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July 14th 1916 - Letter from Mela Brown Constable to her fiancé, Captain Cyril E Sladden

14th July 1916
Correspondence From
Mela Brown Constable, Seward House, Badsey
Correspondence To
Captain Cyril E Sladden, 9th Worcesters, c/o Messrs Cox & Co, Army Agents, Bombay, India (redirected to 13th Division, Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, c/o PPM, Bombay)
Relationship to Letter Addressee
Text of Letter

at Seward House

14th July 1916

My own dear Cyril

I am scribbling this in the summer house while keeping guard over Wipers who has had a bad eye. I have succeeded in extracting a piece of spikey oat grass, ¼” long. For two or three days his eye looked inflamed and we thought he must have been stung. However when bathing it just now he suddenly rolled his eye round and I spotted a piece of green spike which I got hold of and pulled it out. His appearance now is rather comical as I have put a wet dressing on his eye and bandaged it on and I’m afraid if I lose sight of him he may wriggle the bandage off and put his paw in his eye.

I’ve been so distressed the last night or two. You know the little packet containing a piece of your hair. It is missing out of my Bible and I cannot think how it has happened because I was looking at it only the other evening. The night before last I was going to put it in the locket your Mother left me and when I looked for it in its usual place it wasn’t there. It is strange how the apparently small things of life will upset one more than big things. I have felt more unhappy about losing this than I can tell you. You will send me another piece - won’t you? It was all that I had that was part of you, yourself, and in these days when we never know if we shall meet again I feel I want something like this to keep.

Cecil is in the list of casualties today among the “wounded and missing”. It is anxious work waiting to know the true facts.

Your Father heard from George today. His Regiment is not in the fighting line just at present.

There is a memorial service tonight for Walter Crane who was badly wounded and died on the stretcher as he was being carried to the dressing station. His poor old Mother fainted right away when she got the news.

You remember that your Mother was very anxious that Mrs Thornton should get an annuity from the United Kingdom Beneficent Association, in the same way that Miss de Costa Badie did.  Your Father has heard the result of the July Election and Mrs Thornton polled 947 votes – about 600 more than Miss de Costa Badie! If she does as well at each election she ought to get in by next March. She had lunch here last Sunday. Wilfred and I liked her so much.

Kath and May are going to Oxford from the last day of term for about a week, to a Teachers’ Conference and they will attend lectures every day.

Aunt Lottie will be here the first part of August and has abandoned her Cheddar visit, says she thinks she ought to economize. Ethel, Betty and Jack are thinking of going away together for some part of the holidays. May and your Father will be going to Eastbourne after the Oxford visit.

Next week I am going gooseberry picking from 10 am to 5 pm and shall be paid 2/- a pot for gooseberries. The rate used to be only 1/-!

I forgot to mention that after Oxford Kath is going to stay at Budleigh Salterton with Mary Simpson for a fortnight.

The largest of the enlargements we have had done of your Mother’s photo hangs over the mantelpiece in your Mother’s room. It is a splendid picture and wonderfully real.

I have come across a snapshot of your Mother and Betty standing side by side on the lawn near the summer house. It is quite a good one. Do you remember taking it?

Wilfred wrote to your Father after his visit and said he thought Badsey was the prettiest and nicest place he’d “struck” since reaching England so that he had felt happier here than anywhere else. He admired the simplicity of the villagers and thought the Sunday School girls, flocking to Church in their white summer frocks, a very pretty sight.

Betty, who had been spending the weekend at Sydenham, wrote me such a nice letter about Cecil. She has very mixed feelings about leaving school now that the time to leave draws nearer. She feels she will miss many of the girls and many things which go towards making school life very jolly. I always agree with those people who say their school life was the happiest time in their lives. It certainly was the happiest time of my life. Happier in some ways than even the last 3¼ years because one’s life was so much less complex and one did not realize the sorrows in the world. Our years of engagement have been very happy but the last two years have been fraught with anxiety for us both and one has hardly dared to be happy even in one’s dreams in case in the unseen future we should have to shut the door on happiness altogether.

Ethel heard the other day that Edith Young’s engagement is broken off. I don’t know whether you knew that she finally accepted a man who proposed to her about seven times. She puts it so oddly in her letter, merely saying that her fiancée had come to the conclusion that she was not strong enough to become a farmer’s wife and they then seem to have broken it off mutually. Considering he had known her for a very long time he ought to have made this discovery before the 7th proposal, I should think!

