Book Cover - Kiss the kids for dad, don’t forget to write

Book Cover - Kiss the kids for dad, don't forget to write

Kiss the kids for dad, don’t forget to write. The Wartime Letters of George Timmins, 1916-18.

by Y.A. Bennett, (ed.)

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.
224 pages,
$85.00, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780774816083
$32.95, Paperback
ISBN: 9780774816090

Reviewed by Craig Leslie Mantle

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Quite often, ‘edited’ collections of letters dating from the First World War simply reproduce the original documents as they were written. Offering little more than a few grammatical corrections, and perhaps a brief biographical sketch of the soldier-author, some ‘editors’ seem content to let the letters speak for themselves, and to allow readers to both form their own opinions concerning their content ,and to draw their own conclusions regarding their importance as literary and historical artefacts. While such an approach has definite merit – making contemporary accounts accessible, regardless of the amount of editorial paraphernalia, is arguably what matters the most – reading collections of this sort can, at times, be a decidedly unfulfilling experience owing to the lack of contextual information and additional detail concerning various subjects upon which the author offers comment.  Kiss the kids for dad, don’t forget to write is certainly not of this mould.

George Timmins, the soldier whose letters have been reproduced in this collection, originally enlisted in the 116th Battalion (from Uxbridge, Ontario) in March 1916 and was subsequently transferred by the following October to the 18th Battalion (from London, Ontario), where he served for the remainder of the war.  Promoted to lance-corporal shortly after Vimy, he was also present at Passchendaele and was subsequently wounded at Amiens. Deeply personal and touching, Timmins’s letters reveal that he, like so many others, was fighting two separate wars: one to help realize victory on the Western Front, and the other to remain a relevant part of the family that he left behind in Canada. His correspondence with his wife, May, and on occasion, his eldest daughter, Winnifred Mary, or simply Winnie, reveal a man torn between the duties of a soldier and the responsibilities of a husband and father. The stress and anxiety occasioned by his dual commitments to both army and family become all the more evident as the months pass and his missives home increase in number.

Although written during the war, Timmins’s letters are more ‘social’ than ‘military’ in both character and orientation. Believing at times that he might bore and disinterest his wife with his recollections of purely military matters, he tended to comment on different domestic concerns, such as his daughter’s gradual movement into womanhood, the amount of work that his wife undertook and its implications for her health, the precarious family budget, and the pressing need for his children to perform more household chores. His correspondence is not by any means devoid of ‘things military’ – the military historian can still utilize this collection with profit – but the emphasis tends to fall slightly upon ‘things non-military.’ To be sure, he mentions the importance of mail and the influence of the all-seeing censor, his increasing war weariness, conscription, and his commitment to seeing the war through to its successful conclusion despite being critical of the army, its administration, and some of its leaders.  The stressing of domestic over military matters is by no means unique, however. Within the larger Canadian historiography of the First World War; other edited collections have a similar feel, such as that by John Macfie that reproduces the correspondence of three brothers, all of whom served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and attempted to manage their personal interests from afar and by proxy.1

George Timmins’s letters are important “… because they draw us into the everyday life and relationships, at home and abroad, of a married Canadian infantryman.”2 Being infused with pathos and the harsh pain of separation, his comments to his wife and children (and sometimes his gentle advice to both) also offer a window into the internal dynamics and coping mechanisms of a Canadian family disrupted by war. Not only were Timmins’s children forced to mature more quickly in order to ensure the smooth functioning of the home, but the responsibility for decision-making and the household itself, including finances, was shifted largely, if not entirely, to his wife.  That his letters offer broad comment on the impact of the First World War on both Canadian and British society, especially individual families, also makes Kiss the kids for dad a useful resource for the study of the home front during the 1914-1918 period.

The editor, Yvonne Aleksandra Bennett, an associate professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, whose earlier publications include work on British pacifist Vera Brittain,3 has produced an exceptionally insightful and comprehensive volume. George Timmins was a prolific writer, and it appears that only a portion of his wartime correspondence has survived. What remains, however, is by no means inconsiderable: some 67 letters, four of which were written to family members in the 1960s and 1970s, and four letter fragments, are presented in Bennett’s volume. The collection begins with an introductory essay that ably sets the stage for what follows: not only does it relate pertinent biographical information about the Timmins family, but it also demonstrates how George Timmins’s perception of the war, and what he thought pertinent to record, was influenced by the different communities of interest with which he was connected, namely his family, his home town (Oshawa, Ontario), the men in the trenches, and the civilians behind the lines.

Of perhaps greatest significance, Bennett has pursued nearly every ‘lead’ within each letter, offering additional information on other individuals and issues that Timmins saw fit to mention. The result of such investigations is a thorough section of notes that rivals the text of the letters in terms of actual length. Bennett has been careful to cite many of the major academic works within the field, as well as archival material taken from repositories in both Canada and the United Kingdom, all of which lends authority and credibility to her notes when considered together. A comprehensive bibliography, coupled with a complete index, make Kiss the kids for dad so much more than other examples of its genre. Substantial energy and effort were obviously expended in readying these letters for publication.

Without doubt, Kiss the kids for dad is a superbly-edited volume that offers insight into the multifarious challenges faced by a Canadian soldier at the front, and a Canadian family at home in Ontario. Being apart for more than two years, George Timmins’s frequent letters home reveal the difficulties of continuing a mature relationship from a distance. Husband and wife, father and child, each endeavoured to sustain the morale of the other. Mail received at the front clearly had an uplifting effect, perhaps to a greater extent than the daily and much-coveted tot of rum. As such, it is indeed unfortunate that the letters that Timmins received from family members have not survived, for only then would it have been possible to assess whether he was ultimately successful in his efforts to help them adapt to his (thankfully temporary) absence. 

Craig Leslie Mantle is a Research Officer with the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute and a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary.


  1. John Macfie, (ed.), Letters Home (Meaford: Oliver Graphics, 1990).

  2. Bennett, Kiss the kids for dad, p. 2.

  3. Alan Bishop and Y. Aleksandra Bennett, (eds.), Wartime Chronicle: Vera Brittain’s Diary, 1939-1945 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1989); Y. Aleksandra Bennett, “Introduction,” in Vera Brittain,One Voice: Pacifist Writings from the Second World War (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. xiii-xxvii.