William Howard Curtis

William Howard Curtis, a soldier in the First World War was a previous resident of Peterborough, Ontario. Born on May 9th, 1892, Curtis went by his middle name, Howard. He signed all of his letters home with this name. Curtis's parents, George and Juliet Curtis, grew up in the Peterborough area as well. George and Juliet Curtis, had a big family including William, there were 7 children. Before Curtis enrolled in the armed forces in 1914, he was a local painter, in order to help support his family and himself. Documents state he enlisted out in Edmonton, Alberta on August 26th, 1914. He was officially accepted into the army on September 23rd, 1914. Curtis was 5’8” and twenty-two years old. It is unclear whether William was residing in Alberta or Peterborough when the war broke out. It is known however, that he was a part of the 9th Battalion with the Canadian Infantry. He was later transferred to the 2nd Battalion on March 26th, 1916. Curtis began his war efforts in Salisbury Plains for training in early December, 1914. They later were moved to France in 1915 for active duty. In early February, he was writing from St. Martin’s Plains, in Kent. Then they were sent back to France by early April, 1916. Curtis' most well-known active duty was at the Battle of Somme, one of the bloodiest
battles of the First World War.

Photo of William Howard Curtis M.M. in Uniform, The Canadian Letters and Images Project. Used with the permission of The Canadian Letters and Images Project.

The Battle of Somme took the lives of almost 60,000 British soldiers on the very first day alone. This battle began on the 1st of July, 1916. Before the Battle of Somme, Curtis endured a few injuries bad enough for him to be hospitalized for long periods of time. He was in the hospital in 1915 because of a piece of shell in his back, and again May 12th, 1916, for an gunshot wound to his leg. He was killed in action on the front lines at the Somme on October 8th, 1916.  After his death, his body was brought back from the front lines and buried at The 2nd Canadian Cemetery, Sunken Road, Contalmaison, Somme, France. Curtis was a recipient of the Military Medal (M.M.). His name, memory, and family were awarded this medal in 1916. Curtis was recommended for this medal to be awarded to him by Captain Alexander on September 9th, 1916, based on the strong effort he had made during battle, including his sacrifices as a stretcher-bearer going into “no man’s land” to retrieve wounded soldiers. There is record of a letter that was sent to his parents after his death, stating why he deserved this medal, and that he will never be forgotten by his fellow troops.

Copy of William Howard Curtis’ Citation for his Military Medal, The Canadian Letters and Images Project. Used with the permission of The Canadian Letters and Images Project.

William Howard Curtis wrote a total of eighteen letters and the last three in the collection were written after his death by his crew leaders. The first set of letters that have been recovered are from the first few months of his deployment. Curtis always made his letters light and with a sense of humour, to not worry his family. His first letter was dated December 24th, 1914. Throughout the letter he talks about the amazing things that he has done, all the places that has seen and that Christmas was not going to be any different than back home. Curtis mentions in this letter, that his battalion was going to have a big Christmas dinner, with turkey and all the fixings, so Christmas did not seem so harsh where they were deployed. His letters almost always consisted of personal anecdotes as well as the updates on what was going on in the war around him. One of his letters dated December 29th, 1914 to one of his sisters says “I am in good health fortunately, but there is no telling what is ahead of me. I trust I’ll come through all right and be able to come back to dear old Canada again.” He was an optimistic person always trying to find the good in the situations he was in. Another letter to his mother discusses how the gentleman from his company were playing sports and had plans for a campfire and a concert. He was able to recognize that the company leaders were trying to get their spirits up before they had to go back into the trenches. He mentions in a letter home, that he joined the machine gun section and that he enjoyed it because there was better food. He also discussed how he wished to see the Germans suffer. Even though Curtis was very optimistic there were sometimes when the war clearly got the best of him.
Curtis wrote home to his mother on May 26th, 1915, he wrote the news of his friend Bert Carpenter’s death and that she was to tell Carpenter’s parents. He mentioned that him and Bert has an agreement that if either of them were hit, the other would write home to “break the news”. He made sure to make note that Bert was a well-liked man in the battalion. One of Curtis' friends from the trenches, Private Stanley Garrett, wrote home to his parents. He wrote to inform them of his friend’s death, and to have his parents tell Garrett’s parents the news. He told them that their son died a hero and that he was well liked among his comrades.
Curtis was not only a man of his word to his friends, he was still supporting his family even from a different country. In many of his letters he mentions the money that he has sent back home and how much his family clearly appreciates it. Soldiers in the First World War did not recieve much pay, but Curtis knew he needed to support his family in any way he could. While he was in the 9th battalion he made a set amount of 20 dollars a month, but this increased when he was transferred to the 2nd battalion. While he was in the 2nd battalion there was a set amount of 20 dollars per month but they were paid one dollar per day on top of that when they were in action. Depending on how much they worked, they were given a field allowance. It is unclear how much Curtis sent back home, but it is clear he was always contributing something to his family with every chance he got.

Research by Emily Debruyn and Callie Killeen

“William Howard Curtis.” Ancestry® | Genealogy, Family Trees & Family History Records. Accessed through Trent Valley Archives. Accessed October 5th, 2017.

"Canadian Virtual War Memorial." Veterans Affairs Canada. Accessed October 5th, 2017. http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/613817.
"William Howard Curtis, M.M." The Canadian Letters and Images Project. British Colombia: Vancouver Island University, 2017. Accessed October 12th, 2017.  http://www.canadianletters.ca/collections/war/468/collection/20652.