“This is a book and it is a journey. It is carefully crafted with the feel of white archive gloves and parchment and tweezers, but the urgency of the writing and the creativity of the hybrid text lifts the stories out of the yellowed pages of history and right into your social media feed.”
– AUTUMN PHILLIPS, THE CHARLESTON POST & COURIER
“A remarkable voice from 100 years ago speaking to us today with exceptional power and emotion.”
– GRAHAM THOMSON, COLUMNIST/EDMONTON JOURNAL
The trench letters of my paternal grandfather, Oklahoma and Alberta farmer George “Black Jack” Vowel, were turned into a radio piece on CBC years ago, & then returned to the family by the daughter of Louisa “Bebe” Watson Small Peat, who corresponded Black Jack in the Great War and kept his letters. She & her husband, war hero Harold Peat, included Black Jack in their wartime books, Private Peat & Mrs. Private Peat. Transcribing those letters, & Black Jack’s journals, started me on a research odyssey. The Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Love & Death on the Western Front project started with a social media experiment on Twitter & Facebook as I envisioned my grandfather, @BlackJackVowel or #AlbertaWorldWarISoldier, “hunkered down under a hunk of tin” amidst pouring rain and artillery fire, desperately trying to be safe, while using a smartphone to communicate with loved ones a world away.
Articles and media attention about that experiment – & walking on Europe’s Western Front in their bootprints in 2016 & 2017 – eventually lead to this hybrid literary project, written in what I consider “flash documentary creative non-fiction.” I have generally labelled pieces drawn specifically from his journals with “BLACK JACK” at the beginning of the title, and have italicized his words within those pieces.
My research broadened as I read hundreds of letters & journals from others like him. I have included some larger excerpts from letters & memoirs, giving them proper credit & a “drop cap” treatment (large first letter) to help distinguish them. There are so many stories … millions of them. This is just a tiny sampling. As inclusive as possible, but by no means exhaustive. I have chosen to tell of ordinary people/not of leaders with their glories & their blunderings. I make no claim to the studied skills of professional battlefield guides and history experts. I’m just a writer trying to understand the past in my own eclectic way.
TWEETS & TRENCHES “Bullets ripped the dirt up all round me but none of them were marked Black Jack.” — George ‘Black Jack’ Vowel. Jacqueline Larson Carmichael had two grandfathers who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. In 2016, she traveled to Belgium, France and Germany, and walked portions of the Western Front where both her grandfathers were soldiers for most of the duration of World War I. Carmichael’s curiosity about her grandfathers, George “Black Jack” Vowel, an American-Canadian, and Charles W.C. Chapman, led her to afford Black Jack a Twitter account of his own, @blackjackvowel and #albertaWWIsoldier. Around Remembrance Day she posted in his name on Twitter and Facebook – as if he were posting from the trenches of Flanders, Belgium and France. Increasingly she was able to gather details of what it was like to serve as a soldier in the Allied Forces during World War I. Released during the 100th anniversary of the final hundred days of the First World War, her compendium incongruously called Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life & Death on the Western Frontprovides 100 stories from the Great War mostly culled from journals and letters and memoirs of Allied soldiers. It highlights everything from rationed rum to homing pigeons to post-traumatic stress disorder. Carmichael uses a timeline as chapter headings to help orient the stories year by year. She incoroprates poetry, prose, footnotes, WWI-era photos, postcards and other documents arising from the Great War. Carmichael is a Port Alberni journalist whose work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Toronto Sun, Entrepreneur Magazine and the Westerly News (where she was the publisher). Tweets from the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life & Death on the Western Front is available on Amazon as well as at select bookstores. [BCBW 2018]
"This debut compilation combines American-Canadian journalist and poet Carmichael’s poems with historical photographs, documents, diaries, letters, and stories related to the First World War. The author writes that she took her inspiration for this book from the “trench letters” written by her World War I veteran grandfather, George “Black Jack” Vowel. She’d turned them into posts on Facebook and Twitter and then broadened the project, traveling in 2016 and 2017 to the former Western Front and collecting a wide variety of letters, memoirs, journals, and other firsthand accounts of the war. The result is this self-described “flash documentary creative non-fiction” book, which includes Carmichael’s poetry and a few songs. Arranged chronologically and amply illustrated with photographs, sketches, and documents, the work offers the personal experiences of a wide range of people. The viewpoints of Canadian soldiers dominate the text, but Carmichael importantly offers a much more diverse assemblage of wartime participants than most other histories do. For example, she highlights the important contributions of First Nations fighters, such as Lt. Albert Mountain Horse or Alexander Wuttunee DeCoteau, and of women, whether they were nurses or those who disguised themselves as men, such as Serbian Milunka Savic, “the most decorated female fighter in the history of warfare, period.” The horrors of trench warfare come through clearly, as do the courage and wit of soldiers trying to survive; the book also covers the grief of loss and the ravages of PTSD, formerly called “shell shock.” Carmichael’s poems, mostly free-verse lines with pauses indicated by virgules, include snippets from “Black Jack” in italics, which provide poignant commentary: “Must try to remember why I am here / I am done / I am played out / I look like a loose button on an overcoat.” But although the verses include powerful moments, they’re occasionally too obvious, as in a reflection on “The ‘Great War for Civilisation’ ”: “How could something that lays waste an entire generation…ever be great?” A harrowing, compelling, and moving scrapbook of primary sources and reflections."
