by Sarah Benson-Lord
Trail Museum and Archives
On this most sombre of occasions, we pay tribute to the men and women who bravely ventured (and continue to venture) into battle in the name of freedom.
We are humbled to be in possession of remarkable collections of First World War letters, donated by the grandchildren on Daniel Bilson Merry.
Many longtime Trail residents will remember Bilson, his sawmills throughout the area, and his hardware store formerly on Spokane Street (Merry Lumber Co., then Merry-Mitchell).
Bilson was born in Toronto in 1894.
His father and mother moved to Rossland the following year. Very soon, the family would move downhill to the Annable area. Educated in Trail, he spent a year at university in Victoria.
He enlisted in the 12th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, on September 22, 1914, at Valcartiers with several other Rossland boys. The battalion left soon for England and at the end of November 1914, Bilson was transferred to the 7th Battalion.
That transfer was a fateful one for Bilson, as the 7th fought bravely during the Second Battle of Ypres starting April 22, 1915.
It was in this battle that the German infantry first employed the use of gas on the Western front. Bilson’s time on the battle field was cut short when on April 24, he was captured.
It would take nearly a month for his battalion to list him officially as missing.
He was held as a prisoner of war (POW) at Giessen in Germany. His imprisonment brought him to Soltau in early 1916, then Hameln in September 1917.
In April 1918, after two failed attempts, Bilson and two prison mates escaped, making their way to England by May.
As a POW, Bilson wrote home.
The Trail archives houses 143 letters, which carefully and reservedly recount Bilson’s experience as a POW, his changing philosophy of the war, and his dreams for the future.
Letters home were carefully examined in order that vital information was not leaked.
Soldiers were instructed to remain as positive and light-hearted as possible, to not impact morale on the home front. Letters were redacted or even destroyed if too much information was shared and a few of Bilson’s show the deep black ink destroying forever his thoughts at the time.
Turn to Page 5 to read an excerpt of Bilson’s nine-page letter home.
In it he recounts his successful escape from Hameln prison camp into Holland.
The collection lacks the final page of this harrowing account, but his meticulous attention to detail offers us a glimpse into this unique experience.
We are grateful to Betty Anne Marino and Lynn Miller, Bilson’s granddaughters, for entrusting us with this collection.
To read Bilson’s transcribed letter in full, visit trailtimes.ca.