University of Calgary student donates letter written on fabric of downed aircraft to The Military Museums
July 25, 2014
As the world prepares to mark the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War on Monday, July 28, a unique battlefield artifact is going on display at The Military Museums: a letter written home by Canadian solder Edward Iley on the fabric from the wing of a German aircraft his unit shot down.
"I got this on the Cambrai front off a German Plane that came down," Iley wrote on March 12, 1918, adding a message to his two-year-old daughter, Bernice: "Be a good Little Girl and be good to Mama for Dada's Sake."
The letter was donated to The Military Museums by Iley's great-grandson, University of Calgary student Michael Hilton, who used it for one of his courses.
"I was looking for a research project and my brother stumbled across this letter in a box of family belongings," says Michael Hilton, who has a degree in Canadian Studies and will study at the Werklund School of Education in the fall.
Hilton brought the letter to the University of Calgary's Library and Archives at The Military Museums, where staff used documents such as war diaries to help him research his great-grandfather's unit, the Canadian 12th Railroad Division. This unit was constantly exposed to bombs and gunfire while working on top of the trenches building light railway tracks over the mud to pull supplies to the front and bring the injured back.
Experts say many soldiers wrote letters on the fabric from airplane wings but Hilton's research turned up only two others in the world, located in Australia and France. Hilton believes many more families have such letters tucked away in their possessions without even knowing it.
Along with the letter, Hilton discovered a pocket watch that had been taken from the body of the German gunner on the plane. From the female name inscribed within and with help from the German government, Hilton was able to not only identify the gunner - Fredrick Schoening - but find his service record as well. Hilton has been trying to locate Schoening's descendants so he can return the watch.
"What makes the letter special is the connection that it shows between the men on the front lines and their families back home," says Rory Cory, senior curator at The Military Museums. "In the end, this is what really kept them going - and, in fact, what still keeps them going today - knowing they have people at home who support and love them."
The letter, pocket watch and over 300 artifacts relating to the First World War go on public display Monday, July 28, at The Military Museums as part of the exhibition Wild Rose Overseas: Albertans in the Great War, until December 15. Noteworthy artifacts include pieces of the Red Baron's plane and audio interviews with First World War veterans.