WWI: Poignant letters from Ypres

By Andrew Stone

Gallows humour serves Wanganui Collegiate teacher — and fine cricketer — at the Front.

Hugh Montagu Butterworth's messages from the Western Front were published in a book.
Hugh Montagu Butterworth's messages from the Western Front were published in a book.

12 The gifted war hero

Of all the soldiers who served and died in World War I, few could match the gifts of Hugh Montagu Butterworth in their descriptions of the conflict.

Though born in Essex and educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire - the war poet Siegfried Sassoon was his contemporary - Butterworth moved to New Zealand in 1907. He joined the teaching staff at Wanganui Collegiate, and outside the classroom blazed an astounding cricket record including scores of 296 and 311 in consecutive innings.

In early 1915, answering the call of duty, Butterworth returned to England to join the Officers' Training Corps. In his spare time, he kept an account of Army life and sent a stream of correspondence back to his friends in Wanganui.

In May 1915 he crossed the English Channel for, as he called it, "Bulletville". Before the year was out Butterworth had been killed in action. But the censored notes he sent from the battlefield survived the war and were bound in a book called Letters from Flanders, published in 1916 by Whitcombe & Tombs.

Amid the shells and bullets, Butterworth wrote from the trenches near Ypres on the Western Front between May and September 1915. On June 10 he wrote that his company was just "90 yards from the Germans".

"We live like lords," he went on. "At lunch to-day we partook of beef and tongue, pate de foie gras, comabere (or however you spell it), cheese, stewed apricots, biscuits, almonds and raisins, white wine, coffee and benedictine, and this with bullets pattering against the wall! Very gentlemany warfare! The only objections are (1) lice (2) bad water - the Germans have a habit of dropping in arsenic (3) the fact that the ground has been twice passed over in the early days of the war, and the corpses are a bit lively."

He was relieved, he remarked that "we haven't yet been gassed, but we are provided with respirators, gas-helmets, and sprayers."

That changed after his men marched through the ruins of Ypres.

"We got gassed just as we came up," he wrote. "My men were distinctly panicky and I had to mix profanity and jest in even quantities, slight preference given to profanity."

In his last letter, dated September 20, he wrote, "We have been facing death pretty intimately for months now, but one must realise, in the vernacular of New Zealand, one's numbers are probably up."

The Wanganui teacher was among seven collegiate staff killed in the war, along with 157 pupils. Butterworth's name endures at the college at the cricket pavilion, built in his memory.

Read earlier stories in this series here: tinyurl.com/nzhworldwarone.

- NZ Herald

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