LOVE AND WAR : Dorothy Kelly : Portobello History Society : 5 May 2010
Letters during the Great War 1914-1918 to Norah Torrance at Mount Lodge, Portobello. Told by her daughter
At the beginning of August 1914 the Torrance family, living at Mount Lodge, Windsor Place, Portobello, were bitterly sad and despondent. Their hearts were broken, for their mother had died quite suddenly of a brain tumour on the 14th July. Willie Torrance had lost his wife of twenty five years. Now, there he was in the height of summer in his big house with its lovely grounds with his daughters, Mona aged twenty four, Norah aged sixteen and Roma just thirteen. He gave his wife a grand funeral, for it was all he could do for her, then whisked his daughters off to Fife for a holiday. In the Forth the ships of the navy stood silhouetted against the blue skies, - the grey bulk of them dominating the seascape. It was a grave and serious time for the whole of Europe. Mona, Norah and Roma watched from the bay window of their Kinghorn hotel. They saw frigates and battleships, manoeuvring in exercises - the Royal Navy was menacing the Kaiser’s Kriegs Flotte from the brink of the North Sea. The Declaration of War came on August 4th 1914. The Germans had marched into Belgium. …the pact was that, should that happen, Britain and France would come to the aid of, in their words, “that plucky little country.”
The Family, with Mona, Norah, Grannie and Roma photographed together for the last time on Willie and Tina Torrance’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in April 1914
By July, Tina was dead, A fortnight later, War was declared.
In 1909 the great Edinburgh Exhibition of 1908 was moved from Saughton Park to Portobello. All its spectacular sights were re-erected at the junction of Edinburgh Road, Seafield Road and King’s Road, on a piece of land backing onto an extension of the promenade . It was a pleasure park and called the Marine Gardens. The trams were speeded up and increased in number, Seafield Road was made wider to accommodate them and the people of Edinburgh came in their droves to enjoy the roller skating rink, the ballroom, the boating lake, the Somali Village, the scenic railway and more attractions than I have time to tell you. It was a huge success. Many Portobello people had season tickets. And then in 1914 the War came. The attractions were closed down and all the big hangar - type buildings were turned into billets for soldiers. Portobello received an influx of army personnel, mostly English regiments of Rifles and Fusiliers. They did their training there.
My grandfather, William Torrance, who had a big house, Mount Lodge, in Portobello, was a generous and sociable man, who took it upon himself to invite convalescent soldiers, whose own homes were far away, to spend time with him and his three daughters in Portobello. They had a huge garden with fields and ponies and big old trees and , in the fashion of the time, a tennis court marked out on the lawn. The house was demolished in the ‘thirties and a small housing estate built in the grounds.
My mother, Norah, the middle daughter, was still at school in 1917. Her mother had died of a brain tumour very suddenly in July 1914 For all three girls, Norah apparently most, this was a desperate tragedy. She had a gift for writing and was good at English and of course French, which at that time was taught at Queen Street (now Mary Erskine School) by Monsieur le Harival.
above : Norah as a schoolgirl at Edinburgh Ladies College in Queen Street Gardens (front row second from left)
below: Norah beside the tennis court on the north side of Mount Lodge. The Coad stone pillars are over the wall.
Norah was writing, from 1915 onwards, to several soldiers, Scottish and English, at the front. They were people she knew from Portobello or visitors who’d been given her father’s hospitality at Mount Lodge. They all looked forward eagerly to her newsy letters. In those days the post went remarkably quickly. One could post a letter in the morning and it would be delivered in the afternoon within Edinburgh and even letters to France went within a day or two.
The Purves family was well known in Portobello. They went to St.James’s Church and were regular church goers , The Torrances knew the Purves family, particularly Poppy Purves, who was a little older than Norah. The Purves’s had a cousin called Tommy who lived up town with his parents in Ann Street. The Edinburgh Purves’s came down to Portobello every Sunday to church, keeping their Portobello connection. I believe this is how Norah and Tommy Purves met. When the War began, Tom Purves joined the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders as a drummer in the band. He was stationed in Richmond and then in Inverness and latterly near Stirling. Norah was still at school during all this. Early in the War Tommy in the band was unlikely to go to the front. At this stage all the boys were desperate to get to where the action was. Later’ when every able man and boy was being drafted there, they discovered for themselves the sheer horror of it all. Tommy’s mother had thought he was safe at home being in the band, little did she know he was nagging his officers for release to the front day after day. Norah and Tom Purves exchanged letters regularly. She was a good letter writer. We don’t have any of her letters to Tommy, but we know from her whole 88 years that she was a prolific and colourful writer all her life. He was her first boy friend - certainly her first correspondent. There are no letters from the front . He could not have been there for long before a “whizz-bang” did for him. Tom Purves was killed on the Somme in April 1917. Here is a selection of his letters.
Letters to Norah Torrance, Mount Lodge, Portobello from Thomas Wightman Purves
Letters read by Ruaridh Cavaye
He never puts a date but these must be from 1915 onwards
Drummer T. Purves
The Band 8th Camerons
My Darling Nora,
Just received your nice letter by this morning’s mail and make all haste to reply to it, as I know you like to hear from me as often as possible, but please don’t be angry if it is rather jumbled, as there is a terrific noise going on just now with bagpipes, dancing etc.
So you liked the little piece of poetry did you, Nora? I do occasionally try my hand at composing, but don’t call me a poet. Your piece, Nora dear, was exceptionally nice and very true. When I read it, I couldn’t help thinking you had spent some time in America, as you have quite acquired the American twang. Glad to see, Nora, you are making such good use of your spare time. Personally I prefer to read books of adventure and excitement. I never could stand Shakespeare, but had to do it at school much to my disgust.
You must have been swotting quite a lot lately to win a scholarship and several other prizes. You have my warmest congratulations and best wishes for the future. Surely this is reward in full for the hard work you have done during the session.
So Jim had been home on leave and the bounder never told me. Won’t I give him a telling off. I do hope he enjoyed himself. I don’t want to say anything against Jim, but I am afraid he leads a rather fast life down in Selkirk with girls etc. Still you can’t blame him, for it diverts his mind from the monotony of his everyday life. If I hadn’t a nice little girl at home, Nora dear, I think I would do the same. I have had rather a lazy day today. Practising in the forenoon and preparing for a route march tomorrow, cleaning my drum etc.
Now, Nora dear, I am afraid this is rather a short letter, but as there is practically no news just now, you will forgive me…won’t you dear?
By the way how is Mona? I hope she has quite recovered from the effects of having her teeth out. Now, please don’t forget to write, as I always enjoy hearing from you.
With fondest Love,
Queens Own Cameron Highlanders
(must be December 1915 for Grandma died just before that.)
My dearest Nora,
I received your very welcome letter this morning after coming in from a fairly long route march and it cheered me up greatly. Forgive me, Nora dear, but I had really begun to think you had forgotten all about me, but glad to find that such is not the case. Of course I know that you must be awfully busy with your lessons and consequently haven’t much time to do correspondence, but still I looked forward to having a little note from you.
I was very sorry to hear of the death of your Grandma, Nora, but God’s ways are not ours and perhaps it was for the best. There will be many sad hearts this Christmas, but we must all be as cheerful as the circumstances permit and hope and pray that the time will soon come when peace shall once more reign in the country.
Now, Nora, for some news. Guess? Well, I am coming home on Friday this week for a day or two, so will try and pay you a visit on Monday, so if convenient you might try and keep that night free. Will you dear?
Now, Nora dear, I must ask you to forgive me for writing such a short letter, but I have a lot to do and I have no idea where to start. I still have about a dozen letters to answer and I also have to prepare for guard tonight, so will close.
With fondest Love
Hoping to see you on Monday 1st.
My dearest Nora,
I received your nice letter the other day for which I thank you very much. Don’t apologise, Nora dear, for not writing before, I knew that something important kept you so busy, so is it all right now? But you have no idea how eagerly I look for your letters. You certainly must be awfully put about with Mona’s misfortune and your lessons at school and I hope you will be as successful this term as you were at the last.
Your father seems to like entertaining soldiers, Nora, for, if I remember rightly, you told me about some who had been at Mount Lodge before I was home on leave. I hope to have the pleasure of hearing the new assistant minister the next time I am home and the pleasure of your company to church, Nora, on that occasion.
Poor Corrie Brown seems to have had a bad time and you say he deserves to enjoy himself and if everyone was like you, Nora, I am sure he would thoroughly appreciate his furlough at home. A draft of 150 men left here to be transferred to the Black Watch who leave for Mesopotamia on Monday. As that is an extremely warm part of the globe,, they were all issued with sun helmets and light suits (khaki). We will probably get the job to play them to the station, for although they are now “Royal Highlanders” we can’t forget they were once Camerons.
Nothing extraordinary ever happens in this dismal place, always the same stale routine – Route Marches, Church Parades and Practice. Quite a number of our fellows are back from France, who went out quite recently. They all advise me to stay in the Band, but several times I have put in an application to get out, as I wanted, to the front, but they have always refused. Don’t tell anyone in our family this, Nora, as it would upset Mother, if she knew. Wouldn’t it be rotten if the war finished and you had to admit you had never seen active service.
Now, Nora dearest,I must close hoping you will excuse the scrawl and the shortness of this letter.
