‘Not coming home for Christmas…’

In 1914, my Great Great Grandparents sat outside Kettleburgh Hall flanked by their three uniformed sons, L-R Horace, Henry (Harry) and Leonard.

We know the year for various reasons. The first of those is the number of stripes on the boys’ uniforms. Another is that their mother, Lillian, posted the photograph, along with a note, to her cousins on the other side of the world (almost) in time for Christmas 1914.

(As an aside, Kettleburgh Hall is currently for sale. Can you match up the window?)

Lillie’s note read:

Kettleburgh Hall

Nr Wickham Market

Dear Cousin,

I am sending you this of my boys, myself & husband. The one in centre is Harry, the eldest; the one on the right Leonard, the youngest; & the other Horace. The background is the front window of our house & is considered a fine old piece of work. My husband is not quite as grey as he looks, otherwise it is a good photo, but of myself they say it is not good, being a little indistinct, owing to the light on my face I suppose.

With all good wishes & love from Lillie

My boys are still at Woodbridge – not coming home for Xmas but a few days after for one or two nights. Sorry this will be late for Xmas.

Note written on the back of the above photograph, kindly sent to me in 2014 by a distant cousin.

It’s the kind of note that could still be written today, as families face another Christmas without their loved ones, even if it’s probably a few months after Christmas that multiple generations will be reunited rather than a few days.

Yet Lillie couldn’t Zoom. She couldn’t WhatsApp or even telephone. She couldn’t know if her sons would ever return from the horrors of war in Egypt and France.

Thankfully, at least during the next year, her sons were returned to her, and a photographer was again summoned. It was perhaps one of the last times (if not the last time) that the three boys would be together at home. Shortly after the photograph was taken, Horace and Leonard went to Gallipoli. Harry would later be sent to France. They certainly weren’t all home for Christmas 1915.

L-R Horace, Leonard, Henry (senior), Henry (junior)

I see quite a difference in them in the space of a year or so. The boys’ father is now also in uniform, as Captain of the local Volunteer Training Corps.

The women of the family were photographed on this occasion as well (I also have a group shot if any relatives are interested).

L-R: Ota, Lillie, Eileen, Rhoda

The boys were not home for Christmas 1916, either. By then, Leonard was with RNAS repairing Sopwith Camels, and Harry and Horace were 2nd Lieutenants with different regiments in France.

A few short months later, Horace was killed near Arras. He never returned home for Christmas again.

Harry married just days after Christmas in 1917, and was again pictured in uniform. It is unclear whether he visited ‘home’ during that period of leave, but he was to see little of his wife for another two years.

Beatrice Nutt and Harry Walne, married 29 December 1917, Ketton, Rutland

In 2020, we are not at war. A virus has no concept of being ‘at war’. In 2020 I am asked to keep my sons at home. In 1914, Lillie was asked to send hers into the trenches. For me, there is no comparison.

This Christmas will be hard for many of us, I know. I do not belittle how difficult some families will find it. But I am counting my lucky stars that this Walne, 100 years later, has her boys at home and that they can still talk to their Grandparents on Christmas Day.

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