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'This Withering Disease of Conflict:' Letters home from a Guelph soldier

Letters from Herb Philp compiled into book titled 'This Withering Disease of Conflict'
Philp photo cropped
Photo of Herbert Philp.

“Dear Mother and Father, I intended to write to you on Saturday night, but on Saturday afternoon we were all inoculated against typhoid fever, and until this afternoon we were all very sick, feverish babies.”

Those words, written on Aug. 24, 1914 at the new Canadian army camp at Valcartier, Quebec, were the opening to a long series of letters Herbert Philp sent to his parents and various publications. The last letter, written in Belgium, would be dated Jan. 9, 1919.

In between those dates, Philp compiled a body of correspondence that gives us a unique perspective of the First World War – “This Withering Disease of Conflict” – to use Philp’s own words. That is the title of a forthcoming book about Philp’s letters, published with the support of Guelph Historical Society.

Herb was the son of William Philp, the bandmaster for Guelph Musical Society. He was a professional journalist who volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force when war broke out in 1914. He served in the trenches of the western front for the duration of the war, and was awarded the Military Medal.

Like all soldiers, Philp wrote letters home. Unlike most of his comrades-in-arms, Philp wrote with the eye and skill of a journalist. Unlike the newspaper correspondents sent to report on the war, Philp wasn’t just a visitor to the deadly ground at the edge of no man’s land; he lived there. The following is from a letter he wrote during the Second Battle of Ypres in April – May of 1915.

“I don’t know why I am writing this at present. We are likely to be blown to shreds if the Bosches (Germans) aren’t more careful with those shells of theirs. I don’t know what day it is or what the date. I’ve lost all track of time … The enemy is shelling us furiously. Just over the road, three whining shrapnel shells have burst on the trench. One man has half his face blown off. Another is stretched out, his head filled with shrapnel slugs. There are others, and the wounded are being brought in on stretchers and on the backs of their comrades.”

Like his father, Herb Philp was a musician, and was in fact his company’s trumpeter. In a letter to his parents written in June of 1915, he uses a musical metaphor to describe the continuous bombardment from the enemy’s big guns.

“If I were skilled in the mysteries of quarter notes, half notes and the others of their kin, and could dot them about in bass and treble clefs so as to make music of them, I think that I’d make a musical score of this letter. I would simply translate the sounds I hear about me. You’d be surprised, I fancy, by the result, and struck dumb by the bewildering bass effect, for the big guns seem very proud of themselves this afternoon. They roar and rumble, and their shells whistle and scream and groan through the air as though they were sure they could tear down the foundations of kingdom come. And during the lulls, when the guns gasp for fresh breath, it is all so beautifully quiet and the breezes make such soft sighing through the trees and bushes that it is easy to dream you are at home, up the river, in a canoe.”

Sometimes, in spite of the daily hardships of life at the front, Philp’s letters revealed his sense of humour, as in this passage written in July of 1915. Since he was an expert horseman, he sometimes served as a dispatch rider.

“We live under canvas now, bell tents having been issued. After a few months of sleeping in barns where the mice and rats use you and your kit for a playground, and when they get cold, snuggle into your blankets to sleep with you, or if lying out with your horse, your saddle for a pillow, to awake in the morning to find that it has rained torrents during the night and that you and your blankets are under a foot of water. After a moon or so of such sleeping places, not to mention the million small differences that place each resting spot in a class by itself, a bell tent assumes the proportions and luxuriousness of a palace. Only four of us sleep in my tent, a bit of luck almost too good to be true. We are thinking seriously of using the spare space as a dancing floor. The tallow candles, you know, might serve splendidly to wax the floor.”

At last, after four years of blood and misery, came the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, when the fighting stopped. Philp wrote of those first moments after the Armistice came into effect at 11 a.m.

“It was all so strange. The same sights as before, columns of troops, the road-hogging transports, shell-shattered houses, wide stretches of devastated country. All these; but that unaccustomed hush. Not even a whisper from the guns. That grave-like quiet had always come in the moment before zero hour. It was difficult to grasp its new significance.”

Herb Philp survived the war, but his health had been ruined. He came back to Canada in a hospital ship and returned to Guelph. He was hired as an editor for the Guelph Mercury, but died on Jan. 19, 1920, shortly before his 31st birthday. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park cemetery.

A century later, after being hidden away in archives, Philp’s personal chronicle of the Great War can once again be read in This Withering Disease of Conflict. His story is but one of the many we acknowledge on Remembrance Day.