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Love letters from the trenches of the Somme to Belfast sweetheart

By Mervyn Jess

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  • Battle of the Somme
image captionFirst World War love letters sent from the trenches to east Belfast

They lay carefully wrapped-up in a safe place for a century.

It's only recently that they were discovered and returned to the homeland of the man who penned them.

They were written in the trenches of World War One, some of them from the Somme and posted home to the sweetheart of a young soldier from east Belfast.

Brian Boyd was only 19 when he joined the YCV, the Young Citizen Volunteers, and was eventually shipped off to France to join the 36th Ulster Division.

He witnessed first hand the horrors of trench warfare.

His personal thoughts on the war were interwoven with his personal feelings for a young woman called Lily.

She got the letters delivered to her home in the Cyprus Avenue area of Bloomfield.

image captionBrian Boyd was only 19 when he joined the Young Citizen Volunteers and was sent to France

"Their houses were only a couple of hundred yards apart, one in Cyprus Gardens and the other one in Cyprus Avenue," says Padre Andrew Totten who helped "repatriate" the letters.

"I think you see when you look at the start of this correspondence it's very much friendship. They might have known each other from school, they certainly knew each other from going to Bloomfield Presbyterian Church."

Some of the letters are quite graphic in terms of what the young man describes about life on the front line, as Mr Totten said.

"He talks quite explicitly about the dangers of going out into 'no-man's-land', of living with the filth and the hard work. But he also talks about the friendship, the comradeship and the sense of adventure and excitement as well. Clearly all that would lead to the hell of the Somme."

image captionThe letters contained Brian's thoughts about the war and his personal feeling towards his sweetheart, Lily

One letter begins "Dear Lily, I was very glad to get your letter the other day. It was funny because I had just written the day before. I won't be able to write after this for a day or so or perhaps longer. "

This letter would prove to be his last.

He won the Military Medal on the first day of fighting at the Somme for rescuing a wounded officer from the battle field.

Brian Boyd survived the Somme but a year later at Messines in Belgium he went "over the top" carrying his battalion colours and was among the first to fall.

Now these letters are included in a collection of World War One memorabilia including his photographs and medals put together by his old Scout Troop, 10th Belfast near Ballyhackamore.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionLily's son, Dr Keith Beattie handing the letters over to Padre Andrew Totten

The young scouts have been poring over the letters since they arrived back in east Belfast.

Scout Luke Carson was most interested in reading how love blossomed between the couple kept apart by war.

"It's good just to see how the relationship developed in the letters which go from "Dear Lily" to "My Dear Lily." It's just really shocking to think that he died. It must have been devastating for her to move on from that."

Lily did move on, as Mr Totten explained.

"After learning of Brian's death Lily went on to train in medicine at Queen's University in Belfast.

"There she met the man who would eventually become her husband and she appears to have travelled the world with him," he added.

"She lived to the ripe old age of 96. It was just when she passed on and the family were clearing her house in England that these letters came to light. She'd kept them all that time unbeknown to her family."

image captionBrian Boyd's medals are now in the possession of his old Scout Troop, 10th Belfast near Ballyhackamore

It was the wish of the family that the letters be returned to Belfast and Lily's son Dr Keith Beattie from Somerset handed them over to Mr Totten for safekeeping alongside Brian's war medals and photographs in the Scout Hall.

"So now side-by-side with the medals sit these love letters from someone who clearly thought so warmly and deeply about a special girl back in Belfast" said Mr Totten.

With the centenary of the Somme almost upon us, old stories like this have never seemed so alive.

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