Letter From The Front

Letter from France 1918 with original envelope.  Photo credit: thanks to Felicity Matthews.

Whilst going through some old family papers and photographs I stumbled upon a small wooden box and in it found a real treasure: a letter, dated July 6th 1918, from my grandfather in France to my grandmother in Australia. It was dog-eared, the ink faded and the paper thin and fragile after ninety-nine years and obviously many readings. So I decided to transcribe it, eager for insight into the mind of a man writing from his camp on the Western Front, after years in a war zone, separated by time and distance from his loved ones. And as I worked, it was as if his voice reached out over almost a century and spoke to me.

I found it very sad because it is obvious that at this point in the war, my grandfather believed that one of his brothers had been killed and that he himself would most likely not survive to come home. He was not in a very positive state of mind and also felt the need to go into battle and avenge his brother’s death.

It is interesting to note that this was at the height of the escalation of World War I because the Germans had come back from the Eastern Front after the surrender of Russia and were concentrating their might against the Allies on the Western Front. No wonder he felt that it was never going to end!

I also found it a point of interest that the United States Army clearly looked after their men a lot better than did the British. So, good on you, Uncle Sam!

Here is the letter, faithfully transcribed, except for a few personal items that can have no meaning for anybody but the writer and recipient:

France

July 6th 1918

Dear Violet,

Just a short note in answer to your three letters I received yesterday and the snapshots of Ernie (21/2 year old son).

They are very nice. He does look well in those photos. He ought to be good company for you. I wish I was back. I would take him everywhere. You say he is a hard case and my word he looks it.

It was a great day here on the fourth of this month. The Bakers that were here, the Yanks I mean, did not work at all that day. No matter what Holiday we never get a day off.

I could go out every night here but it don’t suit me. I have made my promises to you and I will keep them. There (is) only one I will break and that is staying with the Bakers. I am only waiting for a letter from Len (brother) and then I will put in my transfer to the 19th Battalion. I think poor old Ern (brother) has been killed and I must get even for it. I have not heard from him for over three months. I am going to write to Headquarters today about him.

This place gets terrible monotonous. No wonder people go mad here. We have sent two men home mad.

I got those two snapshots of Ernie, the dear little fellow. He is a fine Boy but I don’t suppose I will have the luck to see him again. I don’t think this war is ever going to end. It seems to be getting worse instead of better.

I wrote to you last week asking you to send 5 pounds to the Bank in London. I expect to be going on leave in about two month’s time. 5 will be plenty. I am not drawing any money here at all so you can see I never go out of the camp. I am sick of this place.

Well, Dear, I will close with the best love and kisses to yourself and Ernie

Yours lovingly,

Jack

Fortunately, things improved for my grandfather after he went on leave in September. To his great joy and relief he found his brother Ern recovering from serious shrapnel wounds in a hospital in England. His transfer to the 19th never did eventuate, perhaps because he found his brother alive; was needed at his field bakery; or because the war ended a short time later (11 November 1918). However it was, he was still the Temporary Sergeant in charge of his bakery on Armistice Day and until they went home in 1919.

The Quiet Hero

Lt-Col R.O. Wynne  Image courtesy Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine Historical Society.

Lt-Col R.O. Wynne

 

As well as my grandfather, Jack and his mate, Percy, there were other real-life characters amongst my fictional ones in Angel of Song. One very special hero is referred to by Madame Dupont only as ‘Hugh’s friend’.

He was Lt. Colonel R. O.(Richard Owen) Wynne of the 2nd Regiment, Bedfordshire Rifles and his war record is impressive, to say the least. He was on the Western Front from at least the beginning of 1915 until the end of WW1 and took command of his entire regiment several times in 1917 in what have been considered some of the worst battles of the war. He trained soldiers new to the Front; from time to time commanded other battalions beside his own; and was twice awarded the DSO for conspicuous gallantry and leadership; the second of which he received after the battle mentioned in Angel of Song.

This occurred during March 21- 28, 1918; specifically on March 27 at La Folie when he led a successful assault on enemy machine guns that were decimating our troops, killing their commanding officer and forcing them into retreat.

Lt. Colonel Wynne was a crack shot; with all the speed and accuracy required by the high standard of the Rifles. Later, in his civilian life, he won many shooting competitions. But he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.

Private research indicates that he led a secret surveillance team ahead of the 6th Division into France in 1940. The team was left stranded to find its own way out when France unexpectedly surrendered to Germany on the 22nd June 1940 and the 6th had to withdraw, leaving them behind.

After many hair-raising adventures, including hiding in olive groves being strafed by Stukas; he finally managed to make it, under Stuka fire, to the Jackal, a destroyer cruising in the Mediterranean; ending up in hospital in Egypt. The Jackal, damaged, but still able to sail out of range of the Stukas, was not as lucky as him and was sunk later in the war. But she got him away to safety.

A letter written from his hospital bed in Alexandria included a tongue-in-cheek comment that the Free French must have been a myth because he didn’t find any of them. In all the months of hardship; making his way through hostile territory, under fire from the enemy; his only complaint was of lice. He said he would always feel sorry for lousy sheep.

From May, 1941, he was found in Australia, maintaining a distinguished but unobtrusive presence as ADC to the Governor of NSW, Lord Wakehurst. Had anything(or anyone) threatened the Governor, Lt. Colonel Wynne would have gone into the kind of action for which his regiment was famous: His ceremonial walking cane was a concealed .22 rifle!

Personification of the courage, integrity and self-sacrifice of the finest soldiers of WW1; modest, unassuming and reserved; with a quiet dignity; yet ‘hell on wheels’ in a battle; Lt. Colonel R. O. Wynne is one of my favourite real-life heroes.

Photo credit: Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine Historical Society.

Private research courtesy of Lt-Col. Wynne’s granddaughter, Avril.