A Canadian antique dealer stumbled on an unlikely treasure in a bunch of old papers she bought for a dollar — a letter written by a World War I soldier almost 102 years ago.
Amanda Kehler, the co-owner of Prairie Pickers Cafe and antique shop in Steinbach, Manitoba, bought the papers while looking for new inventory for the store.
“It was a pretty average Saturday. We were out and about rooting around for some treasures to stock the shop with and we came across sort of a pile of old newspapers and certificates and old telegraph messages,” Kehler said. “I am always drawn to that sort of stuff, so rather than go through it there, I just bought the entire stack.”
She did not know what she had until a few days later.
Kehler said the letter was written by Earl Sorel, a Canadian soldier in the 78th Battalion. The letter was postmarked May 1917 and addressed to the sister of a man who saved Sorel’s life during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in northern France.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian who wasn’t familiar with Vimy Ridge,” Kehler said. “It brings war and that time a lot closer to home when you can read it in a first-person account rather than just in a history book.”
She posted an excerpt from the letter on Facebook that described the heroics.
“Well on Easter Monday the big advance on VIMY RIDGE started. At 5 o’clock we were all lined up in the trench waiting for the barrage to open up, and then we were to advance. At 5:30, we started. Gorden, sergeant of the platoon #9 led. The barrage was like a thunderstorm and we were trotting at a good pace. We had gone about 1200 yards and then “bang”. I felt a sharp burn in my back and left arm.
The next thing I remember was Gorden pulling me in a shell hole and he told me to stay there. That was the last I saw of poor Gorden. After I was helped to the dressing station by a corporal. It was the other day, in this hospital that I heard Gorden was killed.
He died a hero, along with many others that day. ”
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought from April 9-12, 1917, was an important military victory and a unifying moment in the country’s history.
More than 100,000 troops were called on to capture heavily fortified positions manned by thousands of crack German soldiers.
It was the first time that all four Canadian divisions had fought together and historian Tim Cook, with the Canadian Military Museum, said the battle brought together soldiers from all over the country and from all walks of life.
Cook said the 78th had some of the toughest fighting of the brutal battle as they charged to take Hill 145.
“The letter itself gives a sense of some of the violence on the battlefield and the courage to charge forward into the storm of steel and then make their way through the shell craters,” Cook said. “It was a bloodbath at that position and it took tremendous courage and determination to drive the Germans back.”
Cook said soldiers wrote millions of letters like this, but many have been lost to the ravages of time.
The letters give a unique view of what the war was like for Sorel and soldiers like him, and Cook said that’s even more valuable now, since all WWI veterans have died.
Kehler says she would like to give the letter to a family member of Sorel’s, if she can find one. She’s been working with the veterans affairs officials and the Canadian military and has spread the word on social media.
“We do have a couple of leads — nothing super solid yet, but there are a couple of leads where I do think we will be able to get it back to a family member,” Kehler said.
If that doesn’t pan out, she plans to donate it to the Canadian War Museum.
Kehler said her phone has been ringing off the hook with people offering tips or trying to buy the letter.
She says she doesn’t know what the letter would be worth, but she insists it’s not for sale.
“That’s what we do as pickers. We go out and we search for really cool items and we bring them back to the shop to sell them, but this piece feels a little bit too special to sell,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right to me to sell it.”