In these days of diverse communication systems and the ability for almost instant contact, it is difficult to understand the desperate feeling of separation that existed between our servicemen and women and their families at home during the Second World War. The gap was worsened as the conflict progressed when regulations tightened around the two modes of long distance communication – long distance telephone and overseas telegraphy.
When service personnel went overseas, the separation became even more pronounced and what is now derogatorily call ‘snailmail’ became the primary method of keeping in touch. The rapid movement of mail was recognized as critical to morale and was given high priority, but accidents and enemy action often slowed or prevented delivery.
Adding to the difficulty, some people were uncomfortable with the act of writing, finding it difficult to reveal emotion. All parties recognized that expressions of complaint or excessive yearning would be counterproductive. Men in particular were often naturally reticent and their written communications could be bland or stilted. Family members at home were strongly cautioned about what was acceptable to write in letters and service personnel had their correspondence censored to prevent information leaks which might assist the enemy if their mail was intercepted. Nonetheless, letters and official Armed Forces ‘formula’ postcards remained an essential chain that bound the heart.
As the undersea telegraph cables between Britain and North America were a secure method of communication that was safe from enemy interception, their use was almost exclusively reserved for diplomatic and military traffic. The volume of essential messages was enormous and an important use was to inform service personnel’s families of their loves ones’ injuries, sicknesses or deaths. As the transmitting of words took up precious time, these ‘advice’ telegrams were necessarily terse and unfortunately could leave far too much to the imagination.
On the home front, the receipt of a telegram from overseas was a very tense business, as it might bring catastrophic news. People felt dread at seeing the telegram ‘boy’ doing his rounds.
We are fortunate that Frank Benson’s family have kept the telegrams that were sent to his wife Pansy and have agreed to share these, some newspaper articles and some photographs on our website. The telegrams readily illustrate all the benefits and failings of this abrupt method of communication. Critical news was delivered, but often, so very little said.
James Franklin (Frank) Benson was born in Toronto and grew up in Niagara Falls where he was an accomplished amateur athlete. He married Georgina Pansy Felstead, had a daughter, Gail N’Jeene, and was employed at Canadian Cellucotton Company when he enlisted in the 2/10th Dragoons in May 1942 and was given the regimental tag number, B41635.
In September, Frank proceeded to Debert, Nova Scotia from where he sent a telegram to Pansy to announce his safe arrival. As personal telegraphing within Canada was still acceptable, Frank sent a second message to wish Pansy a Merry Christmas. How that single, bald line of text must have emphasized their separation.
Benson proceeded to Britain in January 1943. His first wound was a sprained ankle, which was reported in February to Pansy as having occurred in action. Frank said that he had been horsing around and tripped in a rabbit hole. Although one might not normally think of a sprained ankle as an ‘action’ wound, regulations stated that injuries suffered overseas in Britain constituted a wound. In any event, the telegram to Pansy Benson was very specific about the nature of the hurt, which must have been a relief.
After some time in reinforcement depots, Frank arrived at the Perth Regiment and when the regiment embarked for Italy in November 1943, he was a Corporal in Able Company. He served in A. Company until April 1, 1944 when he was transferred to the Scout Platoon of Support Company to become a sniper, no doubt because of his skills in fieldcraft and marksmanship.
In the regiment’s drive to the Senio River, Frank was grievously wounded in the groin by an anti-personnel mine explosion during the night action at the Fosso Munio on December 19, 1944. Frank recalls being brought out by two Gurkhas and sent to a New Zealand hospital.
Pansy received an alarming telegram describing a very serious wound and warning her not to reveal her husband’s name or unit for fear of assisting the enemy; however, newspaper reports soon nullified that idea.
Three distressing telegrams followed repeating the same simplistic news. Pansy must have been worried sick. At last, on January 19, good news arrived; Frank was improving and out of danger.
On March 24, a final telegram arrived, this time from Frank himself. He was on his way home and Pansy was “to get up them stairs” and be ready for him. Rather comically, every one of these telegrams cost her 60 cents.
After his return, life was happily resumed and two more daughters arrived, Pauline in 1946 and Maureen in 1949. Frank is alive today – 95 years old. His daughter Maureen recalls –
It has always been an unspoken agreement that the War was a taboo conversation. He remains steadfast to this day. He speaks of his medals that were unfortunately stolen from our home in the late 60's and is his only regret that he does not have them. He did not have sons and thus he kept hidden all the cruelties of war from his "girls." We never ate Lamb in our house as he always stated that he ate enough mutton in the War to last an entire lifetime. He used to say " Ou est le papier..” stating that it was the only French he learned in the War, but I do not see where he would have been in France. [Belgium]
I really wish I could shed more light for posterity, but he was very private about the War. Unfortunately, he retained a deep hatred for German and Italian men that would cause us embarrassment occasionally if we brought home a friend of those descents. I guess you have to hate something if you are supposed to kill it, so, we just adjusted our lifestyle.
He is a good and gentle man, who raised us with dignity and never once "spanked" us. He had a look and you knew you had crossed the line. The War profoundly changed him according to my mother. He saw any act of violence or brutality as totally unwarranted.