Like thousands of other young men in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, Glen Tomlinson enlisted in the armed forces. And, like so many of those same young soldiers, he wrote letters back home.
The Harriston resident started in London in January 1943 and was immediately prepped for some of the ordeals ahead of him. Thirteen days later he transferred to Ipperwash where the camp held about 1,500 trainees. It was rigorous training. According to Glen, “I’m in Infantry Reserve, which means if I don’t get out of it I will finish my training and then be shipped overseas to a holding unit to fill up different regiments as needed.”
But this is not an account of the ravages or battles of a horrid war. This is a story of a kid who follows the footsteps of two older brothers and wants to fight for his country. It’s a story of a teenager who was separated from his family, and an insight into some of the ways he dealt with pain, loneliness, heartache and frustration.
Glen wrote letters to his parents on an average of twice a week. He also wrote to his three brothers, his sister, other relatives, friends and neighbors right up to the time of his homecoming.
Mrs. Tomlin saved every letter from her four sons. All Glen’s correspondence has been typed, and his grandson compiled a binder which spans the three-year period. There are few references to the war itself, but rather tales of family love, honesty, sharing and compassion. Glen tried to keep his mother informed of his health and welfare, but at the same time he worried constantly about his parents having to deal with the uncertainty of having three sons in the army. Most letters told his mom not to worry about him. Some letters described his progress – how he did well on the target ranges, getting a very good score even with a strange gun. “But”, he told his mother, “I’d sooner be back home shooting ground hogs. I bet they miss me. I never missed them very often though.”
Pte. Tomlin writes just as he talks – with one thought flowing into another, hardly stopping for a breath. His letters are filled with wit and humor, “I got two letters from Murray this week and one was written on toilet paper”.
There is a running commentary with his opinions on his sister’s boy friends, plus the antics and dating of other Harriston youth. “I hear Wimp MacKenzie is engaged to Shirley Grice. He sure got himself a peach of a girl.”
While he was overseas he describes how he tuned his ear to noises and learned to distinguish between various types of aircraft. He talked of grenades, air raids, bombs, and sirens but usually threw in a bit of humor right away to diffuse the apprehension, and then, “don’t worry mom, I don’t, and I’m ok”.
It was many months before he heard from his brothers and was able to spend time with them. Ted married in England before he shipped on to North Africa. “I guess it took war to make us appreciate each other. We get along fine now and have not had any quarrels”.
Mrs. Tomlin sent newspapers – the hometown “Rag” and the Star Weekly plus parcels of candy, food, socks and other little things that Glen asked for such as 120 film for his camera, a pocket knife, shaving cream, and money!
One newspaper article described how the senior Tomlins had four boys enlisted. Ted and Jack signed up nine days after war was declared and soon found themselves on active duty in England. Oscar was with the Base Post Office in Ottawa. Kid brother Glen enlisted as soon as he was of age, and six months later was on active service overseas as a gunner in the artillery.
Many of the families around town sent letters of encouragement as well as “care parcels.” On his birthday he received a card and handkerchief from the Harriston Red Cross and at Christmas a box of chocolates. The Lions Club sent cards and cigarettes.
Glen’s love and admiration for his family is shown over and over again. Most of his letters are addressed “Dear Mom,” but periodically he receives one from his dad and you can tell he’s bursting with pride. In one response: “there will be $25 a month coming home shortly, so you and mom have full authority to use it if you need it.” “You remember dad, how we used to have the occasional talk about this and that? I’ve really benefitted from those talks believe it or not.”
Already in that first year Glen is thinking of the future – “One of the first things I’ll have to do is pick up my life where I left off and forget about this interruption”.
For Christmas he wired flowers to his parents, and sent an ornamental handkerchief to his sister.
“Thanks mom for the parcel, I got it at New Years. I started using your pen. Those gums are still my favorite candy. Something that never goes amiss are those little packets of chocolate, and soup”.
“Well mother, I had the satisfaction of doing something New Years that I haven’t missed doing for five years – I smoked a cigar. Made me slightly homesick though.”
During those dreadful years there would be millions of ‘soldier-to-mom’ letters clogging the mail system. The Base Post Master would have been busy. However, to the men, things never seemed speedy enough: “Mom, I’ve got a kick as usual to make – no mail. There must be sabotage back home or somewhere. How am I to keep my morale up when I don’t hear from my people more often?”
Letters from home kept him up-to-date on events, illnesses and deaths. His reaction, “I’m sorry about Vic, I may be in uniform but I’ve still got feelings, and hearing about him let the flood go”.
When rationing, food stamps and low incomes were prevalent in Canada, funds were no better overseas, “I’m glad the bond came. Now, would you please send $15 before the 24th of the month? Eve (Ted’s wife) invited me up, but I guess that will have to wait until the finances are repaired.”
The brothers visited one another as often as they could and made sure to always let the folks know: “I got a chance to go up and see Jack. Seems he had dodged parade in the morning so when I saw him he was very vigorously ?? scrubbing floors.”
