- The Wartime Letters of Leslie and Cecil Frost 1915-1919
In 1967 Leslie M. Frost, the Conservative premier of Ontario from 1949 until 1961, published Fighting Men, an excellent account of his battalion's service during the First World War. What is less well known is that Frost and his brother Cecil wrote more than 200 letters home to their parents during the war, of which 170 survive. These are now located in the archives of Trent University, and R. B. Fleming has organized and published them as a comprehensive collection. Taken as a whole, the letters are evocative, informative, and telling of the kind of place Canada was during the war and of how soldiers coped with training, combat, and, often, crushing boredom. For those interested in Frost's political career, the collection offers fresh insight into the formative years and events of his intellectual, ideological, and political development.
The Frosts were from Orillia; Leslie was 20 and Cecil 18 when they enlisted in 1915. Leslie wound up a junior officer in the 20th Battalion and Cecil a captain with the 2nd Machine Gun Brigade; both served in the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. They shipped to England in October 1916, with Leslie arriving in France in August 1917. He was seriously wounded in March 1918. Cecil arrived in November 1917 and was slightly wounded in October 1918, returning to active duty until the Armistice the following month.
The men were firmly rooted in family and community, and their correspondence reveals much about the social and political framework of the Dominion. Fleming's introduction is an interesting (though overlong) review of the Frost family and the history of the small Ontario town in which they grew up and to which they felt an intense attachment.
These richly detailed letters by intelligent, perceptive observers help us understand how middle-class English Canadians viewed the war, their country, the Empire, and themselves. Leslie comes across as a driven political "junkie" who, ironically, expressed increasing loathing for Canadian politicians of every stripe. He was deeply interested in goings-on in the Houses of Commons in Ottawa and London and often adopted the "high diction" of Empire in a manner [End Page 261] probably more British than the British themselves. Still, reflective of Canada's own national evolution, as time passed, Leslie became less than enamoured with some British authorities, stating in November 1916, "I am in favour of the Canadian Expeditionary Force being run by Canadians. Imperial Officers do not understand us" (p. 93). In the same letter, he wrote, "Let Canada raise her own army, feed it, and officer it and it will be better than having Englishmen, who think we are backwoodsmen, run us. . .. Then perhaps they would cease regarding us as 'colonials'" (p. 94). The men's imperial fervour further diminished once they crossed to France, where enthusiasm and bravado yielded to grim reality and occasional criticism of the management of the war. The men quickly transferred their pride to the impressive achievements of the Canadian Corps.
On the other hand, in November 1916, Leslie wrote his parents angrily of the poorly organized and mismanaged CEF in Britain. Cecil was fed up, too. In January he wrote of the painful boredom attendant to the army's maladministration: "At present, we are having a delightful time trying to fill in the day and also the night with doing nothing and [when] we are tired of doing nothing, we do some more nothing and so on" (p. 109).
Leslie was obviously the greater intellect of the two, by far less self-centred and self-serving. Although many of Cecil's letters are interesting for their unvarnished commentary — for example, regarding battalion rivalry and his evident pride in serving as a machine-gunner — he seems in constant need of money and more money, creature comforts, better food, and whatever else his heart desires. Whatever ills befall him always seem the fault of others; he is beyond reproach. While he is literate and expressive...