Last letter of a soldier who never returned

Frank Burman Letter.
February 27th 1917.

Picture: James Bass Frank Burman Letter. February 27th 1917. Picture: James Bass

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
5:15 PM

Pte Frank Henry Burman’s grandchildren only have two records of his First World War experiences. One is a poignant letter written to his wife days before he was killed in action, and the other is the emotionless, standard army issue communication recording his death.

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Family’s pride and sadness

Frank’s grand-daughter Wendy Harvey of Northgate Street, Yarmouth knows bits and pieces about the man, his life and his family. She does see with pride his name inscribed on the 1914/18 war memorial in St George’s Park.

Frank Henry Burman served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1/5th battalion territorial. He enlisted in Torquay with his residence as Paignton in Devon. That fact is a mystery to his family as his wife is listed as living at 6 Alexandria Cottages, Bunns Lane, Southtown. His army number was 202069.

The first perhaps is he may have been called up and told to report to Torquay for his enlistment. In the case of my grandfather he lived in Alfreton, Derbyshire and had to report to London, enlisted into the Middlesex Regiment.

The second perhaps is was the army sending men to regiments which had suffered massive losses – more cannon fodder to replace cannon fodder?

The 1/5th battalion landed at Le Havre in March 1915 and moved to Italy in November 1917 to prop up the defences there. Too late for Frank though who had already fallen on The Somme.

His grave is in the Departement de la Somme, Picardie, France, along with thousands of others.

Frank was born in 1889, the eldest son of Edward and Louisa Burman. Edward was a brewers’ labourer and in 1901 the family lived in Row 137 – Frank had by then a younger brother, George, and sister Alice.

In 1911 the family had moved to 4 Century Road, Yarmouth and there was another son, Edwin, who had been born in 1905.

Frank was a “mechanical dentist”, the term used for someone who made false teeth and he was still living with his parents. However in July 1912 he married Helen May Goodrum from Southtown. Her father was a railway porter.

Frank’s grand-daughter Wendy said her father Edward Burman was just 18 months old when his own father was killed in action, so grew up only knowing what he had looked like from family photos – like so many children born during those awful war years.

“It was such a waste of life and so dreadful,” said Wendy. “My grandmother Helen never remarried and died at the age of 46.”

Frank’s letter to his wife, Helen, was found in a pocket in his uniform after he was killed at the Somme on March 2, 1917.

In this ordinary letter made remarkable by its tragic timing, the young Pte Burman gives a glimpse into the life of a First World War soldier.

He writes about his life in the trenches and a friend who is suffering from trench foot, caused by prolonged exposure to damp, cold conditions. He voices concerns for the two young sons he has left behind, discusses the difficulty in getting money exchanged in France, and asks his wife to pass on his love to family members.

The letter begins with words of thanks to Helen for the food and treats she had posted over to him. She had sent cake and mincemeat which Frank, then 28, said he enjoyed, saying: “My dear you don’t know how pleased I was to get it.”

Complaining of a cold, Frank remembers to thank Helen for the handkerchiefs she had sent in a previous parcel, saying how they had “come in very handy”. And he only hints at the difficulty brought by something so ordinary in the trenches, bemoaning the fact he has no means of washing the handkerchiefs after using them.

What shines throughout the letter is Frank’s unfaltering optimism that the war would end and that he would return. He speaks lovingly about his children, friends and relatives waiting at home and writes: “I am quite looking forward to seeing you all again, tell Leslie [their son] not to find too much work for me to do as I shall want a good rest when I do get home.” He signs off with five kisses, and a promise to try to write more if he could find the time.

Helen found herself a widow just five years into their marriage, and was faced with the prospect of bringing up two young children.

Perhaps the most poignant passage in the letter is where Frank wrote of his hopes that, as February 1917 drew to a close, he was “another month nearer [to] coming home, never to go away for so long again.”

But Frank never did come home – and Helen never remarried.

Do you have a First World War story? Email newsdesk@archant.co.uk

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