With Fondest Love and Kisses,
P.S. Kindest regards to all.
No 15901 the Band
8th Battalion Cameron Highlanders
My darling Nora,
I really don’t know what you will think of me for not writing before, but as I have no plausible excuse to offer, I must ask your forgiveness.
I am afraid we didn’t have very long together when I was home, but nevertheless I enjoyed myself immensely on Sunday evening. I liked the other fellows very much and it reflects a credit on you for keeping such excellent company. By the way, Nora, who was the nice young lady present on that occasion? I was introduced to her, but I really forget her name. She seemed to be very quiet and reserved,…like yourself…what, what?’’
So you have decided to cast aside “flapperdom” and to take a serious aspect of life, have you dear? Well it’s a big step to take, Nora, but I have no doubt you will realise it only too soon, but never get downhearted, there is a good time coming as you say. Now please accept a compliment. You look absolutely charming with your hair up. Please reprimand me if I am getting too familiar.
However, dear, I haven’t quite given up hope of going to France, as I heard it rumoured that Lloyd George issued an order that all fit drummers were to be sent to France (loud applause!)
So dear, do not mention to Poppy that I was volunteering to go away, as she would be sure to tell Mother and that wouldn’t do. Mother, you know, is under the delusion that I will never go, so I think it is best to leave her in ignorance of the fact. Just now at any rate, as her health and system is so far run down.
By the way, Nora dear, (I hope you won’t be angry) I do love you. Something has come to me since last we met, I don’t think I could walk out with another girl.
Now dearest, I dare not trust myself to say more at present, but will live in constant thoughts of you until I receive my answer.
Please dear, do not disappoint me.
With Warmest and Fondest Love to your own dear self I remain,
Ever your admirer,
Thomas Purves was killed in action on the 23rd April 1917
Harold Smith came from Hull, where he worked in the bank. He wanted to be in the Bankers battalion and joined the Fusiliers in 1916. He was sent to the Marine Gardens to do his training. Before long he met Norah Torrance. All the boys from the Marine Gardens were meeting nice Portobello girls. Here he is in all the freshness of his nineteen years.
Letters from Harold Smith of 65 Alexandra Road Hull to Norah Torrance, Mount Lodge, Portobello
1917 : Missing in action in October that year.
Letters read by Daniel George
Marine Gardens Portobello
31st May 1917
My Dear Little Pal.
I got your note this morning and am fearfully sorry you can’t manage tonight. However, as I said, I am at your disposal, so shall we say tomorrow (Thursday) at 6pm. At the lane gate. We can decide then what to do with ourselves.
As for Saturday, I am afraid it will be Brigade Day, though we don’t know officially yet. It would be just our luck.
Have been trench digging all day and after cleaning up am going out for a quiet game of billiards. Bet I shan’t be able to play respectably – thinking with a nasty pain of what might have been.
I am thinking quite a lot of things about Marjorie.
But there is a fellow waiting for me, so I must ring off here.
Love and-er-other nice things –
11th June 1917
My own dear little – er – what you said,
With reference to the arrangement made at our interview yesterday, I have to inform you…..no, that isn’t right – it’s a throwback to the dear dead days and doesn’t agree with my opening. What I mean to say is, that there is a route march on the programme for tomorrow afternoon’s performance, which will probably be lengthy and throw us late. Wherefore I think ‘twould be wise should we alter our appointment to 7pm au lieu de 6.30. by the way, I find the others had fixed tomorrow at the same time and are making the same adjustments.
Hoping this will not inconvenience you my love,
I am yours as closely as possible,
National Provincial Bank of England Ltd.
Hull 28th June 1917
My Dear Norah,
This leave of mine came off and here I am, working quite hard, for a change. Anyhow, I haven’t forgotten quite all I knew about banking, I find, though it seems strange to be at it again. The office is like a harem now – there are about ten “temporary lady clerks”, it makes poor me feel horribly shy. One in the Portobello pictures is better than ten in the office any old time!
Can you find time to write to me a wee note to cheer my weary way? My house address is 65 Alexandra Road, Hull. You can tell me all about the nice new boys this week.
Expect to be back in Edinburgh on Sunday night, so please don’t book up all week.
Miserable till I hear from you, I am,
Wednesday 5th July 1917
‘Tis with much regret that I inform you that I am again disappointed. Tomorrow is Brigade Day, so of course I can’t arrive as arranged. Still it does leave Saturday free – please note! Can you spare me Friday evening? Usual time and place. Please let me know, will you? By the way, we seem to have rather more correspondence than conversation lately.
I do hope you had a good time this evening – the sort you wanted, whatever that may have been (you will notice that I make no unkind presumptions this time). Had a rotten time myself – played billiards very badly.
So, till Friday, goodbye!
Love and sundry specimens of its natural expression,
65 Alexandra Road Hull
5th August 1917
My dear Norah,
I was pleased to learn from your letter of Wednesday that you are having a good time and that you are cheering up. But Ossian in the old Erse sounds a wee bit advanced. I have never tackled it. But then, I am afraid, I haven’t quite got the literary temperament I once imagined I had.
You will see from the above that I also am in the thick of a little holiday. Arrived here about 5am today and am due back in barracks by 8.30 next Friday morning. I don’t think I shall find much time for reading while I am here. My brother has just got his commission RUR and leaves on the thirteenth, so I am fortunate in getting my leave just now.
Sammy and all our crowd are also among the 80 men of D Coy now on final leave. When we return we are safe in Edinburgh for at least a week – on a bombing course. – but after that anything may happen. Are you likely to be home again within that time? I hope so. You might let me know will you?
Please excuse my hurried scrawl, I have more things to do and people to see than can possibly be squeezed into six days. Just at present the brother aforementioned strongly desires me to go out with him – and it must be.
So for the present – Vale!
Love etc from
11th August 1917
My Dear Norah,
Thanks for yours of Tuesday, which reached me at home yesterday. From the tone of your letter I should judge that you had quite a good tie and that you are nearly as delighted as myself to be back. However, that’s as maybe. I’ve had quite a decent week myself – all the usual home attractions, zepps included.
You don’t make it clear how long this second expedition is to last, but you are bound to do pretty well in the circs.
I shall be hanging around the end of the lane somewhere about 7pm on Tuesday next and hope you can manage to be there. I am making the arrangement myself on the strength of what you say, and to save further “beastly waste of paper and ink”
Sunday 1st September 1917
My dear Norah,
We have now left that base I told you so vaguely of and have definitely become members of a battalion – the 26th RF, the original Bankers. Rather strange that I should get here after all to the crowd I originally tried to join; the battalion whose remnants we loved so much in Edinburgh. However, we are lucky; they are a splendid lot of fellows to get on with. Some of the draft were not so fortunate – Vivian Lang with others was sent off to another battalion, the first, I believe. Sammy’s physical failings have at last to some extent been recognised and he has had to leave us temporarily at any rate to take a police job. I don’t quite know where he is, but I expect he is all right. White is still with us, sitting beside me. I fancy that he is also writing to sweet Scotland.
We have not yet had any letters sent on from the base; I am hoping to have one from you when they do come. I am writing now to give you my definite address, which is
2290 Pte H. S
D Coy, 1st Platoon
26 Bu R F
Up here we are not far from the line and I am getting used to the thunder of guns. We shall be right in the line soon, but we don’t know just when.
And how are things up there now? They tell me the 31st R. F. is no longer so, but that they now bear simply a “107 ” That will not be at all nice, and if it is so, I am glad we came out as Fusiliers.
Sunday afternoon, and no plans for the day’s amusement! Oh to be back in Porto would be good. We haven’t really had time to get fed up properly yet, but I can see the difference between the two kinds of soldiering.
Am hoping to have that photo soon, something to look at, think about, even kiss for lack of your dear self.
His Last Letter
Somewhere in France
Saturday 30th September 1917
My Dearest Girlie,
Thanks ever so much for your letter of Sunday which arrived yesterday. This is absolutely the first free moment I’ve had to commence a reply. How long I shall have now is doubtful. I’m awfully glad the photos pleased you. The Battalion has just come back after a few days in action and it hasn’t come back as it went up, by a long way.. ..To bivouac in a field of mud is a joy I would fain be denied. I had many long miserable months at home before that bank released me. Now I’ve already got what is the general view out here, that to be back would be a great joy Oh horrida bella!
Here we are grouped well behind the line carrying on something like home training. Still it’s better than being in the line. I don’t suppose we should be in those pictures you have seen, those on show now would not be sufficiently up to date. You may see us later.
Lord how your letter set me thinking – sometimes in contrasts. Mist on the grass – dew on the flowers in the gardens where we have had so many ripping times. It sounds fine – against which on the ground here dew or something rather more so! Soaked through the bivouac so thick I would almost back a French dew against a Scotch mist.
We had a singsong last night round a huge camp fire. Memories again! I can never join in “The Long Long Trail” without thinking of many things and the cheery long-suffering Roma generally comes into it.
All that was yesterday. It is now Sunday morning. I have just come of Church Parade and have at last a little time to call my own. And that little is yours. I am writing in brilliant sunshine, the country around looks lovely – but the War is very present. The only town I can see is a ruin, the guns rumble on though more distantly than before, aeroplanes pass constantly overhead and so on and on. And that’s quite enough guff for a good Sunday morning.
