A Bloody Sweater and a Pair of Dentures

Private Togo Piper didn’t have many personal belongings. When he died overseas in May 1943, all that was returned to his family were a few photographs, letters, toiletries… and a pair of dentures. This came as a bit of a surprise to his widow, Julia. To her knowledge, her husband had been in possession of a full set of his own teeth. With admirable sangfroid, she wrote to the Canadian government indicating that she would like to return the teeth so that the set could be “[forwarded] to its rightful owner.”1

Private Piper was one of some 44,090 Canadians who didn’t return from the Second World War. Although these men never came home, their belongings did. The Canadian government implemented various measures to ensure the personal possessions of the deceased were sent to their rightful owners. But what happened when the wrong items were returned? By the Second World War, the return of servicemen’s personal effects had become an implicit condition of the social contract that existed between servicemen and the Canadian government.

Mix-ups were considered a slight to the honorable service of the Canadian war dead, and few Canadians were inclined to be forgiving in the face of such bureaucratic blunders.

It is commonly accepted — although legally contested — that there exists a social contract between the public and the Armed Services, dating to Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Vimy Speech in 1917.2 According to Veteran’s Affairs Canada, this social contract can be divided into commemoration and tangible benefits. Following the Armistice in 1919, tangible benefits consisted of pensions, while commemoration ensured that all war dead, regardless of rank or social standing, were uniformly remembered.3 The government felt it had fulfilled its side of the bargain; veterans didn’t. During the interwar period veterans agitated for the extension of the social contract. As they fought for more generous pensions, veterans were also actively developing concepts of entitlement, arguing that military service afforded them and their families certain rights. One such right was the return of personal effects. These sentiments were put into words by the mother of Gunner Clifford William Carlisle in an indignant letter to the Department of National Defence: “Surely I was entitled to…some compensation for the loss of a loved one I let go so willingly to fight for his country…Most certainly his personal belongings from overseas as a remembrance.”4

Royal Canadian Navy sailors on the HMCS Algonquin during World War II. When a member of the Canadian armed forces was killed overseas, the Estates Branch promised to return personal belongings to the serviceman’s family. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Unlike Mrs. Carlisle, Mrs. Mathilda Blaine had received personal effects — just not her son’s. Private Jack Thompson had been killed in a railway accident in Scotland in January 1942. In July that same year, Mrs. Blaine wrote angrily to officials that old wounds were being opened “little by little.”5 First, she had been sent the wrong man’s effects. Second, her son’s more valuable possessions — a cigarette case and watch — were missing. But most distressing of all was the sweater. “I will never forget,” she wrote, “the blood covered sweater you so kindly sent me.”6 Like many Canadians, Mrs. Blaine clearly felt that by losing her son’s belongings, the Canadian government had failed in its responsibility to the war dead. But it had also failed in its obligations to grieving Canadians. During the war, the Government of Canada took every step to ease the news of death. The letters of condolence assured Canadians that their sons, husbands, brothers had died honorably in the service of “King and Country.” These letters also contained photos of headstones, line up neatly in pristine military cemeteries. In short, the realities of death were obscured to make the news more palatable. Yet, the sweater, regardless of who it originally belonged to, belied the appearance of a sterile death, a stark reminder to Mrs. Blaine that her son had violently lost his life.

The return of soldiers’ possessions was not novel to the Second World War, but families increasingly felt they were owed certain considerations for having let their loved ones enlist. The Estates Branch, the department responsible for the return of effects, was formally created in 1916. However, few Canadians were seemingly aware of the Department at that time. A.E. Kemp, the Minister of Militia and Defence, once remarked it’s “as well that the Estates Branch has not loomed too large in the eye of the Canadian public.”7 Warfare being what it was, “it was not…always possible to recover these personal belongings.”8 This inability, however warranted, became increasingly unacceptable to Canadians by the 1940s.

The ton of letters written by next-of-kin to the Estate Branch ranged from disappointment to outrage, but each contained the underlying assumption that the prompt and accurate return of their loved-one’s belongings was their right. Mr. Charles Bourne was also upset by his treatment at the hands of the Estates Branches and wrote a number of incensed letters that culminated in a final diatribe asking if the department did not have a “responsibility towards the parents of its citizens who make the sacrifice my son made”? Mr. Bourne further chastised the Department for “causing more discontent among bereaved parents than can be offset by the myriad of stereotyped letters of condolence which they receive from the Department of National Defence.”9

Understandably, grieving family members felt slighted by Estates Branch errors, viewing stock condolence letters as a brush off from government officials. In fact, Estates Branch officials, were — to use a modern term — very customer oriented. The Department was fully aware of how important personal effects were to Canadians and did try to minimize errors. Belongings were immediately collected on death, inventoried, sent to a central location, and then on to the next-of-kin. At every stage of this process, the contents of each package was checked against the inventory and signed off on by COs. That said, no system, however methodical, is perfect. Given the number of cases the Estates Branch handled during the war, it is not surprising that mistakes were made. But what many angry family members may not have realized is that officials did make every effort to rectify errors, no matter how small. A year after his son P/O Ralph Charters’ death, Mr. Charters wrote inquiring as to the whereabouts of his wrist watch.10 Mr. Charters had received most of his son’s personal effects, but his watch remained unaccounted for. After multiple letters and telegrams crossing back and forth between the Estates Branches in Ottawa, London, and P/O Charters’ unit, the watch was located after four months and duly sent to his family. It was far from a happy ending to a sad tale, but it nonetheless offered some consolation to P/O Charters’ parents.

By the Second World War, the return of personal effects was solidly entrenched within the social contract between the service person and the Canadian government, where it remains to this day. It was recognized that the emotional value of belongings far outweighed their monetary worth. Since personal belongings played an important role in the memorialization of the war dead, the government took steps to ensure their safe return. But when errors did occur, the repercussions could be acutely felt. In her letter to the Department of National Defence, Mrs. Blaines asked, “Why do Mothers have to be hurt so much?”11 The bloody sweater she received denied Mrs. Blaines the opportunity to commemorate her son properly. Her devastation in the face of this error serves to remind us of the breadth of state obligations to its service people, obligations that only increase with death.

Notes

  1. Canada WWII Service Files of War Dead, 1939-1947- “Piper, T”; Ancestry.ca Return to text.
  2. Jonathan Minnes, “Law and Justice: Scott v. Canada and the History of the Social Covenant with Canadian Veterans” Canadian Military History 25, no 1(2016): 13. Return to text.
  3. LTC Sir Frederick Kenyon. War Graves: How the Cemeteries Abroad Will Be Designed (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1918), 7. Return to text.
  4. Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-1947-“Carlisle, C”, RG 24, Series 25539, Item 5485, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Return to text.
  5. Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-1947-“Thompson, J”, RG 24, Series 227194, Item 35402, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Return to text.
  6. Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-1947-“Thompson, J”, RG 24, Series 227194, Item 35402, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Return to text.
  7. A.E. Kemp. Report of the Ministry Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1918 (London: Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1918), 437. Return to text.
  8. Kemp, Report of the Ministry Overseas, 437. Return to text.
  9. Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-1947-“Bourne, K”, RG 24, Series 24894, Item 3489, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Return to text.
  10. Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-1947-“Charters, R.”, RG 24, Volume 25040, Item 6030, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Return to text.
  11. Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-1947-“Thompson, J”, RG 24, Series 227194, Item 35402, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Return to text.

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