Kelvon Smith has a veritable "national treasure" of letters from the First World War.
The executive member at the Virden Legion has a collection of dozens of letters and postcards written by Virden resident Cpl. Leonard Hepburn back to his family during the First World War.
The collection came from Hepburn’s surviving family members of, who donated the letters over the summer to the Virden branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Hepburn lived in Virden most of his life and is buried in the town’s cemetery.
According to his obituary, he died at 99 years of age on June 16, 1992.
He joined Canada’s Second Battalion in 1914 and served in Europe until 1918. In June 1916, he was wounded by shrapnel and was reassigned as an orderly corporal until the spring of 1917 when he went back to the front line and earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
"This guy was actually there, he’s not making up anything and he seems to be an honest, true person and he’s telling his family what it’s like," Smith said. "These aren’t censored."
Smith was a member of the cadets and said reading the letters for the first time was particularly interesting through a contemporary lens.
"It’s like stepping back into time. When you start reading them you’ll start feeling the same way, like I’m stepping back in time. This is somebody who was telling me what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen, or (asking) ‘How’s Mom?’ Or ‘How’s Dad?’"
Standing inside the Virden Legion, Smith puts on latex gloves to carefully handle the letters to avoid damaging them. Smith said Hepburn was likely a member of the Virden Legion himself and would have spent a great deal of time in the room.
He said he remembers seeing Hepburn around town when he was young but didn’t recognize the life experiences he had.
In the letters, Hepburn tells his family in Virden about life on the front line.
He "tells it as it is," Smith said, including what life was like for an infantry soldier. On one letter he tells his father to burn it after reading it, possibly meaning he knew he was including too much detail.
"He tells about how they were supposed to go and capture some German soldiers," Smith said. "The first group got discovered so they cancelled his session because they knew the Germans would be prepared."
The letters also tell lighter sides of living in the trenches.
In one letter, he writes: "Received your welcome letter along with Mamma’s a few days ago so will answer tonight. The parcel arrived O.K. last Sunday and was quite a treat. The cake and candy were both just fine. A couple of chums were in my room at the time and they pronounced it the best they had tasted for ages. I gave a bit of the short-bread to a real Scotchman and he nearly went crazy. Sweet stuff and rich cake are unknown here."
The letters are sent from France, Belgium and England and addressed to "Papa," "Mamma" and "Sister." Some are written on paper from the YMCA or with a picture of King George.
One of the postcards, with a picture of an early tank on the front, reads: "I have never seen a tank so I can’t tell everything about them. However, they look fierce enough."
Another postcard, with a photo of a navy ship on it, still has dirt from the trenches smeared on the back.
The plan is to donate the letters to the National War Museum in Ottawa, Smith said, where they can be preserved properly.
"I told the (Virden Legion) executive that these are national treasures. They shouldn't be kept here or at our Virden Museum or at Shilo, they should be sent straight to Ottawa."
Smith plans to send the letters to the museum after Remembrance Day on Monday.
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