history · Uncategorized

Flowers from hell: letters from my great-uncle in WWI

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Last Post (National Library of NZ collection)

This week marks one hundred years since the outbreak of World War One, a war that has become synonymous with prolonged horror and senseless death. On one day alone of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1st 1916, Britain lost more than 19,000 men. A staggering twice that number again suffered injuries. This was one day alone. By the end of the war, the number of dead could be counted in millions.

Millions of people died. It’s almost impossible for us now to comprehend what this staggering statistic actually meant in real terms to the men, women and children who suffered their own individual tragedies because of it.

ww1, wwI, helena fairfax, world war one
My great-uncle Arthur (back row, 3rd from left) at the wedding of his brother Tom 1913

I wanted to dedicate this week’s blog to my great-uncle, Private Arthur Patrick Burke, who died aged 23 on October 9th, 1917.

My great-uncle was the youngest of five children. One of his sisters was my grandma, the sister he affectionately called ‘Tot’.  Before the war uncle Arthur was a clerk, and he lived with his family in a pub in Salford, Manchester.

My family are very lucky in one way, because all my great-uncle’s letters from the front survived. After he died they were preserved by his mum (my great-grandma), and then by my grandma (Tot, the sister he addressed so affectionately in his letters) and then by one of Tot’s sons. The letters are now in the Imperial War Museum in Salford, Manchester, the city he grew up in.

My uncle Arthur’s letters tell a fascinating and moving story. Shortly after he signed up, he wrote home to say: ‘Dear Ma and all, Only a minute to spare, but my next shall be from somewhere in France, so for the last time for a short while here is a happy few farewell words for the dear home land. Am delighted that we are going out, and more so to think that I have so much to be thankful for, such strength & health that God has granted me to be able to partake in such an honourable war.

You shall be hearing of great things very soon now – in fact it is a case of just going over to put the lid on it.

Everything alive here – reveille is a t 2am tomorrow and according to how merry things are at present, I can see little bed tonight for any of us…

Cheer-oh, every cloud’s got a silver lining…

Like most people at the time, my uncle Arthur thought he was going to France for a ‘short while‘, and that the war would soon be over. His letters continued to sound cheerful for the next two years, but the horrors he must have seen, and at such a young age, are unimaginable. He mostly kept quiet about the realities of war when writing to his mum, but he did confide a little in his brother Reg:

Well, Reg, it’s just gone a bit quiet after an awful time, the expected happened, well we think it did, but owing to our strafing & theirs they didn’t reach us. Have got a chap in here now going mad with shell shock, the S.B. is with him, there’s about 4 touched out for this tonight…Goodness knows how we shall fare the rest of the night...’

And then later he says simply, ‘It’s a bugger – those are my sentiments at present.’

I find his most touching letters are about the time he was home on leave, and how he said goodbye to his family before getting on the train:

Well, old brother, as I’ve time to spare I might just turn my memory to those happy few days I had at home. Such a time I never had before in

ww1, wwi, world war one, helena fairfax
My grandmother’s (“Tot’s”) wedding, 1919. Her brother Arthur and several other young men now missing

all my life…Now for the departure from home, Ma was a brick. It was only motherly that at the last minute she should show stress of parting, but I understand her feelings…Then I left you both with such a handshake could anyone but realise the brotherly feeling which exists between us. I kept my eye on you as long as was possible, & then I had a good screw up at the old city, & here that impression is still with me – WHEN SHALL I SEE IT AGAIN.

In a few hours we were in London…A jolly day soon brought bed time – and then Victoria station. There was a little time to spare before the whistle blew for off, & as the time crept on, I noticed…Tot’s cheeks beginning to swell up, & it was hard work for her to keep the tap turned off. At last the signal was given, & away we went amidst cheers from the lads, & sad hearts from the platform. Tot at the very last minute had to show signs [of distress]…my expression now I bet she can recall…

That was the last time my uncle Arthur saw any of his family. I’m quite sure my grandma (his sister Tot) never did forget her brother’s expression as the train for France pulled out of Victoria station. The last letter her brother wrote to her says:

My dearest Tot,

Just a little flower got under remarkable circumstances from Hell. Have sent one to Ma, a beautiful souvenir (to my mind) if you knew all – you would think so too...’