I cannot imagine your proposing to me seven times, or to anyone else! You would have made me very cross if you had! And as things are if you proposed once to anyone else I might murmur a tiny bit!

July 15th
I heard from Wilfred this morning saying he had heard from Uncle Fred who had sent him a copy of a letter written by the Adjutant of the London Scottish to Mother expressing his sympathy and keen appreciation of Cecil’s character. The extract reads as though Cecil had been killed but need not necessarily mean that he was.

“Brave, never disturbed, utterly regardless of danger to himself he led his company into action on July 1st with great skill, and it is was while endeavouring to save his men that he fell”.

Wilfred then adds that he understands Cecil succeeded in saving his men.

This news is later than the official news and one wonders and wonders what it may mean. Wilfred begs me not to give up hope and I haven’t but I am afraid that it is no use being too hopeful. On the back of the envelope of Mother’s letter received last night she had hastily scribbled “7 pm there seems less hope tonight” and I am expecting a letter explaining this message. There is a Captain Newington in Boulogne of the London Scottish, who is in touch with his regiment and I’m afraid he has not been able to confirm the idea that Cecil may be a prisoner, although at first he heard that there was every possibility.

Still one must learn to be patient and wait, no news except official news can be really reliable. I do hope he is safe somewhere. For so many years we have had to live without the boys and now they have come back to us, it seems hard to lose either of them. They both promise so well to live good and useful lives if they should be spared.

The Adjutant did not mention that there was any possibility of Cecil having been taken prisoner. I should think if he could have given us that hope that he would have done so.

July 16th
I heard from Arthur this morning and will quote his letter.

“I am very sorry to have your news that Cecil is reported wounded and missing. There are none of his regiment sent to this base so far, but I went to see my friend Hill who was MD to the 1st Battalion London Scottish last year, and knew your brother well. He has written to the CO of the 1st Battalion to try and get further information if it is possible – so I may possibly hear something more in a week’s time. It is obviously not wise to be very expectant of favourable news, and yet in a big mix up like this both men and officers get lost sight of very readily, and so we’ll hope that you may yet get news that he is alive.

“Of course, some of our wounded get taken prisoners, a man was brought down here a few days ago who had been tended by German orderlies and labelled ready for removal to one of their ambulances, when he and his captors were recaptured by our fellows.

“If I can make enquiries in any other useful direction, of course I shall do so, and in the event of getting any news I’ll communicate with you and your Mother as quickly as possible.

“It was nice that your brother Wilfred could come over and see you last week.

‘’I had a letter from Cyril a few days ago, he is lucky to be at such a nice station, though I’m sure he’d willingly exchange his leave at Simla for leave in England if he could.

‘’Letters from up the line are rather long in coming through, so it may be fully a week before I can hear anything. Meantime we must hope for the best.’’

(Then he finishes up rather as though he’d forgotten he was not writing to Mary!)
With love
Ever yours affectionately
Arthur F Sladden

So you see no one is leaving a stone unturned to get some trace of Cecil.

‘’Missing’’ is the kind of news which makes you lie awake at night and think. You say to yourself all the thinking in the world will not solve the question and yet you are still haunted by it.

Did anyone ever tell you what your Mother left you besides the ‘’Pilgrims Progress’’? She left you her gold ring and with a ruby and 2 diamonds in it. At present it is in my jewel box but sometimes I have worn it. It is too small for any but my little finger, so it will need enlarging before you can wear it. It is quite a suitable ring to be worn by a man. Arthur had one with one large diamond.

July 17th
Marjorie Slater has been away for the week end so I went up and took her classes for her and had to put off gooseberry picking until tomorrow. It was the day for Physiology and so I had four of the bigger ones. We took the “brain’’ as I found they knew least about that.

May found the children’s certificates had come for the drawing exam: Royal Society ‘’Ablett’’ exam. Twenty out of thirty had honours, some children having honours in more than one division, and the other ten passed, there were no failures. They were told in the playground luckily for they simply went mad with excitement and executed war dances all round the place!

I’ve opened the Worcestershire Comforts Fund box tonight. I’ve collected 19/6 in this way and have two more promises of money from Mary and from Mrs Johns. From outside sources I have collected £1 15 so by the time I’ve finished I ought to have £3. A number of Badsey people are sending vegetable or fruit for the provision stall.

