(Captain Franklyn-Vaile sent two letters to his wife on 4 November: one of which was dispatched while he was still in hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds suffered during 1RIF’s failed attack against San Salvo on 27/28 October and one after returning to the battalion later that day)
My Dearest Olive,
I am enclosing 3 snaps of John with this letter. As it has to go ordinary post and I hope various airmails will reach you written at a later date before you receive this one, I am making this letter not of news but of views which, in general, I never have room for in an airmail.
It is nearly three months since I was fighting hard to restrain the tears on bidding farewell to you at Saltfleet. In actual fact, it seems very much longer. On the whole, I have been reasonably happy here, mainly because I was determined to look at my good fortunes rather than otherwise. I felt, well, we had 2 3/4 gloriously happy years together in N. Ireland, years which developed us both considerably and years which we had not had reason to anticipate when I precipitated myself into the Army on Oct 27th 1939. The misunderstandings, due to my fault, that had been created early in 1939 vanished and I have always been most glad that I was able to give you such a happy time in N. Ireland. You deserved it because no husband has ever been so fortunate in having such a loyal, energetic and enthusiastic wife. Valerie was all we needed to seal the happiness of our marriage and seal it, she certainly did. So while I felt it unfair to you to deliberately volunteer to come out here at the same time I felt I had no cause for complaint when I was finally chosen and I must say that provided I come out with life and limb, I will feel it an experience never to be missed. However, I have always felt that you have the “worse end of the stick”. The knowledge that much may have happened between the date of my writing a letter and you receiving it, is something much to be dreaded and my only consolation is that your natural bravery and courageous spirit will see you through all these difficulties.
I suppose I am fortunate in not, as yet at any rate, knowing the feeling of fear. Ones stomach turns slightly on hearing that an attack will be launched at a certain hour but after that, I feel perfectly calm and my nerves were icy cold on the night of Oct 27th. What a birthday – as long as I live, I am scarcely likely to forget my 33rd birthday and those of the future will always be clouded because of the thought that on that day another family will be sorrowing because someone very dear to them was killed in action in 1943. By the irony of fate, I have never felt better than on that night. The noise and danger seemed to stimulate me; at the same time my brain worked clearly and coolly. We advanced far and fast because I used my head and if other hands had not interfered, Johnny might be alive to this day. He was daring, reckless, anxious to try and knock out every machine gun post, but he had a set object in view and I restrained him and I suppose I was the one person who could. One day when we are seated comfortably at home, I will tell you the full story of that grim and tragic night.
I have sometimes wondered if you thought to yourself reading my letters ‘another of Lawrie’s mad friendships’, but I am certain knowing what has happened, you will not think so now. I have that curious instinct that I like to have someone to whom I can give, whom I can help and protect. Frank Higgins aroused that feeling in me and I felt afterwards I went too far. I never really felt the need again. Valerie my own one was there to slowly develop and I took a keen interest in her slowly. So it was the interest of a Company Commander anxious to help and encourage his junior NCOs – in the same respect, in many ways, I took a keen interest in Roy Purcell as a young officer worthy of the fullest encouragement. Desmond Fitzpatrick rather forced himself on me. I don’t mean deliberately, but just because he succumbed to an intense admiration very typical of the southern Irish temperament.
John was totally different. He was a friend in the truest sense of the word. We were on an equal plane and to the pleasure of that friendship, was added the fact that I was able to gently help and guide him but in this friendship I got a full return for all I could do. Wives are notoriously jealous of their husband’s male friends – you avoided it through your breath and vision of mind but I suspect even you, darling, sometimes wondered ‘was it necessary?’, ‘does John Glennie replace me in his affections?’. Well he did not, of course – it is perhaps absurd to say, but, if it is possible, he increased my love for you, for here was someone else to whom I could talk about you for hours, who, such is the gift of friendship, really was interested, and who demanded nothing in return. If I talked about you to Denis then it was only fair that he should talk about Ingrid to me, with Johnny I was in the fortunate position of being to take all in that respect. One day we were sitting on his bed, I had been talking about you and had eventually dried up and after a couple of minutes silence in which I could see he was thinking deeply, he said very quietly and pensively, ‘It must be wonderful to have a wife you feel like that about – I hope I am as lucky’. Lord knows what I must have been saying, apparently not defaming your character.
