Privates Orwell and Irwin Ennis
Orwell Ennis was two years younger than his sister Lillian and they maintained a close relationship. The following letters that Orwell wrote Lillian and other members of his family span the years of his enlistment in the army at age 22 and end with his tragic death at age 24. Lillian Gillette (nee Ennis) treasured these letters for over 70 years, passing them on to her son Victor.
Also included are letters written by Irwin Ennis and the commanding officer in charge on the night Orwell died.
Out of the danger zone back of the firing line in Belgium
Friday, October 22, 1915
Dear sisters, brother and Jackie,
I have just received your letters written on Oct. 4th. Also got letters from home, Art's and Ethel's at the same time. Was very pleased to get them as we had not heard from Canada for a long time. We have a little time to ourselves now and will try to do some writing. We have just come out of the trenches after being in for 18 days and are now quite away back and living in little huts which hold about 20 but there are only 13 of us in ours. So we are not crowded and are very comfortable. We will be here for about six days after which we will be going into the trenches again. No, we were not in the battle at Loos and there has not been any severe fighting on the portion of the line that we are holding. We rather like the trenches. We have plenty of room in them and sleep in little dugouts which hold from two to four. They are very warm with three to four feet of sand bags on all sides of us. We get all we want to eat and our mail and every thing just as when we are out. I could tell you lots more about the war but we are not allowed to write anything pertaining to military affairs so I hardly know where to draw the line. But can truly say that as yet we have not experienced anything that we could call hardships. Perhaps some have, not doubt. We have long hours and marches at times but that all goes with the game.
We are having just beautiful weather here not regular old Ontario fall. It reminds me of the days when we used to hurry home from school and go out picking nuts. But this country looks very much like around home with the exception of the buildings, at least those that are left standing, are very much older. The leaves and the woods are all colors now and falling fast.
Can hardly now how to write without talking of war. It seems that everything I can think of here has something to do with war and it is a fact, the little town we are now in and all the towns around here have all been taken over by the Military authorities. There are a few Belgium people around here that have still stuck to their old homes and now running little stores but don't sell much. We can get a little to eat from them. It was on the night of October first when we first loaded our rifles in earnest and went into action. The other night when we came out our band met us after we left the communication trench which is nearly two miles long. But when they played us back it certainly put new life in the boys and we forgot about the few casualties we have saw and the narrow escapes we have had. `Til the boys come home' is very popular here. I will close for this time but always glad to get your letter.
With love from Irwin and Orwell.
Thursday, November 11th, 1915
It is eight o'clock at night and it is dark and it is raining. Our officer Captain Callum wants three men to cross no mans land with some telephone wire attached to a bayonet and stick the bayonet into the ground as close as possible to the enemy's trench.
He thinks they can get induction, so H. Burrel, E. Hargraves and myself undertake the work. After winding our way through the narrow dark kings way to the front line at 9 P.M. we climbed over our parapet and proceed to crawl straight across to the enemy's trenches. Our progress is slow owing to many flares which light up the whole line. At which times we crouch close to the earth with our faces into the mud that we will not be seen. Presently we come upon the enemy's wire entanglements, now we are only five yards from their trench, here we lay for about an hour very quiet. I had no fear. We could hear the Germans in low conversation and coughing but could not distinguish any words. Once my blood ran cold and my heart stopped beating and I could not breath, a German sniper not five yards in front of us must have suspected something was wrong for he and the fire from his rifle was in my face but the bullet went high. After cutting off a piece of their wire and sinking our bayonet in the ground we crawled back stretching the wire with us. Soon we were back over our own parapet when I gave a sigh of relief, safe again.
We were highly praised for our accomplishment.
Monday, November 29th, 1915
Dear Sisters, Bro. & Jack,
Well here we are again after coming out of the trenches last night, were just in for four days last trip and we had a fairly good time of it. I think the Battalion only had one casualty this time-in and we had fine weather of it. It has become quite wintery here now. On Friday the 26th we had the first snow and have had hard frosts every night so hard that the ground does not get thawed out during the day. It is much better than the mud. But the sun is so far south, it seems we should have colder weather for the days are so very short. The sun never rises until after eight o'clock and it gets dark shortly after three. We have not had ice yet strong enough to bear one up. I guess it will be the first winter for quite awhile that I have not skated.
We got the parcel of candies from Edna the first night we were in the trenches and they were pretty good. Also got a letter from you Nov 8th a few days later. I sure have been faring pretty well for parcels over here. We got one from Dave's sister in Edinburgh containing cakes and two swell fur hats that come down around your neck. Irwin gets a parcel from Mrs. Macgregor's sister in England every little while.
Then I have a sweet little Yorkshire girl as well as her mother that think they cannot do too much for me. I tell you you can't beat the people of England and Scotland. We certainly met some good friends there. These people I speak of I met in Otterpool camp about a week before we left. I was on guard at the time and she and her mother came down to the camp to see their son and brother. The Battalion was away at the time so they waited around until they came back. I got acquainted at supper time by treating them to a cup of tea and then only met them twice afterwards but they wanted my address. They have sent parcels every week since we came over here. It certainly is good of them and they won't accept any thanks for it. They say it is the only way they have of doing their bit. It certainly is a treat to get a few eats extra to our rations which sometimes are short. But listen this is not meant for a hint or anything because I do not want you people to go to any trouble or expense because the parcels from Canada are not always so sure as they are from England.
