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But their spirit lives on and can never die
The Lee brothers
Postcard sent from Basingstoke in June 1915 where the 10th Irish Division were training to go overseas. It shows my great-uncle, who was very tall, with an officer called Lt Fashom, who was very small. And just a little funny comment to his older brother, my grandfather, Edward Shakleton Lee, where they lived in Blackrock. There is no comment on the back, it just says on the front ‘The long and the short of the 6th Munster’ so I think it was just a little in-joke in the family. Photograph of the doctor Robert Ernest Lee who was with the 14th Field Ambulance. He would have been on the Western front at the second Ypres and as far as I know he was in France as well. The sad thing about Ernest was that he was killed very late on in the war. In fact, he was killed one month and one day before the end of the war. All belligerent countries must have known that there was an armistice due, but unfortunately he was on the R.M.S. Leinster mail boat. It’s quite an infamous story in Ireland. Over 501 passengers, army personnel and post office workers were lost when the mail boat was lost (torpedoed by German U-boat 123). That was on the 10th of the 10th 1918. What is interesting about this next letter is the date: October 11th, one day after the tragedy. And it is a very, very poignant letter to his younger son Tennyson who had been wounded but had survived Gallipoli who had been with his brother when he was killed at Gallipoli. It says: “You will have seen, no doubt, from the papers the terrible tragedy which occurred to the mail boat yesterday. I fear our dear and loved son Ernest is no more in this world. There is no account of him, dead or alive. He left by the boat. It was torpedoed, the Leinster Unc Thursday morning and was sunk inside an hour. Oh the horror of it. “ It goes on and it finishes: “Your loving and affectionate father Edward Lee”. One month later he writes again, and now the letter has a black border round it, something a lot of Irish families would have done during the First World War. He’s just talking about general things to his sun but he says a lovely piece: “They died as they lived, bravely and unselfishly giving inspiration to us all... But their spirit lives and can never die”. This next one with a black border came with a little extract that was printed by my great-grandfather. Ernest was eventually washed up on the Irish coast around Wexford. He was found. He was identified and he was brought back to Dublin. The man who found him was given a job for life in Lee’s, the company that my grandfather owned. Some time later my grandmother was in her home in Bellevue. A nurse knocked on the door. She just wanted to say that Ernest had been very helpful to her on the ship and had helped save her life. An extract from the letter from the lady: “He was the man that did everything that was in his power to save my life. He adjusted my lifebelt with a smile on his face when the ship was actually sinking. He spoke to me encouragingly, fastened my belt securely and wished me luck. Letter from my grandfather to Tennyson who was in London, November 4th 1918: “My dear boy Tennyson, I was greatly pleased to get your letter and it gave your mother and myself great comfort. Surely Ernest died the noblest death a man can die in trying to save the life of others but our sorrow for him is very great indeed. We only trust in God that when our time comes we may meet our babes and our dear young Ernest with all our loved ones well there will be no more partings or death or sorrow. May we prove ourselves worth...” Family picture. This was taken before Ernest, the doctor, was drowned. He is the third from the right, the one out of uniform. The way the photo is framed,It can almost be taken as an allegory that Joe is missing. Tennyson had been with his brother Joe at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli in aug 1915,and had been wounded. You can see him holding his right arm.
I have brought in some letters from my great grandfather Edward Lee, who was a very successful businessman in Dublin. Edward and Annie Lee had four sons. They originally had nine children in all but like a lot of families in those days because of infant mortality only four children survived. My grandfather, also Edward, being the eldest, never fought in the First World War, he was held back because of his eyesight to work in the family business. But the other three went off to fight. There was Robert Ernest Lee who was a doctor in the RAMC with the 14th Field Ambulance. He didn’t fight, obviously, as a doctor, but he would have been on the Western Front mostly with the 14th Field Ambulance, Fifth Division. He joined up vey early in the war, around August of 1914 in Dublin. Then there was his brother, Joseph Bagnall Lee, and their youngest brother Alfred Tennyson Lee. He was was born on the day when the poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson died. His mother was a great fan of Lord Tennyson and called him Alfred Tennyson Lee. They were a family that were enthusiastic of the war effort and my great-grandfather would have been involved in recruiting for the 10th battalion of the Dublin fusiliers. But when you consider that they had nine children in total and by the end of the war they had two left, you can see that the family paid a hell of a price for it and I don’t think my great-grandmother ever really got over it. My father, another Edward, knew very little about it. He was born in 1923 and he was told nothing about his uncles. All my father ever told about me about the two photographs of the boys was that this was my uncle Joe and he fought at Gallipoli and that was my uncle Ernest and he died on the Leinster.