He was always very anxious that you should like him and he told me only a couple of days before he died that he hesitated a long time over the letter to you because while he wanted to write, he was afraid he would muddle the letter and you would think him a fool. I always felt you would like him if you met him, that scotch mind, keen, practical, discerning often showed itself beneath the many joyous Irishisms. You know, as well as I do, how seldom it is that one can cast aside all mental reservations, how seldom one can really reveal the true self. I reached the stage with John that I was able to be completely natural. I tend to pose slightly, to wear a cloak which is not always my real colour. I never posed with Johnny – I was my plain, ordinary self, and he knew just how brave I was, just how fearful I was, just how clever and stupid I was and I presume despite his knowledge of me, he loved me, as he died continually murmuring my name. As he lay there in my arms, he kept on saying at intervals, ‘Frank,’ ‘Frank’, ‘Frank’ and it was the only name he mentioned until he cried for his ‘Mother’ just before the end. That was I suppose my reward, to have produced a love that consciously or otherwise could think of me as he lay dying. But why I ask myself, must he have died, why can those heights of happiness never be mentioned.
I sometimes wonder if it is something in my own nature that raises me to such exquisite heights only to make the plunge more terrible. As I look back, it seems as if every time in my life I have touched the heavens, very soon I have dropped again if not, melodramatically to fall, at least, to plain earth and this time it is very much like hell. Only with you, darling, has life remained constant. Every time I have felt really and intensely happy, at the same time have felt afraid, I have known that soon would come an event to take that happiness away. I was terribly happy with John, I felt I was lucky far beyond my desserts, to leave the wife and child I thought the world of, yet still feel a deep richness and appeared good fortune such as I had not met with before, yet behind it was the nagging fear that it would be taken away – the dreadful presentiment that something would happen to John. How right I was. Apparently I did not deserve it and now it is gone.
You always seemed to consider me a strong personality and that apparently is the general impression. From what was told to me today, my late CO passed the remark to this person that he considered me ‘an extremely forceful, rather ruthless personality just the type he wanted to lead men in action’. When one becomes introspective, a tendency arises to wonder how much is ‘bluff’ and ‘show’ but I think I can truthfully say I am rather forceful, at any rate, I apparently show it to other people and I don’t feel the urge to lean on people, I rather tend to the weaker people who wish to derive strength and the only two people I have ever leaned on or sought strength from are yourself and John. You have always been a great source of strength to me, sweetheart, known when to be sympathetic and when to be hard and John somehow was the same source of strength. It seems funny in some ways, a gay laughing youngster of 20, looking younger, as he appeared to the world, yet to me he was the reliable rock, firm and staunch as Gibraltar itself….
One lovely, sunny day we sat on a ridge and amid a peace that made all of this beastliness seem far away, talked hour after hour. Time stood still and Johnny very much ‘bared his soul’ to me that day, all the troubles and difficulties came out from an unemotional nature and at the end he said, ‘ you will make a wonderful Father, Frank, I envy the son I am certain you will have’. Johnny did not deal out compliments; he said once that he had difficulty in saying what he felt so it made the compliments he occasionally paid me, doubly nice.
Well, it is no good going on. This is a hell of a letter, anyone else reading it will think I am mad but at least I have got a lot off my chest and I think you will understand, darling, I have always adapted the principle “better to love and lose than not to love at all’ so I must bear with the consequences.
Keep the photos, darling, we will try and do something for the boys after, at least we will go and see them and perhaps have them to stay with us, from his accounts and from their photos they appear jolly kids. The sister’s face is vaguely familiar, is it because of the likeness or have we seen them at Omagh? She used to go to the dances. I wrote to the sister straight away and have just written a long letter to the mother telling her simply of the many happy moments of our friendship. I gave all the details to Muriel and told her to use her discretion about passing them on.
How is our dear baby tonight? Very much the little girl I imagine, how I wish I could see you both again.
Thanks for being such a wonderful wife, look after yourself dearest girlie. All my love to you and Valerie.
Your loving husband