Dear mother

The Packet remembers veterans during Remembrance Week

Barbara Dean-Simmons
Published on November 8, 2012
Submitted photo

Fred Roper was one of several young men from Bonavista who enlisted in the First World War.

He was the youngest son of Magistrate John J. and Annie Roper of Bonavista, and was just 19 years old when he enlisted.

During his months of service he wrote home faithfully, letting his mother and father know where he was and that he was well.

Those letters are now a treasured keepsake of his nephew, Gordon Bradley of Bonavista.

Fred Roper sailed from St. John’s on April 22, 1915, to Nova Scotia on the Stephano.

In the letter he wrote the night before he sailed, he told his mother, “Don’t worry about me. I am all right and in good condition now.

“I don’t know how I will be tried but I will try to keep strong and I believe if I try I can do so, and try that I will never do anything that I would be ashamed to tell you.”

At Nova Scotia his company was transferred to a larger troop ship for the Atlantic crossing.

He wound up in Scotland, near Edinburgh, for training.

In one of his first letters to home from Scotland, dated May 24, 1915, he wondered how much success the folks in Bonavista had with trouting that day, expressing regret that they weren’t allowed to go trout fishing in Scotland.

In his letter to home in July, 1915, he wrote again of training and how “there is never much to do in camp. It is only the one thing, over and over again.”

Soon after that, however, he was sent to Liverpool. From there he ended up in the Mediterranean and the Gallipoli front.

By that fall, it seemed the young soldier was becoming disillusioned and tired of war, and pondering his own future after the conflict.

Writing from the trenches on Nov. 4, 1915, he told his mother, “I don’t know what good I will be when I come home. I will never be fit for office work. The little good I did get at the bank is all gone.

“Anyway, I hope that this war will soon be over. Of course I know nothing about it but I believe that Turkey will soon give in.”

In some of his letters he asked his mother to send some cake and some home made candy. It was evident he was missing a good, home-cooked meal, when he wrote, “I made some brewis. We get some hard bread and make it from that, but it is not the kind we get home. I would like to be home for Sunday morning breakfast, and dinner for that matter.”

He never got back home for Sunday dinner.

In December, 1915, the Army notified his mother and father that their son had been killed in Gallipoli on the 27th of November. It was the typical “we regret to inform you” letter from the British Government, expressing sympathy for the loss and assuring the family their son had died in a noble cause.

Details of his death were explained in other letters, from his fellow soldiers.

In a letter to Pte. Roper’s father, John, on April 9, 1916, Hal Roper told of Fred’s death.

Hal and Fred had been on sentry duty at their camp in Gallipoli.

"Poor Fred was going to the cookhouse for tea. When entering the cookhouse he was hit by a bullet by a sniper and only lived a few minutes after. We buried him just outside and his grave is marked by a wooden cross. He rests side by side with his comrades who fell like heroes fighting for their King and Country,” Hal Roper wrote.

Malcolm Bradbury of Bay Roberts offered the Ropers a measure of comfort in his letter to them, dated December 30, 1916, from his home in Bay Roberts.

He wrote, “I can assure you Fred lived a noble life, both in the trenches and before. I remember one night we missed reading our Bible in the day and when the night came we put our coats over our heads and the two of us lit matches until we read a chapter each.

“We read our Bible every day while we were there and I can assure you both of us were ready to meet death.”

He assured the Ropers their son had not suffered a lingering death, but was killed suddenly by the sniper’s bullet.

Today about two dozen of these letters are in the collection of Fred Roper’s nephew, Gordon.

For years his grandmother kept them in a trunk in the family home, the Mockbeggar plantation.

When Mr. Bradley cleaned out the house, he discovered the letters and kept them. He says his mother, Ethel, didn’t talk much about her younger brother. Since his grandparents, John and Annie, had died before he was old enough to ask questions, he never got a chance to hear the story of Fred from them.

He can only imagine that his grandmother probably read and re-read the letters — the final personal mementos of her son’s life — in the years after his death. He can only assume she grieved until she died.

“One of the letters is stained by drops of water, and I always figured it was caused by tears,” he says.