Armistice Day: Letters of love and war

Geoffrey Boothby and Edith Ainscow once dreamed of a future together. They wrote to each other outlining their hopes and their fears, joking and flirting in pen and ink. Then in 1916, Geoffrey, like tens of thousands of other British soldiers, was killed in action in Belgium. Today, 90 years later, John Lichfield tells the story of two ordinary people caught up in a horrific war
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It is not a guilty secret. It is a tragic secret, a deeply moving secret, which reveals with painful freshness a loving, and surprisingly jokey and modern relationship between two intelligent young people pitched into the most calamitous of wars.

In April 1990, seven years after his mother's death, Mr Stockwin discovered a bundle of letters in a wooden chest in his parents' home. The letters revealed a love affair, conducted entirely in writing in 1915-16 between a spirited 17-year-old, middle-class girl in Birmingham and a 21-year-old junior British officer on the Western Front in Belgium.

As the letters begin, Edith Ainscow, a medical student, and Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Boothby hardly know each other. He is a friend of her brother's. They have met only a handful of times. Just over a year later, they have fallen in love, without meeting again.

The day after his last letter was written, in April 1916, Geoffrey is killed while tunnelling under German trenches near Ypres. There is no letter to describe Edith's grief - only a silence that is more eloquent than words.

This Saturday - the day after Armistice Day and the day before Remembrance Sunday - Mr Stockwin will publish the correspondence in a book entitled Thirty-odd Feet Below Belgium. An affair of letters in the Great War 1915-1916. We publish extracts from it on the page opposite.

"At first I was doubtful whether I should make the letters public," said Mr Stockwin, who recently retired as professor of modern Japanese studies at Oxford University.

"My mother never spoke to me about Geoffrey Boothby, although she did once bring me to meet his mother, without explaining who he was. She never spoke about the war but I remember, now, how terribly upset she was whenever she heard the Last Post.

"In the end, reading and re-reading the letters, I decided that they deserved a wider audience. There is something universal about Edith and Geoff's story, something very, very sad but also very human and life- enhancing."

The book will receive a dramatic reading at the Royal Armouries in Leeds on 26 November.

After the war, Edith Ainscow became a paediatrician and then a medical officer for the city of Birmingham. She married Mr Stockwin's father in 1934.

It is rare for both sides of the correspondence between Great War soldiers and their wives and sweethearts to survive. Even in this series, Edith's early letters are missing.

The Great War is now passing over the horizon of living memory. In Geoff and Edith's letters, the period emerges in bright colours from the sepia of old photographs, the jerky movements of the old film footage, and the unending, circular debate about the industrial slaughter on the battlefields. The letters remind us that this terrible conflict was fought by young people with the same everlasting emotions and hopes as young people of every generation.

Geoff addresses Edith as "Girl" or "Dear Girl" or " Blue Eyes" or "Golden Locks". She addresses him, more primly, as "Geoff, dear" but is not afraid of flirting outrageously in paper and ink.

If you extract the period slang - "ripping", "beastly", "spiffing" etc - the letters could be a series of e-mails between undergraduate sweethearts in 2005. Much fun is had with fake military censorship of risqué terms.

Geoff writes on 27 November 1915, after Edith has suggested that he should simulate a stomach upset to gain some early leave: "Your suggestion that I should go home with dysintry [sic] is really the limit ... What would our grandmothers say to the modern girl's letter to her - er - beloved at the front?" He then mimics a Victorian girl writing to her soldier sweetheart: "Algernon, my best belovedst. How is your stomach?... I have just heard of a cure for your ---- (deleted by censor)'."

Edith writes to Geoff on 23 January 1916: "I've decided what I'm going to do in the very distant future ... I shall have a dog, a cat, a very talkative parrot and a pale-blue motor ... I expect you'll say that the cat will eat the parrot, the dog will eat the cat and I shall die of melancholia but all the same that's what I'm going to do.

"It's a good job you weren't here when I was drying my hair by the fire, isn't it? I wonder if we should have been bored then?"

Geoffrey's attitude to the war darkens as the letters go on. Boyish excitement turns to resigned patriotism. He believes that he is fighting for the forces of good against "the Unmentionables" but he becomes angered and depressed by the deaths of "nearly all my friends" in the battles of early 1916.