Thanks for sending these photos to my Mother. I am hoping to have one of yourself quite soon.
I shall try to write again quite soon and I know you will. This last week I have had practically no opportunity, we are kept at it pretty well.
Nothing more came from the front. Then in January 1917 a letter arrived at Mount Lodge.
Dear Miss Torrance,
You will be surprised at receiving a letter from me. Perhaps you didn’t know that Harold had a sister. I’ve felt for a long time that I should like to write to you, that perhaps Harold himself would be pleased for me to do so. I think I feel just a little bit nearer to him when I write. Of course we don’t know whether you two were just friends or whether you were perhaps more than friends. Harold just said, “Norah Torrance is the best friend I have made out there.” and that is all we know, but we are all grateful to you for making time pass so much more pleasantly for him. I am afraid we have none of us very much hope left. You see--he was so thoughtful that, if he had been unable to write himself, he would never have rested until he had found someone else to write. Besides, I think Father has corresponded with almost everyone who would be likely to know anything. We should have been sure to receive news had there been any news to get. Still, above common sense, a tiny ray of hope pushes itself sometimes and wouldn’t it be glorious if he did come back after all.
I don’t suppose you ever get as far as Hull, but if you do, I shall be very pleased indeed to see you and make your acquaintance.
Yours very sincerely,
Many years later in the 1930’s Norah and Bertie, my parents, were holidaying without their children, I think in Scarborough, so they drove to 11 Ash Grove, Hull. There was no one at home, so Norah pushed a wee note through the letter box.
A few weeks later this letter arrived at 45 Wakefield Avenue, Edinburgh 7
Dear Mrs Cavaye,
I was certainly very surprised, but also very pleased to hear from you. I still have your photograph treasured along with Harold’s last letters. The time you mention on the moors at Scarborough was the last time I saw him. Harold and Edward came back from the moors and stayed the night, then I said Goodbye to them in the morning -not dreaming that it would be the last time. Father wrote to officers and other people who were in the same battalion. No one seemed to know anything. It had evidently been a terrible time and the loss cruelly heavy. It seems such a long time ago now doesn’t it? I am so glad you still have such sweet memories of Harold - he was worth it bless him. Thank you so much for your letter.
Harold Smith’s parents on the Yorkshire coast after the War.
Norah Torrance at Mount Lodge with an unidentified soldier, possibly Mossie Duncan
Eric Clark was a Portobello boy. He wasn’t really part of Norah’s circle of friends, but his brother, Jim Clark was a friend of hers. She never wrote to Jim. He was probably someone else’s boyfriend. Eric was awarded a medal and that is why Norah wrote to congratulate him.
Letter read by Roger Kelly
One letter from Eric Clark
“The Same ‘ole”
Just received your letter and thanks very much for same. I also wish to thank you for your congratulations.
I do not know if it was for any great deed that I was awarded the Military Cross; but I consider it a stroke of luck.
It so happened that my Company Commander had been knocked out early in our last advance and I was obliged to carry on with it and we succeeded in taking our objective and kept off two attacks and I found at the end of the day’s work that all other officers in my company were casualties.
Yes, the winter is drawing on us and we out here are by no means anxious for its coming; but we have the consolation that Fritz also has to contend with it.
I am looking forward to my leave and I hope to get it soon and will then pay you a visit. Do you know that leave has been extended from 10 to 14 days?
So you have seen my brother. I doubt very much if I would recognise him as it is more than three years since I last saw him.
With very best regards to all at Mount Lodge.
Ever Yours sincerely,
Maurice (Mossie) Duncan was a Portobello boy who joined a Scottish cavalry regiment and became an officer. He got engaged to Norah early in 1918, then spent several months in the trenches. It seems obvious to us that, when he came home on leave that summer, he was not the same idealistic boy he had been before he went away. All the Torrance girls thought he lacked a sense of humour. In the spring of 1918 Mona had got married to Charlie Gerrard and both Norah and Roma were bridesmaids. Later Norah decided to break off the engagement to Mossie and, in the characteristically dramatic way of those days, gave Mossie back his ring.
above: Mossie Duncan (left) at his sister’s wedding in 1917 below: Charlie Gerrard and Mona Torrance’s wedding in spring 1918
Letters read by Charles Cavaye
Girl of my Dreams,
Well Kiddie I managed to get back here again alright and I found everything ready for me. The trap was at the station and Dennis was waiting me. I felt rather tired after my strenuous week and so, after satisfying my hunger, I went to bed. When I woke up this morning I felt very discontented. It is hard luck just getting home for a few days when one wants to stay for good. But I suppose I am very lucky in one sense and should really not grumble.
You know, Kiddie, you can’t realise how glad I was to see you. I meant to say a lot, but I simply couldn’t. but you know, Dearest, how it feels when you want to say lots of things and you can’t.
Please don’t think I was cold and unresponsive. It would grieve me to think you thought that. But I was just overcome with joy at seeing you after all these terrible and weary months.
I think you were looking awfully well and just the same Dear Wee Girl as before. You would probably think me a bit queer. I know my people did, but I am afraid I have not quite got over the shocked terrible times of the past five months.
Well Kiddie, remember me to all.
Hoping to see you soon.
I am so glad to get our letter, it has relieved me quite a lot. I know now everything is alright. You have explained yourself very well. I understand all now.
Kiddie, as far as I am concerned the matter is finished with. Don’t let us talk of it again, Norah dear. In cases like that, it’s what you think best. “Do unto others as you would like others to do unto you” If you do this, everything will go swimmingly with us.
Darling, you don’t know how much I care for you. You will some time I hope.. I sent you rather a peculiar letter yesterday. I hope you read it as I meant you to read it. That is, it will help us to understand each other a little better.
Darling it is no good telling me that you were to blame. You were partly, but not wholly responsible.
Mossie did well after the War and eventually married someone else. He became a marketing man in Naples for an Italian firm.
In the mid-thirties one morning, when Mother was in her working clothes, not, like nowadays a shirt and a pair of trousers, but an old faded sleeveless summer frock, bare legs and arms with her slave bangle, messy hair and no make-up, Mossie glided up Wakefield Avenue in his expensive Alpha Romeo coupe and stopped outside number 45 to the delight of us scruffy kids. Mother stayed unruffled, despite her untidy appearance, they had a nice chat reminiscing, then he came back out and drove away almost to cheers from the gang of dirty kids. They knew the make of the car, I did not!
JULIEN DE WILDEMAN
Julien de Wildeman was a Belgian soldier who found himself in Edinburgh City Hospital in the middle of the Great War. The City Hospital is now turned into flats and built round as Greenbank Village. My grandfather, William Torrance, who had a big house, Mount Lodge, in Portobello, was a generous and sociable man, who took it upon himself to invite convalescent soldiers, whose own homes were far away, to spend time with him and his three daughters in Portobello. The middle daughter, my mother Norah, had a gift for writing and was good at English and of course French, which at that time was taught at Queen Street (now Mary Erskine School) by Monsieur le Harival. She even composed English poems out of some of Victor Hugo’s well-known verses, to be published in the school magazine. When Julien left to go back to the Belgian Front, she offered to write to him in French. She was already writing, from 1915 onwards, to several other soldiers, Scottish and English, at the front. They all looked forward eagerly to her newsy letters. In those days the post went remarkably fast in this country. One could post a letter in the morning and it would be delivered in the afternoon within Edinburgh and even letters to France went within a day or two.
Over the years Julien wrote some forty letters from the Belgian Front. They seemed to do four to six days in the trenches, then four or so days behind the trenches for a bit of rest, then four days in reserve ready for an emergency, then back into the trenches again. The whole experience was hellish beyond belief and casualties were in huge numbers. Dreadful wounds were nothing like as competently seen to as they would be now. Ambulances and dedicated nurses dashed everywhere, but of the wounded many succumbed to death. Julien seems to have been something to do with telegraph and wireless. He was a “Cycliste” and appears to have spent some time away from the hurly burly enclosed in a little wooden shed sending and receiving messages. This kept him for a time out of the front line, but he found it very boring. All Norah’s correspondents couldn’t get into the trenches quickly enough to satisfy their lust for glory, but once they experienced it they kept quiet about the worst of the horrors. .
Leave was obligatory every three months. Julien came to Scotland for his leaves, for most of Belgium including Ghent was under German occupation. He once went with the Torrance family on holiday to Lauder.
He had two brothers who were also at the front, one younger and one older. They were called Joseph and Albert. He was intensely patriotic, as were most of his contemporaries and also a Royalist. His enthusiasms are quite uplifting in our current blasé republican times. When Norah got engaged to Mossy Duncan in spring 1918, Julien was knocked down to the depths. He must secretly have fantasised about bringing Norah home as his bride. She told him she had to write secretly to him during that time. On learning that, he selflessly told her they would not write any more, for fear of upsetting her fiancé. After only a few months Norah broke off that engagement, pleading she was too young. The correspondence with Julien started again in late1918, but it was never quite as emotionally charged as before. The Belgian victory celebrations are vividly described, and Julien continued to write into the 1920s. He was in the army occupying the Rhineland. After the War, he probably went back to his job in the Bank. When Norah married Bertie Cavaye, my father, in 1923 he sent her a beautifully shaped pale green glass vase, which is still in the family. Norah kept his and the other soldiers’ letters always.
