Poignant letter to wife found in pocket of WWI soldier killed in action

Frank Burman with his wife and two young sons. Frank Burman with his wife and two young sons.

Monday, February 17, 2014
1:01 PM

Private Frank Henry Burman’s grandchildren only have two records of his First World War experiences.

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Frank Burman Letter.
February 27th 1917.

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

One is a poignant letter written to his wife just days before he was killed in action, and the other is the emotionless, standard Army issue communication recording his death.

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

In this ordinary letter made remarkable by its tragic timing, the young Frank Henry gives a glimpse into the life and mentality 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’s 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 in France. She had sent cake and mincemeat which Frank, 28, said he enjoyed, but confessed to having “not sampled the prunes or pudding yet, but that is a treat to come”.

Touchingly, he adds: “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.

There are no complaints, no cries for sympathy, just a wistful “I have become quite used to it now.”

With food rations simple at best and living conditions unimaginably difficult, Frank might have asked for more home comforts to be sent to him, but his only request is a loaf of bread, adding “a brown one would do for it is cheaper”.

It would appear Helen had previously told him about the rising cost of food in England, which sparked concern in spite of everything he was going through.

What shines throughout the letter is Frank’s unfaltering optimism that the war would end and that he would return, although whether this was putting on a brave face for his wife’s sake we will never know.

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.”

Knowing Frank had been killed before she opened the letter, Helen might have found some comfort in its final words.

“Well my dear,” he wrote, “will conclude now with fondest love to you and the dear children, from your ever loving husband Frank.”

He signs off with five kisses, and a note at the bottom promising to try and write more if he can 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 while the war still raged on in Europe.

The fact nothing was passed down through the family means Frank’s letter is the only way of telling his story, in his own words - which brought both grief and comfort.

Perhaps the most poignant passage 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.

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.”

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