Sunday, 14 February 2016

A very British romance: part 1

This is the first is another ongoing blog series, this one written by Margaret Eason, one of our project volunteers, who has been transcribing some of the letters of an army officer and the sister of one of his friends. It is a rare occurrence where we have access to both sides of the correspondence. The letters have been kindly loaned to Durham at War by the Leybourne family. This first post brings us from April 1915 to early 1916, and subsequent posts will be made close to the 100th anniversary of the events described. 

Letters and photographs belonging to the Leybourne family
Letters and photographs belonging to the Leybourne family
If you have ever visited Durham Record Office, you will have had good reason to thank the staff there for the support and encouragement they give to all who turn up to rummage in the Records, hoping to find out who they think they are! Inspired by the 'Durham Pals' photographs on display for the Heritage Open Day 2015, I asked to be a volunteer transcriber for the Durham at War project, and felt privileged to be accepted. Original documents are scanned at the Record Office and sent by email for transcription.

The files I received revealed an extraordinary story that unfolded within the letters written by Connie Kirkup and Lieutenant Elliot Angus Leybourne (known as Angus) of the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, between April 1915 and May 1917. As their letters passed back and forth across a Continent mired in the mud and misery of war, neither of these two young people could have an inkling of the important role a Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, would have in their lives; nor how instrumental his influence would prove to be in their future happiness. Henry's vision of an 'all-world-brotherhood' became, through time, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Red Cross volunteers and supporters in the countries at war, and to the dedicated staff of the Durham County Record Office, also to the generosity of the Leybourne family, we now have on record what I hope you will agree is...


To begin we join Connie in Beaumaris, Anglesey. It is April 30th 1915. Connie writes to Angus. She has heard 'that the Durhams' are in the thick of it' when she imagined they were still in training, and she is concerned for him and her brother Phil, who is Angus's friend, and hopes they are both all right. At the same time she is feeling selfish that she is away enjoying herself, but must console herself because as she writes, 'it wouldn't make any difference if I went into a torture chamber, would it?
[Editor’s note: as part of the 8th Battalion, Philip Kirkup and Angus Leybourne joined the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.  The battalion war diary shows Angus as having been injured on 25th April, the ICRC Prisoner of War Agency index cards suggest he was also taken prisoner on this date.]

D/DLI 2/8/59(6) Angus is on the far left, Philip is third from the right
D/DLI 2/8/59(6) Angus is on the far left, Philip is third from the right
Connie is spending her time sailing and 'learning to row, - result blisters'. The boats are not allowed into the Strait because of, 'those Germans, (who we expect to be subdued now that the 8th have met them)'. Connie and Angus are chums in the way that most sisters are with their brother's friends; she has no notion that he thinks any more about her than any other girl. When he came to her home in Birtley to say goodbye before leaving for France, her thoughts were all for her brother Phil, who was leaving with him. 

She is staying with friends in Anglesey and tells Angus that he would fall in love with Mary (‘the babe’) who is a perfect cherub, and Connie is sure that the babe 'would chuckle at your laugh, I don't mean in amusement, it is infectious'. She betrays an affection for his laugh in a later letter to him when he has sent her a photo in which he looks rather solemn, she tells him that he, 'mustn't forget how to laugh as that is what we are all looking forward to hearing again so much.', but then teases him, as a chum would, by telling him she prefers the other photo he has sent where he is showing off his socks.

In the letter from Anglesey, she adds a postscript asking Angus pointedly, 'Any messages for Miss Elgar?' Suggesting that she has a notion that Miss Elgar is of special interest to Angus. 

Connie caught fishing as well as sailing, I think!

Back home in Birtley, Connie writes to Angus again on December 13th 1915; just a few lines because she is hurrying off to Newcastle where she is in training at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. She takes him through her the ride she had the day before - ‘a glorious ride with Uncle Austin ...over by Urpeth through the woods & over Uncle George's fields'. Uncle Austin tried to teach her to jump, 'but I just managed to scramble through a hedge (tearing my new habit en route!).’ Then she rolled off on her back on the frosty ground. 'Have you ever come off a gee? I never felt so absolutely pumped, I couldn't get my breath for ever so long, lucky thing Uncle was there to catch Lassie.'

She tells Angus that when he comes home they must try to beg, borrow or steal a horse so that he can come with them some morning.

She goes on with news of her visit to Harrogate, 'Phyllis is in black for Geoff Simpson, poor old Geoff has been killed, he was very badly wounded and was under chloroform but died, and really it seems better that he is dead, if he had lived he would have lost both legs. Phyllis never really appreciated him, she wasn't engaged to him, but he intended to be on his first leave, and left money in his will to buy her a ring. It isn't the funny looking Manchester Geoff Simpson, it is the Harrogate Geoff, an awfully nice fellow.

We can only imagine how Angus receives this news of mutual friends because I haven't seen any replies from him, at this point. Connie keeps him up-to-date about news of these acquaintances. 

Having run out of time and news Connie asks Angus how he likes the calendar she sent him. Then, sounding just a little out of patience, which is not at all the way to catch fish, she writes, 'Look here I don't expect you to write me, as I have said before Mrs. Leybourne must have all (except an occasional line to Elsie Elgar I suppose, isn't that her name? Yours sincerely Connie.

Tired of tickling the trout Connie has thrown a grenade in the water.

Constance Kirkup, from the Leybourne family's private collection
Constance Kirkup, from the Leybourne family's private collection
Just over a month later, on Wednesday 19th January 1916, Connie is writing to 'Dear old Angus, Not that I really mean it in the literal sense only as old pals.' She mentions that she had to check her diary to see when she last wrote and asks him if he keeps a diary. 'They are a horrible nuisance to keep at the time, but they are sport (well not always) at any rate interesting to look back at. The only trouble is it brings to mind what a fool one has been which isn't palatable. I am one of the biggest cuckoos out, even now at my time of life.

New Year's Day 1916 was very quiet, Connie spent it on duty at the Royal Infirmary in the accident room, but there wasn't much doing so she got off early and went for a tramp over the Fell, clad in strong boots and a Mac and felt better after that. She has been called up for service as the Honorary Matron at the Munition Works at Birtley, and her time now is mostly spent superintending the setting up and cleaning of the Hospital Hut there. She says she will be working there until the end of the war, 'or until they sack us. We expect to start to attend to accidents about the middle of next week, poor fellows!!'

She has had a postcard from Angus, dated December 29th 1915, and tells him that she telephoned his mother immediately in case it was later news than she had had, and she seemed very pleased to hear about it. His postcard arrived just as she was going out for a ride on Lassie. She read it once quickly and then re-read it on the hill above Kibblesworth. She takes him back to the last time she rode some of that route, 'about a year ago, and the Brigade were having a sham fight, I had to ride through the whole crowd, every hedge held dozens of Tommies.

She is at pains not to tell him old news, and often mentions that she is aware that she is not his only correspondent. She goes on to tell him, 'What a good looking lass Muriel (his sister) is growing'.

Connie is going to spend summer half term weekend with Mrs. Leybourne and Muriel in St. Andrews, 'won't it be jolly? and as Muriel said this morning it will be much jollier if Angus is there as well.' His Mother had left her muff when she visited Connie and her parents the day before and Connie called on her way to town to return it. Obviously, the swapping of news is bringing them all much closer.

There are no barbs from Connie about Miss Elgar this time, just a request for Angus to send another post card when he can, because as she says, 'I do like 'em'.

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