George en Eric

George and Eric, aged 13 and 11, Liverpool, Great Britain

George and Eric Butling, together with their younger sister Grace and two-year-old brother Ben, live with their parents in Wavertree, a district to the south of Liverpool. In 1916, their father Arthur James Butling leaves for France as a soldier in the Army Service Corps. His corps takes care of general supplies for the troops. This marks the beginning of an intensive correspondence between George and Eric and their father.

In the first few months, it is chiefly George who writes with great regularity. He waits impatiently for the next letter from his father to drop through the letterbox. The emptiness that he leaves behind is huge and George tries to step into his shoes. He takes his role as ‘the man of the house’ very seriously and works extremely hard in the classroom. This will make father happy, and what’s more, good marks will be rewarded with days off school, which he saves for the period when his father is on leave from the front.

Until then, they can only keep in touch via mail. In every letter, both father and son search for common interests. They often discuss the collections of coins and caterpillars that they assembled before the war. Father Arthur regularly sends new examples and both George and Eric keep him informed about their latest acquisitions. The local family with whom Arthur is quartered teaches him French. George also starts learning French at school and tries to impress his father with the language. His occasional insertion of a short sentence in French shows how quickly he is making progress.

The front is also sporadically discussed in their correspondence. It is clear, however, that the children are unable to envisage much about the war. Their life carries on as normal. They attend school, grandma comes to visit, they go on a trip with mummy, and so on. Things are just the same as they were before the war. From time to time, a news bulletin will remind them of the conflict. The children are alarmed by the sinking of the Lusitania, for example, or the unfair execution of Edith Cavell. They also want to do their bit and so invest all their pocket money in war bonds. Indeed, the government is constantly short of money and uses stirring posters to encourage donations. Attractive financial schemes inspire even the youngest of children to invest their savings in war bonds.

But despite the efforts on both sides, the children slowly but surely become estranged from their father. They are growing up and the tone of their letters becomes more distant. In the holidays, George gets a job in Graham’s Art Shop and this brings in some extra money for the family. He regularly asks after his father’s health, which is actually not very good, and advises him to get a good night’s sleep.

Ultimately, this is all to no avail. In the end, father Butling never makes it back home. After serving for more than three years in France, he dies of dysentery in May 1919. He lies buried in a graveyard in Charleroi. The death of the breadwinner puts the family in a difficult situation, but George still manages to graduate as an architect. Eric becomes a manager and Ben a teacher. Grace works for a nurse for a time, but gives up her job when she marries.

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