Julien de Wildeman
Letters read by Alexandre Ronce de Craene
Dimanche le8 /4 /17 (Jour de Paques)
Chere Amie Norah’
En premiere lieu, je vous souhaite et a toute votre famille un joyeux Paques.
C’est avec le plus grand plaisir que je viens de recevoir votre si charmante et gentille lettre dattee du 2 avril, jour de mon depart.
Oui, chere petite ami, je ne le cache pas, j’etais bien triste quand je partais et maintenant je me sens tout a fait console en recevant votre belle petite lettre. Enfin je crois que j’ai trouve une petite amie avec laquelle je vais correspondre afin d’oublier tout ce qu’on a passe et d’avoir pendant les heures de repos un peu de distraction. Vous ne savez pas vous imaginer le plaisir cela fait surtout quand on est aux tranchees en recevant quelques mots qui encourage le pauvre petit soldat. Pour le moment je me trouve dans mon abri dans les dunes. Presque tous les deux jours je suis de garde la nuit aux cotes. Je suis tres heureux de vous faire sourire que votre lettre francaise est parfaite et je dis franchement je dois faire tout mon possible pour faire mieux. Je serai tres content de recevoir de temps en temps vos bonnes nouvelles car tous les jours je pense a vous qui m’a rendu si heureux. Le temps est tres mauvais maintenant et il ne fait que pleuvoir.
J’ose esperer que j’aurai le bonheur de vous revoir. Maintenant, chere petite amie, Norah, je dois vous quitter et j’espere que ces quelques mots vous parviendront en tres bonne sante.
J’envoie tous mes meilleurs compliments a votre pere, vos soeurs et a toute la famille.
Un petit ami qui pense souvent a vous,
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Sunday April 8th Easter Day
A Happy Easter to you and the whole family. I just received your letter of the 2nd April, the day I left. Yes, my dear little friend, I won’t try to hide it, I was very sad when i was leaving, but now I feel quite comforted by receiving your lovely little letter. I fact I believe I have found a little friend with whom I am going to correspond, so I can forget everything that is going on around me and be able to enjoy a bit of distraction during my hours of relaxation. You cannot imagine the pleasure one gets, especially when one is in the trenches as a poor soldier, just getting a few words of encouragement. For the moment I am in the shelter of the dunes. I am on guard every other night along the coastline. I am glad I made you laugh by saying your French was perfect. I shall have to do all I can to make it better. I shall be delighted to get your news from time to time, for I think of you every day. You have made me so happy.
Dimanche le 13 mai ‘17
Chere petite Amie Norah,
Voila que j’arrive justement au cantonnement et m’on appelle et crie Julien, Julien, il y a deux lettres pour vous, en effet je reconnais tout de suite l’ecriture de ma petite amie de l’Ecosse et de Mary. Sans perdre un seul moment et avant de manger je lis votre charmante lettre qui m’a fait tres heureux Etant fatigue du travail de cette nuit en lisant cette gentille lettre je me crois deja repose.. Oui, je suis retourne au front depuis quelques jours. Je fais 4 ou 6 jours de tranchees, 4 jours repos et 4 jours de reserve et ainsi de suite, mais pendant les jours de reposm ou de reserve on va au tranchees le jour ou la nuit pour travailler. C’est avec le plus grand plaisir que je vous laisse savoir que j’ai deja l’occasion de voir mon frere joseph, il est cantonne a 5 minutes de mon cantonnement et des que j’ai un peu de temps je vais lui dire bonjour. Il est tres protant et en bonne sante et quand j’ai parle de vous il s’est tres bien rappele miss norah et aussi en lui montrant votre jolie photo que je conserve comme un tres bon souvenir. Je lui remettrai demain vos amities et je suis sur qu’il sera tres content. Vous me demandez si je pense de retourner cette ete en Ecosse. Eh bien je ne demande pas mieux de retourner pour revoir tous mes amis et surtout ma petite amie Norah, mais malheureusement on ne sait rien dire sur jour d’avance, car un accident est si vite arrive, mais j’ai toujours bon espoir et peutetre et je l’espere j’aurai encore le bonheur de traverser la mer du Nord pour revoir tous ceux qui me sont si chers..
Je pars demain la nuit aux tranchees pour 4 ou 6 jours et j’espere bien que tout passera le mieux possible. Ci-inclus je vous envoie un petit photo et vous verrez comment je suis deja brule du soleil. Il fait pour le moment terriblement chaud on dirait que nous sommes en pleine ete.
Beacoup de compliments a Mr votre pere vos soeurs et toute votre chere famille.
Maintenant, chere amie Norah, je vais vous quitter avec l’’espoir de recevoir vos bonnes nouvelles.
Sortant des tranchees
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Sunday 13th May
Here I am arrived at the billet and someone shouts at me, “Julien, Julien there are two letters for you!” I recognised my little friend’s writing immediately. Without wasting a single minute and even before eating I read your delightful letter which made me very happy. Being worn out with a night’s work, just reading that lovely letter I felt rested. Yes, I have returned to the front for several days. I do 4 or 6 days in the trenches, then 4 days rest and 4 days as reserve and so on. You ask if i am thinking of returning this summer to Scotland. Well, there’s nothing I would like better than to see all my friends especially my little friend, Norah. Unfortunately you can’t say beforehand, for an accident easily happens, but i hope I have the good luck to cross the North Sea once again. I leave tomorrow night for the trenches for 4 to 6 days and I certainly hope everything goes as well as it can. Inside this letter is a little photo and you will see how I am already sunburnt. At the moment it is terribly hot. Many compliments to your Father, to your sisters and all your dear family. I am looking forward to some news from you when I come back out of the trenches. Goodbye, Julien
Samedi le 2 juin 1917
Bien Chere Amie
Combien je dois vous paraitre negligent de vous laisser aussi longtemps sans mes nouvelles. Mais il faut bien vite me pardonner, comme vous savez quand je suis aux tranchees il m’est pour ainsi dire impossible de vous ecrire et pendant les heures de repos au cantonnement on a toujours quelque chose a faire. C’est avec un vif plaisir que j’ai recu votre charmante lettre qui contient toujours des paroles encourageantes et pleine de mots de reconfort.
Je suis revenu cette nuit des tranchees et tout est assez bien passe ! Journellement de deux cotes il y a des bombardements et la nuit on n’entend que la mitrailleuse qui ne fait qu’a semer partout la mort, enfin c’est bien la guerre. Cette nuit on marchait tres joyeux vers notre lieu de repos, lorsque tout a coup le trompette et le clairon se faisait entendre « Garde a vous » c’est le cri d’alarme pour les gaz asphyxiants Une attaque c’etait declanchee et partout on ne voyait que le feu des canons, des explosions, le fusil parlait aussi mais le gueule du canon etait le maitre
Quelques heures plus tard tout etait de nouveau calme. Les oiseaux xe levaient an l’air en chantant, le soleil se montrait plus beau que jamais. Enfin tout faisait prevoir une belle et chaude journee.
Et pendant tout ce temps les autos de la Croix Rouge se sauvaient en coonne transportant leurs chers petits vers les hopiteaux pour recevoir les soins necessaires. Oui, on avait fait la guerre et demain on lira dans les journeaux « Calme sur tout le front Belge » Ainsi, tous les jours beaucoup de braves donnent leur vie pour defendre la grande cause.
O pardon, bien chere amie je bavarde de trop et peutetre je vous ferai gros coeur, mais j’espere que non, n’est ce pas ?
Merci beaucoup pour la feuille de trefles qui me donnerait bonne chance et que je vais porter toujours sur moi en souvenir de ma petite amie, Norah.
Donc, vous etiez toute seule a la maison et alors vous pensz a moi, c’est tres gentil. Eh bien, je nelecache pas, il n’y a pas un jour ou moi aussi je pense a vous et bien des moments je crois d’etre chez vous, mais malheureusement ce n’est qu’un reve et peutetre j’aurai le bonheur de de vous revoir bientot.
Alors on pourra parler et causer de nouveau et gouter l’air pur de la belle mer.
Oui, ma chere petite Norah, j’adore votre beau pays et surtout parmi votre charmante et gentille personne.
J’espere que ma lettre vous trouvera plus gaie et content que jamais et toujours en parfaite sante.
Mesmeilleurs compliments a Mr votre pere, Mlles vos soeurs et Mesdames vos tantes..
En attendant de recevoir toujours vos cheres nouvelles.
Je me nomme
Votre tout devoue
Mon frere Albert se porte aussi toujours bien et est pour le moment dans les tranchees.
Quant a mon frere joseph il part ce soir aux tranchees et apres il va pour quelques jours en repos pour aller reprendre un autre secteur.
Donc, de nouveau on sera separe pour longtemps.
Soyez heureuse et contente ma chere petite amie Norah et
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Saturday 2nd June 1917
I came back last night from the trenches and everything had gone quite well. We are getting bombarded from all sides and at night you can only hear gunfire spreading death and murder everywhere. We are at War, after all! Last night we were marching along happily to our rest place, when we heard a signal by trumpet and bugle, “On your Guard!” It was the alarm for asphyxiating gas. An attack had been launched and there was nothing but canon fire and explosions. There was rifle fire too but the canon roared the loudest. Some hours later all was quiet again. Birds flew up in the air singing and the sun shone more beautifully than ever. It was all set for a beautiful hot day. The Red Cross ambulances drove off in a long line carrying their precious burdens to hospitals where they can receive the necessary care. We have fought a war but tomorrow you will read in the papers, “All Quiet on the Belgian Front.” Thank you very much for the file of four-leafed clovers that you gave me for good luck. I carry them with me always as a reminder of my dear little friend Norah. I adore your beautiful country and above all being close to your lovable and charming self.