Somewhere in the hell of the front my uncle must have come across a few flowers growing. I find it incredibly moving to think of this young man recalling with affection his sister and mum at such a time, and picking and preserving the flowers to send to them.

The last letter in my great-grandma’s collection is the worst of all:

Dear Mrs Burke,

It is not a pleasing task to address you, for one is reminded of the total inadequacy of words to meet grief. But if a line of appreciation freely given and truly felt for your son can add anything to the alleviation of your sorrow then I am happy.

He was in my company and had been with me in action many times. I knew him well. His untiring efforts often contributed to my personal comfort – he was in charge of my mess.

In the line he showed that spirit – which made him popular amongst the men – of cheerfulness which is so helpful when things look black. He was a real worker and as brave as any man I had. He was always to be relied on for his thoroughness in all his duties so conscientious. His loss was a real one to me & the whole company regretted it. He died in the front line & is buried with his comrades.

You must grieve his loss but let the knowledge of his worthiness ease your heartache.

Yours respectfully,

Frank Nicholl (Captain, A Company)

These are the letters and a glimpse into the life of just one of the millions of men who died in World War One. His death had a lasting effect on his family, and my grandma never forgot it. I remember as a child how distressed she would be if anything about the war came on television, and how she’d beg us just to turn it off. His body was not recovered but his name is inscribed on the memorial wall at the magnificent Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium.

The total number of military and civilian deaths in World War One was over 37 million. Each person has an equally moving story to tell. Just to put the numbers in perspective, if I published  one blog post every day to describe the life of every single person who died, it would take more than 100, 000 years.

My family was very moved to find out that the Imperial War Museum has teamed up with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra to compose a piece based on my uncle’s letters. I like to think how funny he’d find this, how pleased and proud he’d be, and how his brothers and sisters would tease him about it unmercifully. The piece is part of the IWM’s ‘Reactions 14’ series of artistic responses to the outbreak of the war. It’s very touching that this ordinary soldier’s life, lost so young, should be remembered in this way.

I’m glad to know the life of my courageous, funny, cheerful, affectionate great-uncle Arthur hasn’t been forgotten.

Do you have any relatives who fought in the Great War? Do you have any mementos of their lives, or any stories passed down? If you do, or if you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you.



36 thoughts on “Flowers from hell: letters from my great-uncle in WWI

  1. OMGod… Helena, that was just riveting!! I’m sitting here with tears inching down my face. Wow… that was just beautiful. I’d love to see that published somewhere very public! Like a national newspaper or something. Lovely writing from both you and your Great Uncle. And the photographs are utterly priceless. My god… that is just wonderful.

    What an astounding lovely blog.

    I will be sharing this, it’s just so special!

    Aloha and care to you. Meg :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Meg, thanks so much for your kind words and for being moved by the post and my uncle’s letters. It would have meant a lot to my grandma to know her brother’s not forgotten, and that people still think of him today. Thank you for your touching comment.


    1. Hi Kate, thanks for your comment. It’s very hard to imagine these were real people when you read the statistics. Incredible to think how many people were affected by a similar tragedy.


  2. My grandfather fought in WW1, survived and was actually recalled for WW2 – three years on the Western Front, woke up in a pile of corpses once, sent out to Arabia ca. 1918 and actually saw Lawrence of Arabia. Father in WW2, Imphal, Kohima, Parachute Regiment, latterly. he talked about it a lot, so I’ve got an oral history, plus articles he wrote – similar style to mine…


    1. Hi James, what an interesting family history! If your father left some documents, then it maybe that the Imperial War Museum would be interested in them. And how amazing to see Lawrence of Arabia! Thanks for sharing that story. If you have an oral history, perhaps you could write it down before it gets forgotten.
      Thanks for your comment.


