Loving letter precedes war grief
Julian Burt with Francis' WWI identification tags. Picture: Megan Powell/The West Australian

Oh darling you are ever in my thoughts for I know how anxious you are out there, but dearest be brave as you always have been and have no fear for God will answer your prayers and protect me always.

So it was that on April 21, 1918, Francis Sinclair Burt, on duty on the Western Front in World War I, wrote to his fiancee Evie Percy, who was with her family in Melbourne.

Within three days, Lt Burt, 32, of the 4th Australian Machine Gun Battalion, was dead.

His war records show the end came near VillersBrettoneux, France, on the night of April 24-25, 1918, from enemy machinegun fire.

In all likelihood the crushing news reached his fiancee via telegram well before the arrival of the loving hand-written letter he had penned days earlier.

The tragedy was also another hammer blow for the well-known Burt family of Perth.

Francis' father was Septimus Burt, politician, grazier and colonial-era State attorney-general, who was the son of Sir Archibald Burt, WA's first chief justice.

Septimus had already lost another son, Theodore, who had been killed serving in the British Army in France in July 1916, at age 23.

As a memorial to Theodore and a gift to the Anglican Church, Septimus had already commissioned construction of a hall adjoining St George's Cathedral.

The foundation stone of Burt Memorial Hall had been laid on October 26, 1917, by former premier John Forrest, a friend of the Burt family and godfather to Theodore.

Before the official opening, the news of the death of Francis arrived.

The grief was crushing for Septimus, who could not trust himself to speak at the hall's opening on June 12, 1918, and handed the task to another of Theodore's godfathers, Sir Edward Stone.

Francis Burt

Grief also consumed Francis' sweetheart Evie, who, it appears, expressed it by tearing in two his letters.

But it seems she then felt remorse for what she had done and repaired them.

In 2004, Penny Gutteridge, of Melbourne, found several letters from Francis among a bundle of letters in a trunk that had belonged to her grandmother, the same Evie Percy.

They had been torn in two and stuck together again with tape.

Ms Gutteridge also found a wallet, postcards from Francis and identity tags engraved "F. S. Burt" on one side and "Father S Burt 197 Adelaide Tce Perth WA" on the other side.

After painstakingly transcribing the letters and postcards, Ms Gutteridge made contact with Julian Burt, whose great-grandfather Frederick was the elder brother of Francis and Theodore, and the only one of the three to return from the war.

Late last year, Ms Gutteridge made the journey to Perth to hand the letters and possessions she had found back to the Burt family.

Theodore Burt

Julian Burt said to receive the precious memories of Francis was a special feeling.

"I was quite amazed to think that these letters had not been seen by the Burt family, the tags had not been in the possession of, or touched by a member of the Burt family, for almost 100 years," he said.

"The family are in deep gratitude to Penny for returning these items to us. We can't thank her enough."

Ms Gutteridge said that in the bundle of 82 letters addressed to her grandmother that she had discovered, only those from Francis had been torn up.

She said Evie had waved goodbye to Francis as he boarded a troop ship in Melbourne to sail for the war on October 25, 1916, which was her 23rd birthday.

In 1921, she married Eric Gutteridge, who had also served in WWI, and they had three children.

Ms Gutteridge said she had handed Francis' letters and other items back to the Burts because it "felt right".

The items will be united with the memory of Francis and Theodore Burt in a new display in the hall, which will be officially re-dedicated after extensive renovations.

Ms Gutteridge is working on a reading based on all the letters sent to her grandmother during the war, which will be performed in the hall in October.

The dedication at 5pm on July 20 will feature the premiere, by St George's Cathedral Consort, of a new anthem by composer Perry Joyce, which incorporates the tribute to Francis and Theodore Burt inscribed on the plaque on the great stairwell of the hall:

Eager their King's and country's cause to serve,

All that they loved they left and nobly died;

Enrolled are they for higher duty now

And serving in the Paradise of God.

The West Australian

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