Jeudi le 15 aout 1917
Chere Amie Norah,
En premier lieu, je tiens a remercier de la facon de bienvaillance dont j’ai ete l’objet pendant mom dernir sejou a Edimbourg. Veuillez remercier Monsieur votre pere pour sa bonte et tout ce qu’il a fait pour moi, Cr le jour que j’ai le bonheur de vous voir a Lauder est pour moi un des plus beaux de ma vie. Aussi, je n’oubliera jamais cette belle journee et je dis franchement quand le train quitait la gare j’avais les yeux mouilles et le coeur gros.’
J’ai passe deux jours a Londres mais comme mon conge etait fini je ne pouvais pas sortir et je devais rester dans une annexe du Bureau Militaire, le meme comme un prisonnier. Que voulez- vous, on est soldat et on doit respecter les regles. Militaires. Jusqu’ici je ne sais pas encore si je serai dirige au front ou sur mon depot. Aussi vite que je saurai cela je vous ecrirai quelques mots. Vous comprenez bien que maintenant pour moi c’est une grande difference et je suis bien triste mais je me dis a moi-meme, ‘Allo Cheer up ! Espere bien que ce passera bien vite. Et retrouverai de nouveau la bonne humeur que j’ai toujours jusqu’ici
J’ai ecrit mon adresse sur l’enveloppe parce qu’on doit indiquer sur la lettre le nom et l’unite dont on fait parler.. Aussi longtemps que vous n’avez pas recu l’adresse exacte il ne faut pas m’ecrire..
Veuillez remettre a Monsieur votre pere mes meilleurs remerciments a. C’est vrai, l’heure est grave mais le jour ne tardera pas a venir que chantera partout la grande victoire. Alors lejour glorieux arrivera que tous ceux qui attendent deja longtemps apres leurs chers petits pourront embrasser les absentsinsi qu’a mesdemoiselles vos soeurs et Mesdames vos tantes.
Maintenant chere petite amie je dois finir et a bientot de vos bonnes nouvelles
Votre petit ami
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Thursday 16th August 1917
I have to thank you for the wonderful welcome you gave me during my last stay in Edinburgh. Kindly thank your Father for everything he did for me. The day I had the joy of seeing you at Lauder was one of the best days of my life.
Ma Bien Chere Amie Norah
Merci beaucoup pour votre tres gentille lettre et je constate avec grand plaisir que souvent vous pensez a moi. C’est tres bien pour votre part je sais que j’ai trouve en votre personne une vraie et charmante amie qui me rend heureux adoucit ma vie et me console dans ces heures terribles qu’on passe maintenant. Mais est-ce-que nous sommes pas tous freres et soeurs de cette grande famille qui combat coude a coude pour defendre une si grand cause. Alors le jour glorieux arrivera que tous ceux, qui attendent deja longtemps apres leurs chers petits, pourront embraasser les absents. Beaucoup entre eux trouveront la maison seule, une mere ou un pere, alors ceux qui ne verront plus rien, leurs parents qui n’auront pas eu la force de parler de lourd fardeau, l’attente desesperee de leurs enfants. Alors les parents qui vont attendre vraiment et pour toujours cause qui ont donne si bravement leur sang, leur jeunesse et l’avenir pour la grande patrie. Oui bien les yeux de meres voile de larmes sont tournes vers la frontieres attendent courageusement leur retour. Oh voila, je pense que je vais trop loin, car je sais si je continuerai vous aussi serez triste. Je sais que vous etes parmi ces jeunes et braves filles qui comprennent le sort qui nous attend. Maintenant, il ne faut pas croire que je suis triste, non, . chere petite amie, au contraire, je suis toujours votre bon joyeux soldat mais je pense de temps en temps au sort qui nous attend. Est-ce-pas vrai, n’est ce pas ? c’est bien ainsi ?
J’apprends par les journaux les grands evenements graves qui se deroulent justement en Russie. Peut etre vous pensez que cette question grave donne une impression malheureuse au soldat Belge. Non, pas du tout, il lit le journal avec la plus grande indifference sachant qu’il se bat pour le droit et la justice ayant le confiance absolue dans la fin victorieuse. Passons a autre chose, je me tiens toujours au depot, vous comprenez bien que je ne peux pas rester ici tres longtemps. Depuis je suis arrive ici il y a eu deja deux departs, donc vous voyez bien, que je n’ai pas a me plaindre. Toute fois il peut que je reste ici encore un mois, disons qui vivra verra.
Je n’ai pas encore trouve un garcon pour correspondre avec votre amie, comme je vous ai dit je dois etre sur qu’il est bon et correct. Je crois pour aujourd’hui je dois finir et de tout coeur j’espere que vous etes en bonne sante et surtot soyez gaie et heureuse. Veuillez bien remettre a toute votre chere famille mes plus sinceres salutations.
Recevez ma chere petite amie, Norah un cordial bonjour de votre ami devoue
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Thursday 13th September 1917
I learn from the paper of the great events happening in Russia. Possibly you think that this serious question will make a bad impression on the Belgian army. Not at all. We read the papers with indifference. We are fighting for the right and for justice and we have absolute confidence in the victorious end to it all.
Jeudi le 24 octobre 1917
Chere Amie Norah,
Toujours tres heureux de recevoir vos cheres nouvelles. Quant a la lettre de votre amie, Elsie, je fera tout mon possible pour la faire parvenir a bonne destination et j’espere bien de recevoir une reposnse que je vous transmettrai des reception.
Maintenant, chere petite amie, je suis tres content de vous faire savoir que je me trouve toujours en bonne sante malgre toutes les souffrances que j’ai du subir pendant ces derniers jours. Vraiment on a remporte une belle victoire, mais malheureusement beaucoup de nos soldats ont paye de leur sang cette noble victoire. Pour mon Battalion on compte 135 manquant parmi plusieurs officiers. C’est a nous autres, les carbinieres, les cyclistes que les habitants delivres ont manifestes leurs premiers joies de delivrance, puisque partout on est rentre les premiers.
I don’t know if I can come next time to portobello because when I was come from the line i was at 70 miles from Ghent. Est-ce-que j’aurai le bonheur de revoir ma chere Maman sans feu, esperons-le!
Peutetre plus tard on aura l’occasion de se revoir en Ecosse et voyez soyez sans crainte je raconterai tout a ma Maman avec tout que vous avez fait pour moi pendant mes conges.
Je vous quitte en vous prier de bien vouloir remettre mes meilleurs compliments a toute votre honorable famille.
Recevez ma chere petite Norah un gros baiser de votre devoue
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Wednesday 24th October 1917
My dear little friend I am happy to let you know that I am still in one piece in spite of the terrible hardships I have suffered these last few days. Many of our soldiers paid with their blood for this noble victory. In my Battalion 135 missing including many officers. It is to the rest of us , the foot soldiers and the cyclists, that the liberated inhabitants have shown their joy and gratitude, for we were the ones to come back first. We are only 70 miles from Ghent. Do you think I am going to be able to see my dear Mother again without going through the War Zone? I shall tell my Mother about everything you have done for me during my leaves.------ I wish our brave soldiers may return as soon as possible, that our national flag will fly over our magnificent Belfry when the King re-enters Brussels with his little army. Then the Jocks with their bagpipes will march into Edinburgh to the sound of their National Anthem. Only then will the happiest day arrive for all of us.
Le 23 novembre 1918
Chere petite amie Norah,
Il y a huit jours que je suis arrive a gant. J’ai retrouve ma chere Maman a tres bonne sante. Vous comprenez, la joie d’une mere au retour de son fils depuis une separation de 4 et demi ans.
Lememejour que je suis arrive, il y avait justement l’enterrement de mon oncle qui etait mon parrain., donc, j’avais juste le temps pour assister au service funebre.
De Gant, je suis parti sur Alost, Bruxelles, Louvain et Aerschot ou je suis arrive aujourd’hui. Il m’est impossible pour vous decrire notre rentree triomphale a Bruxelles. Il n’y avait pas moyen de faire une passage dans la foule, on etait couvert de fleurs, de drapeau etc. Enfin, la joie du peuple Belge est indescriptible. Aussi, j’ai vu beaucoup de prisonniers Britanniques qui profitent largement et ont leur part dans la gloire. Et ce n’est que juste.. car je pretends que ces malheureux ont peutetre pleus souffert que nous autres.
Aujourd’hui je suis arrive a Auschot, petit village Martyre qui a ete incendie pille et massacre au debut de la guerre.
J’espere bien d’avoir un conge dans 2 ou3 semaines pour passer a la maison.
Je pense aller d’ici a Liege pour continuer notre marche victorieuse vers les bords du Rhin. Mes freres se portent aussi tres bien.
Je vous prie de bien vouloir remettre mes plus sinceres salutations a toute votre chere famille. Maintenant, chere petite amie norah, je me vois oblige de vous quitter en vous envoyant mes meilleurs amities.