  3. What a beautiful, moving post Helena. The photographs are amazing and the letters treasures to be cherished always. I am glad they were used by the BBC Philarmonic and the Imperial War Museum, so that your uncle is never forgotten. My grandfathers were both very young men at the time and fought at Verdun in 1916…on opposite sides. My Polish grandfather was conscripted in the German army and my mother’s father was a Zouave in the French colonial army since he lived in Algeria. Anyway, thank you for a beautiful post.


    1. That’s a fascinating story, Marie. Your grandfathers must have had a terrible time at Verdun. I once read a history of the battle of Verdun, and it’s literally the most terrible book I ever read. I had to keep putting it down, because it was full of such horror and tragedy. And yet now here you are, granddaughter to the two former “enemies”! It just shows how senseless war is. I expect if your grandfathers had met then, they would have been good friends.
      Thanks for your great comment.


  4. What a heart-rending, beautiful post, Helena. I too have tears in my eyes reading those poignant letters and I’m so glad your great-uncle Arthur is being remembered in this way, and through music. Such senseless, sad loss of so many young lives. I’m sad to say I have no stories to tell from WW1, but now it’s making me curious to know why!


    1. Hi Ros, so true about the sad and senseless waste. It would be interesting to find out how your family fared at that time. Good to remember these things whilst we still have at least an oral history. Thanks for your touching comment.


  5. Helena,

    This was a very beautiful and moving post. You have helped to keep your grand-uncle’s memory alive. My grandfather was in the US Navy for WWI and my father was in the US Navy for WWII. Lucky for me, they survived. But it makes you wonder about each of the men and women whose lives were ended and all of the potential that was lost forever.

    Thanks for the post!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Ken. Yes, like you I often think of all the men and women who lost their lives too young, and how the world would have been if they’d lived. Such a waste. Thanks for reading my post, and for taking the time to comment


  6. Tears in my eyes. My grandfather and his brothers all fought. They came back to carry on exemplary lives. My cousin Ray, fought in WWII and survived the Normandy invasion only to live with Post traumatic stress syndrome for the rest of his life. I wondered why he always laughed and told jokes – was it to hide the nightmare he lived?


    1. Hi Suzanne, that’s very sad about your cousin. Wars in one form or another left a legacy for the whole of the 20th century. And they still do, with soldiers coming home with PTSD. I’m glad your grandfather and great-uncles survived. Thanks for your comment


  7. Thank you for posting your uncle’s letters from the front and your well-written explanation of the era. Heart breaking to know how wars tear apart families and leave scars for future generations. You know how passionate I am about people recording life stories to hand down the history of their times to the next generations. These letters bring home the reality of those war years better than reading about it in a history book. Sad to realize that even after 100 years, the residents of this planet have not found peace on this earth.


    1. Hi JQ, yes, these letters are a touching record. I wonder how we’ll be remembered by future generations, now that no one writes letters any more? You’re right to persuade people to record their life stories in some way.
      WW1 was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” Hard to understand why people today are still killing each other.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  8. Hi Helena, that is so touching. I have been writing a short play which will be performed in our town, in a WWI commemoration Christmas Concert this December, so I have been immersed in accounts written by soldiers from the Front. Your uncle sounds like an exceptionally caring man. How sad that he didn’t have a full and happy life. Both of my grandfathers fought in the Great War, but they died before I had a chance to find out more. What a waste of life. Thank you for sharing with us.


    1. Hi, thanks for checking out my post, and for your comment. It’s great you’re writing a play about the war. I find stories about the Christmas truce on the front also very moving. It’s good that writers are keeping this war alive in the minds of the next generation, and that the millions of people like my uncle aren’t forgotten.
      Thanks very much for your great comment, and good luck with your play


      1. The Great War is of huge interest to me. I researched the story of my father’s oldest brother who died at Loos in 1915. This led me to a battlefields tour and we found the field on which he died. So many emotions it was hard to define them.


