preparing this website has been a unique opportunity to get to know them better—Ross directly as he speaks through his letters and Mary indirectly as he responds to her letters. It has been startling—and the source of much laughter, rueful and otherwise—to recognize in myself many of Ross’s traits, passed through my father down to me.

— Phil Playfair

A Note on the Transcription and Translation

In transcribing the letters, we have not corrected any errors in punctuation, capitalization or spelling, in order that the reader have a chance to experience the letters exactly as Ross wrote them. Given the less than ideal circumstances of their writing, there are, of course, some irregularities; we have not drawn attention to them by inserting [sic]—in order not to intrude on the reader’s experience of these authentic documents. In cases where a word or words are illegible, we have simply inserted [?]. In a very few cases—where it is obvious that Ross has accidentally left a word out—we have inserted the word we believe belongs there in square brackets. When Ross used a French word or phrase, it is italicized.

In the French translation of the letters, Ross’s original French words and phrases remain, even when there are errors in grammar or spelling. The italics inserted in the English transcription remain in the French translation—to identify these words and phrases as Ross’s own. No attempt has been made, however, to reproduce Ross’s occasional errors in English in the French translation.

In Search of More Information

Canadians interested in the Canadian Daily Record in trenches near Lens. Canadians interested in the Canadian Daily Record in trenches near Lens. February, 1918.
source: Canada. Dept of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada

We view the site as a work in progress. The amount of research required to answer all of the questions that arise out of the letters is staggering. If you have information (pictures, letters, other documents, stories) relating to an individual who appears in the letters, please submit them to us and we will add the information to the site. We are also looking for information about the towns and cities that Ross passed through or stayed in during his time on Active Service and any cultural and social history that is directly relevant to the letters (including documents, film/video clips and websites).

To add to the site please send us a message.

We will be adding new features that will help users navigate the site, add new information and review recently added documents and changes to the web site.