Writing condolence letters required great skill

Name: Leslie Mallyon
Date: 1918
Unit: 36th Battalion AIF
Location: France

There is a definite skill to writing letters of sympathy to the families of servicemen and women killed in battle. Some people are good at it while others find it a chore they would rather not have to deal with.

Thousands of letters were written to grieving families during the various wars of the 20th Century. Some were written as a duty by officers, others by colleagues who had been mates of the deceased. Chaplains attached to various hospitals wrote a great many such letters, doing their best to bring comfort, and yet other letters were written by nursing staff who had attended the wounded.

One man whose obvious compassion and sympathy came across in letters was the Rev HC Foreman, Methodist Chaplain at the 3rd Australian General Hospital in France during World War I.

He wrote to the parents of Private Leslie Mallyon who, at the age of 19, had died in the hospital on 9 April 1918, after being wounded in fighting on the Somme five days before.

Les Mallyon was born at Yass in New South Wales in 1899 to James and Elizabeth Mallyon. He served with the 36th Battalion AIF and was wounded on 4 April. He was transferred to the 5th Casualty Clearing Station the following day and from there he was moved to the 3rd Australian General Hospital at Abbeville.

Mr Foreman must have written many similar letters of condolence over the months and years of the war but he was able to convey his sincere sympathy and included personal details about the dead soldier.

"I saw him soon after he came to us and then every day, sometimes two or three times a day while he lingered," he wrote. "He was a quiet, gentle, good lad. I really think he realised that he was dying, though in so many words I did not say so, and he did not say so.

"I asked if he had any message & he said I might send home his dear love. When I asked him if I might say that he was trusting in God & that in the valley of the shadow he feared no evil, he said 'yes'. He listened very attentively to the verses of the dear old hymns & to my prayers.

"He spoke of the Bible Mr Doig gave to him. He received every care and much attention and sympathy but it was not to be. [The Rev Alexander John Doig was Presbyterian Minister at Yass from 1906-1920.]

"He was buried in the Abbeville Military Cemetery in a plain deal coffin, with full military honours. His grave has a wooden cross with his name & number and regiment. In the spring it will be beautiful with turf and flowers.

"I deeply sympathise with you," he added. "It is a terrible price that we all are paying. I see very much of death here but it never ceases to touch me very much when a boy like yours, especially an Aussie boy, 'goes west'. God bless you & comfort you. Yours sincerely HC Foreman, Methodist Chaplain, AIF."

Sergeant Leonard Ray was the subject of a sympathy letter written by a nurse at 20 Casualty Clearing Station in France. He had been wounded on 29 September 1918 and was admitted seriously wounded in the arm and buttock.

Leo Reay was born at Nowra on the News South Wales coast on 7 August 1897 to Edwin and Susie Reay. He had enlisted in the AIF and was serving with the 41st Battalion as an acting Sergeant Major when wounded.

He was nursed by Sister AS McMillan but his wounds were so severe that he died the following day. Sister McMillan wanted to write to his parents but had no forwarding address until Leo's unit came out of the line. When she did write, just four days after he died, it was a kind and considerate letter.

"He was in a very collapsed condition when he was brought in & though everything possible was done for him, he never rallied," she wrote to Leo's mother.

"He was unconscious most of the time so he left no messages but I hope that it will be of some little comfort to you to know that he died here amongst friends & that he did not suffer.

"He has been laid to rest in the military cemetery near here where so many of our brave boys already sleep. His personal belongings will be sent on to you in the due course by the authorities but it may be some time ere these reach you.

"I would have written you sooner but there was no address to write to until I got yours from your son's CO when the Battalion came out of the line.

"His Colonel & several of the other officers of your son's Battalion are friends of ours and I can assure you it was a great shock to them all when I told them the news that your boy had died.

"They all think most highly of him and were very sorry indeed, as we all are, that we were not able to save him for you. They have lost heavily in the last attack and there are many sad hearts amongst the survivors.

"With deepest sympathy from those who nursed your boy, Yrs faithfully, (Sister) A S McMillan."

Her letter was in stark contrast to the message that Mrs Reay received from Lieutenant Wilfred Secomb, an officer in A Company, 41st Battalion, who wrote nearly a month later.

After expressing sympathy at Leo's death and stating he had been a conscientious worker who was well liked by all who knew him, Lt Secomb referred to Leo's injuries.

"I was sorry that his wounds were of a nature that he lived for a day or two," he wrote. "Leo, with his big heart and strong grip of life, must have had a hard battle for his life before he was beaten by his wounds and he must have suffered a good deal. But he gave his life nobly and in the cause of liberty."

Coming so long after her son's death, the letter must have been something of a shock to Mrs Reay.

The material for this article was supplied by Ron and Barbara Mallyon of New South Wales. Ron Mallyon is Les Mallyon's nephew while Barbara Mallyon (nee Reay) is Leonard Reay's neice.
8/01/2002 10:46:07 AM

Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Writing condolence letters required great skill, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 16 October 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/writing-condolence-letters-required-great-skill
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