100-year-old letters from WW I come home to Virden

This summer, a mysterious box of old hand-written letters was left with the staff at the Virden Legion. By the time it found its way into the hands of Comrade Kel Smith, the deliverers of the priceless gift were long gone.

Their identity remained a puzzle until September when Smith and the rest of Branch No. 8 were preparing for 100th anniversary celebrations and wanted to share the stack of letters with the public.

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That’s when a clue was found inside the box – a receipt with two names, an address and a phone number.

A quick call unraveled the mystery of the letters and revealed the life story of one Corporal Leonard Hepburn who grew up in Rivers and Virden, served in World War One, and wrote dozens of letters to his family from the front.

The donors of the box of letters were Wayne and Irene Pettapiece, of Edmonton. It turns out Leonard Hepburn was the brother of Wayne Pettapiece’s grandmother, Drusilla, seen in the family portrait accompanying this article.

It was his wife Irene Pettapiece who prevented the box of letters from being destroyed by family members who didn’t know what to do with them. Only Irene appreciated their historical value and took them back to Edmonton, saving them for years.

She said, “Wayne’s mom was going to throw them out. I do genealogy and that’s not the thing to do. So I put them away in our house, and when we were coming to Virden this summer, we brought them to the Legion.”

All the letters in the box had been mailed from Europe between 1915 and 1918. Hepburn had signed up with Canada’s 2nd Battalion at age 22. His main correspondents back home were his two sisters, Birdie and Drusy (Drusilla).

He writes to them from the trenches, from camp, and from hospital in England where he was sent to recuperate from a battle wound.

He writes of his promotions through the ranks and how much he appreciates the care packages. He tells one of his sisters not to expect him to bring home a French or English bride as he’s not crazy about the “flapper” girls he’s met.

Hepburn even mentions the Virden newspaper in a letter mailed from Belgium in 1915:

To our right the trenches are very close. I have heard about fellows carrying on a conversation with Fritz but this week I was close enough one night to hear what was said. One lad could talk good English and told us they had sunk fifteen Russian boats so that is the German report of it. We get the English papers usually only a day old so we are not very far behind the times. The Virden Advance is eagerly devoured every week in search of news from home.

The next year, 1916, Hepburn is wounded in battle and ends up in England at a summer house converted into a war hospital. He’s careful in his letters to keep his tone light, even humorous, so as not to worry his mother about the piece of shrapnel lodged in his head:

It does not bother me but it’s bad enough to be wooden-headed without having any scrap iron ornaments…

Hepburn was, as he writes, very lucky as the injury got him evacuated from a “hot spot” where shells were flying constantly and food was scarce with soldiers going without a meal for 48 hours.

Indeed, he must have been either lucky or good at ducking because after healing from his injury, he returned to the fighting in 1917, served another year and came home in one piece. His last letters home are dated 1918.

After returning to Virden, Hepburn settled on the family dairy farm near Virden. He married twice, but had no children. He retired to BC and then came back to Virden where he golfed, fished, curled, and was a life member of the Legion.

In 1992, he died at age 99 and was buried in Virden Cemetery.

The Virden Legion plans to donate Hepburn’s letters to the National War Museum in Ottawa because, as Kel Smith says, they are a national treasure.

© Virden Empire-Advance