After we have been in the trenches for three months which will be on Dec. 24th/15, we are entitled to seven days clear long leave in England. Everybody is talking about leave now and we are sure looking forward to ours. We have so many places to --
[rest of the letter is missing]
Sunday night, Dec. 5th, 1915
Going on duty at 1 A.M. tomorrow morning. At 11 P.M. I am not at all sleepy and can feel a cold coming on. My head does not feel right. I lay on my little cot and look out into the night through one side of the dugout which has fallen in. There is eight inches of water underneath my bed.
The war strikes me as a terrible thunderstorm. The bombs are the thunder, the rifle machine gun bullets and shrapnel are the downpour and the flares that go up and die down again are the lightning.
I lay and picture my home as it was when we were boys and played there. I can see my dear Mother now of an evening after her work is done sitting by the table sewing or mending something. The boys are all away and she is alone. I can see my poor old father very tired. He has worked hard all day perhaps not made very much. The first thing he says is; Any word from the boys, Ma? If there is he forgets his weariness and pains and they go to bed happy the boys are alright. If there is no word from the boys his heart sinks.
It is the only way I have of comforting them now. I will write as often as I can. Heaven knows I owe it to them. May God spare us till we meet again. My happiness in future will be to smooth the road for my parents in their last days.
[Orwell is wounded in his right arm during January 1916 and spends six months convalescing in England].
June 17th, 1916
Dear Sisters Bro & Jackie,
We received Edna's letter one day this week while we were in the trenches. It came very quick being only fourteen days. I have been sending quite a numer of field cards lately because very often if we do have little time to ourselves it is taken up with sleep or resting or cleaning up again.
We are at present out of the trenches a considerable distance back where Fritzies' shells won't reach us anyway, and believe me if ever we appreciated a chance to get away out from it, it was this time. For we came out Thursday night after doing eight days of a share in what you know as the Third Battle of (censored). No doubt you are reading big accounts in the papers but one cannot go much by the Canadian papers.
And so my little sister Edna is wearing a diamond ring now too. I would like so much to get back for the occasion but do not prolong it on that account because it is too indefinite. Yes I am sure you are getting one of the best men and I can admire him already for his good choice.
Well we have had another deluge of rain the past two week just when we were in the thick of it. But I believe we are to get better weather now as it is fine though a little cool.
It doesn't look much like a finish here yet though from the good accounts we are getting from other fronts I think we can expect the end any day now and none to soon either.
Hope to hear from you soon again with love to all.
Irwin and Orwell
[Orwell was killed by a shell explosion during a night patrol sent out to locate the enemy, on September 27thh, 1916]
Septembe 29th, 1916
Dear Mother and Father,
I hardly know how to write this letter but I must write it, and Dear mother and father I must tell you that God has taken Orwell away to that better land where trouble and sorrows come no more. I'm proud to be able to tell you that Orwell was a true British soldier, loyal to his Kind and country. He died a hero's death for the cause of liberty and the right, died that others may live in peace.
Now I cannot write a long letter to-night but I will write again at my first opportunity. It was on the night of the 27th Sept. Orwell was killed. It was instantaneously and I don't think Orwell knew what it was. It surely was the best way God could have taken him away. Now, Mother, please do not worry yourself sick again for it is all for the best.
Father could you arrange for to have a funeral service in our old church at home for it is impossible to hold it in the battlefield. I'm in good health myself and hope this finds all the rest at home well.
From your ever loving son and brother,
Full Report of the Tragic Death of Pte. Orwell Ennis.
France, October, 8, 1916
Dear Mrs. Ennis:
Long before this letter reaches you, you will have been told by official cable of the sad news of the death of your son Orwell in action.
I realize that in such circumstances mere words can do nothing to make your sorrow and grief any less, but as the officer in charge of the scout section and as one who knew, regretted and admired our son, I want to offer you my sincere sympathy in your great loss.
Your son, the day before he was killed, had been out alone with me in a particularly important bit of investigation. Then, on that night, he was one of the men with me on a patrol sent out far in front of our lines in an effort to locate the enemy. Through the good work done by your son, and others with me, we were able to achieve our objective.
It was between one and two o'clock on the morning of September 28th, as we were returning to our Headquarters, that we were all shocked at the sudden taking away of Orwell Ennis. He was struck by a fragment of shell at the base of the head and was killed instantly. He suffered absolutely no pain and this was our only consolation. He was bured at daybreak in the western part of the village of Courcelette, a name, dear Mrs. Ennis, that will live long in the history of our Canadian armies.
The only consolation I can offer you is that your son lived like a man and died like a soldier and gentleman. His last resting place is one of our country's most glorious fields of victory. We miss him greatly in the Scout Section. His brother, although greatly grieving for his and your loss, is "carrying on" like a true soldier.
If there is anything I can do for you please do not hesitate to ask me.
I have the honor to remain, yours very sincerely,
Lieut. P.C. Scouts, 27th Battalion