  9. Hi Liz, it’s very good of you to keep the memory of your father’s brother alive. I’ve never been to the battlefields. I’m sure it must be a very moving experience, and I’ve heard the graveyards and memorials are immaculately cared for. I can’t imagine how it feels to stand among them. Thanks for your touching comment.


  10. Hi Helena
    I was most moved by the juxtaposition of the simple act of picking a flower amongst so much horror and grief. What a privilege to have this commemoration of your uncle by the IWM and BBC Phil. Bring back the art of letter writing I say!


    1. Hi Zita, it’s true about the lost art of letter-writing. I wonder if soldiers today will leave such an account behind, now that we have satellite phones and Skype. It’s so great that these letters were preserved by Arthur Burke’s family. Now we have a record of him. When you read the letters, he really comes alive, and you can feel all the grief his family must have felt to lose him. Thanks for your comment!


  11. Helena, a well written story about your Great-Uncle Patrick Burke. I now have a story to go with the plaque that I used to see every day at work in the medical practice of your Uncle Patrick in NSW, Australia. I knew that Patrick Burke had died in the First World War and that he was the Uncle of Dr Patrick, but now I know a bit more.

    I have an Uncle (my mother’s brother) who was in the Australian Imperial Army during WW2, when Singapore fell to the Japanese. He was in Changi Prison and then in Sandakan in Norfth Borneo, where he died. Next year, 2015, I am going on an Anzac Day tour of Singapore and North Borneo (Sabah).


    1. Thanks for coming by, Jan. Good to meet you! It’s great there is an Anzac Day tour, and that people are able to remember your uncle and his comrades in this way. What a terrible loss to your family, and a terrible time in the Australian Army’s history. I didn’t know my Uncle Pat had a plaque at work. It’s moving that my great-uncle was thought, long after he died. Thanks so much for coming by and sharing this.


  12. Beautifully written, Helena, and the letters are wonderful. I’m so glad they were preserved for both your family and the world, and that you shared them with us. I read most of the article with tears running down my face. Though. I don’t have any such stories in my family that I know of, I love reading stories, especially personal ones, about the wars, and those who suffered in the hope of giving a better future to those who came after. It’s unfortunate that there has to be war at all, but I am very thankful to your great uncle and to all the others who have given their lives in such a way, fighting for their countrymen.


    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Kimberly. I’m very glad my great-grandmother saved all these letters, and that my grandma kept them safe. My great-uncle had such a chatty and friendly style of writing, it’s as though we can still hear his voice today. I think this is why it’s so moving – to know that a young man like this, with the world in front of him, died in such a way. Sadly my uncle was only one of millions like him. It’s good that we remember their sacrifice. Thank you so much for your kind words, and for thinking of him.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. So how did Uncle Arthur’s letters get to the Imperial War Museum ? Well, a little boy in the 1980’s was doing a history project on WWI in primary school. His step-mother gave him the letters (then held by her Dad, Uncle Arthur’s nephew Frank, Tot’s eldest son) to take to school for “show and tell”. The wonderful lady who minded the little boy after school saw the letters, and showed them to a friend of hers – who was very active in the British Legion. He asked if he could send them to the Imperial War Museum for review …. and the Imperial War Museum asked if they could be left to the nation. Frank consulted his siblings, and it was agreed. So , just as the twists of fate took Uncle Arthur from his loving family, so the twists of fate ensure that his memory is immortalised. I think Grandma Burke (and Grandma Fogarty – “Tot”) would have been very proud. And you are right Helena, whenever Grandma Fogarty spoke about Uncle Arthur , there was a catch in her voice, and she paused to look into that distant, happy past, before a generation was ripped asunder. As I write this on the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Battle of the Somme, may it never happen again.


    1. Lovely to hear from you, cousin Carmel! Thanks for letting me know that story about how the letters got to the IWM. What a twist of fate, indeed. Uncle Arthur’s letters really bring home to people the personal and lasting tragedy of the war. You phrase it well that our grandma remembered a distant past when her family was happy. All that was broken. It’s good that we still think of his loss – and all the millions of others – today. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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