This is the story of Peter Robinson and Dorrie Harris, taken from a collection of love letters sent during Wartime, compiled into a beautiful collection by Alastaur Massie and Frances Parton, in association with the National Army Museum.
The following is an extract from ‘Wives and Sweethearts’, page 72-14.
The British war effort in the First World War was backed by its world-wide empire. At Gallipoli in 1915 the British fought alongside Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops. The same year, during the Second Battle of Ypres, the Canadians won great renown by resisting the German offensive, notwithstanding their opponents’ first use of poison gas. Then, in 1916, South African troops were committed to the Western Front in France. Among their ranks was 28 year old Acting Bombardier Harry Robinson of the 71st Siege Battery, South African Heavy Artillery. Like many men of the dominions who answered the call of the mother country, Robinson – originally a sailor – was British-born, only immigrating to South Africa in the years immediately before the outbreak of war. His parents still lived in Blackheath, in south-east London.
Colonial troops serving in Europe thousands of miles from home were, for that reason, sometimes befriended by British women, often simply as pen-friends. Harry Robinson – who preferred to be called Peter – was taken up by one such girl, Enid Stanford, while training in England early in 1916. Enid knew just the person for Peter and effected an introduction to her friend Dorothy Harris, the twenty-year-old daughter of a prosperous farmer in Aston Abbots, near Aylesbury. Peter visited in February and was immediately taken with ‘Dorrie’. Therefore he wrote to her once or twice a week. By the time o his fourth letter Dorrie was his ‘petite demoiselle’. Peter became even more flirtatious in his eighth letter on 19 March 1916. There were rumours that his battery was about to leave for the front in France. He had to explain how he felt.
“Dorrie, there are so many things I wish to do before we go. Things are so different from peace-time when one can take one’s time and not be important. I almost blush when I try toimagine what you think of me for turning up so often and being so bold. If I am given time I am a very polite, slow-stepping individual. Can assure you that in peace-time if I had seen you every day for a month it would still be the case of Miss Harris and Mr Robinson and not for another six months would I have dared to give you even a 9-carat gold cap badge. But needs must when the devil drives…
…Perhaps you will sympathise with me if you can imagine yourself going away from everyone and everything perhaps for ever I am quite harmless really, although I do like to preted I am a bit of a devil. But I am the prospect if having to go away soon.’
Although we only have, in the main, one side of the correspondence, it is clear that Dorothy was initially not unreceptive to Peter’s boldness, prompting him to reply:
‘…Thank you ever so much for your sweet, very Dorrie-like letter. But you must not tell me I am nice because people tell me I know that too well already. There you have it – I am conceited! I haven’t seen you cross yet – I must make you cross with me just to see.’
Unfortunately, it was not long before he succeeded. By 28 March, he has thrown off all restraint:
‘…Love never dies a natural death, but it may be killed- by starvation cruelty. That’s the only way it ends, I’m certain. You, I already know from happy experience, will not be cruel to my tender flame and somehow I do not think that it will expire for lack of fuel. I don’t mean to say that you will encourage it directly – it has only to think of you to shoot up into quite a dangerous blaze…
This is the first time I have written to you without my weighing my words.. Oh, I am glad I met you and I will every try to be a source of pleasure to you and never cause you to regret for a moment that you have been kind to me. If you have not found it out already you one day will find that most men abuse a women’s kindness, but I don’t think I do so… As I think of you I shall learn to love you more. I am so very happy you do not mind me telling you I love you. It is terrible to have to keep it to oneself.’
This declaration of love might have, by itself, been enough to give a sensible woman like Dorothy pause for thought. However, Peter hen wrote a second letter which proved altogether too much. Only in few instances do we know how she reacted to his high-flown rhetoric, but we do on this occasion because she drafted her response first.
I am so angry that I don’t know how to write to you. I received both your letters this morning. I have it, on your own authority, that you, being a gentleman, would never abuse a girls kindness, then you write and dare to suggest that I should envy your future wife and covet that honour myself! If that is not abusing my kindness, may I ask you what you consider would be? Because I allowed you to write pretty things to me (thinking it pleased you and did me no harm) is no reason for you to suppose that I’m in love with you. Your letter may of course be intended as a joke but if it is so it’s in the worst possible taste, and even though I’ve known you for such a very short time I didn’t expect it of you. If you still care to come down for the weekend after the following one I shall be as pleased as the others to see you, provided that your remember you have one seen me three times and apparently know me hardly at all…’
Ouch, Peter got burned. But do you think Dorothy ended up forgiving his forward ways? Or was this the last letter Peter ever recieved? Find out in ‘Wives and Sweethearts‘, avaible now in all good bookstores and online, published by Simonand Shuster.