Sunday, 2 September 2012

Keeping love alive by letter

Love letters from the trenches
I've just finished reading a rather touching series of letters written in 1916 by John Glasson Thomas to Gertie Brooks, two teachers who became friends while they were working in London and who were separated when war broke out.

Thomas joined up and was sent to Falmouth with the Royal Garrison Artillery, where he played his part guarding shipping in the English Channel. But although their relationship was in its infancy, it went from strength to strength by letter, with Thomas' correspondence full of boyish fun which reflected an age of more formal courtship. In one letter he enthuses: 'I am very glad that you appreciate Cornish pasties, so do I, I often eat a hot one when on my way back from town. Can you fancy me climbing the hill to barracks cane in one hand a hot pasty in the other? Quite a study for a snapshot I assure you.'

When leave permitted, Thomas visited his friends in London, including Gertie, and after one he could hardly find the words to express himself: 'I only wish I could tell you how much I enjoyed my weekend, but 'twas too good for mere words to describe or qualify. The effects of my visit are still with me.'

Thomas obviously had high expectations about the way young ladies should behave, as is apparent when he describes having to keep order at a railway station where soldiers bound for France were saying goodbye to their loved ones: 'The behaviour of some of the yong females was really horrible; some had to be forcibly kept back ... ugh!'

Vera Brittain: contempt for the rules

Such expectations were part of everyday Edwardian life, but they enraged the likes of writer Vera Brittain, who grew up at the turn of last century and described her contempt for such etiquette in her book Testament of Youth - especially the requirement for unmarried couples to be escorted at all times!

However, not all young couples obeyed the rules. A man from the local history group has told me about his Aunt Beattie who refused to split from her sweetheart Ern, despite family disapproval. The relationship continued throughout the war and is documented by correspondence which the family still has. When Ern returned from the war the couple married. Sadly, the story doesn't have a happy ending though, Beattie died in the Spanish flu' epidemic which swept Britain just after the war.

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