Recois ma petite Norah un grs baiser de votre grand ami,
Selected translation by Dorothy Kelly
Aerschot, 23rd November 1918
Ten days have already gone since I arrived in Ghent. I found my dear Mother in very good health. You can imagine the joy of a mother at the return of her son after a separation of four and a half years. On the very day I arrived they were about to attend the burial of my Uncle who was also my godfather, so I came just in time to attend the funeral service. After Ghent I had to set out for Alost, Brussels, Leuven and Aerschot, where I arrived today. It is impossible for me to describe to you our triumphal entry into Brussels. There was no way you could move through the crowds. We were covered in flowers and flags and gifts galore. The joy of the people of Belgium knows no bounds. I saw plenty of British prisoners as well. They are enjoying their share of the glory. And that’s quite fair. Today I arrived at Aerschot, which is called a Martyred Village. It suffered burning, looting and massacre at the beginning of the War. I am looking forward to getting some leave to spend at home in two or three weeks. I am thinking of going from here to Liege to continue with our victory march to the banks of the Rhine. My brothers are also doing very well.
I beg you to offer my sincerest greetings to all your family. Now, my dear Norah, I see I am obliged to leave you, while sending you lots of friendly thoughts.
Your great friend, Julien gives you a big kiss.
Bertie Cavaye, who became my father, comes next.
Although he was in the grain trade and not a student, he had been in the officers’ training corps attached to Edinburgh University from early in the War. He joined up in 1916 and was commissioned in January 1917 in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Then, on his way to the Middle Eastern front, he spent a few days in London, dining at Simpsons and seeing the very popular musical comedy with Josie Collins, the Maid of the Mountains, before he embarked. This hitting of the high spots, WOW - for an ordinary Portobello boy,- stayed with him all his life, for he told me all about them. Forty years later, when he went to Buckingham Palace to collect his OBE, he insisted on repeating the visit to Simpsons.
He was on board S.S. Cameronia when it was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. He assisted in lowering the boats and rafts, then, because he was a good swimmer, trained for years in Portobello Baths, he was able to swim to a destroyer, which took the survivors to Malta. After that the battalion resumed its passage to India and it is from there that the letters to Norah began. He had known her from school days, he at Heriots, she at Queen Street. They used to come down the steps from Portobello station together and set out for home along the Christian Path. To the Cavayes the Torrance girls seemed quite posh, for behind the the high wall from the Christian Path there were trees and Mount Lodge looked a big estate!
Letters 1917- 1919 from Bertie Cavaye to Norah Torrance Mount Lodge Portobello
India Egypt and Palestine
Letters read by Alasdair Cavaye
c/o Messrs. Grindlay & Co Bankers Bombay
School of Instruction Bangalore
3rd August 1917
My Dear Nora,
I was delighted to receive your letter of the 17th June. It was the only one I received as others will have gone to Peshawar and will take another five days to reach me. I am giving Bombay as my permanent address, as I never know when we will be moved. I must really tell you off (this is an army expression) for writing this letter on the 17th June and not posting it till the 23rd, as this caused a delay of a fortnight through missing the mail. This is most important, but I will let you off if you promise to not let it occur again.
I expect the letter you have received was the one I sent from Aden. I have since written you from Bombay and Cherat. My last letter to you was dated the 27th of June.
Glad to hear you had a pleasant weekend at Carlops. I have spent quite a number of holidays at West Linton. Remember me to Effie and any other of our mutual friends. I hope Roma will make a good job of a photograph of you and that you will send it out….also one of the strictly private ones you mention. It is very enjoyable to look at photos of friends, out here especially……..!
Am glad to hear that you are having fine weather at home just now. You would not forget it was summer, if you were out here.
You will see from the address that I have been moved. I was only a fortnight at Cherat. It was quite a pleasant place but very quiet. I left on the 2nd July and spent five days in Bombay on the way here. The journey took five days. You will see from the map that I am seeing a bit of India already, being sent to the North and then to the South. It is really unnecessary, at least in my opinion, to send us here as they are teaching us no more than we got at Gailes. However, it is better than active service. And we are not killed with work. Of course it is not possible to work hard except in the coolest part of the day.
I am interested to hear that you have been reading about India and must say your theories are mainly correct. You speak of the crowded “city places” The native bazaar or main street in the native quarter in Bombay is an example. Sometimes you can scarcely move. The population of India is enormous.
The type of native varies considerably in different parts. The Mohammedans here have their caste mark tattooed or painted on their faces, which makes them very ugly. The women wear large ornaments through their noses and ears. Higher caste Indian women who are married are very particular about being seen by other men, in fact most of them are never seen in public after marriage.
Intended writing more, but must stop to catch the mail.
At 1st Seaforth Highlanders
19th October 1917
My Dear Nora,
Delighted to receive your letter of 1st September, two days ago. Yes, it is some little time since I heard from you. I do not consider the excuse good enough that you were waiting on a letter from me. Now that you have finished with school you will have more time to write so hope to hear from you oftener.
Don’t mention furlough or being home for Christmas. Both these things unfortunately, unless something unexpected happens, are hopelessly out of the question. Even if the War were to end, which won’t happen within the next six months, we would be caged up here for a considerable time.. Personally I have been seriously thinking of sticking to the army. However, I should not like that to interfere with getting home for a spell.
Glad to hear you had a ripping time at Lauder. You are lucky. Every time you write you appear to have been on holiday somewhere.
You mention some Americans are coming to Porto. I hope you’ll behave when they arrive. Of course you’ll say you always do.?? I hear the R.F.s have left Porto now and some pukkah (Hindustani for proper) soldiers…..Jocks of course I mean, have arrived.
Yes I heard about the Garden Fete and am glad it was such a success. My people were there and I had a letter saying my lady friend was serving tea. I wonder who they could mean? I don’t think I have any news to give you from this place except that I am still here, although men are leaving from other depots two or three times a week. I believe the Seaforths are over strength in Mespot, so they are leaving us alone in the meantime. No doubt our turn will come alright. Thanks very much indeed for the small snapshot. It is quite chic and I am glad to have it. I enclose a photo of a British soldier in India. What do you think of our new uniform? The usual thing to do out here is to change into mufti after parade.
I received a new kilt from home two days ago. It took over two months coming out. I cannot get a scrap of Cameron tartan out here.
Now don’t forget I watch the post for your letters
Kind regards to your sisters and love and kisses to yourself. (excuse the strong language)
Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
29th November 1917
My Dear Nora,
Just a very short scroll to tell you my adventures
I left Bangalore with a draft last Saturday. At 1am, while aseep we arrived at Poona, five hours from Bombay, and were told to get out and march to camp. We were to wait there until there was a boat ready for us. However, I got leave and have been here for two days. Am returning to Poona tonight and expect to bring the draft up tomorrow. We will embark right away.
No doubt my next letter to you will be from Basra and I will try to make it long and interesting. Have done nothing except spend money on kit these last few days. This is a most expensive place.
Have sent you today a souvenir magazine.
Yours as ever,
Att. 1st Seaforth Highlanders.
Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
26th January 1918
My dear Nora,
What do you think of that for an address? No doubt you will be surprised to hear that we have moved to Egypt. When I arrived at Basra I heard that the regiment was coming down the line, which they did and I joined them at that place.
On the 1st of January we embarked on a small boat and went down river and transhipped onto the Mennetonka, an Atlantic liner, on the 8th. Of course you understand only a small boat can go up river. The only stop we had was at Muscat in S.E. Arabia. There we gained a convoy and sailed for Suez. We arrived at Suez on the 20th after a very comfortable voyage.
I am at present in Ismalia, which, if you glance at the map, you will see is half way up the Suez Canal. The camp is about two miles out in the desert. Very nice, but the sand blows all over the place when there is a little wind or when you are marching. The town is not a bad little place. Quite a number of French people there. Plenty of shops where you can buy almost anything at a price. Am jolly glad we moved here from Mesopot. It was a -------of a place! The climate here is splendid and bracing, just warm enough but not too warm. Of course it will get warm in a month or two.
Do not know what is going to happen to us or how long we will be here. I expect we will go up the line here before long. I am living in hope of getting leave to Alexandria or Cairo – not home unfortunately.
It is over two months since I had a letter from you, which is very serious. That, however, is probably no fault of yours, but is due to my moving about so much. I am really getting very fed up of travelling. We should get letters here very much quicker.
13th August 1918
My Dear Nora,
A letter arrived yesterday and, although I had not seen the handwriting for a considerable time, I thought I recognised it.. You did not tell me, Nora, why you did not write for four months. I keep a record of all letters and am certain of the time. Four letters which I wrote you received no answer. I was beginning to think something serious had happened. Won’t you tell me what was wrong, especially if I was to blame in any way
So you are spending a holiday at Fala Hill, Heriot, but your letter is not frightfully enthusiastic over it. Of course, it is rather a lonely spot and you had been laid up with influenza. I sincerely trust that you have completely recovered from the latter, which appears to have stricken half the country. I know Fala fairly well, having cycled through it frequently. I’m hanged if I can remember where the road leads to, however. Truly, as you say, I am forgetting what Scotland looks like. At any rate I think it is beyond Gorebridge and Fushiebridge, “Catcune Mills” etc.
