Postcard home from the front – the camera never lies…

When I first starting writing this post, I thought I was writing about how three postcards showing Great Dunmow’s High Street, depict that the town did not change in a 25 year period between 1908 and 1932.  However, as I was writing my story, a mystery started to emerge, and, in unravelling this mystery, I realised that my postcards held the key to poignant story.  Instead of writing about an unchanging High Street, I was, to my great surprise, writing the story of an unknown soldier who had carried into the carnage of the Great War, a treasured photo of his home-town.


Original post
Below are three postcards of Great Dunmow’s High Street – photos all taken from the location of roughly where the War Memorial is today.  Because the photos are so similar  you would be forgiven for thinking that these 3 photos were all taken at roughly the same time.

High Street, Great DunmowHigh Street, Great Dunmow, 1908.

High Street, Great DunmowHigh Street, Great Dunmow, 1918.

High Street, Great DunmowHigh Street, Great Dunmow, 1932.

Look again.  There are horse drawn carriages in the first two, but cars in the last.  These three postcards show Great Dunmow’s unchanging High Street over a 25 year period – 1908 to 1932. Fortunately, all these cards have been postally used or dates written on the back so this information can be used to date them.


Stop! The camera never lies! My rewritten post…
Can postmarks or dates on backs of postcards be used to date a photograph?  Look closely at the first two postcards – the first was postally used in 1908 and the second was written on the back in 1918.  They are almost identical – including the street sign left of the centre of the card and the extent to which the foilage has grown on all the trees and bushes.  Modern technology has meant that by digitally scanning both these postcards the sign has been revealed and it reads

Staceys Noted Home Grown Tomatoes ? per lb

High Street, Great DunmowStacey’s sign from 1918 postcard

High Street, Great DunmowStacey’s sign from 1908 postcard

Whilst the 1908 photo is very fuzzy and almost undecipherable, it can (just) be made out that the sign has five lines (as does the 1918 sign) and the width of each line of text exactly matches each line on the 1918 sign. The fourth line down could quite easily be “TOMATOES”. It is possible that Great Dunmow’s nurseryman, Stacey, had the same sign in the same location 10 years apart.  But identical foliage and vegetation? Is this too much of a coincidence?  In all respects, the two postcards seem almost identical but supposedly photographed 10 years apart.   This seemed very curious and so I investigated further…

The 1918 postcard was from the lens of Willett of Great Dunmow and is numbered 511.  The military photos on my post here, were clearly taken by Willett during the Great War and dated 1914, but have higher numbers – 830 & 853.  Our street scene postcard, written on in 1918, has a much lower number.  Therefore, our 1918 postcard certainly pre-dates the Great War and must have been written on some years after the photo taken.  This intrigued me, so, for the first time since I purchased this card, I read the back of the 1918 card:

High Street, Great DunmowBack of 1918 postcard

France June 10/6/18
This places [sic] is where Mrs L?y?e lives.
Please take care of these for me, all is well at present.
Much love to all
From Robert
By the time you receive this we shall be in action again.

Could the unreadable name be ‘Mrs Lyle’? In which case, Robert’s female friend was one of the Lyle’s of Great Dunmow, whose son, Hayden Stratton Lyle M.C. of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, although alive and well at the time of this message, was killed in action just 5 days before the Armistice.

Robert’s message, written possibly in the trenches during the slow days before battle, is so tantalising and raises so many questions which can never be answered…  Who was he writing to? What did he want the recipient to ‘take care of’? Why did Robert have a pre-war postcard of Great Dunmow?  The style in which his message is written gives very strong unwitting testimony that Great Dunmow was not his, Robert’s, home town.  If it was his home town, Robert would surely have said something similar to ‘This place is where I live’ not his message ‘This places is where Mrs L?y?e lives.‘  So who had given him a postcard of Great Dunmow? Was it one of Mrs Lyle’s sons – Hayden, Robert or William – all of whom were in France/Flanders in 1918?

Had this postcard come from another unknown soldier, possibly a Lyle, who
carried a photo of his much-loved home town into battle?

Whoever you were, Robert, and whatever happened to you, I salute you, and want you to know your postcard reached its home.  95 years to the day after you sent this postcard home from the battlefields of France, I am retelling the story of you and your unknown friend from Great Dunmow.


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You may also be interested in
– Memorial Tablet – I died in hell
– Memorial Tablet – I died of starvation
– Memorial Tablet – I died of wounds
– The Willett family of Great Dunmow
– Postcard from the Front – To my dear wife and sonny
– War and Remembrance – The Making of a War Memorial
– Great Dunmow’s Roll of Honour

© Essex Voices Past 2012-2013.

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3 Responses to Postcard home from the front – the camera never lies…

  1. Julian Taylor says:

    Hi, i was wondering if you would mind if we used the postcard picture of the dunmow high street 1932 for our new website for the dunmow club. It would be to head up our history page, and we would of course credit you for the use of the photo. Kind Regards
    Julian Taylor

  2. Mme Claudine Malaquin says:

    I am doing some research on n° 25 General Hospital and Hardelot and on the 23 soldiers buried in our local churchyard there and preparing an exhibition and ceremony to pay them a tribute next June/July. Would you please contact me? Thanks.

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