writer, researcher, editor, lecturer


R.B. (Rae) Fleming


Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007, ISBN 1-55458-000-5, $44.95

The Wartime Letters of Leslie and Cecil Frost

Like the soldier on the front cover sitting on his bed reading a letter, the Frost brothers found reading a letter from home one of the greatest of pleasures. This dugout is similar to one described by Leslie Frost a few weeks after the Canadians captured Hill 70, north of Lens, France. On 1 October 1917, he assured his parents that the twenty-by-ten-foot dugout where he and five other company officers were living was comfortable. Couches were fashioned from sandbags, and they even had a fireplace of sorts. The artist's soldier also enjoys a stove or fireplace, handy for drying socks.The bed's "springs" are made of chicken wire, which probably provided a comfortable night's rest. On the far wall is a colour drawing of what appears to be another pleasure of the war, a cancan girl, who may have performed close to the front or at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The artist has identified the location as "Méaulte", which is just south of Albert, France. (Thurstan Topham 1888-1966. The Artist's Own Dugout on the Albert-Braye Roadside, 1916, watercolour on paper. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum)

COMMENTS RE The Wartime Letters of Leslie and Cecil Frost 1915-1919:

"R B Fleming contributes a comprehensive introduction and his editorial notes are supportive without being intrusive. An excellent collection, and handsomely produced." Dr. Ged Martin, British Journal of Canadian Studies, 2015.

Leslie Frost"A wonderful collection of correspondence - frank, peceptive, and witty. The Frosts were keen observers and shared a gift for bringing their experiences to life in their letters home. They give us a fascinating glimpse of everything from the conscription debate to the morals of their men. This book is a delight for anyone who is interested in the First World War or who simply wants to read an insightful and informed series of letters." - Jonathan F. Vance, Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture at the University of Western Ontario, author of Building Canada: People and Projects That Shaped the Nation (2006)

"The Wartime Letters of Leslie and Cecil Frost is a remarkable document of its times and for our times. Superbly edited by R.B. Fleming and complemented by maps and nearly fifty original photographs from the era, the letters capture a young and close-knit family's patriotic commitment to the Allied cause in the Great War, which gives way slowly to the constant recordings of the deaths of their friends.

"In the two brothers' growing perceptions and insights into the war come the political attitudes that sent them later into the Ontario Conservative Party, which they reshaped along more progressive lines. In this way, the letters form the intellectual basis for forty years of Tory rule in Ontario." - David Staines, Department of English, University of Ottawa, general editor of the New Canadian Library series (McClelland & Stewart)

The following is a review by Dr. Elwood Jones, published in Trent Valley Gazette, August 2007

Cecil Frost"Marjorie Porter remembered the letters of her father and her uncle as joyful, and quite a contrast to the bleakness of some war memories. Thanks to the deft editorial work of Rae B. Fleming, we have a chance to experience the war as it seemed for Leslie and Cecil Frost. Her uncle, Leslie Frost, was the premier of Ontario during the 1950s, and was the first chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough. Her father, Cecil, loved politics as well, and the two of them helped make the Conservatives extremely popular in the former Victoria County. Orillia and Lindsay were the poles of their political lives. This book allows us to glimpse how much their view of rural Ontario was defined before 1914, how much was redefined in the blast furnaces of war, and how much was changed by the more relaxed life styles of post-war Ontario.

"Leslie and Cecil are great letter writers, and the originals of these letters have been in the Trent University Archives since 1971. The letters are illuminating and fascinating, and take us every step that the brothers followed. Their wartime lives, perhaps like their subsequent lives, ran in parallel tracks that interconnected more frequently than one would expect. As captivating as that might be, this book offers much more. Rae Fleming is aware that the editor needs to re-create the environment in which the letters were written. We need to know about Orillia, where the mother and father had a downtown jewelry store. We need to know about temperance and religion that defined the politics of rural Ontario. We need to know about the ambitions and ideas of Leslie Frost, and his brother. We need to know why it was important to fight in this war, and what people thought they were achieving.

"This is a delightful book with rich insights that I read and traversed in a single sitting. The writing is that good. The editorial introduction is fast-paced and covers all the ground that was needed. Then we have the treat of a second introduction written by Thomas H. B. Symons, who knew Frost very well as both played key roles in the founding of Trent University. As well as the letters from the brothers, we have too few letters from the parents. As well, Leslie Frost added comments to the letters after he retired from politics and became an adept historian of this area. Fleming has added a useful commentary on names mentioned in the letters.

"The book has some apt illustrations, tending to suggest that the Frost brothers are representative of the Canadian war experience. He comments on the fiscal conservatism of the period, but also suggests that the British belief in superiority had unsavory aspects, such as racism. Great visions were touched with narrow-mindedness. We do not have to agree with all the observations. Fleming raises many ideas and reflections, flowing out of his close reading of the letters, and lets us see the ways in which letters from a narrow slice of time, really four years, cast light on a century of Ontario thinking.

"The letters themselves are generally superb. The Frosts were evidently a family that only talked when they had something to say, and they did not talk about things that would upset others. As Fleming points out very clearly, the letters do not detail the loss of life, or the violence of battles. Leslie and Cecil were nearly silent on the role of drinking in the lives of soldiers, for their parents were strong temperance people, and no one drank or smoked in their homes.

"Many letters are worth reading again. Of the letters written by Leslie, I really liked one dated 17 November 1916. His letter to his parents opens with metaphors about epidemics, partly because Orillia was experiencing a typhoid epidemic. He then described how he spent a seven-day leave. He was in London for an interesting parliamentary debate on the Irish. He met Cecil in London and they took the "Flying Scotsman" to Edinburgh and to Melrose Abbey, of Sir Walter Scott fame. They visited York and struck up a friendship with a Glasgow broker, and back to London for another visit at the House of Commons. He then gave a remarkable defense of Sir Sam Hughes, who had just resigned. Leslie favoured a Canadian Expeditionary Force and had critical remarks about English officers of the new armies. He thought Sir Robert Borden was a bit like Woodrow Wilson, both "watchful waiting." Canada would be wise to raise and run its own armies; it is okay to support Imperialism in Canada, but in England, Canadians were treated as inferiors. What a spectacular letter! However, many other letters are equally informative about what it was like where the sons were, in England, in France or Belgium, or in hospital.

"Rae Fleming is a superb editor. He found ways to let the letters speak for themselves. However, by clever use of the introduction, the informative chapter endnotes, and the appendix on names, he opens a world of insight.

"As I read the book, I was struck by the different ways in which archives can open past worlds to those who take the time. At the Trent Valley Archives, we have a collection of photographs taken on the Western front in 1917 and 1918. We have some letters from World War II veterans, and newspapers. But the letters in this volume seem more literate and more substantive than others that are written home. Maybe we need more historians shining lights in such dark places.

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Rae B. Fleming

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