As you say, the old country certainly is the best.
Things are just dragging along here. We had one very small advance and since then have been sitting tight during the hot weather. That is just about the turning point and should be getting cooler soon. Then we get the rain at the end of next month. And perhaps more than that – who knows?
I have had two short leaves since we came up the line. Firstly three weeks in Jerusalem and just lately a week in Alexandria. I saw the sights of the former (and of course the latter) and took a number of photographs, which I have not yet developed.
I spent quite a fine week in Alex, although it was rather warm there. We went bathing every day. The only thing that spoiled it was the terrible journey up here.
We managed to finish all the oranges in the country about two months ago. I have now started on the figs and grapes.
No further news to impart, but do not forget I am languishing in this outlandish spot and look forward to a cheery letter from you.
With Kindest Regards and heaps of Love, I remain,
Yours as ever,
In August 1918 he was wounded in the Allenby advance on Turkish lines north of Jaffa and taken to a Cairo hospital by camel ambulance. He used to describe how very uncomfortable this was. However, his leg was saved and he didn’t have to have it amputated.
Sixth and last Letter
Postal Address E.E.F.
6th February 1919
My Dear Nora,
Delighted to receive your letter dated 30/12 /18 and hve at last found time to answer it.
You appear to be having quite a gay time with dances etc. One seems to be rather out of it being stuck out here, but still there is some hope yet. There is some word of an early move home, so look out, Nora, I will pay you a visit one of these days. What is the best time to call? Mind I did not say immediately, but we have reason to think it may be soon. As you say, quite a number of Porto boys have already got home.. I hear Fred Shaw is home. I have no doubt you will know him.
Have just returned from a few days in Baalbek, but of course you won’t know where that is. It was not exactly a lively place.
We have been having a lot of rain here lately. Today is exceedingly stuffy and warm. I have no doubt that it is pretty cold at home just now. I hope it is a bit warmer before I come home. Of course one always has a fire at home.
I am afraid I have not very much news for you this letter. Am at present doing Assistant Adjutant to the Battalion and am kept busy with demobilisation. There are a great many papers and forms to fill up.
Don’t stop writing, however, as I don’t know when it will come off.
I notice John Matthews has been married to Lily Peace. Do you know him?
The reason for the gap of four months in Norah’s letters was undoubtedly because she was for that short period engaged to Mossie Duncan. Bertie came home shortly after this last letter. He and Norah got engaged in 1921 and were married in March 1923
Les was in the 5th Australian Machine Gun Company and had been serving in France during 1917. He had a number of cousins in the London area. While he was hospitalised with a shrapnel wound, he met Daisy Linn, a school friend of Mona Torrance’s who worked as a secretary in London. Then he had leave and was thinking of going to Italy for it, for obviously Australians, like Belgians, couldn’t go home. Daisy suggested he go to Scotland for his leave - Mount Lodge and the Torrance family, so that is how he met Norah, my mother. She was the middle daughter of the three: Mona, Norah and Roma. Mona was quite a lot older and got married to Charlie Gerrard in March. When Les went back to the trenches the letters started.
Letters to Norah Torrance, Mount Lodge, from Lieutenant L.J. Dickinson
5th Australian Machine Gun Company
Letters read by Collin Scantleton
9th September 1918
My dear “Wee ‘un”,
Well once again another turn at the guerre is finished and I couldn’t score that Blighty . I have two of your bosker letters to answer, so here goes. Well I am glad to hear that you are quite OK also that Mona is so much better.
So the lectures appeal to you? Yes, that is a very interesting subject and keeps one thinking very much. Say, you and I think very much alike on that topic.
Do you remember having a little discussion on that subject one morning in the conservatory? I believe the morning your father spotted us there. Am I correct? – I think so. I’d like to see you teaching at a Sunday School – it seems years since I was at a Sunday School, altho’ it was only a few years ago.
Say, I very nearly managed that Blighty; at present I can’t talk and I have blisters all over me – the effects of Fritz’s mustard gas.
I was nearly blind for a few days, but worse luck I am getting better. I have to see the Doc. Tomorrow, so the colonel says. If he is a kind-hearted chap, I may get a little rest, but I’m afraid it’s not bad enough to get me across the “pond.” Isn’t that hard luck? Suppose I’m lucky tho’; I took thirty men in the line and came out with ten – rather a small crew. But we have some very exciting times, believe me.
At one stage of the stunt, myself with my four guns and about thirty Infantry were well ahead of any of the others and for a thousand yards on each flank was nothing but Fritzes and in front some of his field guns firing point blank at us. Oh it was nice for a few hours. How we managed to dodge all his shells and bullets, gets me. Well, to change the subject, I am sorry you were bothered by that Jones chap. He has me beaten altogether and it wasn’t “Will”, because he hasn’t scored his leave yet.
Well I’m waiting very impatiently for that photo of yours. I’ll toute suite mine along when they eventuate. In one of your letters you said you were going to see Daisie. Did you see her? I hope so. I have had a couple of bosker letters from her lately – she’s great! I’ve had one from Roma. Say, she’s a sport the way she wrote. Has she ever said anything to you re that subject?
Well, we are out, having that long looked for spell, so there’s not much chance of Blighties for some time, unless I can work this gas stunt.
Well, Norah, I guess I’ll ring off. Remember me to all at home. Thanks for that kiss you sent in that last letter – but I’d much prefer a real one, but c’est impossible at present.
Cheerio, Wee ‘un, ecrivez bientot s.v.p.
Your sincere pal’
Mona sits atop a Mount Lodge urn, the Mount Lodge conservatory, Roma with a vase , Les and Norah
27th September 1918
Just a few lines as I’m in somewhat of a hurry and I don’t think there will be any chance of writing for a week or so.
They were making us earn our money once again, but I don’t suppose we must growl, we’ve had quite a nice rest the last week or so. You no doubt know whereabouts we are, if you glance in the papers now and again.
Well, “Wee ‘un,” I hope you are quite OK.
Mona, how is she getting along? Out in the garden I suppose, if the weather is at all good. Say, it takes quite a while for a letter to come from E’burgh – about seven or eight days. Some time, isn’t it?
There, Norah, I have to get along and do some work, so please excuse the briefness of this note. Write soon, please to
Your sincere pal
Say, Norah, I have been wishing I had a photo of you, so please send one along, if you have one to spare. I’ll send you one when some arrive. So Roma hasn’t said anything to you yet?
She hasn’t answered a letter of mine yet either – am waiting its arrival.
Yes, “Maid of the Mountains” is a bosker affair isn’t it? One of the best I’ve seen. Well Norah, I’ll imshie now. Write soon and don’t forget that photo, because I should like to have one very much.
Mona with the cat in Mount Lodge garden, Josie Collins in Maid of the Mountains
15th October 1918
Well, I am having a rest. As the result of that gas stunt of mine they gave me a week at an Officers’ Rest Home at Paris Plage just south of Boulogne. I arrived here today and it’ll do me for any time. We are living in a huge hotel and everything is OK.
Not such a bad stunt after all – this getting gassed. The only trouble is I can’t speak properly yet. But I can speak a little, as things are N.T.B.
Say Norah, don’t you worry or think too much about that spiritualistic stunt of yours. A certain amount of that is alright, but Norah, don’t overdo it svp. Well, I’m afraid I shan’t be able to make this Blighty. ‘Tho I was very close to it for a few days, but as we were out of the line resting, I was fairly comfortable in billets, they didn’t send me to hospital.
Well, I will not receive any more of your letters till I get back to the Coy again. And I hope there will be quite a few waiting for me. So Mona is worried about her husband. Well, there’s not much time for letter writing and those service cards are the only available means. I hope she is feeling ever so much better now. Say, don’t forget that photo of yours. Je l’attend avec beaucoup d’impatience. Envoyez le moi aussi vite que possible svp.
Remeber me to all at ML.
Je vous envoie un baiser
Your Aussie Pal
3rd London General Hospital
22nd October 1918
Ma chere petite Norah,
Well what did I tell you about my nice little Blighty. Come true didn’t it!
Don’t worry, I’m not feeling too bad, but the trouble is a fairly annoying cough and hardly any voice, so that’s a mere detail. All the same I’m jolly glad that I didn’t collect any more of his mustard gas.. It doesn’t appeal to me very much, methinks I’d much rather have a wound. I just managed to collect enough to get me over here, that’s about all.
Well, now I’m here, I don’t feel like hurrying out of England (unless it’s to Scotland of course) the winter is much preferable here than in La Belle France.
Somewhat of a coincidence this is the same ward as I was in during my recovery from the Blighty last October. I was only a day out – last year I stopped the piece of shell on the 11th October and this time it is the 3rd October. Very close...
Well Norah, how’s things up your way? I don’t think we’ll have to wait that five or seven months, ‘cos I’ll be getting some leave after this trip. So I’ve asked that my pass be made out for Edinburgh. This is a very free and easy hospital, so it’ll do me.. After the Doc comes in the morning, if a chap can walk he can go away till 10pm. Hard to take isn’t it? It only takes about twenty minutes to get to the middle of London. I have plenty of relations within Cooee of here – more or less. I’m expecting some of ‘em to come along this afternoon.
Well “Wee ‘un” I’ll have to knock off now.
Ecrivez bientot svp.