"A fascinating book with hundreds of poems, excerpts, and imagined tweets adapted for the most part from written words of World War I veterans, historians or contemporary accounts. The veterans’ personal comments, insights, and letters home are thought-provoking and relevant. The author, both of whose grandfathers survived the Great War, has integrated original photos, modern cell-phone images, and historic documents into this attractive volume. Readers with or without a family history of World War I involvement will find this a moving, rewarding and at times heart-rending book."
In TWEETS FROM THE TRENCHES, author Jacqueline Carmichael presents a marvellously inventive look at the First World War experiences of her grandfather ... A remarkable voice from 100 years ago speaking to us today with exceptional power and emotion. “I look like a loose button on an overcoat,” says Black Jack after four years of war. “Most of the boys I came with are gone.” His words are at times mingled with those of the author who displays her own poetic talents as she explores the impact of the war on Black Jack and his family.
Carmichael has spent years dissecting, digesting, curating and puzzling over the journals of George Anderson “Black Jack” Vowel. With this book, she offers a touching treatise of what she learned from about how we communicate and how we tell stories and how the telling shapes the way we remember. She writes: “Smell the TNT / Hear the whistle of the shell’s arc / Feel the panic slip in the mud underfoot / Hashtag that.” This is a book and it is a journey. It is carefully crafted with the feel of white archive gloves and parchment and tweezers, but the urgency of the writing and the creativity of the hybrid text lifts the stories out of the yellowed pages of history and right into your social media feed.
Tweets From the Trenches by J.L. Carmichael is a genre-bending look at one of the most significant periods of world history. In this project, Carmichael is in communication with one of the newest forms of communication -- social media -- yet is firmly rooted in the oldest form of communication -- the splendour of poetry. It's an innovative mind that can re-think such possibilities for history, and Carmichael's is a project brimming with vibrancy.
‘”Lest we forget” takes on an entirely different meaning on the pages of Jacqueline Carmichael’s wonderful new book. The images that she invokes through these poems, songs, images and tweets make the war to end all wars accessible for generations far removed from its carnage or from the lessons that have yet to be learned one hundred years later.
A brilliant and beautiful gift from Jacqueline Carmichael to her grandfather and everyone who picks up this remarkable book. The compelling journey is both educational and riveting, often at the same time ... This book is indeed worth retweeting.
Carmichael melds today’s smartphone technology and methods of communication with the importance of yesterday’s stories ... Photos and memorabilia from her own journey to the Western Front act like screenshots, capturing what for soldiers were fleeting moments, and to the rest of us are history enduring.
You can get in touch with me here… I look forward to hearing from you!
The granddaughter of two men who were soldiers in World War I for the duration of it, Jacqueline Larson Carmichael is a poet, working on a novel, who has made a career of journalism. Her work has appeared in news, travel & opinion articles in publications as diverse as The Dallas Morning News, Entrepreneur Magazine, The Alberni Valley News, The Westerly News, and the Toronto Sun.
She taught journalism to young people in the gifted program at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Texas and at the Alberta Legislature. She is a recipient of the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors First Place Award for feature series writing.
The dual American-Canadian citizen lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, with her family and two noisy Shetland sheepdogs.