FOR years, a collection of poignant letters from the frontline were a family’s only clue to the fate of a soldier who died in the First World War.
Private Harry Crawford from Pitt Street in Leith had been sent to Alexandria, Gallipoli, back to Egypt and arrived in France in spring 1918.
He was 25 when he died, but step-sister Hetty Crawford – who was 15 years younger –never knew where or how. All she had to go on was a collection of letters and mementos sent home during the war years and treasured by the family.
Hetty, who lived in Lower Granton Road, passed away in 1999. But her niece Frances McGuire and husband Brian turned detective in a bid to solve the mystery.
And after searching countless websites, including The Great War Forum and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, they established that Harry was killed in battle on September 2, 1918 and is buried in a small graveyard in northern France.
One of the people they contacted during the search managed to track down the graveyard at Vraucourt Copse Cemetery, Vaulx-Vraucourt, Pas-de-Calais, where Harry was buried and send them a photograph of the headstone.
Frances said she was pleased finally to know more about her great uncle’s story.
She said: “I grew up with photographs of Harry everywhere in the house, but when you’re young you don’t take much interest in that kind of thing.
“But we always had these letters – they are very touching, written from a mature man to his wee sister. We sat round one day and had a good greet because they are so moving.”
One letter, written in pencil in 1916 from “some place in the desert, Egypt” asks Hetty to do him a favour – “buy a copying ink pencil and send it on to me and I will be awfully much obliged”. He asks how she is getting on with her music lessons, urging her to “stick in and listen to everything you are told, that’s the only way to learn”. The letter is enclosed in a tiny embroidered envelope containing dried flowers “From the Holy Land”.
A later one from France, dated August 9, 1918 – less than a month before he died, as it now turns out – refers to a postcard she had sent which had arrived “damp” so that the wording cold barely be read and only her signature was clear. In it, Harry writes that he had been thinking of her the very morning the card was delivered and asks her about a family holiday. He adds: “Enjoy yourself and make the most of it, for I am beginning to think the war is about finished.”
Harry died while serving with either 2nd Battalion Royal Scots or 7 Royal Scots, the Leith Territorial Battalion.
It is still not clear in which battle he died, but it may have been the first day of the second battle of Arras.
Pierre Vandervelden, who answered the family’s internet search and sent them a photo of the Harry’s headstone, said: “Thousands of British and Commonwealth young fellows came to defend the ideal of freedom during the First and Second World Wars. Many of them gave their lives.”