In the mid 1970s I was a collector of vintage Edwardian postcards featuring the celebrated actresses of that epoch such as Edna May, Vesta Tilley, Camille Clifford and Mrs Patrick Campbell. Rodney Danker’s secondhand bookshop, then on South King Street, Dublin, was a good source of those cards. One day I came upon an old birthday card dating from what seemed like the early months of World War 1. One side featured an embroidered greeting with flowers on real muslin. It was addressed to ‘Corporal R.Ashe, 139732, Royal Engineers, “Z” Special Company, British Expeditionary Force, France.’ The message went
My dearest sweetheart
Just a card to wish you many happy returns of your birthday. I am just sending this card on alone dear, for I do so want you to get it by your birthday, but I will endeavour to write you a letter tomorrow. When are you coming home Bob? I hope you have received my letter and magazine by now. With my fondest love.Your ever affectionate sweetheart,
So touching was the card that I could not resist it and promptly stumped up 75p. I was impressed by the fine handwriting, the fluency of expression and the unmistakable depth of feeling. Jeannie’s anxiety for the welfare of her sweetheart was palpable. The card sat on my bookshelves for decades. I often wondered whether Bob had made it through the conflict.
A few weeks back someone on twitter expressed an interest in romantic items from the archives for Valentine’s Day and I thought of Jeannie’s card. Suddenly the thought came to me that one could now research the fate of soldiers online, a facility that did not exist when I acquired the card. Through the Imperial War Graves Commission site I had previously located the memorial near Passchendaele which bears the name of my husband’s great-uncle. So I entered Bob’s name and regiment on the premise that it would show up if he had been a casualty. No result. This had to mean that Bob emerged unscathed. I googled further. Immediately up popped a site devoted to Ashe family history. Lo and behold it contained a photo of a Cpl. Robert Ashe, splendidly handsome in uniform. Le voici.
I contacted the site admin and received a reply from one Robert Stuart Ashe who was attending his son’s wedding in the U.S. He promised to look into it on his return to the U.K. He did and, sure enough, a little research ascertained that this was indeed his grandfather Robert Henry Nicholas Ashe who saw action in both wars and survived until 1966. He was the son of the Rev. Robert Pickering Ashe and his first wife Emma. After ordination Rev. Ashe served as a missionary in Uganda and later ministered to the British community in Smyrna,Turkey where the family lived and from whence Robert was sent to Dean Close School, Cheltenham.
Robert set out from Turkey to enlist at the outbreak of war in 1914. He was just nineteen years old and a corporal when the card was sent. He swiftly acquired an officer’s commission because of his fluency in French, Greek and Turkish. He was sent to Greece, reported missing and eventually returned safely. The family left Turkey after the victory of Kemal Ataturk in 1922. Robert later worked in Cyprus and Venezuela and saw distinguished service in RAF intelligence in Cyprus and Greece during World War II. After the war he was British Army Garrison Engineer in Cyprus before returning to the U.K.
But a mystery remains. Robert married a lady called Ivy in Smyrna in 1920. So who was Jeannie? What happened to her? Robert Stuart Ashe is conducting his own enquiries. It was most likely first love given Bob’s tender years. Did he meet Jeannie in Smyrna? The word ‘home’ suggests that this might have been so. Four years of war is a long time for the young. Perhaps Jeannie grew impatient, especially during the time he was presumed missing. Perhaps she succumbed to the great flu of the post war period. How did the card end up in Dublin? Was it ever sent? There is no postmark. Did she have an Irish connection? Did she have Irish relatives or descendants? Without a surname it is almost impossible to know. If there is anyone out there whose great-great-aunt or great-grandmother fell in love with a handsome soldier called Bob in 1914 perhaps they could enlighten us.