Sunday 12 February 2012: A Letter, written during a summer thunderstorm....
Better viewed in LARGE.
Following my blip about letter-writing last week, I had another look for the letters between my grandparents in the 1920s, but I still couldn't find them. I did, however, come across this letter written during WWI from my great-aunt Sybil, known as Bill, to another great-aunt on the other side of the family, whose nickname was Checkie (she had been christened Winefryde, but was never called that). They were both aged about 16 at the time.
The letter is undated but we think must have been written around 1916, as it talks about several battalions being 'out at the Dardanelles'. It must have been early summer, because Bill also refers to the corn being 'horribly flattened down, and I'm afraid we'll all starve if the rain doesn't stop spoiling the harvest.' She mentions there being thunderstorms and says that the rain has just started 'collapsing down upon the earth'.
Sybil was at Ingatestone in Essex, and as a young correspondent she has a wonderful 'voice.' She mentions that the family is expecting a visit from 'the beatified fraternal relation, Blessed John the Seadog' who had said he would 'fly over next week.' This was in fact her older brother, Jack, who was serving in France at the time as a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Squadron. Her tongue-in-cheek reference to him as 'The Beatified' (both families were of strong Catholic stock) may be a reference to the fact that he had been mentioned in dispatches in December 1915 for his 'meritorious work in connection with air attack on sheds at Ostende' and again two months later for 'meritorious work over the enemy's lines and recommended for special recognition and reward.'
Flying a Nieuport Scout aeroplane, whilst 5000 ft over Dixmude, he engaged with a German plane. The latter flew back five miles over the German lines with Jack in pursuit, and despite heavy accurate anti aircraft fire, 'forced him to descend'. Jack was awarded the DSC 'in recognition of services as a pilot at Dunkirk,' but sadly for both Bill and Checkie - and his fiancée - he was to die on 13th April 1917 when the aeroplane that he was testing suffered engine failure and crashed in France.
In this letter, Bill expresses concern that Checkie, up in Oakley, Fife may be fretting over her own 'fraternal relation,' which I'm sure she was. In fact. she had already lost her eldest brother, George, serving in the 1st Bn. Cameron Highlanders at the very beginning of the war in September 1914. Her other brother, Ronnie (referred to jokingly in this letter as 'Lord Ronald - he hits me when I call him that,') survived.
Looking at this letter now, almost 100 years later, there is teenage humour of the era mixed with almost unbelievable sadness, too: 'I'm sure the war is quite bad enough, without other things helping to make life more mouldy. I don't think anything nice will ever happen again.' Bill is trying to find out particulars of the death of a young officer she had known; at the same time she is making fun of some mutual acquaintances that they both found quite awful. 'Mrs Dent has just found out how very ignorant [her daughter] is, and as there is no chance of her becoming less so in the New Forest, thinks she cannot do better than send her to the Modern Athens.'
The main point of the letter seems to be that Bill is to be sent to a new convent school in Sussex in September for a year and is hoping that Checkie can persuade her parents to send her there, too - 'I say old sport, you must come too, we'll have the deuce of a time.' I don't know if this happened, but by 1918 Checkie had joined the Women's Legion of the Army Service Corps and was working as a Driver Mechanic. She died five days before the end of the war on the 6th November 1918, aged only 18, of Spanish 'flu and is buried at Aldershot Military Cemetery. Bill - a very talented illustrator, there are a number of her pen and ink works in my mother's house - married twice but she, too, died (of Bright's Disease, now known as chronic nephritis) just short of her 30th birthday, leaving no children.
And who are the two little girls in the portrait? It would be nice to say that they are Bill and Checkie but actually they are Checkie's elder sisters, 'O.M.', as she was called (my paternal grandmother) on the left, and Marg. This picture was probably taken around 1900, the year that Checkie - the baby of the family - was born.
The letter rather bears out what I was thinking about the 'lost art' of letter writing. I imagine there will be precious few letters between 16-year-olds (using words like 'perfidious'!) written in 2012 surviving 100 years hence. There may, of course, be emails and facebook comments, if the internet lasts that long!