Steinbach woman finds 102-year-old letter from Manitoba Vimy Ridge soldier

By | February 14, 2019

The owner of a Steinbach antique shop and cafe is on a mission to find descendants of a soldier who wrote a letter 102 years ago. 

The letter, addressed to a Selkirk woman, describes in detail how the woman’s brother saved the writer in the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the First World War.

Amanda Kehler never dreamed she’d find such a treasure when she bought a box of random old papers on Saturday for one dollar. She got it from a local man who buys and sells items from estates.

Kehler, who co-owns Prairie Pickers Cafe in Steinbach, has a love for reading old letters and documents. So on Tuesday, she settled in to pick through some of the contents of the box. She couldn’t believe it when she realized what was in the letter.

“I found it, and read it, and re-read it and I was like, ‘Oh, this is something very special’ and I couldn’t believe that I had found it in a box with torn ripped papers that anybody else would have probably thrown out,” said Kehler,

The faded address on the letter says Miss P Rockford, Manitoba Avenue, Selkirk. Her brother Gordon died at Vimy Ridge. His friend Earl Sorel writes how Gordon saved his life. (Amanda Kehler)

The letter, postmarked May 1917, is addressed to “Miss P Rockford, Manitoba Avenue, Selkirk.” The Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought April 9-12, 1917. 

The writer, Earl Sorel, puts his address as a military hospital in Birkenhead, England. According to Canadian military records, he was 20 years old at the time.

From the letter, it is evident that Miss P Rockford is the sister of a soldier, only identified as Gordon. The two men both grew up in Selkirk, Man., and had been friends for a long time. And then, Earl describes how Gordon saved his life: 

“On Easter Monday the big advance on Vimy Ridge started. At five 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. Gordon sargent of the platoon number 9 led. The barrage was like a thunderstorm and we were trotting along at a good pace. We had gone about 12-hundred yards and bang – I felt a sharp burn in my back and left arm. The next thing I remembered was Gordon pulling me in a shell hole and he told me to stay there. That was the last I saw of poor Gordon. After, I was helped to the dressing station by a corporal. It was just the other day in this hospital that I learned that Gordon was killed. He died a hero along with many others that day.” 

Canadian soldiers in the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917, where Manitoban Earl Sorel’s life was saved by a fellow soldier. (The Canadian Press)

Kehler said she tries to put herself in the place of the dead soldier’s sister, and what it would have been like to receive that letter in 1917.  

“I get chills and goose bumps every time I read it. It really brings war very close to home, you know? It’s not just an idea. It’s right there.” 

And now, she’s on a mission to try to find any living relatives of Earl Sorel and return the letter to family. 

Kehler posted about the letter on the Facebook page of her Prairie Pickers Cafe.

“There’s been a lot of people who have been offering to buy it from me already and it’s creating quite a stir,” she said. “But I don’t want to sell it. It’s a pretty neat family heirloom. I would hope to find someone that it means something to.”

The 102-year-old letter was among these old papers, purchased by Amanda Kehler for a dollar from a local man who buys and sells items from estates. (Amanda Kehler)

Also in the box with the letter were some teaching and other professional certificates. Kehler said the name Rockford, Gordon’s sister, matched some of them.  

Prof. Stephen Davies is project director for The Canadian Letters and Images Project at Vancouver Island University. It is an online archive of the Canadian war experience as told through the letters and images of Canadians themselves.

“We often think of Vimy as that big battle … you know, Canadians take the ridge. But letters like this let us see the individual side of it, the personal side, and so I think that’s really what’s important,” he said. 

“It also makes us understand the relationship that soldiers had with one another, that camaraderie, the empathy of losing somebody. The other side is realizing what is happening on the home front. It also reflects the loss that families are feeling,” 

Davies said he would love to make a digital copy of the Sorel letter in order to include it in his online project. 

Some of the documentation from Earl Sorel’s military file. (Library and Archives Canada)

CBC gave Davies the military ID number Earl Sorel wrote on the top of the letter. He popped it into a public search engine of First World War military records run by Library and Archives Canada. A 60-page document detailing Earl Sorel’s military history popped up, with everything from medical records to the address where his mother lived.

Kehler said she’s been poring through the ancient records, looking for clues, but hopes some modern-day people reading this story might be able to help her as well. 

“That would be great,” she said. “Hopefully someone out there will have some answers.”