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IOPC LGBT History Month blog - Love Letters from the Trenches

Category: LGBT, LGBT event, LGBT inclusion, IOPC, Independent Office for Police Conduct, LGBT Community, Law Enforcement, LGBT History Month, LGBT employee, LGBT history

LGBTQ+

When I joined the army, I became part of the family of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who had an affiliation to Birmingham and recruited from in and around this area. The Fusiliers is proud of its military history and predominately celebrates St Georges Day on the 23rd of April each year which also coincides with the day William Shakespeare died and Gallipoli Day on the 25 April which led to many Victoria crosses being awarded for acts of bravery from soldiers on the ground.

In Australia it is recognised as `Anzac Day.  

I suppose the reason for the history lesson is that the 23rd of April 1915 a poet by the name of Rupert Brooke also died he was an openly bisexual man unusually brave for the time. Rupert was a Naval Officer; he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division and on his way to fight at Gallipoli when he was struck down and died from a mosquito bite and a blood infection. Rupert was a published poet but he is best known for this famous poem usually read out every Remembrance Day and is as follows:[1]

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me: 
That there's some corner of a foreign field 
That is for ever England. There shall be 
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; 
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, 
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, 
A body of England's, breathing English air, 
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away, 
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less 
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; 
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; 
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, 
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.[2]

Another famous World War one poet was Wilfred Owen – who died near the end of the war. Wilfred was a gay man. He was killed in action on November 4, 1918 and is buried in northern France. His mother received the telegram notifying her of his death a week later as church bells rang to mark the signing of the armistice. Wilfred is most famous for this poem about life in the trenches:[3]

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs, 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, 

[1] www.pinknews.co.uk

[2] www.litcharts.com/poetry/rupert-brooke/the-soldier

[3] www.wilfredowen.org.uk

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. 

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling 
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.- 
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams before my helpless sight 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin, 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,- 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 
Pro patria mori.[4]

I found lots of references to bravery of gay and bisexual men who served in both wars and could write a book on that subject alone. Statistics suggest 1 in 10 of us identify as LGBTQ+ so using these statistics of those military lives lost in war over 3.5 million of them would have been LGBTQ+ military personnel.

I wanted to end on letters written between two gay men recently uncovered and now displayed in a museum in Oswestry. Below are a few extracts from some of their letters:

To me, our love is so great that I feel it cannot exist without all the world being aware of it”, Gordon writes. “I feel that all our happiness and all our unhappiness should be shared”. 

Gordon’s fixation on this ideal leads him to write that the letters “should be published one day when the world becomes wiser and more broad-minded”.

"My own darling boy" - a greeting in one of the letters

While on military training during World War Two, Gilbert Bradley was in love. He exchanged hundreds of letters with his sweetheart - who merely signed with the initial "G". But more than 70 years later, it was discovered that G stood for Gordon, and Gilbert had been in love with a man.

At the time, not only was homosexuality illegal, but those in the armed forces could be shot for having gay sex. 

Wednesday January 24th 1939

“My darling,

... I lie awake all night waiting for the postman in the early morning, and then when he does not bring anything from you I just exist, a mass of nerves...

All my love forever, 

G.”

He was already in love with Gordon Bowsher. The pair had met on a houseboat holiday in Devon in 1938 when Mr Bowsher was in a relationship with Mr Bradley's nephew. Mr Bowsher was from a well-to-do family. His father ran a shipping company, and the Bowshers also owned tea plantations.

February 12 1940, Park Grange

“My own darling boy,

There is nothing more than I desire in life but to have you with me constantly...

...I can see or I imagine I can see, what your mother and father's reaction would be... the rest of the world have no conception of what our love is - they do not know that it is love...”

But life as a homosexual in the 1940s was incredibly difficult. Gay activity was a court-martial offence, jail sentences for so-called "gross indecency" were common, and much of society strongly disapproved of same-sex relationships.

In one letter Mr Bowsher urges his lover to "do one thing for me in deadly seriousness. I want all my letters destroyed. Please darling do this for me. Til then and forever I worship you."

February 1st, 1941 K . C. Gloucester Regiment, Priors Road, Cheltenham

“My darling boy,

For years I had it drummed into me that no love could last for life...

I want you darling seriously to delve into your own mind, and to look for once in to the future.

Imagine the time when the war is over and we are living together... would it not be better to live on from now on the memory of our life together when it was at its most golden pitch.

Your own G.”

But was this a love story with a happy ending?

Probably not. At one point, Mr Bradley was sent to Scotland on a mission to defend the Forth Bridge. He met and fell in love with two other men. Rather surprisingly, he wrote and told Mr Bowsher all about his romances north of the border. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Mr Bowsher took it all in his stride, writing that he "understood why they fell in love with you. After all, so did I".

Although the couple wrote throughout the war, the letters stopped in 1945. 

However, both went on to enjoy interesting lives Mr Bowsher moved to California and became a well-known horse trainer. In a strange twist, he employed Sirhan Sirhan, who would go on to be convicted of assassinating Robert Kennedy.

Mr Bradley was briefly entangled with the MP Sir Paul Latham, who was imprisoned in 1941 following a court martial for "improper conduct" with three gunners and a civilian. Sir Paul was exposed after some "indiscreet letters" were discovered He was put on trial lost his seat as an MP and sentenced to two years imprisonment he wife divorced him and left with their only child, and he died penniless at the age of fifty.[5]

- Andrew Tierney, Pride LGBTQ+ Network Lead

[4] www.poetryfoundation.org

[5] www.oswestrymuseum.co.uk

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