On 27 April 1916, Geoffrey sends Edith a short letter saying he is finally promised leave and "will probably be in Brum somewhere near May 9th with luck". After a series of near misses, the pen-pals, who have become pen-lovers, are to meet at last.

Second Lieutenant Boothby of the Royal Engineers worked in dark and flooded tunnels under No Man's Land, trying to blow up German trenches. On 28 April 1916 - eight months after Geoff was first posted to the front, and the day after his last letter - he was himself blown up by the detonation of a German counter-tunnel north-east of Ypres.

His body lies "30-odd feet below Belgium" to this day.

"Thirty-odd Feet Below Belgium. An affair of letters in the Great War 1915-1916" is published by Parapress Ltd, priced £8.99.

7 FEBRUARY 1915, BOVINGTON CAMP, DORSET

Dear Edith,

You know my address now, so you've no excuse for not writing ... I've got to a hole miles from nowhere, infinity, in fact, the limit. Mud, huts, desolation and Tommies, nothing else unless I include the bugles which go all day and night, mostly with wrong notes ...

... In case you know more than a dozen Geoffs, my other name's Boothby. I guess you said "what a cheek!" as soon as you started to read this letter.

Cheero! Geoff

3 MARCH 1915, BOVINGTON

Dear Edith,

This note is to ask what's up. What have I done , why this silence? Have you eloped with my cousin, who hasn't answered my last letter either? Have you... unearthed some compromising incident from my shady past?... I enclose (regimental) buttons as payment for information...

Cheero! Geoff

19 JUNE 1915, FLOWER DOWN, WINCHESTER

Golden Locks (whew!),

A ghastly disaster overtook me during my leave. This bolt from the blue arrived on Saturday night in the shape of a telegram to say I had to return here by Monday morning ... I didn't get your very formal letter till I got back but I was coming to Beechcroft [Edith's home] on Sunday night in any case; as it was I had to leave Brum at midday ...

So I didn't see the Other One, as you may have suspected, daren't in fact, not having written for two months ... Next time I'll come straight to Beechcroft so's to be quite certain of seeing you. Heigho! Woe is me. Etc Etc.

Yours in sighs, Blue Eyes!

Love, Geoff

11 AUGUST 1915, BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE (Geoff is now at the front)

Dear Girl,

You suggestion I should tell you how many fair charmers I had writing to me in exchange for the number of lonely soldiers with whom you corresponded is scarcely fair...

We lived in a district for a week that was apparently a dumping place for German shells, they come over from time to time all over the show, but never nearer to your best beloved (or rather one of them) than one field away. Still they give quite a zest to lunch in the open...

In case you are drawing the reverse conclusion, I beg to state that I and the others are thoroughly enjoying ourselves over here. The life is so gorgeously happy-go-lucky, that one cannot but be in good spirits...

Cheero! Yrs., No 70.

27 NOVEMBER 1915, MINING SECTION, BEF

Cheero, Darling,

How are you? I'm in fine form, though in the trenches. Muddy from head to foot and damp in all the joints ... I've had a mouldy night of it, sinking a shaft under the most trying conditions of wet, cold and bad luck. Had two scares. Huns reported working two yards from our gallery, which meant yours truly lying on his tummy in sodden clay for half an hour and hearing nothing. Second scare that the Bosch was breaking into our gallery, so I had to explore with much shaking at the knees, a revolver and no light ...

Your suggestion that I should get home with the dysintry [sic] is really the limit. I know you are confoundedly matter-of-fact in your letters but really - dysintry - how horribly prosaic ... What would our grandmothers say to the modern girl's letter to her - er - beloved at the front?

... Algernon, my best belovedst, How is your stomach? I do hope the Carter's little liver pills have removed the yellow shade from your beautiful green eyes. I have just heard of a cure for your ----- (Deleted by Censor)...

Cheero, girl, Geoff

11 DECEMBER 1915, BEECHCROFT, BIRMINGHAM (This is the first letter from Edith to survive; presumably the first that Geoff kept. A sign of his growing affection perhaps?)

My dear one,

There's a simply lovely moon tonight and I'm just in the very mood for watching it so please don't mind if this letter is very daft...

