The letter by Sgt. Edward Iley at Calgary's The Military Museums is written on the fabric from the wing of a German aircraft his unit shot down. Iley wrote the missive from Cambrai, France, in 1918 to his daughter Bernice.
"I got this on the Cambrai front off a German plane that came down," he writes under the date March 12, 1918.
"Hoping the war is over soon and that (I) will soon be able to come home. Be a good little girl and be good to mama for dada's sake."
Iley's great-grandson, University of Calgary student Michael Hilton, said his brother found the letter tucked away in a Tupperware container. Hilton decided to do a research project and took the fabric scrap to the University of Calgary's library and archives at The Military Museums.
Staff there used documents such as war diaries to help him research his great-grandfather's unit, the Canadian 12th Railroad Division.
The unit was constantly exposed to bombs and gunfire while working on top of the trenches to build light railway tracks over the mud to pull supplies to the front and bring the injured back.
"They were on top of the trenches and laying track and moving equipment back and forth to the soldiers inside the trenches," said Hilton.
"It was very common that airplanes would fly over top and drop bombs down on them. They shot the plane down and then, when the plane came down, they cut the fabric and he took two pocket watches, one from the pilot and one from the co-pilot, and sent them home as souvenirs."
Experts say many soldiers wrote letters on the fabric from airplane wings, but Hilton's research turned up only two others in the world — one in Australia and one in France.
"What makes the letter special is the connection that it shows between the men on the front lines and their families back home," said Rory Cory, senior curator at The Military Museums.
"In the end, this is what really kept them going — and, in fact, what still keeps them going today — knowing they have people at home who support and love them."
Hilton said he has been able to identify one of the dead German soldiers, Fredrick Schoening, but has been unable to find any contact information since most military records were destroyed during the Second World War.
He said his great-grandfather spoke very little about his wartime experiences, so the letter has given Hilton a connection to the past.
"That part really hit home to me that he signed up, he volunteered to go in a very dangerous position," he said.
"He left behind a young wife and two very young daughters. It's very touching that someone would put their life on the line."
The letter, pocket watch and more than 300 artifacts relating to the First World War go on public display Monday as part of the exhibition Wild Rose Overseas: Albertans in the Great War.
Noteworthy artifacts include pieces of the Red Baron's plane and audio interviews with First World War veterans.
The exhibit runs until Dec. 15.
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