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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 April 2006, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Letters of WWI rifleman No 3448

By Tim Franks
BBC, Ypres

Brussels-based BBC correspondent Tim Franks knew he was not the first member of his family to work in Belgium. His grandfather was one of millions who fought there during World War I. But, until recently, he knew nothing about a collection of letters sent by another ancestor who had fought in the trenches around Ypres.

Postcard dated 22 January 1915
David sent letters and cards home between January and April 1915

"I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres," Winston Churchill declared in 1919, as minister of war.

"A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world."

David Van Ryn was one of the newer members of the British race in 1915. He was the 20-year-old son of Dutch immigrants.

He was my great uncle. His parents kept the letters David wrote from the war.

Over the decades, those letters have been passed on. My mother recently gave them to me.

The first is a postcard dated 22 January 1915.

"Dear Father and Mother," David writes, "we embark for France at 2pm today. Further address: Queen Victoria Rifles, Expeditionary Force, France."

He signs off with: "Au Revoir, Dave."

The firing line

David Van Ryn
David Van Ryn died 91 years ago

Over the next three months come a series of letters, written in purple pencil on small lined paper.

Family politeness and trivia nestle between the wearisome violence of war, the miles of fruitless marching, the sniping at the Germans - David had been made a machine gunner - and the frostbite.

The trenches are filled with freezing standing water, six inches to a foot deep.

"It does not bother me much," he tells his parents. "Other than the frostbite, I am feeling in splendid shape."

On 11 April, David writes from his billet, having only arrived back there at 0330 that morning.

He had spent five days "in the firing line", as he puts it, in a sandbagged trench.

"The last days the weather turned very fine," he writes, "and we bailed out the water and everything was lovely.

"Being Easter time we thought we would have some Bank Holiday spirit, so we put up dummies and started throwing things at them at the rear of the trenches.

I have now quite a reserve of handkerchiefs and shall not need any more for a long time
David Van Ryn

"There were Welsh engineers with us who were fine singers, so we had some concerts. All this," he remarks, "with the Germans 50 yards away.

"You see war is not so awful after all. Had you been in the trenches you might have thought us callous, for it's an old French trench and they have a nasty habit of leaving their dead where they fall or throwing them to the rear.

"There were dozens of them lying around and the parapet was largely built up with them."

David then thanks his parents for a parcel they have sent.

He politely asks if they might send some cigarettes next time, especially as: "I have now quite a reserve of handkerchiefs and shall not need any more for a long time."

'With deepest regret'

Then on 30 April comes a short letter in the same neat, cursive script as all the others... except that this begins: "Dear Mr and Mrs Van Ryn".

It is from Lance Corporal H J McMorran.

A concrete bunker on Hill 60 with memorial in the background
A great deal of the fighting around Hill 60 was underground

"It is with the deepest regret that I have to inform you of the death of your dear son, Number 3448 Rifleman D Van Ryn."

The details are scant, and the sympathy understandably formulaic.

It is a month later when Corporal McMorran sends another, longer letter that begins with an apology for his tardiness: the fighting had consumed all his time.

It transpires that David had spent five days fighting in the Battle of Hill 60.

In the flat, featureless landscape of west Flanders, this small hillock was seen as strategically vital.

In the battle, the British won it from the Germans. But, nearby, on the day that David finished fighting at Hill 60, the Germans had first used gas against French and Algerian troops.

The French lines were ravaged.

No man's land

Two days later, the Germans launched another gas attack, this time against the Canadians, positioned just north of Ypres.

The road still exists but David's grave does not

It was for this reason that David's battalion was ordered to march north to reinforce the Canadian lines.

They had almost made it, when three shells dropped in their midst.

Nine men were killed.

David had been hit in the neck.

As Corporal McMorran puts it: "He just asked for our officer and then he knew no more."

There he was buried, just to the east of Weltje-Sint Jan road.

The road still exists but David's grave does not.

What is now green Flemish farmland, pocked by immaculate war cemeteries, became in the three remaining years of the war, the pulverised morass of no man's land.

Private memories

The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres
The Menin Gate Memorial is dedicated to the soldiers with no known graves

Last Monday, on the 91st anniversary of David's death, I walked the road from Wieltje to Sint Jan, and clambered the blossom-clad incline of Hill 60.

Predictably, the war felt unknowable, distant.

But through his letters, through his thoughtfulness and perspicacity, David's spirit remains indelible.

Nor was I alone on that visit to Ypres.

My wife came, and our third son. His name, in part, is a tribute to his great-great uncle.

Ninety-one years ago, in Belgium, David Van Ryn died.

Five months ago, in Belgium, Aaron David Franks was born.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 April, 2006 at 1030 GMT / 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO:
Ypres dig reveals trench horror
10 Nov 03 |  Europe
World War I : Your stories
12 Nov 98 |  World War I


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