Do tell me what it is you want most out there. I want to know. I promise not to get swell-headed or anything like that, but as you see I can't promise not to get sentimental as I've already got it frightfully badly ... There's something I want too - oh! so badly - but it's a secret. I'm afraid it will be the first secret I have ever kept...

Oh, I was forgetting. I'm awfully sorry I gave you such a bad shock by mentioning such a thing as d------y. But what am I to do? I don't want you to get wounded and I DO want you to come home now because February is such a long time away...

Goodnight my dear man in khaki,

Edith

21 DECEMBER 1915, MINING SECTION, BEF

Dear Girl,

What a topping letter that last of yours. No, fortunately I wasn't feeling at all cynical, when I read it, as you feared I might. You must have a curious idea of my character. Cynical! When reading a letter from you! Ye Gods!

... I read under far different, but no less romantic conditions. Thirty-odd feet below the surface of Belgium and somewhat nearer the Huns than the people in the trenches, but the Bosch was many a long mile from my mind at that moment ...

Your parcel had greater adventures than you possibly expected when you despatched it to the unknown ... it was gassed and me with it. Not the really "frightful" kind, but the milder lacrimose shells ... The abominables dropped six in the road in front of me. I was off the mark in fine style, did three hundred yards in record time and got through the worst of it safely ... My incomparable ahem - er - Grecian nose had a colour, which would put to shame the proboscis of the most seasoned of port wine squires ...

Goodbye, Dear Heart, Geoff

1 JANUARY 1916, BEECHCROFT, BIRMINGHAM

Dearest,

... this afternoon I gave myself up to dreams. It's excusable being New Year's Day, isn't it? I sat in a big, big armchair - yes perhaps there would have been room for two - in front of a red, red fire and thought and thought and dreamed and dreamed. Have you ever made fire-pictures? ... They're awfully sweet. I think you figured as the 'mud-plastered scoundrel', as you call yourself ... a mud-plastered scoundrel, with green eyes, Grecian nose and ruby lips.

"Sleep, thou darlingest boy of mine, I will rock thee, my child, And guard thee."

But I forgot it's you who are guarding us, isn't it...

Yours, Edith

3 FEBRUARY 1916, RE, BEF

Edith, Dearest,

My relief on getting your letters is hardly describable. I wanted to burst for joy, to fire my revolver rapidly, to yell in the mines, to go out and slay half a dozen Huns. In fact, I experienced the most perfect joie de vivre imaginable ...

I've made two attempts to write to you from the trenches, whence I have come this very evening, but I was interrupted both times. The first was a wire to go and listen to suspected mining noises, and the second was to tie up a wounded officer ...

I tried to console him by saying he'd be in England in no time but, would you believe it, he didn't want to go back, as it was only his second experience of trenches. Some people don't know when they're on a good thing.

Au rev. darling, Geoff

27 FEBRUARY 1916, BEECHCROFT, BIRMINGHAM

Geoff, dearest

... I'll send you some socks that I've just finished ... In desperation I nearly knitted the toe of one of them in pink wool but fortunately I eventually got some khaki to match the rest. You would have been annoyed to find one foot pink, wouldn't you?

Good bye, my dear one

Edith

3 MARCH 1916, RE, BEF

Dearest Girl,

Leave has started again so I'll be in England at the end of April ... I wonder if we'll see one another this time?

... Nearly all my friends in the Staffords have been killed in the fighting round Ypres a few weeks ago. It's a horribly sad thing how many friendships have been made and broken by this war ...

Well. I'm going to bed. Hope I'll dream of our joint interest in our fathomless chair.

Yrs, Geoff

29 MARCH 1916

Geoff Dearest,

I've got your photo in front of me and I can hardly take my eyes off it even to write to you. I didn't know anything could make anybody so happy ... I've been doing nothing but think and dream dreams about it ever since I got it...

... please don't let us wonder what we shall think of one another when we do meet. That sometimes rather frightens me...

Yrs. Edith

27 APRIL 1916, TRENCHES

Dearest,

Leave postponed about a week. Will probably be in Brum somewhere near May 9th with luck.

The hope I mentioned is now far stronger. But please don't build too many castles in the air. I should hate to disappoint again.

Yrs. Geoff

Geoffrey Boothby was killed the day after he wrote this letter.

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