Soldier’s letters reunited with family

IN impeccable handwriting, Private Ernest Harcourt Ely told his sister Els of the horrors of war.

“I believe Bert McKenna had his leg blown off; some seem to think he has since died. Lieut Blick of our boy (sic) was killed. Lieut Johnstone was wounded; I don’t know how Norm Scott or Norm Goble got on.”

It was words such as these that silenced the men of Leongatha’s Men’s Shed recently, when one of their own, David Brereton, read aloud a letter from Private Ely that Mr Brereton had salvaged from Melbourne.

Last Tuesday, October 24, Mr Brereton returned to Harcourt, near Bendigo, to return folders of Private Ely’s letters to his descendant – and namesake –Ernest Harcourt Ely, now aged 90. He will in turn give the material to the Harcourt Valley Heritage Museum. Mr Brereton was joined by members of Leongatha Probus Club.

“The letters will go where they belong and that’s all I care about,” Mr Brereton said.

Among the papers were also letters from Private Ely’s mother to the Army asking about the possible loss of her son after his letters stopped arriving. The family waited seven years for news of the discovery of his remains.

Had Mr Brereton not shared the letters with the men’s shed, the Ely family may never have recovered them.

A men’s shed member, Paull Lahn, stood with his mouth agape as he heard Private Ely’s words.

At Castlemaine, Mr Lahn had worked with the younger Ernest Ely. Contact was made and arrangements were made for the long lost letters to be returned home.

The letters, signed with his nickname ‘Sammy’, reflect the final days of Private Ely’s life. He was killed in action in France on August 18, 1916, aged 27, a member of the 7th Australian Infantry Battalion.

He perhaps knew he may never make it home.

“A chap has about one chance in 20 of ever getting back,” he wrote to his sister.

Mr Brereton received letters while undertaking family history. His cousin’s wife, who was conducting research of her own, offered some historical material to him and he took it, more so to save it from being dumped.

Among the material were Private Ely’s letters, a relative of the cousin’s wife. The journey home, for Private Ely’s letters at least, had begun.

Preserving history: Leongatha Men’s Shed member David Brereton with a folder of letters penned by Private Ernest Harcourt Ely (inset) to his sister Els from the battlefields of World War One, and returned to his family last week.

Short URL: https://thestar.com.au/?p=23051

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