Written by Nicolas Wheatley
Among the Dunsby family papers is a wonderful letter of 17 February 1917 from Walter Dunsby of Godalming, serving with the Royal Engineers ‘Somewhere in Belgium’, to his younger sister.
The letter was written by Walter (1891-1973) to his sister Lilian Dunsby (1903-1984). Her birthday was on 11th January, so she was just 14 when she received the letter. The letter also refers to their mutual sister Doris (Dos) (1900-1983). There were also three other, older, sisters, one dying in early childhood. There was also another brother, William (Billy), (1897-1963). The family lived in Godalming, on Westbrook Road, near Godalming Station, where the father, Samuel Dunsby (1869-1940) was a signalman, and later porter, with the LSWR. The mother, Caroline Hannah Dunsby (nee Sheppard) (1868-1950) had five brothers, one in the navy and four in the army, one of whom was also called Walter and one of whom was also called William, with another being called George. It is possible that the ‘Uncle George’ referred to in the letter is the same George Sheppard who was mentioned in a separate exchange of letters now in the family records. One of those letters is dated 30 July 1900, and the exchange records him as being in the Naval Brigade of Australia, though if George Sheppard was in Belgium in 1917 he would have had to return from Australia and join the army. If other information in family records is correct, by 1917 he would also have been in his 40s, which might be quite old for being in the army.
One of the ‘other’ sisters was Maggie May Dunsby (1895-1995) who was the grandmother of Nicolas Wheatley (1953-) ([email protected]) who now possesses the letter and who made the transcription below. The letter has been transcribed keeping as far as possible to the original spellings, punctuation and page layout. On page three there is a reference to a wedding but it is not yet known whose this was, or the identity of “Tommy” also mentioned on that page. Other family correspondence does, however, hint that the recipient of the letter, Lilian Dunsby, did have some sort of romantic interest with a person named ‘Tommy’, though she never married him or anyone else. On page 2 there is a reference to “John Bull”, which was a populist (and popular, with a circulation at the start of the Great War estimated to be at least 750,000) weekly magazine published by Horatio Bottomley which did much during WW1 to support British troops and morale at home.
There is a postcard in the family records which gives some information about Walter Dunsby’s military rank. The card is postmarked ‘Chatham 28 Dec 14’ showing (as marked on the picture) “PE Suspension Bridge, Chatham” and was sent by “your affectionate Brother, Billy” to “853 Sapper W Dunsby, 4th Field Coy, [Company] 2nd London Division, c/o Mrs Hurst, 60 Bond Street, Englefield Green, Surrey”. Englefield Green is near Egham and not far from Runnymede, but Mrs Hurst is not a person who is known to have any connection to the Dunsby family: probably Walter was billeted with her. There is a second photo/postcard portrait (see image above) of a man in military uniform on the back of which is written “Somewhere in France Sapper W Dunsby RE, Jan 1916” (though possibly this could be William Dunsby, Walter’s brother, who is also known to have been in the Royal Engineers).
At the top of the letter, which is neatly written in pencil, is a large coloured drawing of a Union Flag on a pole, to the left of which is a drawing of a bi-plane, with coloured roundels on its wings, to either side of which are representations of mid-air explosions. Above the plane, next to the flag, is the wording, clearly done in bold text, reading “WE INTEND TO KEEP IT FLYING TOO”.
The letter reads as follows:-
As you always remark in starting your letters, “Keep it flying”. Herewith is a small idea of what it costs to do that safely it depicts an English aeroplane spotting out the Germans down below. (“Oh yes” its meant for an aeroplane.) & a few G. Anti Aircraft shells bursting un comfortably near, but you may rest assured that Fritz is having a very lively time on “Terra firma” in the shape of heavy shells in very large numbers. We very often witness some exciting fights in the air between ours & and the German air scouts, but our machines seem to hold the ascendancy over the enemy, though at times our machines have to come down
in a hurry. I forgot to mention the shells the G’s put up at our aeroplanes have been named “Archibalds”, so when you read of them in the newspapers, or hear the expression you will know what they are. I could write pages of letters innumerable describing the different phases of modern warfare, but under the present circumstances it is impossible, so I will change the subject to mainly family matters. I must thank you for the very interesting letters which I receive from you & am so sorry I do not get the chance to reply more often, but as “John Bull” says,” Let’s get on with the War”. Our work at times is very hard & risky & when we return from the trenches after a lively time of it during the night we then proceed to breakfast & after getting in between the blankets need no rocking off to sleep, at present we have our meals in bed, (such as it is) & eagerly look forward to the arrival of the post from “Blighty” in the early part of the
evening, & when the word goes round, no post everybody is dissapointed, no doubt you are the same at home too. Must congratulate you on attaining your 14th birthday & so pleased to hear you are still at school. No doubt its very hard for you just now, but the one vital thing for your future success in life is to study your utmost while you have the chance (which is now) & if possible after leaving school to carry your studies at night school. So pleased to hear that Dos & yourself have been making your dresses & no doubt you are eagerly looking forward to the wedding the end of this month & trust it will be a happy event for all concerned. I should very much like to be there but hopes are very remote, my leave seems very slow in working round to my turn but I hope to be home before this years battles commence. I have not seen your dear “Tommy” since Jan 9th but I gave a few hours with Uncle George last Monday evening & found him
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still smiling. He is at present in camp & doing well & is also quite pleased with the fine letters he receives from you. I must soon bring this despatch to a “finis” as I am feeling very tired. Trusting this will find all in the best of health as I am.
I remain your affectionate
“Roll on Blighty”
PS Its my intention to write a long letter to Doris in the next green envelope. “Au revoir”