Your Father heard from Mr Neame this morning. He says he is going to the Fete on Saturday and will look out for us there. I have never met him but the others have. I expect Mr Davies will be there too as he lives in Worcester.

The news in the papers gets better and better every day – it is most thrilling to read the accounts. Our cavalry, the Dragoon Guards and the Deccan Horse, came into action in Saturday’s fighting so we must have got past the German fortifications and trenches in one part, for the cavalry went through open cornfields and accounted for every German hiding in the corn whom they did not take prisoner.

Tomorrow is Tuesday and I hope the mail will be in. You’ve seemed very far away this week and I want the mail to come and hope it will bring an extra specially nice letter, one written to try and bridge the wide space of ocean which separates us. This news about Cecil seems to have numbed my brain and you and everything nice seem far away beyond my reach.

July 18th 1916
The mail came this morning and your second letter answered my wish that you would write in such a way that I could feel you were trying to bridge the distance which lies between us. You have grasped the subject to which you allude, very well but no man can ever really understand it. I am very much more fortunate than the majority of women and it is only now and again that I feel obliged to go to bed.

I do not mind the pain nearly as much as the mental strain. The fearful depression which comes over one’s mind for apparently no reason – for every time one forgets why one is feeling depressed until the pain comes. That is the extraordinary part of a woman’s nature she soon forgets all she has been through. It is a great blessing or else her courage might often fail her later on when she may be called upon to suffer even greater things. It will be a great comfort to me to know that you, even if you could wholly comprehend, will yet feel sorry. It must be dreadful to be married to anyone who was unsympathetic and took everything for granted and not troubling to realise his wife was facing much for his sake. I am very confident dear that our future together will be happy and I shall not mind anything so long as we are together. But I don’t want you to leave me.

I have been fruit picking, currants today, and now have put my feet up on a chair in my room – hence the reason for continuing my letter in pencil. If I go downstairs for the ink I may get collared for something or other and I feel I want to be alone for a bit. Uncle Ben sent me the copies of some letters about Cecil. I quoted some of the Adjutant’s letter before.

The following is from the Colonel commanding to Uncle:

France 11th July 1916

“Dear Sir

“Your letter of the 7th instant, just received and I hasten to reply though I fear my news of your nephew, Lt Brown-Constable is far from hopeful. The battle on the 1st instant was very severe, and the casualties very heavy. In the battalion our losses in killed, wounded and missing, number 15 officers and 546 of other ranks. In the attack which was under the cover of smoke your nephew had command of the left company, but so few of this company returned, that though I have made every inquiry possible from the survivors, I can gather very little news. It appears that when the company arrived at the German front trenches, having received many casualties on the way over, the leading platoon was held up by uncut wire. Your nephew was then seen directing the cutting of this wire and getting his men through the gaps. The only other information I can gather is that he was seen on the German parapet, when he took out a cigarette, lighted it with the probable intention of putting confidence into his men.

“He was then seen to fall and that is the last news I can gather of him. The enemy artillery and machine gun fire was very severe, the smoke was very thick so that little could be seen. Some of the company appear to have gone straight on to their objective but never returned whole, as I have before stated, only a few succeeded in regaining the British lines. Though I do not wish to raise false hopes, and I think there is little doubt your nephew was wounded, there is just the chance that he was not killed and may have been taken prisoner. The Germans from what I gather, played the game and treated the wounded well, and I can only hope that the bare chance may prove a reality. Mr Brown Constable was one of my best officers, and his bravery and personal example is beyond all praise.

“My heart goes out to his dear Mother and relations in their terrible anxiety, which I appreciate to the utmost. I wish I were able to give even one crumb of comfort and hope.

“The battalion behaved magnificently and have added one more page to its splendid traditions and deeds of honour.

“Perhaps more news may be gathered from the wounded but I fear few returned to the British lines, and all the officers of your nephew’s company are missing. If I hear anything further I will let you know at once.

“With sincere sympathy
Yours faithfully
Bernard C Green
Commanding 1st Battalion, London Scottish

The other letter was from Colonel Greig’s wife who made enquiries in London and wrote to Mother. Her letter gives more hope.

“July 14th
41 Carlisle Mansions
Carlisle Place SW

“Dear Mrs Brown-Constable

“I know your son and I feel I would like to tell you how sorry I am that he has been taken prisoner and that I do hope he will be treated properly.

