I knew he had died. Before reading the letters, I knew the end of his story. Sergeant Charles Leonard (Len) Hooper from Masterton, serving with the New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion on the Western Front, died in November 1918 in France just four days before the Armistice. His letters to his English fiancée, Elizabeth Sibthorp of Hornchurch – his ‘dearest Lizzie’ – are bundled in a grey folder loosely laced with thin white tape, held in the Imperial War Museum archive in London.
Len had joined up with the 19th Reinforcements in November 1916. He was wounded in 1917 and recovered. When the letters start in January 1918 he was at Codford in England. The letters tell of the monotony at Codford (where ‘doing nothing’ was beginning to get his goat), the excitement of training as a machine gunner despite his awareness of heavy gunner casualties, and deployment to France during August 1918. Then, for two months, silence.
On 4 October he wrote a small card to Lizzie to let her know he was in hospital as he’d been ‘stopped short again’ by ‘Fritzie’. Len had suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was at the No 16 General Hospital of the British Expeditionary Force at Le Treport in France, run by the US Army. The worst wound was to his knee. Len wrote five more letters. The staff were ‘giving their utmost’ to save his leg, the operation had gone well but when he was ‘just ready to go to Blighty’, complications set in. He felt ‘betwixt and between’. He had seen a lot of others come in, though, their suffering was ‘awful, poor devils’ and he was very anxious how the outbreak of influenza would affect them as ‘this Flu’ was ‘such a dangerous complaint this time’. Len’s last letter was written on 4 November 1918. He died three days later.
The letters brought me in touch – literally – with Len and Lizzie. The letters went from his hand with its expansive scrawl, to her hands as she read and carefully tucked them away, and to mine as I read them in the museum. Then six other letters at the end of the bundle really struck me: three from an American nurse, Jane Maxwell, at the hospital in France and three from Len’s mother, Mrs Emily Hooper, in New Zealand.
‘My dear Miss Sibthorp’, wrote Jane Maxwell to Lizzie on 7 November. It was with the greatest regret she was writing that Sergeant Hooper had passed away at noon that day. He had been unconscious for some time and she really thought he died of the ‘flu’, rather than his wounds. They all felt dreadfully over his death, he was so patient and although he had a ‘dreadful knee’ he was getting along nicely. He had even had his bed carried outside on the few sunshine days they had had. He would be buried in a beautiful military cemetery nearby. She was now writing to his mother. On 15-16 November she acknowledged she had received the money and had arranged for three rose bushes and wall flowers to be planted at his grave. She enclosed a postcard of the cemetery with an X marking the area of his grave. And on 20 December she thanked Miss Sibthorp for the ‘awfully pretty handkerchief’ and ‘kind thoughts’. She would take flowers and holly to the grave for Christmas.
Many nurses in their precious off-duty time wrote to a soldier’s loved ones when he died. It was a final caring act extending beyond the soldier and hospital to his family far away. The first-hand accounts of the end of his life gave more detail and immediacy than available through any official communication. Jane Maxwell went further, planting rose bushes and tending Len’s grave, becoming a conduit for his fiancée’s and mother’s grief.
‘My dear Miss Sibthorp’, wrote Len’s mother, Mrs Hooper, from Masterton on 16 January 1919. She had had a nice letter from Jane Maxwell who had on the day before Christmas entirely covered the grave with beautiful holly. She was grateful for all the kindness in doing things she longed to do and could not. On 18 December 1919, she wrote that she cherished the photo of the rose tree on the grave and hoped it would climb all around that plain little cross. ‘My dear Lizzie’, she wrote the following year, 1920, now from Wellington. Lizzie had asked her to address her by her Christian name and she was only too pleased to do so. She would notice the date, 11 November. Eleven o’clock had just struck the two minutes of silent prayer. It was a beautiful way to remember.
These six letters have a careful formality, yet an intimacy of shared sorrow. Three women, intimate strangers in three countries, laced briefly together by loss.
Pamela Wood: Associate Professor Pamela Wood is a nurse academic with a PhD in History (Otago). One of her current research projects explores the experience of nurses in World War One. She is Director of the History of Nursing & Health research programme at the Eastern Institute of Technology, Napier.