When a soldier penned a letter there was always the chance it would be opened and scrutinized. Information was censored and they were warned not to divulge missions or locations – “Dear Mom, well here I am a long way from where I wrote my last letter. I’m right on the coast, but it’s not advisable to say where. However, you will know if by chance Ted or Eve told you where they spent their honeymoon”
As the months rolled by, the upbringing of this young lad was evident: “Well dad, what Jack said about me behaving myself is correct. I’ve had every opportunity to do wrong and go to the dogs, but I’ve got certain ideas of my own to live up to as well as the promises to you and mom”.
“I’ve darned near come to blows with fellows who have called me a sissy for not drinking or smoking, but I think I’ve proven I’m not.”
Glen never forgot special occasions: “Happy Mother’s Day, you’re the best mother a fellow could possibly have. I’ve been sore at you at times, but I realize now I was more of a brat than I’d admit. All I can say mom is thanks for being my mother, you’ve sure got them all beat”.
On his 21st birthday Pte. Tomlin made the comment, “Guess I’m just the same, only a year older in age and about 10 in experience”……. Great birthday present, got shipped off from England to Belgium.
And then came the dreaded telegram in September 1944 advising of Ted’s death. Soldier leaves had been cancelled for months. Even a compassionate leave was denied and Glen was unable to visit his sister-in-law and her baby, Peter Frederick. It was extremely hard for him to write home the next time: “Dear Family: I received the telegram about Ted on Thursday and have been trying ever since to put into words what I think about it, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that there just isn’t anything I can say except I’m sorry that it had to happen. I think you all know how I feel about it.”………” I guess the mothers, fathers and wives are the best and bravest heroes of all”…. ”It should all be over soon”. “Keep your chins up and don’t worry about Ted too much. I don’t think he’d want you to. I know I wouldn’t.”
“I’m hoping Eve and the babe will go to Canada. You will like her I know, Jack and I both do.”
Combat got much more aggressive, and in little bits he alluded to the adversity. He would describe a few events, always qualifying with a bit of humor. “Well folks, here I am sitting in a slit trench and thinking of my past sins”…… “Yesterday we came up to the front, bloody mud and whatnot up to our ankles. Just nicely reached C Company when the Jerries started shelling. Believe me folks; I never hit the ground so hard in all my life before. First thing I landed in was a bunch of cow manure!!”
The next period on the battlefield was cold, lonely, and frightening, but Glen’s letter home said, “I hope you will forgive me mom when I say I’ve taken to drink – my rum ration whenever it comes around. It sure warms a person up when he’s half frozen.” After several weeks of ‘hole-in-the-ground’ life, the next letter stated “We are back in reserve again living in deluxe dugouts – electric lights and a bed.
“The Jerries dropped a few shells here today but nobody got hurt and all they did was ruin a few trees and my towel which I had hung up to dry”.
May 10th, 1945: “Dear Mom, here I am back in England and glad to be here – especially for the V-Day celebrations.” “I’ll try to bring you a Christmas present in person this year. Have you heard from Jack? I haven’t for months.”
Ever hopeful after V-Day that he’d be home for the fall hunting season, he finally had to write, “Dear Dad, sorry to disappoint you, but I guess we won’t get our deer hunt in this year. I should be seeing you in time to do our Christmas shopping though.”
Like all the young lads anxious to get back home, none were prepared for the long wait after the Germans surrendered: “Still rumors going around as to when we will get home – be lucky if it’s by next Dominion Day.”
Late August 1945 – “Received the most welcome (sarcastic) news today – we WON’T be home for Christmas.”
The young soldiers, anxious to go home, found it hard to understand the release rules – “And yet, they get to go home before a guy who is in one of the other divisions and has seen anywhere up to two years of action. Makes a fellow who offered to do his part freely, and has had the dirty breaks all along, wonder if he was a damned fool for volunteering in the first place.”
By November the troops were finally leaving Holland. The following are excerpts from the official Good Bye Address offered to the boys of the 1st Battalion Highland Light Infantry of Canada by their Dutch friends in Zeist. “At the end of this year of double victory you will be back in your fatherland, far away over the ocean, where all your relations and friends are waiting. It will be quiet here in Zeist. But memories will stay. They will last.” …“As Canadians you taught us that men and women of all ages can live together in peace”. “Be sure that Holland as a whole, and particularly your friends in Zeist, will never forget you.”
In the weeks following the end of the war, letters fell off from friends as they automatically assumed the boys would be home soon. Back in England, Glen ends a November ’45 letter with, “I now sign off as the forgotten soldier who nobody outside of the family writes to.”
Christmas dinner 1945 was aboard the H.M.T. Queen Elizabeth.
There are no more letters in the cache, just Glen’s Discharge Certificate dated February 12th, 1946.
In following this young lad for three years (and over 200 letters) it’s hard to fathom that when his tour of duty is over, the kid is only 22.
Sixty-five years later I feel honored to be privy to this collection of history as written by a young soldier and saved by his mother. The correspondence gives us just a ripple of the horrors these lads faced, but more interestingly, an insight into the character of a brave young man.