Je vous envoie un baiser
Your sincere pal
3rd London General
23rd October 1918
My dear Norah,
Thank you very much indeed for your photo and letter which came along this morning. The photo is bosker and also the letter – cela va sans dire.
Say I don’t know how it happened that you didn’t have any letters for three weeks. I didn’t write for about a week, that was the longest. Perhaps they’ll arrive very soon. I’m awaiting your letters you sent to the Company. Sans doute they’ll arrive during the next week or so. Say Wee ‘un, you don’t want to worry about this gassing stunt of mine – it’s nothing serious. Personally, I think I was very lucky getting here at all. Also you can bet your life I’ll be up to E’burgh just as soon as I can, you can be sure of that. You know how I detest London and like Edinburgh. I just missed going to Scotland – Aberdeen. If I’d come across one boat earlier, I’d have struck it, for the whole convoy from that boat went there.
Yesterday I kidded the Doc that I was quite able to go for a stroll, so that after a bit of inducement he consented.. So every day now I can go out from 12 till 10 pm. Not too bad is it? Only trouble is a chap has to get along without talking much, but I guess that will be quite OK very soon.
Otherwise I feel quite OK It got me in the chest, so of course a chap comes in for a good deal of coughing, but that’s a mere detail. - - All that matters is that I am over here and will soon have another chance of seeing you. Yes thanks, my eyes are OK again. – they were somewhat crook for a week or so, I could hardly see. Well Norah dear, I’ll ring off now.
Write soon please.
Yours as per,
3rd December 1918
My Dear little Girl,
Well, once again to try and write you. Things have been moving somewhat the last few hours.
I think I have managed to get out of the row for being away without leave and secondly re this Aussie stunt.
From all accounts we move from here on the 7th and go to some other camp and embark from there on the 14th, but whether all this comes off is another thing. In the meantime I am trying to get three or four days to run up and see you again, but I don’t know if I’ll succeed. If I don’t get up there, you can rest assured that it won’t be through any fault of mine, ‘cos I’m trying my very hardest. I wish they wouldn’t be in such an awful hurry, but that’s the military style.
Ten to one we shall still be here for another few months after all their hurried preparations. That’s the usual way isn’t it?
I’m so glad you didn’t get into a row about coming to see me off. Thank Mona for me, will you. Gee, isn’t she a bosker! Say Kiddie, I do want to see you once again very very soon and it’s rotten to think that they may not give me leave to see you.
Say dear, we got to know each other very well during those last few days, didn’t we? And Kiddie, thank you, thank you once again for that kiss on that last night. Gee Norah dear, It was bosker of you to give me that. It is one of my more pleasant memories. I wish I could go with you to that dance. If you go I trust that you’ll enjoy yourself.
I’ll bet you do miss Charlie. He’s a bosker isn’t he? Roma must have a peaceful life now she doesn’t have Charlie to give her a “rough house.”
Well dear, I’ll let you know just as soon as I can what they are going to do with me. Je veux voir ma petite Norah. C’est ce que je desire au present.
Write soon svp to reach here by the 7th and after that to Croydon. Kindest regards to all at Mount Lodge and best of love to you from
30th December 1918
My Dear little Girl,
Well arrived back here OK. yesterday afternoon and as luck would have it I could easily have taken another day, but I suppose if I had been another day there would have been dozens of people looking for me. When I arrived here those handkerchiefs you sent me were waiting here. Thank you very much indeed, Girlie. It was good of you to send them and they are very much appreciated, I can assure you. Say, wasn’t it rotten having to say goodbye so soon. But thanks to Mona we had a good part of the time together without chaperones. It was bosker seeing you again dear, if only for a few hours. I hope your father wasn’t angry about your coming to the station. By the way, I was lucky coming down, I managed to score a sleeping berth, so that was quite alright.
So you liked my young brother. It was bosker seeing him once again. Poor kid, he wants to get back home as soon as he can. We are going from Avonmouth (near Bristol I think) instead of L’pool. And the boat hasn’t been cancelled or postponed yet. Yesterday when I arrived in London I went and said goodbye to a few cousins, only saw them for a few minutes – and then away again. Say Kiddie, I don’t know how to thank you for being so kind to me since I went to Mt. Lodge. I can honestly say that they have been my best leaves. Don’t you worry that I shall ever forget you, dear, for that is absolutely impossible.
Well dear little Wee ‘un, I hope to hear from you a couple of times before I go, and very often after I get home. Thank you again for those handkerchiefs.
Au revoir, with the best of love and kisses from
Your Aussie pal,
He travelled home on SS Kermala, via Gibraltar and Port Said from where he sends letters
2nd March 1919
My Dear little Norah,
Yesterday I received your letter dated 5th January and I can assure you, Kiddie, I have been waiting for one from you; it seemed ages since I received that last one in Warminster. Well, I have been home just over a week Arrived here 22nd of February. It was a beautiful Aussie day and when we disembarked we were put in motors and taken to the Gardens to the Anzac Buffet where there were hundreds of people waiting.
The Mater and brother and about fifty relations and friends there to collect me and then we hopped into some cars and the whole mob came along here where things went swimmingly till late at night. Gee, it was great being home again. I haven’t finished visiting relations and friends. I have been going all the time.
But one thing, I have found time nearly every day for a swim or a surf, just what I have been longing for. The Heads have a deal of wind up re the ‘flu. Up till yesterday everyone had to wear masks and theatres and pictures have been closed, but they are opening up now again.
And continuing on the 26th July 1919.
Dancing and tennis and work, that is about all I do nowadays. Had to pick between three dances last night, so naturally picked the largest one and needless to say had a good time.
Last Saturday was some day here – being Peace Day. There was a big march on and the whole city was beautifully decorated and illuminated and at night all the warships and quite a few of the merchant ships were illuminated, so all these together with fireworks displays and a chain of bonfires round the harbour, things were only middling.
Gee but I am absolutely fed up with work, it wouldn’t take much to make me clear out of this stunt. It’s not that I do much work it’s the fact of being tied down and red tapeism. It will not be so bad when the surfing season is in full swing again. I will just about live in it all my spare time. Well Kiddie, news is about finished so I’ll imshie
Remember me to all at home. Love from
Yours as ever,
Then there is a long gap until Norah must have written to him in 1930
211 Pitt Street
(Corner Rowe and Pitt Streets)
12th November 1930
Dear Wee ‘un,
Good Lord! What a pleasant surprise That was a very brainy idea of yours and very lucky also as there happens to be a chap in the P.O. who knew me years ago and also my present address.
You know Norah old dear, you gave me a few surprises in your letter. You know I was only a kid when I came over your side of the world. That was when you were so good to me and altho’ I would have liked to have said things to you ------ I didn’t know what I would be doing when I arrived home, so I had to be very silent.
Anyway that doesn’t affect the memories I have of dear old Mount Lodge and you and our happy times. As you say, Mona was a delightful chaperone. She might easily have spoiled the armchair and the seat in the conservatory. She was a sport. All your family must miss Mount Lodge. It was a fine house wasn’t it? I just have to shut my eyes and I can see all the nooks etc where you and I had such happy hours and days.
I was very sorry to hear about Daisy’s troubles. She was a good sort and her mother was a dear. You know it was through Daisy I spent so much time in Scotland. I was going to take my leave to Italy instead of England, so she gave me the address of her friends at Mount Lodge – and you know the rest.
I went to the Cenotaph here on Armistice Day and joined in the “Silence” and believe me my thoughts were mostly of all you good people over there who were so splendid to us poor chaps from the other side of the world, and dear old Scotland will always have the place next to Australia – and one little Scottish girl in particular
So Cheerio Wee ‘un,
Don’t forget my address please!
Mount Lodge garden front on south side, demolition by Edinburgh Corporation in the early thirties, Sydney cenotaph
Les set up a photographer’s business in Sydney. In August 1938, when we were on holiday in a bungalow with a rose garden at Gullane, Les Dickinson and his wife came to visit. He was a successful photographer by this time. They had no children. I remember this visit well. I was thirteen. They said I had a sweet face. “But she’s not nearly as pretty as you were, Norah,” added Les.
And, as we have heard, in November 1918 the War ended. All Portobello celebrated, except those who had lost sons. There were lots of them -for whom life would never be the same again.
Roma ran down Windsor Place to buy cakes from Brock the baker. I don’t know how they managed it, but bakers suddenly had cakes again. Norah no longer needed to run with letters to the Post Office post haste for the Front, again down Windsor Place.
The boys who were left came home, quite quickly, all of a sudden and there were dances and tennis parties and lots of weddings. Charlie Gerrard and Mona moved into their brand new house in Hamilton Terrace. Effie Peck married Denholm Hay and Bertie Cavaye married Norah Torrance. Julien de Wildeman sent them a Lalique-like Gallé vase as a present.
For the others, we are left wondering what might have been, while Tommy Purves and Harold Smith
-and so many millions of others-
moulder in their graves on Flanders field.
Like Norah, lots of people must have held on to letters from the front. As the generations passed, many would have been lost or thrown away. Norah Torrance kept hers safe tied in ribboned bundles, through all her 89 years in Portobello. She sensed the vital humanity that letters carried into the future (she went out of her way to preserve and decipher other letters she came across in her husband’s family).
These are souls she thought should be remembered. Their voices are her legacy to us.