“The Scottish have done magnificently again but it is a heavy time of losses ….


James Paterson
Captain Adjutant

I am very proud of these letters and if the worst has happened ….. [DIFFICULT TO READ]

May has one of her sick headaches tonight. I have put her to bed and taken her up a light supper. She seems a little better now. None of us come off scot free – poor old May pays dearly with her sick headaches.

I am so interested in all your doings. It brings back the old days to me when I was young and foolish! I don’t mean to say that you are young and foolish!

The only part of it I really miss is meeting numbers of people, all with different ideas and many of them brilliant and full of information on many interesting subjects. We are all very, very glad that you have not kept yourself to yourself but have gone about in the ordinary natural way. Even here at home we have not shut ourselves up. Of course we do not go to wildly giddy shows, for there are none to go to for one thing, but we go out to tea, fetes etc. We all feel, just as you do, that your Mother would not wish us to mourn but to look at her death simply as a falling to sleep for one moment and then happiness in another world far greater than we can imagine. She is happy and would wish us to be happy too.

The type of girl, who made one of Mr Pine’s theatre guests when you went to see the ‘’Breed of the Treshams’’ is a type which makes one positively ill. There is a vulgar expression which I don’t like using but by which that type is known out there and that is ‘’a regimental hack’’ – a girl who will make up to any man especially a h’Army h’officer! They are known to go in for what is known as season ‘’Engagements’’ – that is every season they go to different stations and become engaged to different men.

The term engaged is here used in its lightest sense – the girl generally considering her engaged and the man utterly oblivious of the fact! However, I may be maligning the girl you met, but I dare say you will come across others of my description. You are more likely to do so than I, when I was not there, for they do not often frequent ladies’ society, partly because they are not wanted by them, and partly because they prefer men’s society.

There is nothing bad about these girls, only they are hopelessly silly and frivolous, and out, for what they consider a good time, rather like the Seaside Type of Girl at home. You’d meet some queer fish one way and another if you were out there long enough. Luckily you’ve got your eyes sufficiently wide open not to mistake them when you see them. Some men often get hopelessly mixed up – really quite unsuspectingly. You are fortunate to be living with such nice people. I always think the higher up in the scale one goes the simpler minded people are very genuine and unassuming in their own houses. Don’t you think so?

You are lucky getting hot and cold water laid on. Won’t you miss it when you once more see the Tigris! All kinds of revelations are coming out in the papers about the Mesopotamia campaign and many bigwigs are agitating to have the conditions bettered out there. I’m afraid some of your Simla friends come under censure! I hope that things will be put on a better basis soon. At present men are dying from exposure to heat, there is no shade as you know, and food is scarce and what there is of it is of the kind you’d give to Esquimaux instead of soldiers toiling in a hot climate.

You ask me not to take more work than is absolutely necessary for pocket money, that you would rather I kept well. I, too, feel that my first duty is to keep well for your sake – for, D.V., my vocation in life is to be your wife, and not a nurse or a fruit-picker. I am feeling pretty well on the whole. This week my legs have been a bit troublesome but they always are at certain times. The kind of life I need is the life in a home of my own, where I hope to work but if tired can rest without being bothered by all kinds of people as to why I am resting etc, etc.

I am so tired of having to give an account of my actions, words etc. I long to be free with you as my dear loved companion.

The picture you draw in your letter of how you try to imagine me with you is exactly how I experience the same idea. In one way it consoles one and in another it is maddeningly tantalizing. Last night I dreamt you had broken off our engagement - and I met Cecil on a landing in a house like Mrs Japp’s and told him and he said in his quiet calm way, ‘’It is not possible – he never would.’’

I remember being sort of struck by what he said and I woke up to find May handing me two letters from you. The mail had come in! I had been thinking so much about you and so much about Cecil that my brain evolved this unkind dream for me! I was very relieved to wake up to the reality of the mail.

Goodnight, Sweetheart - you’ll be with me in dreams tonight as you usually are but I hope not in the way you were last night! God bless you and guard you wherever you may have been sent, for your leave will be up ere this reaches you.

All my heart’s love.

Your ever devoted

Cyril received the letter on 28th August 1916 at Basra.
Type of Correspondence
Envelope containing 10 sheets of notepaper
Location of Document
Imperial War Museum
Record Office Reference