Manitoba

'Cheer up, old dear:' WW I soldier's last letter to mother a 'remarkable' mix of gallows humour, stoicism

Lt. Hart Leech, killed during the Battle of the Somme, wrote a letter to his mother days before his death that showed a "stoic acceptance of what will probably be his fate, which is death," says historian Stephen Davies, "but at the same time it's a letter tinged with a sense of humour."

Last letter of Lt. Hart Leech among 35,000 collected by historian in Canadian Letters and Images Project

Gordon Cumming shows a photo his family has kept of Lt. Hart Leech, who died in the First World War during the Battle of the Somme. In a final letter to his mother, Leech showed a grim sense of humour, but also an acceptance of his fate, says one historian. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Hart Leech was staring death in its face.

As he wrote one last letter to his mother, he knew his battalion's plan to raid a German trench would likely end in disaster for him.

And yet in that letter — written two days before he would become a casualty of the First World War — the Winnipeg soldier made light of his near-certain death.

"So, cheer up, old dear, and don't let the newspapers use you as material for a Saturday magazine feature," Lt. Leech wrote to his mother on Sept. 13, 1916.

"You know the kind: where the 'sweet-faced, grey-haired, little mother, clutching the last letter from her boy to her breast, sobbed, "'e was sich a fine lad," as she furtively brushed the glistening tears from her eyes with a dish rag, etc. etc.'" 

He found it "darned funny" he was even composing the letter in which he predicted his death, he wrote.

"As one of our officers said: 'If I mail it and come through the show, I'll be a joke. If I tear it up and get killed I'll be sorry I didn't send it,'" wrote Leech.

"S'there y'are..." he wrote in closing. 

He was killed in fighting during the Battle of the Somme two days later, on Sept. 15, 1916, at the age of 27.

But his mother wouldn't receive his last letter until more than 10 years later.

'A remarkable letter'

Stephen Davies has read thousands of letters from war veterans — probably more than any Canadian — to create an online database of the Canadian war effort, which includes documents like Leech's letter

In an interview just before Remembrance Day, he said Leech's final dispatch is among the most memorable he's ever read.

"It's this stoic acceptance of what will probably be his fate, which is death, but at the same time it's a letter tinged with a sense of humour," said Davies — unusual in so-called "post-mortem" letters written by soldiers anticipating their deaths, which were, understandably, usually more sombre. 

Leech's combination of stoicism and humour "make it a remarkable letter," said Davies.

Also remarkable is how it finally made its way to Leech's mother, 12 years after his death.

Hart Leech was killed on Sept. 15, 1916, in the Battle of Mouquet Farm, which was part of the months-long Battle of the Somme in northern France. (Canadian Letters & Images Project)

After Leech's death, the letter was entrusted to Capt. Edgar King, an English officer. But as he wrote in a 1928 to Leech's father, it was erroneously placed by another solider in King's valise instead of being sent to the battalion headquarters.

King himself was badly wounded and ended up in hospital for months — and the letter sat, unknown to him, in his valise until he discovered it years later.

In his letter to Leech's father, King explained his regiment arrived to relieve Leech's battalion after they charged German forces during what came to be called the Battle of Mouquet Farm — part of the Battle of Somme in northern France, among the bloodiest offensives in human history.

Leech's battalion "appeared to have been practically slaughtered to a man," King wrote to the soldier's family.

In his final letter, though, Leech "shows the indomitable courage and capability of laughing at Death, that makes the tragedy of his death the more poignant," King concluded in his own letter to the family.

"God keep his very brave spirit."

Beyond 'names on the cenotaph'

That spirit is remembered today by people like Gordon Cumming, a distant relative of Leech — his grandfather was Leech's cousin.

Sitting at the dining room of his home in Oakbank, Man., surrounded by papers documenting Leech's military history, Cumming is struck by a letter Hart's father wrote a few days after his son's death — but before the family knew he had been killed.

"I am hoping for the best that you are not mortally wounded or permanently disabled, but with an anxious mind and a heart too full of emotion to be released from the severest restraints at this time," wrote Leech's father, John Hillyard Leech, who was a Winnipeg lawyer.

When he finally learned of his son's death, more letters followed, in which John tried to find out from officials how his son died.

"I don't know how many letters he wrote looking for information about what happened to his son," Cumming said. 

"That speaks to me, too, that even though he knew he died, he still wanted to know what happened."

Cumming looks through documents detailing Leech's military history, including a bulletin from Prime Minister Robert Borden expressing condolences on Leech's death. (Ian Froese/CBC)

That kind of humanization of soldiers killed in conflict is the intent of Stephen Davies's website, The Canadian Letters and Images Project, which has collected more than 35,000 letters — including those of Leech and Capt. King.

Since he launched the project in 2000, scanning and transcribing the documents has effectively become a full-time job for the history professor at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C.

The money the project raises goes toward hiring students to help with the work, and sending the documents back to the families at no cost to them. 

The effort is worth it, says Davies.

"What the letters do is try to put a human face back to war and remind us that those names on the cenotaph are people just like us."


Read Hart Leech's final letter to his mother:

Dear Mother

Just a wee note. I am "going over the parapet", and the chances of a "sub" getting back alive are about nix. If I do get back, why you can give me the horse laugh. If not this'll let you know that I kicked out with my boots on.

So, cheer up, old dear, and don't let the newspapers use you as material for a Saturday magazine feature. You know the kind: where the "sweet-faced, grey-haired, little mother, clutching the last letter from her boy to her breast, sobbed, ''e was sich a fine lad,' as she furtively brushed the glistening tears from her eyes with a dish rag, etc. etc."

I'm going to tell you this in case my company commander forgets. Your son is a soldier, and a dog-gone good one, too, if he does say it himself as shouldn't. And if he gets pipped it'll be doing his blooming job.

In a way it's darned funny. All the gang are writing post mortem letters and kind of half ashamed of themselves for doing it. As one of our officers said: "If I mail it and come through the show, I'll be a joke. If I tear it up and get killed I'll be sorry I didn't send it." S'there y'are...

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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